Home / Robert Farley / A Bad Morality and a Bad Philosophy

A Bad Morality and a Bad Philosophy


This is fascinating stuff, as much for the blood and gore of Age of Sail naval warfare as for the legal complications associated with impressed Americans in the War of 1812:

At Plymouth we heard some vague rumors of a declaration of war against America. More than this, we could not learn, since the utmost care was taken to prevent our being fully informed. The reason of this secrecy was, probably, because we had several Americans in our crew, most of whom were pressed men, as before stated. These men, had they been certain that war had broken out, would have given themselves up as prisoners of war, and claimed exemption from that unjust service, which compelled them to act with the enemies of their country.

This was a privilege which the magnanimity of our officers ought to have offered them. They had already perpetrated a grievous wrong upon them in impressing them; it was adding cruelty to injustice to compel their service in a war against their own nation. But the difficulty with naval officers is, that they do not treat with a sailor as with a man. They know what is fitting between each other as officers; but they treat their crews on another principle; they are apt to look at them as pieces of living mechanism, born to serve, to obey their orders, and administer to their wishes without complaint. This is alike a bad morality and a bad philosophy.

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  • Ted

    Let me try something here:

    “But the difficulty with naval officers employers is, that they do not treat with a sailor worker as with a man. They know what is fitting between each other as officers employers; but they treat their crews workers on another principle; they are apt to look at them as pieces of living mechanism, born to serve, to obey their orders, and administer to their wishes without complaint. This is alike a bad morality and a bad philosophy.”

    • Alan Tomlinson

      Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


      Alan Tomlinson

      • Dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un financier pour encourager les autres.

        • Mrs Tilton

          pour encourager décourager les autres.

          J’ai réparé cela pour toi.

    • Two, can play at that game:
      ‘But the difficulty with naval officers Conservatives is, that they do not treat with people who aren’t Conservatives as with a man. They know what is fitting between each other as officers Conservatives; but they treat other people on another principle; they are apt to look at them as pieces of living mechanism, born to serve, to obey their orders, and administer to their wishes without complaint. This is alike a bad morality and a bad philosophy.’

      • efgoldman

        gulag, I like your way better.

      • Origami Isopod

        Well, they also don’t treat with people who aren’t men as they treat with a man. Born to serve, to obey their orders, etc. etc.

    • DrDick

      My first thought as well.

  • Plus there was that whole “rum, buggery and the lash” thing.

    • I love it when you talk dirty to me.

    • Bill Murray

      Shane MacGowan would say rum, sodomy and the lash. Well that’s assuming you could understand him between the accent and the mumbling and the substance abuse

      • (the other) Davis

        And the missing teeth.

  • The Dark Avenger

    No, it was rum, sodomy, and the lash.

    • Hi, beautiful! ;-)

    • Kurzleg

      That’s a great album. Or, at least, I enjoy it.

  • David W.

    Leech’s account makes Barrett’s Privateers sound like a walk in the park.

  • rea

    A longer version of the smae account is here.

    Capt. Carden was something of an idiot and moral coward. He knew the USS United States well, having been a visitor aboard her before the war. He had the weather gauge, and the faster ship–he could have avoided action very easily. As it happened, Macedonian got shot to pieces by the longer range guns of the United States, hardly inflicting any casualties in return. Carden was the kind of coward who found it easier to lose a battle than to explain why he didn’t fight one.

    • Lurker

      Have you ever heard of Admiral John Byng? He was shot when he decided not to engage the enemy, even if this decision was actually only because he followed the Articles of War to the letter.

      The British Navy had a culture where a captain of a frigate was forced to engage any other frigate. The fact that the USS United States was much larger did not matter. It was a frigate. The British public was accustomed to think that any British frigate should beat any foreign frigates, or any pair of them. If Carden had fleed, he would have, in the best of circumstances, spent the rest of his life ashore at half-pay and in public disgrace. More likely, he would have faced court-martial.

      • njorl

        I wonder if that policy contributed to the US decision to make over-sized and heavily armed frigates.

        • Ann Outhouse

          It was more a case of Yankee know-how and attitude than any conscious arms-race calculation.

          The Brits could have built their own big 44s, and there was some talk now and then of converting some 64s to 44s by lopping off the top deck, but ultimately, the never-ending conflicts with France and Spain dictated that Britain go for quantity rather than weight of broadside. The French and Spanish coastlines are quite long, and maintaining a blockade required a lot of frigates and smaller ships. It was a lot cheaper to build a 38 and fit it with 18-pounders than to build an American-sized 44 and fit with long 24-pounders. The smaller frigates were also more maneuverable in coastal waters.

