OCTOBER 23, 1952
West Indian Mission, 1796-1798
by Joseph D. Applewhite Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley
Biography of the
Joseph Davis Applewhite Ph.D. is a professor of American
history and government at the University of Redlands.
Born April 11, 1918, in Englewood, New Jersey, he received his
bachelors degree from Baylor University in Nashville,
Tennessee, and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Nashville,
Tennessee. He studied at St. Andrews University in
Scotland. He taught on the Vanderbilt faculty before coming to
the University of Redlands in 1949. His wife, Rhea Dana
Applewhite is a faculty member of the University of Redlands Art
Silas Talbot's West Indian Mission, 1796-1798
The harbor of Kingston, Jamaica, was full of ships busily
loading or unloading their cargoes in the heat of the June sun.
The New England vessel, Pomona. was engaged in discharging the
contents of her hold with seamen scurrying up and down the
gangplank, turning winches, and bossing the gangs of Negro
Suddenly around a turn in the cobbled street came a group of
armed sailors, headed by a petty officer. The group stopped at
the foot of the gangplank, seized a young towheaded American, and
with buffets and a blow or two from the flat side of a cutlass,
forced him to join the disheveled group of seamen in the center
of the mob. He was then crowded in a small boat and rowed to the
side of the frigate Brunswick, riding proudly in the harbor. The
sailors were shoved up to the quarterdeck, protesting loudly that
they were Americans, were abused by the first mate, and then
ordered flogged by the boatswains mate. Still reeling from
the brutal treatment, many of the sailors were forced to work the
rest of the day hauling up the ships boats, while several
American captains, waving certificates of citizenship for their
men, tried vainly to come aboard the Brunswick.
Even through the legal language which recounts the impressment
of Richard Carter as reported to the Secretary of State can be
felt the indignation of the civil authorities at this high minded
action. The use of press-gangs to force. unwilling British seamen
Into the Navy had long been necessary, for conditions in that
service had the reputation for brutality among civilized nations.
As long as the practice was restricted to subjects of His
majesty. there was little protest save from humanitarians. The
question of who might be a citizen was raised for the navy
Increased in size as the war with France required ever more
seamen, and the press-gangs became less critical of the origin of
likely looking sailors. Any healthy young
Man was an obvious candidate for a berth on a British warship.
The more careful American seamen carried with them a statement of
citizenship, generally referred to as a "protection"
though this was not always sufficient. The unfortunate Richard
Carter already alluded to was furnished with a statement from the
Collector of Customs of Portsmouth, New Hampshire that he had
proof that "Carter, an American seaman, aged twenty-three or
thereabouts, of height five feet ten inches, light complexion,
light brown hair, light colored or blue eyes. was born in Kittery
in the State of Massachusetts." And this sort of
"protection" was considered the most valid then
A part of the difficulty lay in the distinction made by the
British government as to who was an American citizen. The
Admiralty would concede this only to those living In the colonies
before the end of the Revolutionary War, or to those born there.
The idea of citizenship by right of naturalization was not
acceptable. This idea was phrased by the moderate and usually
amiable British Minister to the United States, Robert Liston, in
a letter to Lord Grenville in 1797:
Indeed so long as America remains in
her present half-peopled and half-cultivated condition,
her natural policy must be to encourage the immigration
of inhabitants from other quarters of the world; and
although the law of nations gives no countenance to the
idea that absence from home, or residence in any foreign
country, can dissolve the ties of natural allegiance
although the well-informed and dispassionate men in this
country are not disposed to maintain that the United
States can secure to strangers the privilege of adopted
citizens beyond the limit of the jurisdiction of the
Federal Government yet the general opinion is
different; and even the more moderate
that it would be reasonable, that a certain
length of residence, and a certain degree of domestic
connection with this country
Should be considered
as conferring the rights of citizenship and operating an
exemption from forcible enrollment into the service of
the Mother country.
John Quincy Adams expressed perhaps a more American sentiment
in a letter to the American minister to London, Rufus King.
The principal difficulties, I think,
arise from a fundamental variance upon principles of
national law. The maritime Law of nations recognized in
Great Britain, is all comprised in on line of a popular
song "Rule Britannia! Britannia Rules the
Waves!" ? I never could find that their Admiralty
courts were governed by any other code.
An additional factor which continued to irritate the
notoriously short tempers of British captains, and one which
inclined them to less careful attention to claims of American
citizenship, was the frequency with which their own seamen
deserted to the United States.
Our seamen, on landing, take refuge in
the woods, or in the houses of lower classes of people.
