Tuesday, November 29, 2011
History: The Continental Navy and Pirate Democracy
This quote comes from John Adams in his role as a member of the Continental Congress. In it, he delineates the first five vessels of the Continental Navy. Upon those vessels, of course, discipline was not an option but Congress was keen to ensure that the potentially out of control discipline that reigned in the Royal Navy of the day did not trickle down to the newly established fleet of the United Colonies of North America. To that end, a written set of Rules and Regulations were approved and enacted on November 28, 1775.
There are 44 Articles in total dealing with everything from victualling to pay to “divine service”. Some specific points are worth noting on this 236th anniversary of their establishment, particularly those that obviously try to distinguish the new naval force from its ancient parent.
Article 1 is telling in and of itself; the first issue on hand is not day to day life aboard ship but duty, honor, and the importance of setting a good example:
The commanders of all ships and vessels belonging to the Thirteen United Colonies are strictly required to shew in themselves a good example of honor and virtue to their officers and men…
A commander may be the law at sea but he is not above it. Like a modern head coach of an NFL team, whatever happens aboard his ship is ultimately his responsibility and/or fault. Leading by example is not just a good idea, it is a given.
“Divine service,” which in general meant reading from the Bible, is expected to be performed twice a day with a sermon preached on Sunday barring “bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent it.” Most ships of this time, even in the Royal Navy, did not carry a chaplain, however. Sailors imagined holy men aboard as bad luck. Although Article 2 does not say so, a reading of the Articles of War – which Article 7 states must be done once a month – was an acceptable substitute.
Other Articles ban cursing and drunkenness, with the commander given specific parameters as to punishments for same. Article 4 specifically gives the most severe punishment open to a captain without recourse to consultation with a superior officer – a Commodore – or tribunal of courts martial:
No Commander shall inflict any punishment upon a seaman beyond twelve lashes upon his bare back with a cat of nine-tails…
This clearly speaks to the brutal practices of some Royal Navy captains who would order up to 500 lashes, sometimes for minor offenses.
Care is taken to see that men are paid in a timely manner and that their names are entered into ship’s books appropriately. “A convenient place” is to be set up for sick and injured men and the need for a surgeon and surgeon’s mates is also indicated. Fishing is not just encouraged but mandated when possible, so that the men and particularly the sick have fresh food. The purser is admonished to inspect stored provisions “… and if the bread proves damp to have it aired on the quarter-deck or poop…”
Unlike the Royal Navy, where sailors who died or were killed at sea might have their things sold at auction by their mates, Article 23 mandates that “… cloaths, bedding and other things of such persons…” should be returned to their families.
Article 26 specifically addresses a commander’s duty when faced with an enemy ship. This Article, wherein the captain is again expected to lead by example and “order all things in his ship in a proper posture for fight” was the one repeatedly thrown up in James Baron’s face over the Chesapeake/Leopard Affair, eventually leading to the duel that killed Stephen Decatur.
A commander is given permission to take a life in time of battle when a man deserts his “duty or station”. This occurred when David Porter’s Essex met HMS Phoebe in Valparaiso Harbor. Essex’s gunner deserted his post, saying he would not stay to be slaughtered “like a sheep”. Porter, enraged, gave his adoptive son, Midshipman David Farragut, a pistol and admonished him: “Do your duty, sir.” The gunner was not located before Essex struck to Phoebe. The only other Article that addresses immediate punishment by death addresses cases of murder.
Article 32 gives any crewman, from ship’s boy to First Lieutenant, the right of redress if he feels he has “cause for complaint”. This Article specifically states that if the petitioner does not receive a fair hearing from his direct superior, he may petition the captain.
While these Rules and Regulations for a new navy maintain the disciplines necessary for the running of a capable ship, the tone is very different from those of the Royal Navy. The new egalitarianism and the belief that every man should be heard seeped into the wood and brass of those first five ships and it carries on to this day. One might boldly say that a bit of pirate democracy stood on the decks of the Navy of the United Colonies of North America.
Header: The Continental Fleet at Sea by Newland Van Powell c 1974