Manning the Pressgang

Once in a while I stumble upon a book or document that is absolutely wonderful. Often it makes me want to meet the person who wrote it, though often the author is long dead, but anyhow… I have been reading ‘the Narrative of William Spavens’, which is an account of what is described as an ordinary seaman, but it is quite an extraordinary document, first published in 1796. It is not just worth reading for the events he witnessed which are incredible enough, but also for the intelligence and warmth shown by this ordinary man, and the fact that he had to publish it to provide money to live on after serving in some of the British Navy’s most important battles.

This is his account of a press gang in action, in which he participated:

“The Blandford now being laid in rotten Row, part of our officers and men were sent on board the Orford of 70 guns, the rest remaining on our own ship till the Vengeance frigate of 28 guns … was put into cmmission, and the command of her given to Captain Joseph Hunt, and we then wer sent on board of her; and in January, 1759, being ordered to Ireland, we sailed for Dublin Bay, where we lay till april to procure men for the service and were attended by two utters and a wherry, in the latte of which we put about 20 men and an officer, and sometimes went to sea as far as the high land of Wicklow to reconnoitre the coast, and wehen we perceived a ship coming in, we concealed ourselves, and let only the wherry men be seen, who were pilots for the bar and polebeg; and one day as the Dublin Letter of Marque from New York wsa coming in, we sheered under her lee, asking if they wanted a pilot? the Captain said they did, and told us to come alongside; but the men having some suspicion of our design, bid us keep off, or they would fire upon us. Now making the signal to the ship, she loosed her top-sails and sheeted them home; and sent the boat with an officer and a proper number of hands to go on board of her; the officer they admitted, but the men they refused. Having therefore small hopes of succeeding, we prosecuted our design no farther at this time, but when night came on, she stretched over towards the hill of Heath, but in the first watch came and borught up a-beam of us within a quarter of a mile distance, whereupon the Lieutenant ordered the cutter to row guard round her all night, and sent the yawl to the Captain at Dublin, who brought down the two cutters, and re-inforcing them from the ship, boarded the Letter of Marque, one on oeach quarter, while we with our yawl and cutter boarded her on each bow at the same instant; but finding the men had taken close quarters, we scuttled their decks with axes, and fired down amongst them, whil e they kept firing up at us where they saw wthe light appear. after having shot one of our men through the head, and anotehr through both his tighs, they submitted, and we got 16 brave fellows. there wwa a woman and child in a side cabin in the state room, neither of which had received any injury, althought he ceilng above them wa full of shot-holes. such are the methods frequentlymade use of to obtain seamen for the service in this land of liberty. It seems shocking to the feelings of humanity for a sailor, after he has been a long voyage, endured innumerable hardships, and is just returning to his native land with the pleasing hope of shortly beholding a beloved wife and children, some kind relatins, or respected friends, to be forced away to fight, perhaps to fall, and no more enjoy those dear connexions – it is a hardship which nothing but abslute necessity can reconcile to our boasted freedom.”

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