An essay upon projects, by Daniel Defoe

Of Seamen.

It is observable that whenever this kingdom is engaged in a war with any of its neighbours two great inconveniences constantly follow: one to the king and one to trade.

1. That to the king is, that he is forced to press seamen for the manning of his navy, and force them involuntarily into the service: which way of violently dragging men into the fleet is attended with sundry ill circumstances, as:

(1.) Our naval preparations are retarded, and our fleets always late for want of men, which has exposed them not a little, and been the ruin of many a good and well-laid expedition.

(2.) Several irregularities follow, as the officers taking money to dismiss able seamen, and filling up their complement with raw and improper persons.

(3.) Oppressions, quarrellings, and oftentimes murders, by the rashness of press-masters and the obstinacy of some unwilling to go.

(4.) A secret aversion to the service from a natural principle, common to the English nation, to hate compulsion.

(5.) Kidnapping people out of the kingdom, robbing houses, and picking pockets, frequently practised under pretence of pressing, as has been very much used of late.

With various abuses of the like nature, some to the king, and some to the subject.

2. To trade. By the extravagant price set on wages for seamen, which they impose on the merchant with a sort of authority, and he is obliged to give by reason of the scarcity of men, and that not from a real want of men (for in the height of a press, if a merchant-man wanted men, and could get a protection for them, he might have any number immediately, and none without it, so shy were they of the public service).

The first of these things has cost the king above three millions sterling since the war, in these three particulars:

1. Charge of pressing on sea and on shore, and in small craft employed for that purpose.

2. Ships lying in harbour for want of men, at a vast charge of pay and victuals for those they had.

3. Keeping the whole navy in constant pay and provisions all the winter, for fear of losing the men against summer, which has now been done several years, besides bounty money and other expenses to court and oblige the seamen.

The second of these (viz., the great wages paid by the merchant) has cost trade, since the war, above twenty millions sterling. The coal trade gives a specimen of it, who for the first three years of the war gave 9 pounds a voyage to common seamen, who before sailed for 36s.; which, computing the number of ships and men used in the coal trade, and of voyages made, at eight hands to a vessel, does, modestly accounting, make 89,600 pounds difference in one year in wages to seamen in the coal trade only.

For other voyages the difference of sailors’ wages is 50s, per month and 55s. per month to foremast-men, who before went for 26s. per month; besides subjecting the merchant to the insolence of the seamen, who are not now to be pleased with any provisions, will admit no half-pay, and command of the captains even what they please; nay, the king himself can hardly please them.

For cure of these inconveniences it is the following project is proposed, with which the seamen can have no reason to be dissatisfied, nor are not at all injured; and yet the damage sustained will be prevented, and an immense sum of money spared, which is now squandered away by the profuseness and luxury of the seamen. For if prodigality weakens the public wealth of the kingdom in general, then are the seamen but ill commonwealths-men, who are not visibly the richer for the prodigious sums of money paid them either by the king or the merchant.

The project is this: that by an Act of Parliament an office or court be erected, within the jurisdiction of the Court of Admiralty, and subject to the Lord High Admiral, or otherwise independent, and subject only to a parliamentary authority, as the commission for taking and stating the public accounts.

In this court or office, or the several branches of it (which, to that end, shall be subdivided and placed in every sea-port in the kingdom), shall be listed and entered into immediate pay all the seamen in the kingdom, who shall be divided into colleges or chambers of sundry degrees, suitable to their several capacities, with pay in proportion to their qualities; as boys, youths, servants, men able and raw, midshipmen, officers, pilots, old men, and pensioners.

The circumstantials of this office:

1. No captain or master of any ship or vessel should dare to hire or carry to sea with him any seamen but such as he shall receive from the office aforesaid.

2. No man whatsoever, seaman or other, but applying himself to the said office to be employed as a sailor, should immediately enter into pay, and receive for every able seaman 24s. per month, and juniors in proportion; to receive half-pay while unemployed, and liberty to work for themselves: only to be at call of the office, and leave an account where to be found.

3. No sailor could desert, because no employment would be to be had elsewhere.

4. All ships at their clearing at the Custom House should receive a ticket to the office for men, where would be always choice rather than scarcity, who should be delivered over by the office to the captain or master without any trouble or delay; all liberty of choice to be allowed both to master and men, only so as to give up all disputes to the officers appointed to decide.

