Deserters, Stragglers, and Ramblers

By Martin Hubley with the assistance of a Nova Scotia Museum research grant

The North American station of the British Navy was formally established in 1745 during the campaign to take the fortress of Louisbourg. From that year onwards, a permanent squadron of vessels was based year-round in Nova Scotia, first at Louisbourg, then from 1749 at Halifax, where a naval yard was established to support all naval vessels in North America. The squadron's exact area of responsibility changed over time, but generally stretched from Quebec City, down the St. Lawrence River through the Gulf of St Lawrence, along the coast of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, and down the Eastern seaboard of the American colonies, later the United States, from New England to the Floridas. This zone also stretched eastward to the Bermudas, where an anchorage and facilities for the squadron to winter over were established from 1785.

In the years prior to 1776, a rough estimate has some twenty to thirty thousand Royal Navy seamen deserting in North American waters, an immense number when one considers that Boston, the largest city in the American colonies in 1750, was inhabited by only fifteen thousand souls.1 During the American War itself, there was perhaps one case of desertion for every three men recruited into the naval service.2 If between 230,000 and 235,000 men were raised for the fleet between 1774 and 1782, this would mean that there were over 78,000 cases of desertion throughout the navy in that period. An abstract prepared for the Prime Minister, William Petty, Earl of Shelburne by Robert Gregson, an official at the Navy Board in London, cites the figure of 79,007 men run from naval vessels between August 1775 and February 1783, 14,845 of them in North America.3

There are of course many and varied reasons for desertion from the navy. It was likely most often the actions of men with the transnational identity of seamen moving from ship to ship based on individual agency, contingency and context – often in search of better pay on merchant ships, improved working conditions, the attractions of prize money on privateers, or less harsh treatment. Desertion could also simply be a means of 'everyday escape' from impressment, the system of forced conscription often used by the navy to man its vessels with seamen. On occassion, the act of desertion was also entirely spur of the moment, opportunistic, accidental, or unintended - and sometimes unpunished. This could occur when seamen or marines given leave to go ashore "straggled" and literally missed their ship due to unforeseen circumstances such as poor transport, bad weather conditions, ships sailing in an emergency, etc. Men could also fall victim to "rambling" shore, where essentially through inattention, or perhaps more often, drunkenness, they also "missed the boat". Perhaps some seamen also saw desertion as a means of emigration and free (if not paid) passage across the Atlantic. The pre-eminent destination for such unofficial emigration in the Atlantic world were, of course, the American colonies, and later the United States.4

If a deserter was recaptured, or caught in the act of running from a vessel, he could be punished under the Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea published by the Admiralty Board in London, and provided to all commanding officers of ships. These regulations governed discipline and operations on board ship, and specified that if any man was absent for more than three consecutive weekly musters, this was to be noted on the ship's muster books with an "R" against his name, to indicate that he had deserted his vessel. Desertion was a crime, and could be punished in two ways. The ship's captain could summarily punish such deserters, with a flogging while lashed to a grating at the ship's gangway, technically of no more than twelve lashes with the infamous cat of nine tails, according to the "ancient practice of the sea". Some captains punished men more severely, either via the technicality of accusing them of more than one crime, thus allowing a twelve lash sentence for each offence, or simply by ignoring the regulation limiting the number of lashes for summary punishment altogether. Other captains and commanders were more forgiving, and gave out sentences of less than twelve lashes, while some even forgave deserters, if it could be shown that they had no intention of deserting the naval service - such as may have been the case for at least some of the stragglers and ramblers discussed above.

For more serious cases, for which examples were needed to be made of to maintain order in the constantly short-handed squadron, desertion was also punishable under the Articles of War. This legal code, passed by the British Parliament, enumerated all serious crimes which were to be tried by court martial in the Navy, and the punishments which could be given out by such a court of naval officers for each crime. Desertion fell under several articles, but the two most common were Article 15 and Article 16. The death penalty was mandatory for desertion to the enemy under Article 15, while since the 1749 revision of the Articles of War it was optional for the lesser charge of desertion under Article 16. Men could, and sometimes were, punished under Article 27 or Article 36 for straggling or being absent without leave. Deserters who attempted to take over a vessel prior to fleeing could also be charged with mutiny, under Article 19.

