When listening to the Declaration of Independence tomorrow, it’s well to recall how much of today’s American politics – and fiscal frolics – have English precedents. Our break with Britain was none too clean. One of those precedents, the Raid on the Medway in June 1667, suggests the very high costs that can accompany wilful refusals to govern.
The renewal of the transportation bill languishes in Congress. Republicans won’t move the bill until they can find money to strip from other vital programs to pay for road and rail improvements almost everyone believes are necessary.
Held hostage are hundreds of thousands of jobs that could go by summer’s end. ‘It would be like Congress threatening to lay off the entire population of Denver, or Seattle or Boston’, said President Obama on July 1.
In a country as devoted to ‘business’ as ours, one would think all would understand you only make money by investing it – and yourself. You don’t make money by cutting. You can save by cutting, but depending on what you slice, the costs of savings may outweigh their benefits.
Congress’s job then isn’t ‘spending’; it’s investing.
Fiscal frolics over ‘spending’ only become evident in a crisis, such as the Raid on the Medway – the worst, the most ignominious defeat the British Navy has ever suffered. For Americans, substitute ‘Pearl Harbor’ for ‘the Medway’, and you’ve got the concept.
In this and future posts, I’ll look at the Raid and its aftermath through the eyes of Samuel Pepys and Andrew Marvell. (For a comprehensive overview, the Wikipedia entry is quite good.) There’s much to be learnt.
From at least the reign of James I (1603-25), the current foolhardiness in the UK and the US fits into a dismal cycle in Anglo-American history. A party blocks national investments in infrastructure or defense, etc. Necessity or disaster removes the obstacle. Memories fade or ideologies blind. And, the cycle begins again.
Born in 1633, Samuel Pepys, the son of a tailor with connections, had known nothing but this struggle during his life which at the time of the Raid spanned the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and the Restoration.
The diary Pepys kept from 1660 to 1669 is one of the most important historical documents in our tradition. Not only does it record in detail a life as lived, it describes at first hand a decade of immense importance in Anglo-American history.
Under Charles II, Pepys had risen to be the Clerk of the Acts for the Navy Board, the navy’s chief administrator. As such, he ran the Navy yards on the Thames and the Medway rivers. That included fitting out and provisioning ships and paying sailors.
At the time of the Medway raid in June 1667, the English had been at war with the Dutch (Second Anglo-Dutch War) for two years. Nonetheless, the Navy Board was starved for funds. They weren’t alone. On March 12, 1667, Pepys noted in his Diary:
This day a poor seaman, almost starved for want of food, lay in our yard a-dying. I sent him half-a-crown – and we ordered his ticket [the Navy’s IOU for his wages] to be paid.
Pepys records sailors harassing himself and members of the Navy board for payment of their tickets. He was frustrated and appalled.
When the poet, parliamentarian and diplomat Andrew Marvell died in 1681, he left a poem dated ‘4 September 1667, London’ entitled ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’. It describes the Medway disaster and – very vividly – those who caused it. Of the blocking party:
The seamen’s clamour to three ends they use:
To cheat their pay, feign want, the House accuse.
On June 4, Pepys noted in his Diary:
This noon Captain Perriman brings us word how the Happy Returns … ordered to take the Portugall Embassador to Holland (and the Embassador I think on board), refuse to go till paid; and by their example, two or three more ships are in a mutiny – which is a sad consideration while so many of the enemy’s ships are at this day triumphing….
In a few days, it would prove more than sad.
To understand the catastrophe about to unfold, you must go back in Pepys’s Diary to March 6, two days after the starving sailor appeared in the Navy Board courtyard.
On that day ‘the Duke of York [the Lord High Admiral] did acquaint us (and the King did the like also, afterward coming in) with his resolution of altering the manner of the war this year….’ The strategy dictated largely by lack of funds relied on squadrons of warships rather than a battle fleet. The capital ships would stay in port.
Meantime through all the yards their orders run
To lay the ships up, cease the keels begun.
The timber rots, and useless axe doth rust,
Th’ unpracticed saw lies buried in its dust,
The busy hammer sleeps, the ropes untwine,
The stores and wages all are mine and thine.
Along the coast and harbours they make care
That money lack, nor forts be in repair.
‘The stores and wages all are mine and thine’ – not ours – speaks as clearly to today as to 1667.
On June 8, Pepys learns ‘the Duch are come with a fleet of 80 sail to Harwich….’ On the 10th, the news became much worse. The Dutch had entered the Thames.
Pepys took to a boat toward the Thames boatyards at Deptford to ‘set men at work; but Lord, to see how backwardly things move…; notwithstanding that by the enemy’s being now come up as high as almost the Hope….’