The magistrates decline to interfere. The British
Commander sends a party to attempt to seize his men and
drag them on board. The mob, of whom he majority are
still attached to the French interest, and at all events
hostile to this species of compulsion, protect and rescue
the sailors, and perhaps insult the officers that head
the party. The British Captain perhaps threatens (as
actually happened in some instances) to make reprisals by
impressing American Seamen wherever he finds them. The
ultimate consequences of violent measures of this nature
cannot be foreseen.
An example of this nature was written in full to the British
Foreign office by Mr. Liston in discussing the case of the Sloop
of War, Hunter, which was forced to put into New York for
repairs. During that time one of the crewmen, claiming to be an
American, brought suit against the captain for false
imprisonment. While court action was pending, the ice in the
river broke and Captain Tucker prepared to move his ship to avoid
danger. Fearing that this was an attempt to escape, the civil
authorities arrested the captain, and arranged with the garrison
at Governors Island to fire if the Hunter tried to leave.
The unlucky captain was not only forced to leave his commission
as security for bail, but was wrecked as he tried to enter
Public indignation in the United States, however, had mounted
to such an extent in 1796 that the Congress began to consider
some effective means of dealing with it. A committee headed by
Edward Livingston brought out a report with two recommendations
late in February of that year, and by May, 1796, both sections
were enacted. The proposal provided for two or more agents to be
appointed by the President, with the consent of the Senate, one
to be sent to England and the other to the West Indies. The
duties of these men was simply to inquire into cases of Americans
alleged to have been impressed, to try and free them, and, in any
case, to render an account to the President of all citizens
believed to be impressed. The second part of the bill provided
that the Collectors of Customs in various American ports, upon
due evidence of "birth, naturalization, or residence within
the United States, and under their protection, on the third day
of September, 1783," to issue certificates of citizenship.
Certainly this last provision should meet with approval from
the British Admiralty since it both offered a standard method of
proving citizenship, and limited definition of citizenship much
as the British claimed It placed, however, some burden on the
individual seamen to bring proof to the Collector, and this might
be difficult if he were sailing from a port distant from his
home. "Therefore he ventures again and again with his old
Notary Publics protection, or no protection at all, until
at last he is impressed."
The first of the provisions was of more consequence to the
British government. Liston, the representative of his country,
demurred at the idea in July, 1796. Yet he was persuaded by the
strong feeling of Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering, and by
the public outcry against impressment. This was especially
aroused when the news of the particularly callous treatment of
Captain Jessup of the Mercury by Captain Pigot of the frigate,
Success, was published widely in the newspapers. Liston wrote the
Foreign Office as follows:
In the present state of the public
mind on this continent, I do not think it advisable to
decline complying with the request of the American
Secretary of State to give letters of recommendation to
the Agent who is to be sent to the West Indies with a
view to endeavor to obtain relief for those Citizens of
the United States who may be unlawfully detained on board
our Ships of War. I was apprehensive that my refusal
might have been interpreted as a proof that our
Government was inclined to countenance the abuses
complained of, and by precluding the means of inquiry, to
cut off hope of reason; and as the Agent in Question, Mr.
Talbot, has been represented to me as a man of prudence
and moderation, I am not without hopes that the mission
may be productive of good. If he is candid, he will make
the necessary allowances for the peculiar situation of
His Majestys Naval Officers in the West Indies: ?
he will be sensible that the numerous frauds committed by
British Seamen who have abandoned their colors, must go
far to justify extreme caution of our commanders in
admitting the pretended proofs of American Citizenship.
Early in June of 1796, some two months before the report of
Liston above quoted, Secretary Pickering had written a letter of
instruction to the agent selected for the West Indian mission,
Silas Talbot. The exact basis for the choice of this man is not
known., A Revolutionary War hero of considerable dash and color,
Talbot had been both an officer in ;the Army and a captain in the
navy. While serving with the Rhode Island forces, in 1778 he led
a daring attack on a British armed vessel, Pigot 8, which was
anchored to command upper Narragansett Bay. This feat led to his
promotion to Lt. Colonel in the army and the promise of a
transfer to the navy and a ship "on first occasion." As
no ship was found, Colonel, now Captain Talbot, commanded a
series of privateers, only to be captured by the British, held
prisoner in New York and later in England. After several prison
escapes were foiled, he was finally returned to the United States
and became a gentleman farmer in the Mohawk Valley of New York.
From this retreat this man of "prudence and moderation"
emerged in 1794 with Commodore Truxton over precedence in the
newly outfitted navy.
The wisdom of sending a man who had some natural grudge
against the British was balanced by Talbots known
abilities, and his basic understanding of naval affairs.
