7th January 2023, The Stories of two Youths 4,000 Years Apart – Leslie Wheeler

The Stories of Two Youths 4,000 Years Apart

Today I want to discuss with you the life experiences of two youths, one a 17 year old Joseph who 4,000 years ago finds himself a slave in Egypt, the other being my own experience on joining the Royal Navy in 1955 at the age of 15. All of us will be familiar with the story of Joseph and how he was forcibly taken from his home and the love of his parents to be sold into slavery in Egypt. Whilst it would be impossible to replicate the experiences of Joseph I would like to offer some similarities and comparisons using the experiences I encountered 67 years ago when I first entered the Royal Navy.

First a little bit of background: for centuries my home county of Cornwall has suffered poverty and deprivation when compared to the remainder of the UK, most young people would need to move away from their home to find employment elsewhere, my situation was no different. At the age of 15 and about to leave school my employment prospects were sparse.

A day release from school to visit a China clay pit (now the site of the Eden Project) didn’t exactly fill me with any enthusiasm. I witnessed men wearing oilskins and wellington boots standing for hours manning water hoses to wash the China clay from the pit face. It was like some lunar landscape….everything including the workers was covered in a white silt, everything was soaking wet and water was everywhere. I decided this was definitely not a career for me!

On returning home that day to inform my guardian grandparents of my decision, my grandfather who had served in the Royal Navy as a Chief Petty Officer decided that enlisting in the RN was the ideal career for me to follow. I was taken to the Naval recruitment office in Devonport where I signed up to serve in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy for 12 Years. It all seemed like an exciting adventure at the time, I remember retuning home from the recruitment office dreaming of sailing the oceans and becoming a jolly jack tar, little did I realise at that time what I was about to encounter!

In the July of that year, I recall saying goodbye to my grandparents, my grandmother with tears in her eyes giving me big hugs (I was her favourite) and my grandfather wishing me well. Still with the boyhood dream of becoming a jolly jack tar I travelled by train from Plymouth in Devon to Fareham in Hampshire. Being my very first solo journey away from home it seemed like I was travelling to the other side of the world. I was met at the station by a Naval Petty Officer, a gunnery instructor, known in the Service as a G.I.

This is the point at which all my boyhood dreams of becoming a jolly jack tar were suddenly dashed. “pick up your bag lad and into the back of the van, at the double” he screamed, then onwards and through the main gate of HMS St Vincent in Gosport Hampshire. Once inside all I could hear was the loud piercing cries of command “Stand to attention” “Quick march” “Slope arms” “At the double”. Everyone was referred to as “sir” I remember one of the instructors saying, “If it moves, call it “SIR” and salute it. If it stands still, paint or polish it.” We were also told, “You do NOT walk across the parade ground. You do NOT run across the parade ground, but you WILL B….. WELL DOUBLE ACROSS THE PARADE GROUND. Is that clear?”

Life was harsh and even brutal. Punishments were meted out for the most trivial of offences. The most common punishment was called the “shuffles” where individuals were made to double around the parade ground holding an Enfield 303 rifle above their heads, literally until they dropped from exhaustion. Or climbing the 114 foot tall mast. Scrambling across the safety net at the base of the mast, it was then a climb up to the Devil’s Elbow by way of a Jacobs Ladder ( that’s a flexible rope ladder with wooden rungs). The Devil’s Elbow was the really scary part, to reach it required climbing upward and outward fully suspended with your legs dangling in the air below and your hands gripping the rigging, you manoeuvred yourself one hand at a time until you reached the platform above. Then it was upward via another Jacobs Ladder to within 14 feet from the top. The decent down the Jacobs Ladders and Devil’s Elbow to base was made much easier with the aid of gravity.

More serious offences e.g. deserting ship, thieving or an assault on a senior officer resulted in a punishment aptly named the “cuts”, a punishment that would be witnessed by the whole ships company. The ceremony was elaborate, slow and solemn. The culprit wearing only a thin pair of trousers would stand to attention while the offence and punishment was formally read out, he was then held across a gymnasium vaulting horse. The Commanding Officer would order the the Master at Arms to deliver the first of either 6 or 12 cuts. Then, wielding a rattan cane 40 inches long and half an inch in diameter, the Master at Arms would carry out the punishment. The resultant lesions left by the punishment (the cuts) typically lasted at least 14 days and often required medical attention. Sitting down was said to be very uncomfortable for a while, I remember some of the lads standing to eat their meals being unable to sit down for days due to the pain. Because there was no easy escape, once enlisted in the Royal Navy, several young men between the ages of 15 and 16 years took their own lives. Others escaped by inflicting self harm on themselves. In 1967 the then Labour government forced on a reluctant Admiralty the abolition of caning, this Government initiative was mainly due to pressure from anxious parents and their concerns over the brutal treatment of their sons.

