SONG: The Man of War (Press Gang)

Scene 3: Press Ganged William Davidson was press ganged at sea twice
Kate Morton
Man-of-War-The Press Gang Sea shanty
Man of War sea shanty

As a son of Kingston, Jamaican, William Davidson grew up close to the sea. This continued when he came to Britain in 1801.  Whilst studying law in Liverpool, he mixed in the city with sailors from all points of the compass. One day, restless and bored with studying, he signed up to become the clerk of a merchant ship. He’d wanted to see the world, but ended up losing his liberty, as he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Press-ganging was just a nice term for kidnapping. Davidson had been a free man up until now. As a ‘Jack-Tar’ in the Royal Navy he was effectively enslaved in the service of his Majesty King George III.

Press gangs were used by the Royal Navy to recruit seamen into naval service, against their will. Recruiting sailors was difficult as the conditions on board ship were poor and serving in the navy, especially at time of war, was dangerous. Press gang derives from the term impressment, which is the act of coercing someone into government service. Impressment was used often during the Napoleonic wars 1803-1815 when William Davidson was impressed twice. The press gang, a group of 10 – 12 men, led by an officer, would roam the streets looking for likely ‘volunteers.’ Seizing merchant seamen, at sea was common as they could be put to service straight away. When the press gang seized a man ashore, he was offered the King’s shilling often in an underhand manner such as slipping it into his drink. If you took the shilling you had agreed to serve. It is for this reason that glass bottomed tankards became popular, so that you could check you hadn’t been fooled.

Before the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had about 10,000 men. By 1812, there were 140,000 sailors. The overwhelming majority of these men came from the press.  To some extent the Royal navy had no choice other than to use the press gang.  They had to replace men who were killed or died in service and also had to replace the huge number of deserters. Lord Nelson estimated that between 1793 and 1801 perhaps as many as 40,000 men did what William Davidson did and deserted the Royal Navy.

Discipline was harsh. William Davidson had seen slaves flogged and now saw the impact of the lash dished out in Nelson’s navy. He would have had no choice but to watch. The whole crew would assemble aft on the quarterdeck to witness the culprit whipped on an upended grating, whilst the officers and marines stood above us to keep order. The gentleman officers ruled though force and Davidson realised this was how society back in England worked too . He appreciatated the irony of being enslaved by the Royal navy to fight for ‘freedom’ against Napoleon’s revolutionary France.

 The Man-o’-War

As I rode up of a London street
A bold press gang I chanced to meet
Why they asked me if I’d join the fleet
On board of a man of war, boys

Why pray brother sailors and tell me true
What kind of usage they give you
That I may know before I go
On board of a man of war, boys

But when I got there to my surprise
All that they told me was shocking lies
And it’s there was a row, a bloody good row
On board of a man of war, boys

Oh the first thing they done why they took me in hand
They’ve lashed me with a tarry strand
Why they’ve whipped me till I couldn’t stand
On board of a man of war, boys

They hung me up by my two thumbs
And they’ve whipped me till the blood did run
And it’s that was the usage they gave me
On board of a man of war, boys

I was married and me wife’s name was Grace
‘Twas her that I blame for this shocking affray
Because it was from her I run away
On board of a man of war, boys

But when I set me foot on shore
And I see the girls we all adore
Why I’ll never go to sea anymore
On board of a man of war, boys

As I walked out on a London Street
A press gang there I chanced for to meet
They asked me if I’d join the fleet
On board of a man-o-war, boys
Pray brother shipmates tell me true
What sort of usage they give you
That I may know before I go
On board of a man-o-war, boys
But when I went to my surprise
All that they told me was shocking lies
There was a row and a bloody old row
On board of a man-o-war, boys
The first thing they did they took me in hand
They flogged me with a tarry strand
They flogged me till I could not stand
On board of a man-o-war, boys
They hung me up by my two thumbs
And they cut me till the blood did run
And that was the usage they gave me
On board of a man-o-war, boys
I married a wife and her name was Grace
I oft times cursed her ugly face
Saying it’s you that has brought me to this disgrace
On board of a man-o-war, boys
If I could get one foot on shore
Some other pretty girls I’d marry once more
Neither winds nor waves would entice me any more
On board of a man-o-war, boys

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