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Thomas Hodgskin on the Suffering of those who had been Impressed or Conscripted into the despotism of the British Navy (1813)

Hodgskin was forced to leave the British Navy after being physically punished for complaining about the brutal treatment of sailors who been impressed (conscripted):

I have seen the discipline of the French armies and I have read of the despotism of the French emperor; I have witnessed, and heard of the calamities inflicted on negroes; but with the exceptions of our seamen being better fed, better clothed, and not allowed to be murdered,—what I have seen them suffer, exceeds the cruelties of Buonaparte to his army, exceeds all that the negroes have had inflicted on them: nothing could support them under their sufferings, but a great and noble consciousness, that they are the saviours of their country—that it is visibly their efforts alone, which prevent despotism from overshadowing the earth, and destroying that liberty they were in early life taught to indulge a love of, and which they still regardas sacred, though no longer permitted to taste its blessings.

To display to the public the abuses existing in the navy, has lately, to me, become an imperative duty: for, the absurdity of its laws and customs has deeply injured myself. My opinion of these is so irretrievably bad, that, in common with many others, I feel no shame at having fallen under their lash,—and but that they have deprived me of the good opinion of society, which is too generally built upon success; but that they have partially deprived me of the esteem of my friends; and, but that they have completely excluded me from that road to fame and fortune, the navy, in which my whole life has been past, I should not have felt punishment an injury. Having received so deep an injury from these laws, it has become a positive duty in me to attempt to alter them through the medium of public opinion; a duty equally strong with that which every man thinks it right to practice to relieve himself from a physical pain, by every possible means. When I look around me in society, and see the nations of the earth most celebrated for the rigour and despotism of their government, groaning under the most grievous calamities, while ours from her freedom has had safety ensured to her; can these calamities be possibly traced to any other cause than this despotism, which has destroyed every manly feeling; which, by unnerving the arm of the poor man (the legitimate defender of his country), has opened every pass to its enemies. Can the rise of despotism in any society be ever so well resisted as at first.—The first step it takes gives it additional power to take a second. It goes on thus increasing, till men’s opinions are bound up in its sanctity, and then it is irresistible

I have seen the discipline of the French armies and I have read of the despotism of the French emperor; I have witnessed, and heard of the calamities inflicted on negroes; but with the exceptions of our seamen being better fed, better clothed, and not allowed to be murdered,—what I have seen them suffer, exceeds the cruelties of Buonaparte to his army, exceeds all that the negroes have had inflicted on them: nothing could support them under their sufferings, but a great and noble consciousness, that they are the saviours of their country—that it is visibly their efforts alone, which prevent despotism from overshadowing the earth, and destroying that liberty they were in early life taught to indulge a love of, and which they still regardas sacred, though no longer permitted to taste its blessings.

To rescue our seamen from these cruelties, is, therefore, becoming every man of humanity; and, as while men labour under despotic oppression, they never can think well of themselves—to release our seamen from it, is the peculiar business of every advocate of virtue; for the first step to dignity of action is, that men should think well of themselves.

To abolish pressing, would be worthy all the eloquence, and all the abilities of a Chatham; it is even more worthy the exertion of Lord Holland, than the laws on libel — it demands more of the morality and patriotism of Mr. Wilberforce, than the abolition of the slave trade; its bad effects were confined to a few, and it was a dreadful stigma on the country. Pressing is a greater stigma, and has a dreadful effect on the morals of all.

To abolish it, strictly accords with that excellent sentiment of Mr. Stephens, which said, that to suppose men degraded, made them, in fact, become so; and thus they were made a disgrace to that society, which, but for a cruel injustice, they might have adorned…

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One needs to remember that this angry tract in defence of the rights of seamen was written during the Napoleonic War and placed the author under the considerable risk of himself being disciplined for treason by the British Navy. Although he was punished by being passed over for promotion he escaped having the more serious charge leveled against him.

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