Men sentenced to death by a court martial would be hung from the yardarm of a vessel in a very public ritualised ceremony, in front of all the vessels of the squadron which were in port, with all hands turned up to view the punishment. The prisoner would be hauled to the yardarm at the moment a gun on the lower deck beneath him was fired, the smoke cloud from the powder rising through the air surrounding the hanging man. Some convicted deserters were reprieved at the last moment before their execution, in an act of mercy recommended by the station commander and approved by the King himself, and even this merciful reprieve was conducted in such a way as to instill exemplary terror into the hearts of those seamen and marines considering such crimes, and often had severe psychological effects on the man who was granted mercy.

Admiral George Vernon Jackson, who served as a midshipman and junior officer on several ships on the North American and Newfoundland stations, was a deserter himself early in his career because of the treatment he received from a tyrannical officer on the Halifax station. In his memoirs, Jackson described a man being led out to execution in Halifax for the crimes of mutiny and attempted desertion in 1806:

When the day and hour arrived, the deck of the ship upon which he was to suffer became a seat of deep interest to everybody in the fleet. The rules of the service prescribed that on such occassions the Officers and men should turn out in full costume, and the glitter of gay uniforms and the picturesque garb of the sailors contrasted strangely with their solemn countenances, and the unbroken silence that prevailed....All the ceremonies on board a man-of-war connected with any momentous event are conducted with the same strict formality and decorum whether the circumstance at issue be a public flogging, a burial, or an execution.

The means adopted for a naval execution are few and simple. A rope is run through a single block at the yard-arm with a sliding noose at one end, above which, at the distance of a few feet, a small piece of wood called a 'toggle' is securely fastened. The purpose of this is to create a check to the body when being drawn upwards rapidly, which causes it to spring into the air above, and fall with a violent jerk that breaks the neck.

Our suspense was short. As the bell struck the appointed hour, Davis appeared up the after-hatch - instead of the forecastle ladder, as we had expected - in charge of a guard of marines, who slowly conducted him forward. As he passed the gangway where I was standing, he halted for a second or two and took my hand, saying as he shook it gently, 'Good-bye, Mr. Jackson.' I felt sick and giddy, and before I could summon up enough courage to utter a word in reply he had moved on. He was very pale, but quite self-possessed and resigned to his fate. I wished I could have turned and fled. I was spellbound, and remained staring vacantly at the figure of the man as he submitted himself into the hands of the executioners. On reaching the fatal spot his eyes were blindfolded and his arms pinioned. The collar of his shirt was then rolled back and the noose adjusted. These preliminaries having been observed, the Captain advanced and read out the finding and sentence of the Court-martial. At its conclusion, with a loud voice he inquired of the First Lieutenant how many men were on the ropes to run the body aloft. The number was reported. 'Put on half a dozen more.' This order was obeyed. He then asked, 'Is the gun ready to be fired?' 'Quite ready, sir' was the answer. All the while this torture was being inflicted, the miserable culprit continued ejaculating to himself in an audible tone, 'Oh God, I am going - I am going - I am going,' until he repeated the words so hurriedly as to be hardly coherent. The signal only was required now to banish him into eternity, when the Captain, taking a survey around and being satisfied with the impression produced, cooly drew another paper from his pocket and read a reprieve - certainly not more to the surprise and transport of the victim himself than to my own unfeigned delight. Davis did not immediately realise his good fortune, but stood motionless for some time, evidently perplexed, still unconsciously muttering the same words. This clemency was owing to the entreaties of the Admiral's ladylove, who was to be married to him on this very day, and who wished for no such dismal memorial of her wedding as that so nearly established.5

If a convicted deserter was not sentenced to death, he would usually be publically flogged throughout the fleet, in another ritualised ceremony specifically designed and conducted to instill terror in the minds of those forced to view it, and hence to deter desertion and other crimes. The prisoner would be rowed from ship to ship in harbour, receiving a small portion of the sentence in front of the assembled crew of each (usually from six to as many as 50 lashes at each vessel depending upon the number of ships present and the size of the sentence). For large sentences of over 150 or 200 lashes this process might have been repeated two or even three times, with a week or more between floggings to allow the prisoner to recover. It was not uncommon to receive up to 500 lashes or more in desertion cases brought before courts martial in North America, where ships were usually below complement due to sickness and desertion, seamen willing to serve in the navy were scarce, and the station commander and his captains were often at their wits end in finding men, and sometimes used harsh punishments as a deterrent for desertion. The average number of lashes for such cases in North American waters between 1755 and 1806 was 252, compared to 192 for all stations of the Navy in the same period. 6

For example, On 12 March 1755, just prior to the start of the Seven Years’ War, Richard Farrell, a seaman of the Norwich, was court-martialed on that vessel for desertion while it was in Hampton Roads, Virginia. He was found guilty, but the court of senior naval officers presiding found that Farrell did not have the intention of permanently deserting the naval service, and noted that there were no black marks against his previous general character or behaviour. Farrell, was sentenced to receive 24 lashes alongside each of his Majesty’s Ships then in the roads, not to exceed five, for a total of 120 blows from the cat of nine tails.7

Although the numbers of such court martials were relatively small compared to the number of men punished summarily, and to the number of deserters overall (many of whom would never be caught), their effect was a powerful one emotionally, not just on the convicted deserter but on all of those viewing or taking part in the public punishment ritual itself. This exemplary and ritualistic aspect of naval discipline was one shared with the system of criminal punishment ashore in eighteenth-century England.

To aid in exploring desertion patterns in North American waters, a random sample of vessels, of different rates was drawn from among those that spent at least seven months on the North American station in a one-year period between 1775 and 1776. This ship sample currently consists of eight warships with almost 3,500 men on their books, equivalent to approximately one-fifth of the size of the North American station’s complement of seamen in 1776, or 40% of the total of assigned vessels.8

There are of course pros and cons to the use of random sampling. In this particular case, of vessels examined so far, only three spent any lengthy period of time stationed at Halifax or in Nova Scotian waters. Other vessels in the sample made brief visits for refits at the naval yard in Halifax, to carry stores from Nova Scotia to the main force of the squadron deployed at Boston or elsewhere, or made stops there while transiting to/from England or other destinations. In fact, there were usually only one or two smaller vessels permanently stationed in Halifax, much to the chagrin of the Lieutenant-Governor and his Council, many of them merchants or other businessmen with large investments in shipping and trade which needed to be protected in time of conflict.9 Yet, as we shall see, seamen and marines often took the opportunity to run away from their ships while in Nova Scotia, and in other destinations which might be seen as less desirable for that purpose than, say, the larger ports of Boston and New York, or the traditional haven for disenchanted seamen seeking other employment in North American waters, Rhode Island.


1.Julian Gwyn, "The Royal Navy in North America, 1712-1776," in The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Jeremy Black and Philip Woodfine (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1989), p.51 and P.J. Marshall, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century, ed. Wm. Roger Louis, 5 vols., Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.284.

2.N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 398-9.

3. Cited in Roland G. Usher, “The Civil Administration of the British Navy during the American Revolution” (University of Michigan, 1942), pp. 170-2. The same source states that of these 79,007 men, 14,485 of them deserted in North America, 47,028 left their ships on naval stations in home waters, 15,191 in the West Indies, and the remaining 2,303 in the East Indies and the Mediterranean.

