Poetic Laments for Press-Ganged Sailors

Posted: April 22, 2012 in C18th, History, Poetry
Tags: , , , , ,

Throughout most of history ordinary people have not joined armies and navies willingly, much less joined up to fight their rulers’ wars, wars that had no rhyme nor reason for them. In feudal times ordinary folk were obliged by their lords to follow them to war. More recently, for example in the First World War, when whipping up patriotic fervour didn’t suffice to produce enough cannon-fodder (and it didn’t) people were conscripted – which just means being forced to go and fight.

Press Gangs – A common way to get people to fight wars that they didn’t want to

Another handy tactic employed for centuries in England was ‘impressment’. The Royal Navy paid groups of armed thugs – called Press Gangs – to roam the streets and seize ordinary citizens (often but not always sailors) against their will, and usually fiercely resisted, and carry them off like convicts to serve as ‘Tars’ in vile and dangerous conditions in His Majesty’s Navy. If they ever made it home alive they could easily find themselves impressed yet again.

By 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Of course the English people resisted such tyranny, as they always have, but to little effect. But that’s another story.

I came across a poem published in 1794 at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars that I found very moving:

The Tender’s Hold or The Sailor’s Complaint

While Landmen wander uncontrol’d,
And boast the rights of Freemen,
Oh! view the tender’s loathsome hold,
Where droop your injur’d Seamen:
Dragg’d by Oppression’s savage grasp,
From ev’ry dear connection;
‘Midst putrid air, Oh! see them gasp,
Oh! mark their deep dejection.

Blush then, Oh! blush ye pension’d host,
Who wallow in profusion,
For our foul cell proves all your boast
To be but mere delusion.

If Liberty be ours, Oh! say
Why are not all protected;
Why is the hand of ruffian sway
‘Gainst Seamen thus directed?
Is this your proof of British rights?
Is this rewarding bravery?
Oh! shame to boast your Tars’ exploits,
Yet doom those Tars to slavery.

Blush, then, etc.

But just return’d from noxious skies,
And winter’s raging ocean,
To land the sun-burnt Seaman flies,
Impell’d by strong emotion.
His much-lov’d KATE, his children dear,
Around him cling delighted,
When, lo! th’ Impressing Fiends appear,
And every joy is blighted,

Blush, then, etc.

Thus from each soft endearment torn,
Behold the Seaman languish,
His wife, his children, left forlorn,
The prey of bitter anguish.
‘Reft of those arms, whose vigorous strength
Their shed from want defended,
They droop, and all their woes at length
Are in a workhouse ended!

Blush, then, etc.

Mark then, ye minions of a court,
Who prate of Freedom’s blessing,
Yet every hell-born war support,
And vindicate Impressing,
A time will come, when Things like you,
Mere baubles of creation,
No more will make mankind pursue
The work of devestation.

Blush then, Oh! blush, ye pension’d host,
Who wallow in profusion,
For our foul cell proves all your boast
To be but mere delusion.

The Cambridge Intelligencer (September 6, 1794)

Even the conservative ‘Romantic’ poets Wordsworth and Shelley were repulsed by the Press Gangs. Wordsworth in Guilt and Sorrow (1793-1794) tells the oppression of:

A Sailor he, who many a wretched hour
Hath told; for, landing after labour hard,
Full long endured in hope of just reward,
He to an arméd fleet was forced away
By seamen, who perhaps themselves had
Like fate; was hurried off, a helpless
‘Gainst all that in his heart, or theirs
perhaps, say nay.

While Shelley in The Voyage (1812) tells of an impressed sailor’s return home, only to be impressed again and told:

                                   . . . oh! your wife
“Died this time year in the House of Industry
“Your young ones all are dead, except one
“Stubborn as you—Parish apprentice now

We need to hear more about how Englishmen (and for that matter every other nationality) have been forced to fight against their will since ‘civilization’ arose. As Walter Benjamin once wrote:

There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.


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