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Keep your elbows off of the table

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 01, 2009 at 14:22

In Reply to: Keep your elbows off of the table posted by Victoria S Dennis on March 31, 2009 at 21:58:

: : : : : : : : The origin of the saying,"Keep your elbows off of the table". Originally, I just thought this was proper etiquette. Actually, I found out by my father (a history genius), this actually derived from the colonies during the 17th and 18th century. A group of British sailors called "Impressment gangs" would come into taverns, etc. looking for men who had their elbows on the table either eating or drinking. Having one's elbows on the table would mean they were in previous service as a sailor or merchant marine. (Having ones elbows on the table whilst holding a cup or plate, would prevent it from spilling). These "Impressment Gangs" were impressed by the way these men would be eating, and abduct them to serve on British ships. This was completely legal at the time, and this practice occurred in the colonies, Canada, and even Britain.

: : : : : : : I'm afraid your father is no history genius: keeping elbows off tables is indeed just a matter of etiquette, and his tale is pure invention.
: : : : : : : 1. The Royal Navy had "press gangs", organised by the Impress (not "Impressment") Service, authorised to seek out seamen and compel them to serve in the Navy. (This was a rough-and-ready form of conscription; all sailors who were subjects of the British Crown were in theory liable to serve in the Navy when wanted, and as true-born Britons felt it would be despotic and tyrannical to keep a register of seamen so that they could be called up in an orderly way, there was no alternative to simply grabbing them off thew street or from the tavern. Records of the Impress service mention a number of ways in which sailors could be identified: their clothes and hairstyles (sailors' trousers and pigtails were distinctive), tattoos (a purely maritime custom) and language (the jargon of the sea). No recorded case nor any memoirist of the time mentions anything about elbows on tables. This is a fantasy. (VSD)

: : : : : : The press gangs did not confine their attention to subjects of the Crown. American seamen were NOT subjects of the Crown. However, their "impressment" by British gangs has always been listed as one of the grievances that dragged the U.S. into the War of 1812.

: : : : : : Let's not forget the burning of Washington, including the White House, in August of 1814. I can forgive the fire, but it led to something less forgivable, our national anthem, surely the worst piece of public music ever perpetrated, except possibly "Hail to the Chief." (Actually, I'm not crazy about "God Save the King," either, no matter what words are set to it.)
: : : : : : SS

: : : : : The trouble was that it was very hard to tell who was a subject of the Crown and who wasn't, in an era before passports and ID papers. Many 24-carat British seamen (including deserters from the Royal Navy) were serving in American vessels - and when questioned by Navy officers would naturally claim to be Americans. And many genuine American seamen would have been born subjects of the British Crown. (VSD)

: : : : Yeah, those were the excuses the British made at the time. Truth is, the goon squads (press gangs) grabbed any sailor drunk enough to be easily subdued, or just plain drunk enough, and when he woke up he was on a British ship. Like other recruiting officers these guys had quotas to make. So if they had to shanghai a bunch of Americans, that's what they did. (Don't ask me for documentation, I'm just an American jingoist.)
: : : : SS

: : : It was relatively rare for American seamen to be pressed on land; it was more often a case of them being pressed off vessels acccosted on the high seas. And the trouble was mainly caused by two serious differences of legal opinion between the two governments, viz:
: : : - Britain held that a merchant ship was not part of a nation's sovereign territory, and therefore that it was not a violation of another nation's sovereignty to board its merchant ships, examine them and, if British seam en were found thereon, to remove them. Conversely, the Americans held t hat it was; thus the mere stopping of those vessels was an offence to the American government, whether any impressment took place or not.
: : : - Great Britain held the doctrine of "Indelible Allegiance", whereby the native-born subject of a state cannot, without consent of that state, relinquish his allegiance and obligations to that state and adopt another nationality. The USA, however, held the doctrine of "Voluntary Expatriation", whereby a person could change his nationality entirely and permanently, relinquishing all obligation to his previous country. (From 1802 the qualifying period of residence in the USA was laid down as 5 years.) Thus, there were a great many seamen in American ships on whose nationality the two governments were never going to agree.
: : : - There were a very large number of genuine British seamen serving quite legally
: : : on American ships. (The Admiralty, in an estimate made 57 years later, long after the acrimony had died down, reckoned as many as 20,000.) This was partly because wages in the American merchant service were anything up to twice as high as on British merchant ships; partly because many British seamen wanted to avoid being pressed into the Royal Navy, which on British merchant ships they were much more likely to be; and partly because it was the obvious place for Royal Navy deserters to go.
: : : - Matters were complicated by the USA's refusal to issue official certificates of nationality to naturalised persons (then again, if they had, every American over 30 years old in 1812 would have needed one!). Thus, American-born sailors, or genuinely naturalised British-born ones, could not produce evidence of their status. Some carried sworn affidavits or certificates issued by American consuls, but these had no legal status and easily could be (and often were) forged, so British captains were apt to ignore them.
: : : - I don't deny for a moment that when the need for men was pressing Royal Navy captains and press gangs often took men they shouldn't have. But the different legal attitudes between the two governments were so great that there was always going to be a dispute even if every single British captain had been scrupulously correct. (VSD)

: : I feel I have to aim a few more kicks at this dead horse. Yes, I overemphasized the behavior of press gangs on shore. I found that more interesting than the other, since it reminds me so much of modern date-rape, as when a girl decides to go out for a drinky-poo with friends or with a date, and forgets to watch her drink. So many people seem to be in possession of "roofies" or the like that presto-whammo, she may wind up in a strange bed without any idea how she got there.

: : On the other hand, the organized piracy of the British Navy, in which they stop and board Americnn vessels and abduct men more or less at will, is a bit boring, even if the British officers are in their colorful regalia pretending that this is a legal search and seizure. It's not for nothing that our Constitution bans warrantless search and seizure. Our founders were all too aware of British attitudes about this. As regards the impressment of sailors, the ruling axiom is: The Royal Navy owns all the oceans. Screw you, all you disloyal colonists.

: : As for the cobbled up justification of these attacks on American sovereignty, we Americans are all too familiar with the ability of governments to concoct pretexts for any and all violations of both law and common sense. Our own government, prior to the last election, tortured the English language to pretend that water-boarding was not actual torture. Even as we speak, the Canadian government is issuing mendacious justifications for the clubbing to death of harp seal pups along the Atlantic Coast. Their reasoning? Canadian fishermen have competition from seals in their effort to kill off the entire fish population of the Atlantic Ocean, so let's kill off the seals. Evidently Canadians have never heard of the "balance of nature." It doesn't really matter, though. Govern ment ministers are expected to lie through their teeth, if given half a chance.
: : SS

: Apologies, Smokey. If I had realised this was such a sore point with you, I would not have attempted to discuss it. (VSD)

No need to apologize at all. I admire your summary of the British rationale regarding impressment. If I get sore at anything, it is something happening in the present. I find it irritating when governments do evil and are able to justify it to a credulous populace by a series of transparent lies. It doesn't matter whether it is the British government, the American, or what have you. The Japanese and Norwegian governments, for instance, both signed the whale moratorium but violate it blatantly, feeding the conservationists and their own people a lot of bull roar. The Icelanders, such nice people, are not loath to lie about over-fishing and anything else in their interest. And so it goes.

As for the past, I assume that government officials have always considered it their duty to lie. If I lay more blame on the British, it is only because they have had a long history and a whole empire in which to do evil and lie about it. We Americans are pikers by comparison, although we're struggling to catch up.

And I would be sore indeed, Victoria, if you muzzled yourself to avoid offending me. Your knowledge and point of view are important to me, and I never take disagreements personally.