Saturday, January 12, 2019

Matthew S. Seligmann's "Rum, Sodomy, Prayers and the Lash Revisited"

Matthew S. Seligmann was born in London. He was educated at the universities of Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, and Sussex and has held posts at the University of Northampton and Brunel University London, where he is currently professor of naval history. An expert on the Anglo-German naval race and Anglo-German relations before and during the First World War, he has written numerous books and articles on this subject, as well as making radio and television appearances.

Seligmann applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915, and reported the following:
First as President of the Board of Trade (1908-1910) and then as Home Secretary (1910-1911) Winston Churchill was a radical liberal reformer advancing a strongly progressive social agenda. However, according to most historians, when he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1911 he abandoned his former reformist credentials in order to concentrate exclusively on the more martial task of preparing the Royal Navy for war. This book argues otherwise. Using as its springboard the apocryphal quotation, often attributed to Churchill, that naval tradition was nothing but ‘rum, sodomy, prayers and the lash’, it demonstrates that in the run up to the First World War and most especially in the period when Churchill was in charge, a major series of reforms were introduced designed to improve the life of British sailors. These included efforts to reduce over-drinking, regulate sexuality, introduce more and better access to spiritual services, and lessen the role of corporal punishment. In short, whether by accident or design, these were reforms focusing on ‘rum, sodomy, prayers and the lash’.

Page 99 of the book is part way into chapter four, the section of the book that addresses the question of ‘prayer’. This particular page focuses on one of the earliest attempts to improve the quality of religious provision in the Royal Navy by changing the terms of service of the Navy’s Anglican chaplains. In place of older chaplains who served for life, the object was to lure into the Navy younger more energetic and more vibrant clergy who would serve aboard ship for three to five years only. From there the chapter goes on to examine reforms designed to provide for the spiritual needs of the Navy’s non-conformist and catholic sailors, a task made difficult by the fact that at that time the law required all naval chaplains to be Anglican. Considerable efforts were made to widen the scope of spiritual provision within the confines of a constitutional system that privileged the state church.

Alcohol, sexuality, religion and punishment all shaped the life and experiences of British sailors at the start of the twentieth century. The British state was eager to improve their lives and better their conditions. As this book shows, none of its leaders was more committed to this than Churchill.
Learn more about Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue