Today in military history: conscripts in Savoy barracks bound for service in East India Company, riot; all shot dead. 1763.

As covered in an earlier post, part of the old Savoy Palace building was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

The East India Company formed in the late 16th century, receiving its Royal Charter in 1600. Its original aim was to expand trade in India and in other Asian countries. It was to grow into one of the most powerful transnational businesses ever created, and backed by the British state, to become a major agent of imperial conquest and domination, with its owned private armed forces. “the company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium.”

Wealthy merchants and aristocrats owned the Company’s shares; the vast profits to be made in commodities the Company handled ensured shares traded at premium prices. The EIC made huge wealth for its shareholders, but also contributed to Britain’s massive enrichment in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the expense of local, regional and transnational economies in the East, which were often shattered, destabilised or re-oriented (arf) in the Company’s interest. This is not even to mention the famines, wars of conquest, the torture and expropriation carried out by the Company and its agents (check the looted contents of a museum or aristocratic mansion near you), and, yes, genocide…

At a similar time other European East India Companies were forming, notably the Dutch and French versions, which became competitors, and later struggles over trade routes and contracts became outright wars.

“During its first century of operation the focus of the Company was trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the Indian powers, left the company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the extent of the territories under its control, ruling either directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force by its Presidency armies, much of which were composed of native Indian sepoys.”

Although the Company could later often rely on the military support of the British army and navy to back up its trading/military interests, the early days of the wars in India against the French of the 1740s-60s required the Company bolster up its own forces, from a slightly shambolic guard force to a proper army, which was to become the strongest military force in the subcontinent.

The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.

In its first century and half, the Company used a few hundred soldiers as guards, but after 1750, (when it had 3000 regular troops), its military power rocketed. 13 years later it controlled 26,000 soldiers; by 1778, this had risen to 67,000. “The military arm of the East India Company quickly developed to become a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force, and became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent.”

Most of its troops were local Indian recruits; however men were also hired in Britain. Some of these may, as was widespread practice at the time, have been ‘volunteered’ rather than enlisting of their own accord.

A problem for the Company was the entrenched opposition to them recruiting in Britain, first and foremost by the British armed forced themselves (as is suggested in the last line of the brief Annual Register entry).  “The Company’s efforts had long been hampered by Parliamentary feeling against standing armies – indeed an act of 1781 limited the number of recruits who could be held in England awaiting embarkation to 2000 in time of war and 1000 in peace time.”  British recruits were also, as late as the 1760s, legislated to make sure they must be Protestants, who could also be part of a general attempt to spread god’s own religion among johnny foreigner, meaning not papistry. But the quality of recruits was often criticised by the Company’s officers on the ground as being poor, though whether this was regarding their health, morals or ability, isn’t clear…

Professional and national forces generally resent ‘amateurs’, private security set-ups, even today (until they have to retire, then they all get lucrative jobs with private outfits).

Another reason for army sabotage of Company recruiting may have been that opportunities for advancement were easier in the Company’s service than with the Redcoats… “The army took responsibility for many civil and social activities in the country, particularly in the vicinity of the cantonments. These responsibilities were undertaken by Warrant Officers generally acting through Sergeants of differing titles. These were positions of significant importance and standing and the chance to attain them was one of the attractions of joining the Company’s army rather than the King’s/Queen’s army. Many NCOs were able to take on other work and attract an extra income. By doing so, they could frequently buy themselves out of their units, could earn more money and qualify for a pension much sooner.”

Whether pressganged, genuinely voluntary, or regretting it, many must have decided early on that service in the EIC’s army wasn’t for them… The brief account that follows suggests less than complete consent:

“Some recruits, confined in the Savoy for the East India Service, rose upon the centinels, wrested their arms from them, and made themselves masters of the keys; but the guards in the barracks being alarmed, another fray ensued, in which three of the recruits were shot dead, some others mortally wounded, and one of the soldiers had his hand so shattered that it had to be cut off. The propriety and justice of confining men in this manner for any service, except his majesty’s, has been matter of much dispute, however favoured by the coroner’s inquest upon this melancholy occasion.” (Annual Register, 1763).