Originating from a Methodist background, the final degradation encountered was the Sunday morning Church Parade. Everyone would be dressed in full uniform (Number 1s) and fallen in on the parade ground. Initially there would be an inspection by the Commanding Officer followed by the command “Catholics and Free Church men fall out” (this included Methodist and Baptists, etc.) The remainder of the parade would close ranks and be marched off to the Gosport Church of England while we nonconformists were returned to our mess. At this time the only faith/religion recognised by the Admiralty was the Church of England.

After serving my year at HMS St Vincent I left to continue a naval career in the Fleet Air Arm, where I was finally able to live out my boyhood dreams (of my life) as a jolly jack tar. But unlike the dreamer who first stepped through the gates of HMS St Vincent, I was now fully aware of live events outside of my dreams and how best to react when confronted by them.

What similarities and comparisons can be found in my story and the story of Joseph?

  1. Both of us were forced by differing circumstances to leave our homes and the love of our parents.
  2. The environment we found ourselves in was distant from our homes (foreign land).
  3. The conditions experience in this foreign environment were harsh even brutal.
  4. There was no means of escape.
  5. Only the religions recognised by the establishments were permitted.

Returning to Joseph who has been promoted by Pharaoh to the most senior official in Egypt. What kind of economic infrastructure would he have encounter? Having read the story of Joseph on a number of occasions I had always imagined that Joseph was starting with a blank canvas, that the method of taxation implemented during the 7 years of plenty and subsequent 7 years of famine was the soul brainchild of Joseph and that no such taxation method had previously existed….My imagination couldn’t have been wider of the mark!

Egypt at the time of Joseph was arguably the most civilised nation on the planet possessing an economic infrastructure built on utilising all the natural elements of their environment on the concept of planned bureaucracy that monitored and controlled every single detail. Egypt was a cashless society and its economy depended upon agriculture and barter. The monetary unit was the deben, approximately 90g of copper, and trade was based on this imaginary deben, so for example if 50 deben purchased a pair of sandals, then a pair of sandals could be traded for 50 deben’s worth of wheat, oil or beer.

With mathematics still in its infancy, consisting of simple addition and subtraction, the methods of taxation used was complex but necessary to fund grain warehouses, building projects and local armies. The taxed grain was stored for distribution in times of hardship, used to feed public workers, and feed the poorer classes. The taxes were payable at least once a year with payment made in the form of labor or produce. Although Pharaoh as head of state received all the collected taxes, they didn’t actually collect the taxes themselves. Instead the Pharaohs appointed ministers called viziers (the role given to Joseph) who acted as tax supervisors. The viziers’ other duties included appointing government officials, hearing legal disputes, conducting censuses, maintaining archives, controlling the food supply and distribution, supervising and managing industries and maintaining civil order.

In his role as tax collector the vizier kept records of taxes collected and ensured that the needs for labour and grains were met. Taxes were levied against oil, beer, ceramics, livestock, and every other kind of commodity, the most important being the taxation of grain. Grain not only fed the population of Egypt but was essential for trade with other countries.

Some examples of how tax was assessed:
A field of grain was measured after the floods had receded, the authorities would send out a team of 3 assessors to refine the estimated tax due, known as the “holder of the cord,” and the “stretcher of the cord.” Two of the assessors literally stretched a line to measure the size of a crop, while the third assessor recorded the measured values.

Livestock required the tax official to attend the field/pasture occupied by the livestock. To apply a 10% tax on a flock of sheep the shepherd would gather the sheep into a holding pen/field then slowly release them. The tax official would produce a small clay token for every 10 sheep that exited the holding pen until the whole flock had been counted. The sum of clay tokens at the end of the count would denote the amount of tax due and could be paid by the farmer in quantities of sheep, meat, wool or labour based on the imaginary deben. This latter example compares to the tithe referred to in Leviticus 27:23 “ The entire tithe of the herd and flock – every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod – will be holy to the Lord.”

The 20% taxation and grain storage implemented by Joseph during the seven years of plenty can be likened to “textbook” socialism. However, at the start of the famine when Joseph sells the previously taxed grain back to the starving people it becomes more akin to “textbook” capitalism.

Just like the Egyptians, all of us today are paying a very high price for our essential resources. The grain stored in the Egyptian warehouses had become the sole property of the Pharaoh. Four thousand years later we find our essential resources have become the sole property of global resource cartels.