James Cook, weather tanned, confident and taking a pride in his work, climbed the ladder until he was mate of Friendship. The inevitable next move was to attain his master’s certificate. However, at the age of 26 in June 1755 he decided to volunteer for the Royal Navy. Poised as he was on the brink of promotion which would eventually mean gaining his own command, the choice of enlisting seems a surprising one. Although the sight of one of His Majesty’s ships-of-the-line fully rigged and manned could be engaging, the appearance of well turned out efficiency was bought at a high cost to her men. The first regulation uniforms for officers had been introduced by Lord Anson only a few years previously in 1748, and officers may have been gentlemen, commissioned and in the service by choice, but the men below decks certainly were not. Mostly, they had been rounded up by the press gangs, dragged from taverns and the streets or taken by force from fishing boats or captured vessels.
Once ‘pressed’, they were fed almost inedible rations, usually salt beef or pork and rock hard ship’s biscuit, and existed in extremely cramped and unhygienic conditions. Life was harshly disciplined. Any misdemeanour, however slight, would incur ‘starting’ (being hit across the back or shoulders with a short knotted rope). More serious offences were called to account at the grating or gangway. The offender was triced up in front of the whole ship’s company while retribution was exacted by the lash of a cat-o-nine-tails on a bare back. It is no exaggeration to say that once aboard, pressed men were rarely allowed ashore again for fear they would immediately desert. When in harbour, entertainment was brought instead to the ship.
The marines stationed in each man-o-war were not there primarily to fight the enemy, but to assist the officers in keeping the crew in order. When ships were cleared for action, marines were posted in gangways and by companion ladders to prevent seamen rushing topside or down to the bowels of the ship to escape danger, and were under orders to use musket fire if necessary. The only times pressed men left a navy ship was when it sank or was paid off, or the last of alternatives - when they died or were killed in action. Entered on the rolls as D.D.