4. Denver A. Brunsman, 'Everyday Escapes: The Art of Evading the British Press Gang', International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Harvard University, 2003); N.A.M. Rodger, 'Stragglers and Deserters from the Royal Navy During the Seven Years War', Bulletin of the Institute for Historical Research, 57, no. 135 (May 1984), the basis of the section on desertion in N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Glasgow: Fontana, 1986). The current literature on emigration rarely mentions this possibility, and does not examine it in detail. See, for example Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford: 1985); Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution(New York: 1986); and Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire, ed. by Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan,  (Chapel Hill, N.C.: For the Institute of Early American History and Culture by The University of North Carolina Press, 1991). Some scholars have noted the potential of desertion as a method of emigration – see for example Wim Klooster and Alfred Padula, The Atlantic World: Essays on Slavery, Migration, and Imagination (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005), p. 16.

5. Harold, Burrows, ed. The Perilous Adventures and Vicissitudes of a Naval Officer, 1801-1812; Being Part of the Memoirs of Admiral George Vernon Jackson (1787-1876). (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1927), pp.97- 100 . Sir Andrew Mitchell, the station commander in Halifax at the time, married Mary Uniacke, daughter of Richard John Uniacke, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, on 3 May 1805, and Harris’ court martial occurred in October of that year, so it seems that Jackson’s memory was in error with regard to the reason for the reprieve - see TNA:PRO ADM 12/24 Analysis and digest of court martial convictions, arranged by offence: J-N, 1755-1806, Court martial of William Harris, 2 Oct 1805; TNA:PRO ADM1/5370, Courts Martial Papers, June to Nov 1805, Court martial of William Harris, 2 Oct 1805; Uniacke fonds description, Nova Scotia Archives and Record Management. Harris is referred to as Davis in Jackson's account. It is of course possible that another seaman named Davis was court martialled for events on the Dygden and tried and sentenced for execution earlier than Harris, and the records of that trial simply have not survived. The description in Harris’ court martial details (and the crime that occurred on the Dygden) matches Jackson’s description of Davis and events so closely that this is unlikely.

6. TNA:PRO ADM 12/22, Analysis and digest of court martial convictions, arranged by offence: D-Dis, 1755,-1806, Digest of court martial of Richard Farrell, 12 March 1755. Some men had part of their punishments remitted by the station commander, who had the authority to use his discretion to do so as an act of mercy - for example, a man sentenced to 500 lashes, which would likely require three separate floggings through the fleet, might only actually receive 300. The analysis from which the average is derived, along with more detailed examination of courts martial for desertion in North America and the use of discretion, is presented in full in the author's forthcoming PhD thesis.

7. TNA:PRO ADM 12/22, Analysis and digest of court martial convictions, arranged by offence: D-Dis, 1755,-1806, Digest of court martial of Richard Farrell, 12 March 1755.

8. The strength of the North American squadron in December 1776 was 14, 486 men on more than twenty vessels, second only to Home Waters at 24,311 men and far exceeding its smaller neighbours at that time, the Leeward Islands (1,560 men) and Jamaica (1,080 men) stations. TNA:PRO ADM 8/52, “List Book (showing the disposition of Ships, names of Officers, &c.), 1776”

9. For example, in 1770 and 1771 the frigate Mermaid (24) spent much of her time based at Halifax, and her captain, James Smith, was usually the senior officer there. TNA:PRO ADM 50/9 Journal of Commodore Gambier 11 Jul 1770 to 1 Oct 1771; TNA:PRO ADM 8/46. On 10 Oct 1771 the Tamur frigate, Captain May, was ordered to Halifax to protect the yard, trade and fishery, and stayed until March 1772 when she returned to Boston with stores for the squadron on 26 Mar 1772. Over the spring and summer of 1772 the Mercury,Lively and Lizard frigates refitted at the Halifax yard. On 19 Sept 1772 theTartar frigate was ordered to winter at Halifax for the protection of the yard, and in 1773 the Fowey frigate took on this task, until being replaced in her duties there by the Kingsfisher sloop in 1774. TNA:PRO ADM 50/17 Journal of Rear Admiral John Montagu, 26 May 1771 to 5 August 1774.