On the face of it, it sounds like the ‘recruits’ were locked up. Not volunteers, then. Press-ganged? Regretting signing up?

The Company was a major player in the colonisation of the world in British interest, and a forerunner and inspiration for the transnationals of today (check out a historian’s comparison with G4S and the scumbag security corporations of today…)


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s maritime history: the Crew of the ship Glatton fight off press gang, 1770.

In the eighteenth century, Britain’s territorial and commercial empire was expanding in every direction across the globe; this exponential scramble rested heavily on its military might. Throughout the century war was almost constant, by land, and increasingly importantly, by sea. Britain’s navy was increasingly the most powerful on the planet, and protected the ‘national’, ie ruling interests on all continents.
For instance at the beginning of the year war broke out Parliament increased the size of the Navy to 45,000 (the population of Britain at the time was around 9 million). In 1794 this was increased to to 85,000 and in 1799 to 120,000.

But seagoing was always an expensive business, high on wastage, with a high rate of loss of ships – in battle, in storms, shipwreck and through incompetent command, faulty construction or occasional mutiny. A constant source of new sailors was needed to replenish the navy’s forces; but as it was a dangerous life, where your health and safety was in low regard, death was likely, and your pay was often years in arrears. Thus experienced sailors would generally rather plump for any safer and better rewarded forms of shipping (although all in all a sailor’s life was hardly a peach).

To make up the vast numbers, the state resorted to various forms of persuasion – advancing some wages up front (though you were expected to buy clothes and a hammock, known as slops, out of this: ‘At their coming on board they may be supplied by slop clothes, but the value thereof must be deducted out of the said two months advance.’), and making joining the navy a way to escape from the threat of the debtors prison (the navy would protect any man from his creditors if his debt was less than £20).

When this was insufficient, the Impress Service (popularly know as the press gang) was charged with rounding up men. In theory it was limited to seamen, (though this was given a broad interpretation), between 18 to 55 years of age, (frequently these limits were ignored).

In every port in Great Britain, the press gang sought out likely ‘recruits’; usually consisting some of the local hard men as ‘gangers’, not often sailors themselves (and serving on a press gang was the only sure fire way of not being pressed yourself). The Gang roamed the ports and countryside in search of suitable recruits, and were paid money for travel, 3d per mile for officers 1d for men, and money per man pressed, anything up to 10 shillings. The scope for corruption was large, many men would bribe their way out of the gangs clutches, for a prosperous man a £10 bribe to the press gang was a small price to pay for his continued liberty. The press gang was a hated enemy of the poor, in London as elsewhere.

Merchant ships provided obvious targets for the press gang and captains would board merchant ships to take off any men he might want, officers and apprentices were exempt. Merchant captains built hideaways for one or two particularly valuable men to hide in if the press gang came aboard. The rule was that the press gang had to leave enough men on board to ‘navigate the ship‘, again a phrase open to wide interpretation.

The press gang was backed by the state nationally; but local civil authorities on shore would often do everything in their power to disrupt its operations.

But resistance, both individual and collective, to impressment, formed the best defence against this forced co-option. Avoidance of the Press Gang was a practiced art form; warning systems were developed to alert eligible tars to hide when the gangs were on the prowl, and sympathetic inns and houses would shelter men fleeing impressment.

Partly resistance arose from the demographic the press gangs often ended up targeting. Sailors as a social group were accustomed to collective solidarity, arising nor only from there experience of working together to run a ship, but often from acting together in their common interests to combat poor working conditions (from which sailors were also famous for their central involvement in social struggles, riots, revolts, for centuries). But the press gang also sought unwilling volunteers among the residents of slums and rookeries, where sentiments were generally anti-authoritarian and collective self-interest against the powers that be was necessary for daily survival (eg: In April 1721, the inhabitants of Southwark’s Mint rookery took up “Arms in defence of Liberty” & expelled the press gangs from Southwark). The gangs also raided taverns to round up drunk and unwary pub goers… running battles were frequently fought between the Press Gang and locals, often crowds would gather to rescue men captured by the Gang. Women often take the leading part in battles against them: especially prostitutes, as many sailors lived with prostitutes, or women who made part of their living through prostitution.