Secretary Pickering thought it necessary to write at some
detail about the attitude of the American Agent.
It will be proper to tender your
respects to the commanding officer on each station, and
in each port, to make known the authority under which you
act, and to endeavor to form a just and friendly
arrangement for the liberation of our seamen. While great
firmness will be necessary in pursuing the proper measure
for relieving our seamen, much prudence and mildness in
the manner will be indispensable. Resentment,
unnecessarily excited, may refuse what cool judgement
would yield to a becoming solicitation.
Perhaps as valuable as this advice were seven letters from
Robert Liston to "British Governors and Commanders in the
West Indies," to explain that this mission was given at
least quasi-recognition by the British government.
It soon became apparent that the British Foreign Office had
less faith in an American mission to the West Indies than had Mr.
Liston. Late in August, 1796, the British Minister called on the
Secretary of State and explained that Lord Grenville objected to
the residence of any American agent, and would Mr. Pickering
please write Mr. Talbot to return to the United States. He
expressed his own opinion quite fully and admitted that while he
might have exceeded his instruction s in writing letters to the
various commanders in the West Indies, he felt that the object of
the mission was a just one, "and he would trust to the
rectitude of his views for his justification."
Since the Agent had already begun his journey, Secretary
Pickering did not recall him, but rather, in the fashion of
diplomats in general, played on the wording of the note from the
British Foreign Office. As the British had objected to the
"residence " of an agent, he was certain that the
nature of Talbots business would preclude his being any
place long enough to establish a "residence," though he
did regret the changed attitude of the British government.
Thus armed with the letters of explanation to various British
Commanders, Silas Talbot reached Barbados in early September,
1796, but found nothing there to claim his attention and moved to
Martinique. His subsequent career of success and failure for two
years can be read in his own words in excerpts from his letters
to Secretary Pickering with an occasional side light from Mr.
Listons reports of the same activities.
It is unfortunate that there is not available one further
source of information about these activities of Talbot, the
reports of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, commanding officer of the
whole West India fleet, from 1796 to 1800. Apparently an able, if
somewhat rigid specimen, of British Admiralty, he "most
materially annoyed the trade of the enemy by judicious
arrangement of his cruisers." Perhaps because of rank in the
service, Parker was later commander in chief of the British
attack on Copenhagen with Nelson as his second in command.
About the end of September, 1796, Silas Talbot had his first
direct contact with Admiral Sir Hyde Parker at his home base of
Fort Royal, Jamaica. After explaining his mission he found the
Admiral "altogether unaccommodating" and disinclined to
release any seaman without unequivocal proof of citizenship.
Apparently this was the best terms on which Talbot was ever to
find Sir Hyde, and from this point on, the Admiral became the
force to be flanked if any sailors were to be released.
Admiral Harvey, also stationed in Jamaica, was a much more
reasonable man from the agents point of view. He permitted
Talbot to board all of the ships under his command which were
then in port to ascertain whether any American citizens were
among the crews. Further, he sent an order requesting all
captains to check their crew members and free any proven
Americans. A month later the effect of this order was felt not
only in Jamaica but in Antigua where Captain Metford, commanding
four ships, showed Talbot an order from Admiral Harvey to
discharge every American. "He gave me his word that there
was not one American left on board his ship, and said that he had
no reason to think but that the order had been strictly complied
with on board the other ships."
In December, Talbot was again in Jamaica where he interviewed
and was politely received by Admiral Bligh. He even sent the
captain of his flag ship with Talbot to visit the rest of his
squadron then in anchor at Fort Royal. From the Resource, Mr.
Talbot obtained the release of two Americans. He then went on
board a tender which had reportedly impressed three men from an
American brig just a few days previously. When the captain
refused to give the men up, they were taken to the Admiral who
investigated their claims. One man was an American, the second a
Swede, and the third an Italian. Since the American was armed
with a faulty certificate of citizenship, the Admiral let him go
with reluctance, the Swede was freed immediately, and the
Italian, obviously not a British subject, was given his choice of
staying or going back to the American brig, and he remained with
the British. When other of the captains refused to allow Talbot
on board, the Admiral ordered questioning, freed all who had any
sort of claim to citizenship.
This sort of action was not followed by any softening on the
part of Admiral Parker to whom Talbot wrote a month later.
Although he furnished a list of sailors believed to be American,
and added as much proof as he could obtain from the Secretary of
State, Talbot heard nothing for more than a month from the testy
Admiral. The answer, when it finally arrived, in January, 1797,
ended "in no one instance, have proofs been produced,
relative to the names of those you have been pleased to style
citizens of America, sufficient to authorize me to discharge the
individuals from His Majestys Service."
