HMS Basilisk (1848) on left – Moresby’s vessel used in exploration of the New Guinea coast
Moresby’s description of professionalism in the navy he entered in the late 1840s is somewhat of a shock to the modern reader, as indicated in the following extract:
“The officers, with few exceptions, were content to be practical seamen only. They had nothing whatever to do with the navigation of the ship or the rating of the chronometers. That was entirely in the hands of the master, and no other had any real experience or responsibility in the matter. I may instance the case of a captain whose ship was at Spithead. He was ordered by signal to go to the assistance of a ship on shore at the back of the Isle of Wight. In reply he hoisted the signal of ‘Inability: the master is on shore.‘ ‘Are the other officers on board?’ he was asked. He answered ‘Yes,’ and to the repeated order, ‘Proceed immediately,’ he again hoisted ‘Inability‘, and remained entrenched in his determination until a pilot was sent to his assistance.”
Given the standards of professionalism which were to be enforced from the mid-19thCentury onwards it is hard to imagine any captain thereafter hesitating to get under way on receipt of an order to go to the assistance of a ship in distress, whether the navigating officer was on board or not. In the 1840s however, and on account of the long period of virtual peace for Britain which had followed after Waterloo, neither the navy nor the army were in the state of high efficiency of the Napoleonic War years. On both services the Crimean War in 1854-56 was to reveal shortcomings and inefficiencies that were to cost Britain – and her fighting men – very dear indeed.
Referring to the Crimean War Moresby wrote:
“Public opinion resented the revival of the press-gang; therefore the only alternative was the offer of a large bounty, and by this means the ships were filled with counter-jumpers and riff-raff of all sorts, and rarely a sailor amongst them. What this meant only those who had to do the necessary slave-driving can tell. . . . In the (HMS) Driver . . . we may have had twenty seamen as a nucleus. The rest were long-shore fellows, and when Admiral Berkley came on board and told us that the Russians were at sea, and probably in a few days we should be in action, there was a strong dash of anxiety in our satisfaction.”