James Madison Papers

To James Madison from George W. Erving, 21 October 1802 (Abstract)

§ From George W. Erving

21 October 1802, London. No. 10. “It is impossible for me to represent to you in adequate terms the very distressed State of our Seamen lately discharged from the British Navy.” Has tried in every possible way to obtain assistance for them from the British government but at last has been obliged to provide passage at U.S. expense for the neediest as an alternative to the more expensive recourse of supporting them.

Since 17 Sept. he has examined 250 men about their citizenship and length of service. “Additional men are every day presenting themselves, besides these there is a considerable number who have been left here sick, or have been discharg⟨ed⟩ by their Captains.” Most are completely destitute, are unable to find work, and lack even “suffici⟨ent⟩ Cloathes to cover them.” Encloses documents which show that arranging transportation and caring for these men has required his incessant attention. “Aware of the improvidence which characterizes this class of people,… as early as October 1801 … I addressed to Mr: King the letter No: ⟨1⟩”1 suggesting an agent should be provided to arrange passage for the men to the U.S. and to receive any money due them from the British government, using some to pay for passage and sending them the remainder. “Mr. King probably did not see the same advantages in such an arrangement,… & therefore nothing was done.” Has since learned from the Admiralty secretary that the British government would have acceded to such a plan. Has instead recommended “a very respectable person” to serve as attorney to those seamen who had wages or prize money due them. Several have taken this suggestion and benefited thereby. “After undertaking the Duties of Major Lenox, on the 4th: of June I wrote to Mr: King the letter No: 2, to which on the 21st: I received his answer N: 3.2 On the 25th: I replyed in No: 4;3 on the 5⟨th:⟩ July, I received from Mr: King No: 5 dated 1st: July4 to which I answered on the 5th: in No: 6 & on the 14th: I received the Note No: 7.5 In consequence of this last I waited up⟨on⟩ Mr: King, who in conversation inforced his objections against my entering into a correspondence with the Admiralty.” Reports that he then visited the Admiralty secretary, Sir Evan Nepean, with whom he has had several conversations and has stated in strong terms the claims he believes U.S. seamen have against the British government. Notes that his suggestions have always been well received by Nepean, who is disposed to give him every assistance and who expressed surprise that a subject requiring such immediate attention was not raised sooner. Hawkesbury, whose approbation was required for any arrangements, was also favorably inclined toward his suggestions; but it was not until after a considerable delay that he was told the Admiralty board had decided to provide a frigate to transport those seamen who were American citizens and who had not taken the king’s bounty. He agreed to certify only U.S. citizens but pointed out that the bounty was often taken only after men had been already impressed, which should entitle them to “the gratitude and consideration” of the British government. “I could however obtain no extension of the plan, and it was agreed that I should send the list already prepared, which I did with my note No: 8,6 and issued the Notice No: 97 writing at the same time to the Out-posts that such men as were there and could find their way to London might come to avail themselves of the benefit of this arrangement.” As a result 250 seamen have appeared since 17 Sept. who have been issued certificates. Understands many were rejected by the British, some because “they were suspected of not being Americans” and many because they were not listed on the books of the ships on which they claimed to have served. He told Nepean that he had better knowledge of the men’s circumstances than the British commissioner Sir Thomas Trowbridge, who was appointed to receive the certificates, and that he hoped “great allowance would be made for the stupidity and ignorance of these men (the Blacks in particular) who scarcely knew Months from years, or recollected the names of the Ships in which they had served.” He was assured that the list would be extended but “would not probably include more than 70, for whom however a temporary provision should be made ’till the time of their embarkation.” After further delays he was told Lord St. Vincent had decided “nothing better could be done than to allow me 10 guineas per head and leave me to ship the men.” He protested that expenses would exceed that amount. The Admiralty board was scheduled to meet, and on 1 Oct. Nepean told Erving he would be notified the next day of their final decision. “Hearing nothing from the Admiralty, on the 12th: October I addressed to them the letter No: 10, & yesterday the note subjoined A.”8 During the delay the number and distressed condition of seamen have increased. Very few American ships are at London and many other distressed men are also awaiting passage home. As the season progresses, opportunities will be fewer and “the sufferings of the people if possible encreased.” Having abandoned all hope of reply from the Admiralty and having received enclosure no. 11 from a police office,9 he has taken immediate measures to transport the men at U.S. expense. Has contracted with Mr. Williams, owner of the Mary, on terms contained in enclosure no. 12.10 Notes that this is a British ship but says no American ships offered such favorable accommodations and terms. Asked Bird, Savage, and Bird to advance funds but they declined in their letter, enclosure no. 13.11

Adds in a 28 Oct. postscript that on 22 Oct. he received an invitation to meet with Nepean,12 who “expressed in very strong terms his great mortification and disappointment at the delays;… he stated that a great difference of opinion existed at the Board … but that no effort of his had been wanting & that he considered himself particularly committed to me upon the subject; he would now venture to pledge himself that as much as 10 guineas per head should be paid to defray the expence of sending the men home.” Erving replied that “whilst the Lords were deliberating the men were perishing” and told Nepean he had arranged for transport himself but could not, in spite of its insufficiency, decline the ten guineas offered. On 23 Oct. he received enclosure no. 15 from the Admiralty with a list of fifty-six men to which three have since been added.13 The list of men shipped in the Mary14 does not agree completely with the Admiralty list, since men who could do so found their own passage during the long delay. Adds in a 5 Nov. postscript that he encloses letter no. 16 received on 1 Nov. from the Thames Police Office.15

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