OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

OCTOBER 23, 1952

Silas Talbot’s
West Indian Mission, 1796-1798


by Joseph D. Applewhite Ph.D.


Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library

Biography of the Author

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 bachelor’s degree from Baylor University in Nashville, Tennessee, and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He studied at St. Andrew’s 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 Department.

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 porters.

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 boatswain’s mate. Still reeling from the brutal treatment, many of the sailors were forced to work the rest of the day hauling up the ship’s 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 obtainable.

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…are inclined to think…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 Governor’s 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 Chesapeake Bay.

    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 Public’s 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 Majesty’s 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 Talbot’s 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 Talbot’s 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. Liston’s 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 agent’s 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 Majesty’s 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 King’s 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 Talbot’s 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 Craig’s "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 Majesty’s 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 Majesty’s 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 States.

    I question much whether what I thought proper to state on this occasion had the effect that could have been wished upon Colonel Pickering’s 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 Parker’s 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 Majesty’s 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 agent’s 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 the Constitution.

    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 Talbot’s 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. 

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