« ПредишнаНапред »
Towards the end of October 1776, twenty armed boats came up river from Deptford and Woolwich, and took every man, except the master and mate, from every ship that they found in the stream. A Royal officer was shot with a pistol as he went up the side of a vessel; and eight merchant-sailors endeavoured to escape by swimming, and were drowned in the attempt. The West Indian captains, especially, were in pitiable case. They had everything ready for weighing anchor. Their holds were full; they had paid their crews for the time spent in the river, and for a month of the voyage in advance; and now every man who slept before the mast was carried off with his money in his pocket. The needs of the Royal Navy had to be met with a hurry which did not admit of careful selection, or of a decent regard for individual claims to indulgence and consideration. The hatches of the tenders were battened down upon a mixed crowd of fisher-folk and merchant-sailors, with sore hearts and undressed wounds; of townsmen who had never been on board a ship before; and of old broken mariners who had gone to sea so often, and for so long, that they had earned a right to spend the rest of their days where, and how, they chose. One press-gang had to answer in the lawcourts for having laid hands on a veteran whose skull had been fractured in the last French war. Another swept off a group of people from a lottery office, while they were engaged on insuring the numbers which they had drawn. “Come, my lads," said the lieutenant, “ Í will insure you for good berths on board a ship of war." A knot of labouring men, who had been buying their family dinners, were assailed on their way homewards, and showed fight to some purpose.
One sailor was knocked down with a leg of mutton, and another with a bundle of turnips; and, before their party could make good their retreat, the whole of them had been ducked by the crowd. That was a touch of pantomime, in the midst of many silent and obscure domestic tragedies. An advertisement appeared to the effect that the bodies
of five impressed men, suffocated in the hold of the Hunter tender, had been brought on shore to be owned. It was uncongenial work for bluff, hearty, tars who were told off for that odious duty. The crime, (so a spirited journalist reminded his readers,) rested not on the sailor's bludgeon, nor on the lieutenant's cutlass, but on the unthinking head of a minister who, through many years of peace, forgot the future probability of a war, and left every precaution alone until it was too late to act without violating humanity.
Enthusiasm for the naval service there was none. The war was barren of prize money; no glory was to be obtained out of a campaign against privateers commanded by Yankee skippers who knew very well when to attack, and when and whither to run; and, moreover, many a poor fellow, who in days gone by had helped to beat the French and Spaniards, was in his rude way a patriot. Mariners, who had served the guns under Hawke and Saunders, had no mind for exchanging shot and blows with men who fought their ship in English fashion, and who, when the battle had gone against them, begged for quarter with an English tongue. The irritation caused by the harsh and precipitate action of the Admiralty was general throughout London, and nowhere so acute as within the City bounds. It was a short journey to Cornhill from Rotherhithe and Greenwich, opposite the river front of which the Jamaica fleet lay, and seemed likely to lie until the timbers rotted; and West Indian captains, and their employers, might be seen whispering together with long faces under the colonnades of the Royal Exchange, and across the tables of the neighbouring coffee-houses. The dignity of the Corporation was offended by the invasion of the pressgangs; and the City fathers had been touched in a tender point, for the supply of fish was scanty and irregular, Essex boatmen had transferred themselves and their nets to Holland; and a naval officer, of more than common hardihood, braving a storm of malediction from the conception of which the imagination shrinks,
laid forcible hands on a number of seamen in the very heart of Billingsgate market.
That district lay within the Lord Mayor's jurisdiction; and the situation was still further strained by the impressment of Mr. John Tubbs, a Waterman of the Lord Mayor's Barge. The outraged Magistrate issued an order for the apprehension of all naval officers who carried on their operations inside the limits of the City. Three lieutenants and a mate, belonging to a ship of the line, were arrested, and brought before the Guildhall Bench. A very eminent Judge attended the examination in order to support the accused officers with his countenance and advice. His Lordship was stiffly rebuked by the sitting Aldermen, who told him that they themselves would never venture to intrude their presence upon him in his own Court on such an errand. The defendants refused to find bail, and were duly committed to the Poultry Counter, where they remained in durance until the Attorney and Solicitor General gave it as their opinion that bail had better be procured. At one moment it seemed as if the forcible enlistment of seamen within the City would be impracticable. The Lord Mayor declined to back the presswarrants; and his example was afterwards followed by Sir Thomas Halifax, his successor in the Chair. But that difficulty was surmounted by the warrants being taken for signature to Alderman Harley, as stout a Tory as ever Sawbridge was a Whig. Harley, who was grand-nephew of the celebrated Earl of Oxford, had a good hereditary title to show for his political opinions; and, as a firm supporter of Lord North, he had oppor
1 Rex versus Tubbs became a leading case in the King's Bench, where Lord Mansfield took occasion to deliver himself in favour of the legality of pressing for the Royal Navy. "A pressed sailor,” he pronounced, " is not a slave. No compulsion can be put upon him except to serve his country ; and, while doing so, he is entitled to claim all the rights of an Englishman.” The readers of Smollett, and even of Captain Marryat, may be permitted to question what those rights were worth to a landsman with a broken head, imprisoned many feet below the water-line in the hold of a frigate which had put to sea for a three years' cruise in distant waters.
tunities placed at his disposal which enabled him to make a mountain of money by the war.