          So to a great extent it wasn’t so much that that Yanks wanted to have the biggest most badass frigates as the war with France dictated a different mission for RN frigates.

          • Mike Clinch

            There was a class of English ship called a razee, which was a 64 or 74 gun ship-of-the-line with a deck cut down, either because the ship was old and tired, or because it was a captured French ship that was too badly damaged to be placed in the line of batle. These ships had the internal framing of a ship-of-the-line, and the guns of the lower deck, but the number of guns of a frigate. Tese were largely unsuccessful, as the hull lines were those of a slow, lumbering ship-of-the-line. Joshua Humphrey’s genius was to build the American 44’s as a fake razee, with framing of a ship-of-the-line, 24 pounders on the gun deck and 32 pound carronades on the spar deck, and the length and lines of a frigate. These ships were so powerful that they could destroy a British frigate with ease in a ship-on-ship actin, and fast enough to escape from ships-of-the-line. Macedonian couln’t possibly have beaten United States in a single-ship action.

            • Fluffytuna

              The RN razee’d a whole bunch of ships after these losses. But the idea wasn’t new. Captain Sir Edward Pellew’s famous heavy frigate Indefatigable a 44 as it happens, was razed from a 64 in 1794 or 95.

              • Another consideration was that the blockade required RN frigates to remain on station in all weathers, as the French would choose their moment to either break out or sneak in and they could be relied on to make it difficult. A southwesterly gale would be ideal, if risky, as it tended to drive the screen off station and force them to deploy further West for sea room, and in the Southwest Approaches a SW wind often brings rain, low cloud, and poor visibility.

                The RN made a rather amazing logistical effort to sustain the screen at sea, building ships with iron tanks for fresh water and shipping out live cattle. Obviously, replenishment at sea with 18th century technology was very much something that could only happen in favourable sea states, but that it was done at all shows you how important maintaining a presence on station was. Another example is that they built a road down to Brixham to provide better communications between Channel Fleet and the Admiralty. Still another is that they eventually built a breakwater in Plymouth Sound so the Fleet could get out of Devonport in bad weather.

                Of course, the UK was also fighting a global war. Endurance was important for reach.

                So out of the parameters speed, armament, seaworthiness, and endurance, RN constructors had to first of all design an outstanding seaboat, keeping the centre of gravity low in the deepest V form they could build, and balance the sail plan very precisely. Obviously, guns can’t go down below the waterline, but stores can, contributing to stability, to endurance on station, and to operational range.

          • Fluffytuna

            Crew size also played a large part in the RN decision to go for smaller ships. The big Americans had enormous (by RN standards) crews. But then with war cutting into the fishing and merchant trades, America had if anything, too many prime seaman eager to sail. The Brits not so much. They were down to jail (or gaol if you insist) sweepings. The Americans could do all the sail handling they wanted and fight all their very numerous (44 did not mean 44 guns but maybe 50- or 60) guns at once. Few RN ships sailed with a full establishment complement; Americans were at the very least full on their establishment.

      • efgoldman

        Have you ever heard of Admiral John Byng?

        Didn’t they name the NHL “nice guy” award for some female relative?

      • rea

        I have heard of Byng–I’ve read Voltaire.

        Note that Byng was on the wrong side of the politics of the time, otherwise he would not have been executed. He really was rather a fuck up who deserved being courtmartialed if not shot. There isn’t another instance of a senior officer beng shot for failure to do his utmost.

        A decision not to fight would not have been popular, which is why I spoke in terms of moral courage. And, you will note, after Constitution vs Guerrier, United States vs. Macedonian, and Constitution vs. Java, the British didn’t try any more one-on-one matches with the three big American frigates.

        • Lurker

          Usually, the decision not to fight a hopeless battle despite it being unpopular would be a show of moral courage. Here, I’d venture it is a different thing. The Royal Navy doctrine explicitly called for battle. (“to do his utmost”) In such case, the way you change doctrine is by fighting a brave battle and losing it. After a few such battles, the doctrine is changed. And perhaps you get lucky and win. You never know.

          If you refuse battle, claiming insurmountable odds, you are just disgraced and a less morally courageous (perhaps more physically courageous) captain loses his life and ship in a similar hopeless battle. The end result is the same, but for a different ship, and a little later.

        • Fluffytuna

          The Admiralty of the time was slow or stupid in not realizing exactly what the American super frigates actually were. After the three losses mentioned I believe they told the frigate captains to avoid one on one’ s with them. In writing.

        • wengler

          Ah, yes. Back when ships weren’t named Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush.