Note. — By this would be avoided the great charge captains and owners are at to keep men on board before they are ready to go; whereas now the care of getting men will be over, and all come on board in one day: for, the captain carrying the ticket to the office, he may go and choose his men if he will; otherwise they will be sent on board to him, by tickets sent to their dwellings to repair on board such a ship.

5. For all these men that the captain or master of the ship takes he shall pay the office, not the seamen, 28s. per month (which 4s. per month overplus of wages will be employed to pay the half-pay to the men out of employ), and so in proportion of wages for juniors.

6. All disputes concerning the mutinying of mariners, or other matters of debate between the captains and men, to be tried by way of appeal in a court for that purpose to be erected, as aforesaid.

7. All discounting of wages and time, all damages of goods, averages, stopping of pay, and the like, to be adjusted by stated and public rules and laws in print, established by the same Act of Parliament, by which means all litigious suits in the Court of Admiralty (which are infinite) would be prevented.

8. No ship that is permitted to enter at the Custom House and take in goods should ever be refused men, or delayed in the delivering them above five days after a demand made and a ticket from the Custom House delivered (general cases, as arrests and embargoes, excepted).

The Consequences of this Method.

1. By this means the public would have no want of seamen, and all the charges and other inconveniences of pressing men would be prevented.

2. The intolerable oppression upon trade, from the exorbitance of wages and insolence of mariners, would be taken off.

3. The following sums of money should be paid to the office, to lie in bank as a public fund for the service of the nation, to be disposed of by order of Parliament, and not otherwise; a committee being a ways substituted in the intervals of the session to audit the accounts, and a treasury for the money, to be composed of members of the House, and to be changed every session of Parliament:

(1). Four shillings per month wages advanced by the merchants to the office for the men, more than the office pays them.

(2). In consideration of the reducing men’s wages, and consequently freights, to the former prices (or near them), the owners of ships or merchants shall pay at the importation of all goods forty shillings per ton freight, to be stated upon all goods and ports in proportion; reckoning it on wine tonnage from Canaries as the standard, and on special freights in proportion to the freight formerly paid, and half the said price in times of peace.

Note. — This may well be done, and no burden; for if freights are reduced to their former prices (or near it), as they will be if wages are so too, then the merchant may well pay it: as, for instance, freight from Jamaica to London, formerly at 6 pounds 10s. per ton, now at 18 pounds and 20 pounds; from Virginia, at 5 pounds to 6 pounds 10s., now at 14 pounds, 16 pounds, and 17 pounds; from Barbadoes, at 6 pounds, now at 16 pounds; from Oporto, at 2 pounds, now at 6 pounds; and the like.

The payment of the above-said sums being a large bank for a fund, and it being supposed to be in fair hands and currently managed, the merchants shall further pay upon all goods shipped out, and shipped on board from abroad, for and from any port of this kingdom, 4 pounds per cent. on the real value, bona fide; to be sworn to if demanded. In consideration whereof the said office shall be obliged to pay and make good all losses, damages, averages, and casualties whatsoever, as fully as by the custom of assurances now is done, without any discounts, rebates, or delays whatsoever; the said 4 pounds per cent. to be stated on the voyage to the Barbadoes, and enlarged or taken off, in proportion to the voyage, by rules and laws to be printed and publicly known.

Reserving only, that then, as reason good, the said office shall have power to direct ships of all sorts, how and in what manner, and how long they shall sail with or wait for convoys; and shall have power (with limitations) to lay embargoes on ships, in order to compose fleets for the benefit of convoys.

These rules, formerly noted, to extend to all trading by sea, the coasting and home-fishing trade excepted; and for them it should be ordered:—

First, for coals; the colliers being provided with men at 28s. per month, and convoys in sufficient number, and proper stations from Tynemouth Bar to the river, so as they need not go in fleets, but as wind and weather presents, run all the way under the protection of the men-of-war, who should be continually cruising from station to station, they would be able to perform their voyage, in as short time as formerly, and at as cheap pay, and consequently could afford to sell their coals at 17s. per chaldron, as well as formerly at 15s.

Wherefore there should be paid into the treasury appointed at Newcastle, by bond to be paid where they deliver, 10s. per chaldron, Newcastle measure; and the stated price at London to be 27s. per chaldron in the Pool, which is 30s. at the buyer’s house; and is so far from being dear, a time of war especially, as it is cheaper than ever was known in a war; and the officers should by proclamation confine the seller to that price.

