Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why They Deserted

Detail from The Profane Laying Hands on the Over Righteous,
Robert Sayer, c1776-1784, British Museum.
Desertion was common among seamen of the Royal Navy and merchant vessels. No historian disputes this fact. From the Royal Navy alone, and only for the eight year period of the American Revolutionary War, nearly eighty thousand seamen deserted their ships.[1]

Historians from every school of thought conclude that there were a myriad of reasons for sailors desertion. The reasons sailors themselves gave backs this up, but there is a trend among sailors who left us memoirs to gravitate toward two main motivations: financial gain and to escape officers.

There are other factors in choosing to jump ship.

Sean Kelley gives a brief, typical list of motivations for desertion from slave ships in his The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare:

To procure alcohol, to find women, to trade, to escape an abusive captain, to avoid punishment or prosecution for crimes, to find a better situation aboard another vessel, or to earn more money as factors.[2]
These motivations were influenced by a number of factors. Among these, N.A.M. Rodger observed in his book The Wooden World 'that the propensity to run was in inverse proportion to time in the ship.'[3] Sailors who spent longer with their vessel were less likely to run away.

Denver Brunsman echoed this theory and argued that naval seamen who sailed far from Britain more likely to desert. In Brunsman's The Evil Necessity he writes that sailors' 'distance from the imperial center made ports and coastal areas in the western hemisphere…more attractive sites of naval desertion.' Perhaps 30,000 Royal Navy sailors deserted from the Royal Navy in North America from 1712 to 1776, and this doesn't even include merchant seamen.[4] A notable example of merchant seamen deserting at a distance from home is in the Virginia Gazette, where three Scottish sailors fled still clad 'in their own Country Garb.'
Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), April 15, 1773, page 3
Colonial Williamsburg

Rodger also found that 'nothing more effectively undermined the morale and cohesion of a settled ship’s company than the suggestion that they might be broken up; it was a quick way to encourage desertion.'[5]

As I mentioned above, there were two key motivations for desertion: financial benefit and to avoid officers. Marcus Rediker argued in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea that desertion could be a tool for seamen. 'What merchant capitalists and their lackeys saw as "the natural unsteddiness of seamen" was in fact the use of autonomous mobility to set the conditions of work.'[6] If sailors were not treated well, they took to their heels and found better conditions.

John Newton was just such a sailor. As a midshipman he tried to desert his man of war and connect with his father, who was invested in merchant vessels.
I thought if I could get to him he might easily introduce me into that service, which would be better than pursuing a long uncertain voyage to the East Indies. It was a maxim with me in those unhappy days never to deliberate; the thought hardly occured to me, but I was resolved to leave the ship at all event.[7]
Samuel Kelly gave a strictly financial reason for desertion:
At this time our crew had dwinled by frequent desertions to a small number; four or five Scotchmen who were the most decent and orderly men, still remained, but these, on account of the wages being only 22s. 6d. Per month, were determined to go into the Transport Service, where the wages were £3, and they endeavoured to persuade me to go with them, which I took into consideration.[8]
Many sailors did desert to pursue better financial opportunities. Rarely did it work out so well as it did for a passenger that John Nicol met:
We brought to England, as passenger from the island, a planter who was very rich and had a number of slaves. He had been a common seaman on board of a man-of-war, had deserted and lived on shore concealed until his ship sailed. He afterwards married a free black woman who kept a punch-house, who died and left him above three thousand pounds. With this he had bought a plantation and slaves, and was making money fast. He brought as much fresh provisions and preserves on board as would have served ten men out and out, and was very kind to the men in giving them liquor and fresh provisions.[9]
William Spavens offered this variation on the theme when he was passed over for promotion:
[The Flora] being very far short of her complement, and many petty offices vacant, to which several were advance who I was confident were neither so good seamen, nor of so long duration in the service as myself, by which I thought I was neglected and much injured. Mr. Hawker too being now first Lieutenant, and having gained an ascendency over the Captain's temper, seemed more haughty in his station than formerly, which with some other concurrent circumstances, made me take my land-tacks on board.[10]
Spavens was both upset at being passed over for promotion (which would have given a boost to his naval career) and at the 'haughty' first Lieutenant.

Rediker states that the use of desertion as a tool tool was 'perhaps most escape the grasp of a brutal master or mate.'[11]

Ashley Bowen was roundly abused by the vile Captain Hall at the beginning of his career:
I was determined to leave my master Hall as he hath left his wife at Boston. I suppose that he could not have held me as he was bound to learn me and to treat me well. I took this opportunity to try the title and so left him to shift without me.[12]
Kelly observed a similar situation:
At this place one of our new boys ran form the boat on shore, and I was informed that about twenty boys had deserted from this ship in a short space, by the turbulent and cruel disposition of the master. I have seen him strike one with a large iron bolt about two feet long.[13]

Jacob Nagle served with a captain so abusive that the manning of his boat had to be changed:
If a boat went on shore for a load of water with an officer in hur, it was seldom to see more come back than one and the officer, which would have to pull the boat on board. He kept the jolly boat for his use, with 4 little American boys to pul him about, as he new they could not run away.[14]
A similar situation occured later in Nagle's career:
I belonged to the large cutter which went dayly for water, commanded by a midshipman, and when going on shore, he would take the liberty to thrash us whenever he thought proper, which we new was not allowed by the Governor or Capt Hunter. One day going on shore for water, he begin upon the whole boats crew with his ratan with out any provecation whatever, and being a striplin not more than 15 years of age, I told him we would not be treated in such a manner by a boy. When we got on shore, five of us out of six left the boat, not intending to return any more. The other four never did return.[15]
Among enslaved sailors, the primary motivation for desertion was to attain their freedom. Slavery by its very nature is abusive and traumatic. While few free or indentured sailors suffered as much as their enslaved mates, the motivation to escape brutal officers dovetailed with enslaved sailors wish to escape their enslavers. When Olaudah Equiano was taken in by a sailor who promised to help him escape, his free shipmates were greatly displeased:
A sailor took a guinea from me on pretence of getting me a boat; and promised me, time after time, that it was hourly to come off. When he had the watch upon deck I watched also; and looked long enough, but all in vain; I could never see either the boat or my guinea again. And what I thought was still the worst of all, the fellow gave information, as I afterwards found, all the while to the mates of my intention to go off, if I could in any way do it; but, rogue-like, he never told them he had got a guinea from me to secure my escape. However, after we had sailed, and his trick was made known to the ship's crew, I had some satisfaction in seeing him detested and despised by them all for his behaviour to me.[16]
Next time: the odd and ill-defined bond between enslaved people and common sailors.

[1] Hubley, Martin, "Deserters, Stragglers, and Ramblers," Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, accessed March 21, 2018, <>.
[2] Kelley, Sean M., Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2016, page 71.
[3] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1986, page 196.
[4] Brunsman, Denver, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World, University of Virginia, 2013, page
[5] Rodger, Wooden World, page 195.
[6] Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pages 100-101.
[7] Newton, John, The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Late Rector of the United Parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch Haw, London, Volume 1, New Haven: Nathan Whiting, 1824, page 22.
[8] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, page 68.
[9] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, pages 73-74.
[10] Spavens, William, Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens, edited by N.A.M. Rodger, County Somerset: The Bath Press, 2000, page 64-65.
[11] Rediker, Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, page 101.
[12] Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006, page 52.
[13] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, 75.
[14] Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988, page 62-63.
[15] Nagle, Journal, 106-107.
[16] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 96.

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