        • Ann Outhouse

          Interestingly, the American frigate captains had no qualms about avoiding action when they figured they were outgunned — the history of US naval action in the War of 1812 is littered with rather famous chases in which the Americans turned and ran, sometimes from ships they had a decent chance against. No one was court-martialed, and the captains remained popular heroes. Outrunning the enemy, especially a superior force, was considered a victory (Our boat is faster than yours – nah nah.)

    • Barry

      Because the RN occasionally shot officers for ‘not doing their utmost in battle’.

  • Service in the Royal Navy was once described as “Like being in prison – with the additional possibility of drowning”.

    • Kurzleg

      Well, when you put it like that…

      • Barry

        And when you consider what life was like in prison at that time, it’s even worse.

    • Jay C

      Wasn’t it Samuel Johnson who opined that service in the Navy was like being in jail: but that the food and the company were better in jail?

    • Hogan

      This one’s for SEK:

      They believe in rod, the scourger almighty, creator of hell upon earth and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of unholy boast, born of the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he arose again from the bed, steered into haven, sitteth on his beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid.

  • Richard J

    Obligatory NAM Rodgers’ recommendation for complications to the traditional narrative.

    Worth noting, however, the discussions about uniform right at the start – I’d understood it became common practice only in the mid-Victoria era for non-officers, but it’s interesting to observe that it’s clearly an initiative spear-headed by the captain of the ship, not a universal practice.

  • Dave

    Oh, sorry, was that your White House? Oh well, I’m sure the smoke-stains will wash off.

    • rea

      Oh, sorry, was that your Toronto?

  • Murc

    It’s worth noting that despite their lionization now, for a very, very long time the Royal Navy, as well as the British merchant marine they more or less existed to protect, were the two most reviled institutions of the British government. People HATED them. They hated that they had the power to press men, they hated that said pressed men were treated like the slaves they essentially were while aboard ship, and they hated that said men would most likely be cheated of their pay, if they lived to collect it.

    Trivia: many if not most people know that captains of ships at sea have the power of summary justice over pirates. What isn’t as widely known is that, with regard to England at least, that power emerged as a response to the fact it was nearly impossible to execute pirates on the mainland. They were very popular. It used to be standard practice to return your captives for trial and execution, but you’d try to hang a pirate and the crowd would rush the scaffold and set them free. Solution: just have them killed at sea where nobody can interfere.

    • Lurker

      There is no such “power of summary justice over pirates” anymore. If there were, the Operation Atalanta would have hung Somali pirates in droves.

      Any ship follows the law of its flag nation, when dealing with pirates. With the exception of the US, almost every sea-faring nation is party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is, in practice, so widespread as to be customary jus gentium. According to it, only military and law enforcement vessels have the right to detain a pirate ship. When detained, the persons aboard are dealt with according to the domestic law of the detaining country, which has the responsibility to criminalise piracy.

      In any civilised state, summary execution is forbidden by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article III.6.2. That article specifies that any capital punishment shall be only given by a competent court. Thus, there is no “power of summary justice” over anyone. If there is a country which claims otherwise, she is in gross violation of her international human rights obligations.

      • Murc

        I phrased that badly, yes, making it sound like modern military captains could still simply order men hung from the yard-arm. That is indeed no longer the case, and I thank you for pointing it out.

      • firefall

        That article specifies that any capital punishment shall be only given by a competent court.

        Such as a captain at sea, which constitutes such a court.

      • Fluffytuna

        It’s not totally clear that the Russians, while on the anti-piracy patrol, didn’t follow the old rules.

        • You are to be mistaken (in best Hollywood Russian accent).

          He had an accident. He fell overboard. With an anchor
          chain wrapped around his neck.

          What can I say? Ships are dangerous places.

          • Fluffytuna

            Yes, comrade, exactly so.

    • Dave

      Well, that’s a load of cock from beginning to end. But people will believe what they want to believe, I suppose.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Lurker is not quite right. Admiral Byng was convicted under the Articles of War for “failing to do his utmost in the presence of the enemy.” He had brought an undermanned and poorly-equipped fleet into the Mediterranean (complaining against the Admiralty all the way) at the outset of what became the Seven Years War, with the mission of delivering some British Army officers (who had been on leave during the peace) back to the garrison on Minorca and defending the island against a French invasion. After an indecisive battle with the French fleet that resulted in considerable damage to several of his ships, he called a council of war and expressed his desire to return to Gibraltar, abandoning Minorca to its fate. Only one of his captains, Augustus Hervey (a close family friend) argued against this course of action. In retrospect Byng should have remained near Minorca and sought another battle, but he was angry at the Admiralty which, he believed, had sent him out with an inadequate force. The death penalty at his court-martial was mandatory under the Articles of War, but everyone believed that the King would give him a royal pardon. However, the loss of Minorca had angered Parliament and heads had to roll.

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