It did seem, however, that the impressing of sailors was
slowing down. Writing from Santo Domingo in March, 1797, Talbot
reported that he had heard of only one real American being
impressed, and that he had not had a protection.
The thought of all of the American sailors who were still on
board British vessels daily sailing the Caribbean must have
annoyed the American agent greatly, and he formulated a plan
which seemed worth trying. Hastily leaving Santo Domingo for
Jamaica, the technical base of operations for the Fleet, and
depending on the cooperation of the civil government, doubtless
somewhat tried by many petty conflicts with the navy, Talbot
applied for writs of habeas corpus for five Americans on board
the Hermione, and Captain Pigot reluctantly produced the men for
the court. Upon their being freed, the victims told Colonel
Talbot of four more Americans on the Hermione, and writs were
issued for them as well. Similar action resulted in the freeing
of men from the Renommé and the La Tourterelle, even though the
Kings Solicitor opposed the action. "Having now
obtained discharge for nine that were on board the Hermione, the
other Captains began to be somewhat alarmed, as I supposed, and
they gave out that I need not take out writs against them, for
they would discharge all the Americans upon my application, and
giving proof of their citizenship," wrote Talbot joyfully.
Of course there were a few captains who objected to the
presence of a foreign civilian snooping on board their ships.
Commodore Bowen, whose flagship, the Canada, Talbot had attempted
to board in the absence of the captain and had been turned away,
was extremely cordial on his return. He not only agreed to
release six men after examining them, but so pressed Talbot that
he accepted a dinner aboard the Canada, April 12th, to
celebrate a victory of Admiral Rodney over the French fleet.
Perhaps the moderation which Pickering had urged in letter of
appointment was beginning to work.
This period, April and May, 1797, marked the high point of
Talbots effective work in the West Indies. He had great
success in freeing by writ, or threat of same, more than
forty-seven men in the fleet in Jamaica. An in Martinique, Henry
Craig, an American merchant, had agreed to serve without pay
"to alleviate the distress of unfortunate countrymen."
Due to the presence of the more pliable Admiral Harvey and
also Craigs "general acquaintance with the officers of
that department," there were freed more than a hundred
impressed men by September, 1797.
Silas Talbot, still finding the use of writs a very effective
way of obtaining what sweet reasonableness would not, reported in
May that he had been able to discharge eight more seamen the
previous week. There were, however, some complications to his
mission, among them "the unspeakable difficulty I have
almost daily to encounter with His Majestys naval officers
(many of whom are not the most pleasant nor the most reasonable
beings)." The chief problem seemed to be the constant
intercession of many American seamen on Jamaica for some sort of
certificate from Talbot to protect them against impressment.
"It seems as if nearly one half of our seamen come out from
America without protections. When they arrive in these seas, then
their fears come on them; and those that escape being impressed
before they land, will not fail to apply to me for protection the
moment their foot is on the shore." If they had insufficient
proof, and were refused, they continued to come at all hours of
the day and night until "I am almost sickened with their
importunity." He did, however, enjoy the feeling of
accomplishment which attended his work.
This happy state was not long to continue, for like a black
cloud looming on the horizon came the wrath of Admiral Sir Hyde
Parker. Full of anger at this apparent successful ruse used by
the American agent to interpose the power of the civil courts in
the administration of Naval affairs, the Admiral wrote a stiff
order to all of the captains under his command to absolutely
disregard all writs of habeas corpus until such writs had been
forwarded to the Admiral himself, and to wait his order for
release of any seamen. In a letter dated July 4, 1797, Talbot
sadly commented that his order had put a total stop to his new
method of freeing the seamen, and enclosed a copy of the said
message for the benefit of the Secretary of State. Talbot had
even gained from the Chief Justice of the island a series of
Writs of Attachment against certain ships but the local Marshall
had attempted to serve them with no success.
And to further annoy the agent, rumor had floated over from
the frigate Ceres, that Captain Otway had ordered all of the men
who claimed to be Americans hauled up in the gangway and flogged
for having tried to "desert."
It was this last incident which so inflamed the Secretary of
State that this was "past enduring." Mr. Liston tried
to put as good a front on the whole matter as possible as he
later reported to Lord Grenville.