In consideration also of the charge of convoys, the ships bringing coals shall all pay 1 pound per cent. on the value of the ship, to be agreed on at the office; and all convoy-money exacted by commanders of ships shall be relinquished, and the office to make good all losses of ships, not goods, that shall be lost by enemies only.

These heads, indeed, are such as would need some explication, if the experiment were to be made; and, with submission, would reduce the seamen to better circumstances; at least, it would have them in readiness for any public service much easier than by all the late methods of encouragement by registering seamen, &c.

For by this method all the seamen in the kingdom should be the king’s hired servants, and receive their wages from him, whoever employed them; and no man could hire or employ them but from him. The merchant should hire them of the king, and pay the king for them; nor would there be a seaman in England out of employ — which, by the way, would prevent their seeking service abroad. If they were not actually at sea they would receive half-pay, and might be employed in works about the yards, stores, and navy, to keep all things in repair.

If a fleet or squadron was to be fitted out they would be manned in a week’s time, for all the seamen in England would be ready. Nor would they be shy of the service; for it is not an aversion to the king’s service, nor it is not that the duty is harder in the men-of-war than the merchant-men, nor it is not fear of danger which makes our seamen lurk and hide and hang back in a time of war, but it is wages is the matter: 24s. per month in the king’s service, and 40s. to 50s. per month from the merchant, is the true cause; and the seaman is in the right of it, too; for who would serve his king and country, and fight, and be knocked on the head at 24s. per month that can have 50s. without that hazard? And till this be remedied, in vain are all the encouragements which can be given to seamen; for they tend but to make them insolent, and encourage their extravagance.

Nor would this proceeding be any damage to the seamen in general; for 24s. per month wages, and to be kept in constant service (or half-pay when idle), is really better to the seaman than 45s. per month, as they now take it, considering how long they often lie idle on shore out of pay; for the extravagant price of seamen’s wages, though it has been an intolerable burden to trade, has not visibly enriched the sailors, and they may as well be content with 24s. per month now as formerly.

On the other hand, trade would be sensibly revived by it, the intolerable price of freights would be reduced, and the public would reap an immense benefit by the payments mentioned in the proposal; as:—

1. 4s. per month upon the wages of all the seamen employed by the merchant (which if we allow 200,000 seamen always in employ, as there cannot be less in all the ships belonging to England) is 40,000 pounds per month.

2. 40s. per ton freight upon all goods imported.

3. 4 per cent. on the value of all goods exported or imported.

4. 10s. per chaldron upon all the coals shipped at Newcastle, and 1 per cent. on the ships which carry them.

What these four articles would pay to the Exchequer yearly it would be very difficult to calculate, and I am too near the end of this book to attempt it: but I believe no tax ever given since this war has come near it.

It is true, out of this the public would be to pay half-pay to the seamen who shall be out of employ, and all the losses, and damages on goods and ships; which, though it might be considerable, would be small, compared to the payment aforesaid: for as the premium of 4 per cent. is but small, so the safety lies upon all men being bound to insure. For I believe any one will grant me this: it is not the smallness of a premium ruins the insurer, but it is the smallness of the quantity he insures; and I am not at all ashamed to affirm that, let but a premium of 4 pounds per cent. be paid into one man’s hand for all goods imported and exported, and any man may be the general insurer of the kingdom, and yet that premium can never hurt the merchant either.

So that the vast revenue this would raise would be felt nowhere: neither poor nor rich would pay the more for coals; foreign goods would be brought home cheaper, and our own goods carried to market cheaper; owners would get more by ships, merchants by goods; and losses by sea would be no loss at all to anybody, because repaid by the public stock.

Another unseen advantage would arise by it: we should be able to outwork all our neighbours, even the Dutch themselves, by sailing as cheap and carrying goods as cheap in a time of war as in peace — an advantage which has more in it than is easily thought of, and would have a noble influence upon all our foreign trade. For what could the Dutch do in trade if we could carry our goods to Cadiz at 50s. per ton freight, and they give 8 pounds or 10 pounds and the like in other places? Whereby we could be able to sell cheaper or get more than our neighbours.

There are several considerable clauses might be added to this proposal (some of great advantage to the general trade of the kingdom, some to particular trades, and more to the public), but I avoid being too particular in things which are but the product of my own private opinion.

If the Government should ever proceed to the experiment, no question but much more than has been hinted at would appear; nor do I see any great difficulty in the attempt, or who would be aggrieved at it; and there I leave it, rather wishing than expecting to see it undertaken.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37