Pepys sees the situation for what it is:
Yet partly ourselfs, being used to be idle and in despair, and partly people, that have been used to be deceived by us as to money, won’t believe us; and we know not, though we [finally] have it, how … to promise it; and our wants such, and men [avoiding work], that it is an admirable thing to consider how much the King suffers, and how necessary it is in a State to keep the King’s service always in a good posture and credit.
A story this week in The Fiscal Times (an important austerity-oriented platform) begins: ‘Top managers at federal agencies are bailing out of their senior-level jobs at an increasingly rapid rate, amid pay freezes and budget cuts – while the government struggles to recruit new workers to fill those presumably valued positions.’ Observation suggests the problem spans the breadth of the civil service.
Another lesson not learnt.
Pepys returned to London after midnight. On the 11th, he applied himself to appropriating ‘fireships’, boats that would be set alight and let drift to impede the Dutch progress up the Thames. He found people preparing to flee, and ‘the beating-up of drums this night for the train-bands’ [militia] to mobilise.
It began to occur to the government that the Dutch move on the Thames might be a feint, that their true target might be the dockyard at Chatham on the Medway.
On the 12th, Pepys and those around him began to panic. The Dutch had reached Chatham. Pepys now was in fear of the Dutch taking London, of disorders amongst the London mob, and not least of the King’s wrath at the debacle. He plotted with his wife and father on how to escape with some gold. ‘…[And] with that resolution went to bed – full of fear and fright; hardly slept all night’
The next day, the 13th, the scope of the disaster at Chatham became clear. The Dutch had taken the Navy’s flagship, the Royal Charles and burnt the capital ships Royal James, Oake and London – all penned in the narrow river as the government had decided in March.
In London, though no invasion force had landed, panic spread. A run on bankers ensued in which Pepys participated. He packed his father, wife and £1300 in gold – a very considerable sum – into a coach bound for the country. He made a new will.
I have also made a girdle, by which with some trouble I do carry about me 300[£] in gold … in case I should be surprized; for I think in any nation but ours, people that appear … so faulty as we would have our throats cut.
A fair assessment.
On the 14th, a messenger from Chatham reports to Pepys the ‘worst consequence is that he himself (I think he said) did hear many Englishmen on board the Dutch ships … cry and say, “We did heretofore fight for tickets; now we fight for Dollers!”’ To the same effect, Andrew Marvell:
Our seamen, whom no danger’s shape could fright,
Unpaid, refuse to mount our ships for spite,
Or to their fellows swim on board the Dutch,
Which show the tempting metal in their clutch.
Seamen presented themselves to Pepys at the Navy Office demanding their tickets be paid or they would not fight. ‘I was forced to try what I could do to get them paid.’ In the streets, ‘…the wifes have cried publicly, “This comes of your not paying our husbands….”’
So, too, in the shipyards.
But most strange, the backwardness and disorder of all people, especially the King’s people in pay, to do any work…, all crying for money. And it was so at Chatham, that this night comes an order … to stop the pay of the wages of that Yard … not above three of 1100 in pay there did attend to do any work there.
Thus closed the opening days of the Raid on the Medway.
Perhaps this couldn’t happen here and now. But are Americans willing to gamble on that – with civil servants furloughed without pay and their benefits cut, soldiers home from the wars with no services, and workers from construction to education unsure of their futures?
1. Robert Latham & William Matthews, eds, The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1667 vol. VIII  (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 109 (March 12, 1667). Note that all Pepys’ dates are old style (Julian), then 10 days earlier than the continental (Gregorian) style which was not adopted in the UK and its colonies until 1752.
2. I owe learning about Marvell to the wonderful footnotes Latham & Mathews added to their edition of Pepys. The title, ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’, refers to two poems praising English naval successes against the Dutch in 1665-66. It was these, not Marvell’s, that Pepys read on July 1, 1667, as Latham & Matthews note (p. 313n.2). (Marvell’s wasn’t published until after his death in 1681.) Marvell’s is certainly satiric which means it demands contemporary context for understanding. Had I not read Pepys fairly closely, I would have found baffling far more than I did of this exceptionally long – 7800 words – poem. An interesting slide presentation on the poem from the University of Warwick is helpful here. (Regrettably, it is not attributed.)
3. Pepys, op. cit., p. 251 (June 4, 1667).
4. Id., p. 97 (March 6, 1667).
5. Id., p. 254 (June 8, 1667).
6. Id., pp. 256-57 (June 10, 1667).
7. Id., p. 257.
8. Id., pp. 257-58 (June 11, 1667).
9. Id., pp. 260-62 (June 12, 1667).
10. Id., pp. 262-66 (June 13, 1667).
11. Id., p. 264.
12. Id., p. 267 (June 14, 1667).
14. Id., p. 268.
15. Id., p. 271.