In talking over the matter with the
Secretary of State, I principally endeavored to show that
Mr. Talbot was not justified in concluding from the
circumstances which had taken place that no American
Citizen would be released while Sir Hyde Parker retained
the command of His Majestys Ships on the West India
Station. The Admiral, I urged, might look with jealousy
on the residence of a Foreign Agent in the British West
Indies: He might be disinclined to admit claims in behalf
of American Seamen in the sense and to the extent that
Colonel Talbot had attempted to enforce them. He might
think it his duty to oppose the interposition of any
legal process in favour of impressed men: and yet be
willing to release all genuine American, on application
being made through what he might consider as the proper
channels. The corporal punishment said to have been
inflicted on Seamen for writing letters to Mr. Talbot,
must, I suggested ? have been inflicted on British
Seamen, who had attempted fraudulently to pass for
Americans, and not upon real Citizens of the United
I question much
whether what I thought proper to state on this occasion
had the effect that could have been wished upon Colonel
Pickerings mind: The ill treatment of American
Seamen is the only subject upon which I have ever been
able to bring him to speak with moderation: There is
little doubt that he will be under the necessity of
laying a report on the mission of Mr. Talbot before the
Congress (where the popular party have already attempted
to make an unfavorable use of Admiral Parkers
conduct toward that Agent.
In reviewing the whole affair from the point of view of the
British, Liston added that upon finding Admiral Sir Hyde
non-cooperative to the wholesale freeing of all who claimed to be
American citizens in the British fleet, Colonel Talbot
"expressed his sentiments respecting this conduct in strong
and what may be termed menacing language, and was coldly answered
by Sir Hyde Parker that he would transmit an account of what had
passed to His Majestys Ministers, to whom alone he held
himself accountable." After that interchange all
communications between the two gentlemen ceased.
And about the use of writs of habeas corpus, the British
Minister continued: "This measure was attended with a degree
of success which I cannot think be otherwise explained than by
supposing that the Courts of Law were surprised into an admission
of the vague definition and loose proof of American Citizenship
adopted by Mr. Talbot." The use of the writs served to
discharge at least sixty sailors in Jamaica, and "there is a
good reason to assert that there were not so many real American
citizens on board the whole British Squadron in those Seas."
As late as 1900, a British historian commented on this episode
that Talbot "expected too much, and gave a far wider scope
to the object of his mission than the Admiral held to be just and
reasonable." Apparently the British were still under the
influence of the theme that Britannia should rule the waves.
Although the really valid work of his mission was thus ended
less than a year after his arrival, Talbot remained in the West
Indies until the summer of 1798. He continued to write Pickering
of a few men whom he was able to release from the press-gangs
from time to time, largely with the help of William Savage, a
merchant and magistrate of Kingston, Jamaica. Later, he noted in
December, 1797, and the early months of 1798, that the complaints
of impressing Americans from American vessels had been generally
lessened. The number of seamen who "were daily
detained" on British ships was about the same as before the
agents work began. The conditions, however, were changed
due to the quasi-war with France. A large number of French
vessels both privateers and ships of war, were taken by the
British, and on these were often American seamen who had been
themselves captured by the French. "These unfortunate men,
having been carefully examined and plundered by the French crews
of all kinds of papers, and most commonly of nearly all their
wearing apparel, and sometimes to the bare buff, are of course
deprived of what is so valuable to them ? their
protections." Thus they had no way of proving to the British
that they were Americans, although some captains, "more
liberal and more just than others, will put them on shore to
shift for themselves." Where they, no doubt, wandered to the
door of Silas Talbot in a condition "miserably poor, both in
purse and appearance."
The same threat of war with France in 1798 which caused such
wretchedness among the American seamen, led to the expansion of
the American navy. With the commissioning of new frigates there
was finally a ship for Captain Talbot, and, after a good deal of
wordy fighting between the six men who had been raised to the
rank of captain in the paper navy of 1794, Silas Talbot was given
For two years, Captain Talbot cruised in the same West India
waters where he had labored for the preceding years as Agent. He
was praised in 1800, previous to his retirement, for both
protecting American commerce in that area and "Laying the
foundation of a permanent trade with Santo Domingo and in causing
the American character to be respected."
While that statement would certainly be a fitting close to
this detailed study of a brief experience in early American
diplomacy, it is perhaps more in the character of the man to
leave him with a more personal victory. While he was cruising off
Cap Francois, Santo Domingo, Commodore Talbot and a friendly
British captain arranged to race their respective frigates. From
sunrise to sunset the two vessels used every seamanly maneuver to
gain the advantage, with Talbots second in command, Isaac
Hull, moving the sailors from side to side on the deck to catch
every breath of wind. As the sun went down behind the cape, the
British captain was hull down to windward, and he gallantly rowed
over for dinner bringing with him the prize, a cask of Madeira.
Footnotes omitted online. See the original paper in the AK
Smiley Public Library, Redlands, California.