Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: June 24-26th 2010
Ellen Gill (University of Sydney) – Press Gangs and Petitions
James Whitworth was a reluctant seaman in the late Georgian navy. His unhappy letters to his wife appear to fit into the narrative of an impressed sailor, forcibly stripped of personal freedom and entered into the service. But this was not the case, Whitworth was a volunteer. This then prompts the question; how voluntary was volunteering?
Of the first few months of his service we have no record other than his name in the pay book, but by the end of 1811, his name appears in the ships log as having been flogged. From February to November 1812, his letters home to his wife, Elizabeth, reveal a desperately unhappy man, tormented by the service, his ‘ill usage’ on board the ship and his prolonged absence from his much loved family. His letters are full of the language of imprisonment and desperation and he describes his service as ‘cruel bondage’. ‘Ill usage’ is an important consideration in coming to understand the nature of Whitworth’s service, as from August 1811 Portia had a new captain, which for 50 of the 86 men on board, meant at least one trip to the gratings for flogging. Whitworth was not a ‘jolly Jack Tar’. He did not see his service as a patriotic or nationalistic duty. Nor did he feel that he had a duty to the navy; and indeed provided with the opportunity, he deserted. It was with his family, not his nation or the navy that Whitworth’s duty lay. Under what circumstances then, did he volunteer; and where did reluctant, unhappy sailors such as Whitworth fit into the grand narrative of naval service?
This paper will seek to address the nature of volunteering for the Royal Navy, considering it against a back drop of impressment. It will examine the place of the reluctant volunteer as well as the role and importance of family in the cultural and social narrative of the Georgian sailor.
Ellen Gill, University of Sydney, email
Ellen Gill is currently completing her PhD in the History Department at the University of Sydney, Australia. The title of her thesis is ‘Devoting the pen to her service: Family, war and duty in Britain and Ireland, 1740-1820’.