Whole-scale raids on merchant ships were far from uncommon; for instance, today in 1770, press-gangs raided many ships on on the Thames – not, however, entirely successfully:

“This night there was a very hot press on the river Thames; they paid no regard to protections, but stripped every vessel of all hands that were useful. They boarded the Glatton, East Indiaman; but the crew made a stout defence, got on shore, and came into London about twelve o’clock. It is computed that on the river, and on shore, they took upwards of 700.” (Annual Register, 1770.)

The crew of the Glatton, like many before them, fought off the press man and escaped forced service in the navy.

The high level of opposition to impressment led the navy to resort to intercepting ships carrying freed Britons from imprisonment (eg prisoners exchanged with France) and kidnapping as many men as they needed. The press gangs in the ports where these ships were returning also kept a look out for them. But the exchange ships were hired merchantmen and the crews were sympathetic to the former prisoners often landing them in places they knew there was no press gang. One ship ran up the river into Rye at night and let 300 men flee into the countryside long before the press gang from Folkestone could catch them.

Officially no foreigner could be pressed into service, although he could volunteer. However if he married a Briton or worked in a British merchant ship for two years, he became liable for pressing. The impressment of Americans (in theory protected by sworn certificates) was one of the factors that lead to a British – US war of 1812.

By the 1790s and the titanic struggle between Britain and revolutionary/Napoleonic France, the press gang’s unpopularity and violent resistance to it had made it an unwieldy and impractical method of recruitment. In 1795 the government had to bring in mass conscription, in the form of the Quota Acts, which laid down that each county had to provide a quota of men depending on its population and number of seaports, for service at sea. Again, this produced less than it promised – while counties offered a bounty for men to sign up, few came forward. So instead men convicted of petty crimes were given the option go to sea or go to jail. Since the Georgian code of justice at the time prescribed a harsh jail sentence or death for what we would consider quite trivial offences, the option of going to sea and a pension at the end could appear the least worst option…

Impressment was last used in Britain during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815. Although not used after that period, the right to use impressment was retained. In 1835, a law was passed that exempted sailors who had been impressed and had served for five years in the navy from being press-ganged again. In 1853, the navy introduced continuous service for sailors who wished to make a career in the navy. After a fixed number of years, they would receive a pension. This reduced the need for general impressment and it died out in the form that it had been used previously. However, in the twentieth century, during the two world wars, another type of impressment has been used in the form of compulsory national service or conscription and this type of service continued until the early 1960s.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today on the Thames, 1758: crew of Prince of Wales fight off pressgang during navy ‘recruitment’ campaign

In the 18th century, it could be dangerous to nip down the pub near the River Thames… Or pretty much anywhere in the country… and not just because the drinks were a wee bit stronger than today.

You also ran the risk of being accosted and politely asked if you would like to serve your country in an aquatic capacity… Since medieval times it had been the royal prerogative to impress free men into the navy, usually violently grabbing those too drunk to resist, since most men weren’t keen to sign up for an unknown length of time on a leaking ship eating rotting food, lousy with pests and disease and THEN get killed fighting the poxy pointless wars of their ‘betters’; with a fair chance that if you survived, they wouldn’t pay you for several years. “They were taken in any way, usually at night, through violence, entrapment, and fraud. Before anyone could discover their absence, they were taken on board and locked up until the ship sailed from port. The captured men were often wounded and would die from lack of treatment.”

This custom of using pressgangs to ‘recruit’ was roundly condemned – except when the nation was at more, when the “necessity of the sudden coming in of strange enemies into the kingdom” (read: the need to bash the fuck out of some foreigners, preferably – though not exclusively – defenceless ones with some natural resources worth snaffling) justified any mean necessary. “Outrages were of course deplored; but the navy was the pride of England, and every one agreed that it must be recruited.”
Some suggested other methods for guaranteeing the navy didn’t lack numbers, barmy ideas like paying higher wages, limiting the years of service, and increased pensions. Fucking liberal do-gooders.

