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During the French Revolutionary War (1793-1801), tens of thousands of sailors ran away from the Royal Navy. Desertion on this scale challenges us to confront many scholarly assumptions about military service in this period, and about Britain in the late eighteenth century. Considerable scholarship has focused on the nationalizing power of military institutions, and a separate body of work has unpicked the ties of camaraderie and kinship that bound combatants together. The decision to run from naval service, however, saw men make a conscious decision to leave these communities behind and, sometimes, to reject their nation.

This paper, based on extensive research into naval courts martial records, sailors’ letters, and memoirs, seeks to explain the driving forces behind mass naval desertion. It will suggest that, for many, it was a form of resistance, prompted by political ideology or a response to bad ‘usage’ on board ship. It will also consider the economic forces that allowed sailors remarkable mobility and enabled them to sell their labour to the highest bidder. Lastly, it discusses how the ties of family and community forced sailors to risk brutal punishment to return to and provide for their loved ones. In this, it makes a wider argument that while desertion can tell us much about shipboard society, it also requires us to think more deeply about the powerful connections between ship and shore.

NB immediately before the seminar paper, between 17:00-17:30, we will celebrate the publication of Ruth Larsen, Alice Marples and Matthew McCormack (eds), Innovations in Teaching History: Eighteenth-Century Studies in Higher Education (University of London Press, 2024).

All welcome. This event is free to attend, but advance registration is required.

This will be a ‘hybrid’ seminar with a limited number of places available in person and a larger number of bookings for online attendance via Zoom. Those attending in person are asked to bring a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, tablet or phone.

The session will start at the slightly earlier time of 17:00.