There had been a war anterior to 1776, and there have been wars since, when the youth of the City, abandoning the employments by which they lived, and giving up, in some cases, assured and attractive prospects of commercial advancement, took arms for the prosecution of a quarrel which they regarded as their country's cause. But the dispute with America excited no enthusiasm in the mercantile community. Whatever martial ambition might exist among respectable civilians was deadened and discouraged by the humiliating possibilities which awaited every volunteer who donned the scarlet coat. It was almost universally believed in military circles that flogging was a valuable preservative of discipline at home, and quite indispensable on active service. That last named article of belief has died hard, and it survived the longest in official quarters. It was the task of independent members of Parliament, some of whom are not yet old men, to break it down by argument; and practical experience, on a scale and of a nature which enforces conviction, has now finally settled
1 The impunity with which press-gangs acted, and the terror that they inspired among humble civilians, are amusingly illustrated by a story from the unpublished Memoirs of Archbishop Markham. Some years after the American war a party of Westminster boys dressed themselves up as men-of-warsmen ; — which was not difficult in days when an officer kept watch on board ship in any costume which he found most comfortable. They stationed themselves at the corner of Abingdon Street, and were headed by a stout lad in a pea-jacket and hairy cap, "who had acquired the art of making a cat-call by whistling through his fingers," and who personated the lieutenant. They promptly pounced on the first passerby; examined him; pronounced him a fit person to serve his Majesty; and then dexterously loosed their hold, and allowed him to run. While they were occupied over their fifth victim, an under-master came by, and the sport ended. Dr. Vincent thought the affair so serious that he called in the Archbishop, who in bis day had been a Head-master of Westminster with whom no scholar ever trifled. “That,” said the old man of the world, " was a very smart piece of fun. Now do show me the hairy cap !” and the boys got off with a hundred lines of Virgil apiece.
It was said that gold-laced hats were worn by people who could ill afford them, because they had a military look, and were therefore a pro. tection against the attentions of the press-gang.
the controversy. Within the last four years, in South Africa, order and obedience have been effectively maintained, without recourse to corporal punishment, in by far the largest and the most variously constituted force that Great Britain ever put into the field, and kept there over a very long space of time under circumstances exceptionally trying to the spirits and temper of an army. Some of our most distinguished officers, for more than a century past, felt sufficient faith in their countrymen to anticipate a happy result which now is matter of history; 1 but, during the war of the American Revolution, such wise and far-seeing prophets were few. On an April day of 1777 the whole neighbourhood of Whitehall was disturbed by the most dreadful shrieks, proceeding from the Parade-ground behind the Horse-guards and the Treasury. A soldier was receiving the first instalment of a thousand lashes; and a hundred were afterwards inflicted upon a drummer whose heart had failed him during the operation. When such things were done in St. James's Park, a stockbroker or a clerk, of reputable character and good position, would unavoidably reflect as to what might be his fate when he was on detached service in the backwoods of America, at the mercy of an unfriendly and tyrannical sergeant who possessed the confidence of the regimental officers.
1“ At the same time that the British soldiers were maintaining with such devoted fortitude the glory of England, their camps daily presented the most disgusting and painful scenes. The halberts were regularly erected along the lines every morning, and the shrieks of the sufferers made a pandemonium, from which the foreigner fled with terror and astonishment at the severity of our military code. Drunkenness was the vice of the officers and men; but the men paid the penalty; and the officers who sate in judgement in the morning were too often scarcely sober from the last night's debauch. It will be a consummation of my most anxious wishes, grounded upon my memory of these early scenes of abuse of power, when the system of punishment, such as I have described it, shall be referred to only as a traditional exaggeration.” So wrote General Sir Robert Wilson with reference to the campaign in Flanders of the year 1794. That was the end of what had been worst. The standard of personal behaviour among officers in Wellington's Peninsular army was high; and punishments, though still very severe, became less frequent when the soldiers could look to their superiors for a worthy example, and for watchful and kindly guidance.