During times of war, pressgangs would roam towns and the countryside to take men against their will to serve in His Majesty’s navy. Sailors were most at risk, as they were obviously more useful naval fodder. In theory, impressment was restricted by law to seamen. They were kidnapped on the coast, or seized on board merchantships, like criminals: ships at sea were raided for their crews, and left without sufficient hands to take them safely into port. But since the gangs operated on a bounty per head, and would be backed by authority in any dispute, in reality anyone not rich was fair game.

In vain did apprentices and landsmen claim exemption. They were accused of being “skulking sailors in disguise, or would make good seamen at the first scent of salt-water; and were carried off to the sea ports. Press-gangs were the terror of citizens and apprentices in London, of labourers in villages, and of artisans in the remotest inland towns. Their approach was dreaded like the invasion of a foreign enemy. Soldiers were employed to assist the pressgangs: villages invaded, sentries standing with fixed bayonets; and churches surrounded, during the service, to seize seamen for the fleet.”

The pressgangs’ best defence against bad publicity was to target those they knew would find little support among the establishment or the literati –

“rogues and vagabonds, who were held to be better employed in defence of their country, than in plunder and mendicancy. During the American war, impressment was permitted in the case of all idle and disorderly persons, not following any lawful trade or having some substance sufficient for their maintenance. Such men were seized upon, without compunction, and hurried to the war.”

Men’s only resort was to leg it – or to fight back. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries teem with stories of resistance to the press gang. Rumour of the pressgang’s being on the prowl could lead quickly to a crowd gathering to resist them, or to attempt rescue of anyone already grabbed. These affrays were often bloodily violent – “threatened seamen were prepared to use knives, cutlasses, pokers, shovels and broken glass to defend themselves.” Ears, noses and eyes were often lost; a quarter of all battles with pressgangs between 1740 and 1805 involved serious injuries or fatalities.

A popular target for the gangs were London’s rookeries and slums – however, the basic solidarity of the poorest, often causal workers, beggars or crims, could backfire on them. For instance, one such attack on The Mint, Southwark’s most notorious rookery, in 1721, ended with the pressgang being heavily beaten.

The Seven Years war, 1756-63, which involved much of Europe, saw bitter fighting between England and France in Europe and the Americas. Death rates were high, and demand for bodies to replenish the naval losses was constant. The press gangs were working flat out.

Attempts were made to control their activities. In 1758, a bill passed the House of Commons that would have extended habeas corpus (a writ requiring a person be brought before a judge or court especially for an investigation of a restraint of the person’s liberty; used as a protection against illegal imprisonment) to pressed men. Although this act was designed to stop impressment into the army it would have seriously sabotaged the war effort: pressure was brought to bear and the bill failed in the House of Lords

During one night of savage ‘recruitment’ on the river Thames, when hundreds of men were pressed, the crew of one ship, the Prince of Wales, armed themselves and prepared to resist.

The 22nd of June 1758 is described as “a hot press for seamen, when upwards of 1400 men were taken in the river for his majesty’s service” in the London Magazine “the hottest since the war began… no regard being had to protections… The crew of the Prince of Wales, a letter of marque ship, stood to arms, and saved themselves by their resolution.” (Annual Register, 1758).

We know little more – whether or not there was a fight, or whether their show of force was enough. However, we know they successfully avoided impressment.

The ship was described as ‘a letter or marque ship’ – basically a licensed pirate, a privateer, usually issued a licence to attack and capture enemy vessels and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale. Cruising for prizes with a letter of marque was considered an honourable calling combining patriotism and profit, in contrast to unlicensed piracy, which was universally reviled’.

Possibly the ship’s profession made the crew were a bit too tasty for the pressgang’s liking…

The Press Gang: Naval Impressment and its opponents in Georgian Britain, by Nicholas Rogers, and The Press-Gang: Afloat and Ashore, J. R.. Hutchinson, are worth a read…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online