Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Disease and Impressment: Royal Navy 18th c

H.M.S. Mars: the 74-gun ship of the line 
on which James Caithness served in 1798

It’s unthinkable to us that boys aged 12 should be exposed to the dangers of life at sea. During wartime the risks were obviously extremely high but there was also a strong likelihood of death from disease. Typhus and scurvy, both killers, were rife, though by 1795 the Royal Navy had improved revictualling methods and with regular supplies of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables there were fewer cases of scurvy.

This progress in the second half of the 18th c stemmed partly from efforts to provide better treatment and care of naval personnel than was then available in the merchant service. There was always a demand for men to serve in the navy but little incentive for them to join: conditions were generally poor and more money could be made in the mercantile marine.  The navy offered a hard way of life and many deserted – the figure during the French Revolutionary Wars is said to have been 42, 000. Others were lost to the service through death from disease or as casualties of war. Impressment was increasingly resorted to.

There is a notion that any man could be ‘pressed’ but in reality this was restricted by law to seamen – landlubbers were of little use to the navy, though undoubtedly the system was abused and people who should have been exempt, or had no knowledge of the sea whatsoever, were taken by the brutal press-gangs whose ‘approach was dreaded like the invasion of a foreign enemy. Outrages were deplored but the navy was the pride of England and every one agreed that it must be recruited.’

The Impress Service scoured coastal towns and villages in search of men over 18 and under 45. Press gangs were also authorized to stop merchant ships and impress sailors – though sea apprentices were supposedly exempt. Merchant seamen were especially sought after because they had the necessary experience. Frequently men were forcibly abducted from taverns and other mariners’ haunts, when drunk and incapable of resisting, or made unconscious by use of the cosh, waking up on board ship and often already at sea. Their options at that stage were limited. Impressment came to an end with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.


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