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IMPRESSMENT — Or, You're in the Royal Navy Now

Kim H. Carrell

Imagine yourself as a young carpenter in mid-1700's Boston, just beginning to establish yourself in business. After a day's work, you stop in a public house for dinner, when a silent man in uniform slams a mug of ale on the table in front of you. Grateful for the drink, you thank him and gulp it down, only to find shilling coin at the bottom of the empty mug. As soon as you tip the coin out into your hand, you are roughly hauled up from the table with the words "Welcome to His Majesty's Navy".

You have just been "impressed." And in this case, that does not mean your opinion has been swayed or that you've been blown away by something. It means you have been "pressed" into service as a sailor in the Royal Navy - whether you like it or not. As soon as you "accepted the King's shilling" at the bottom of your drink, you agreed to wear the uniform.

In the 1700's, the Royal Navy competed for able-bodied seamen with merchant ships and privateers. Working on board any sort of ship during this time was a grueling and very dangerous lifestyle, and at times of war the Royal Navy had great difficulty recruiting enough men to crew their warships. These huge vessels needed large numbers of men on board to maintain and sail the ships. But the Royal Navy was harsh, and violent discipline was used to keep order among the crews - floggings were common for even minor offenses. In addition to this, the food on board a Royal Navy vessel was very often poor if not simply rotten. Many men lived in very close quarters on poorly ventilated ships, and as a result, their seagoing homes became infested with all sorts of diseases.

And if the beatings, bug-infested food, and deadly illnesses were not enough…just wait until the ship actually went into battle at sea. The damage that could be done to sailor's bodies by cannonballs, chain shot, firelock guns, and swords was unimaginable. (The familiar image of the old sailor or pirate with a missing leg, or one eye, or a hook instead of a hand was a result of just that kind of damage). With all this to look forward to, it's no wonder that the Royal Navy had trouble finding new recruits. To solve the problem they turned to the practice of "impressing into service" men who had the skills needed on board a ship - not just sailors, but carpenters, barrel-makers, cooks, and doctors as well. Impressment had been legal in Great Britain since the reign of King Edward I (Edward Longshanks) in the late 1200's. And by the 1700's, men in the American colonies were finding themselves prime targets for Royal impressments.

The Impress Service (or 'press gangs' as they were less formally known) had other methods besides the "shilling in your drink" approach. They might simply show up at the home of a likely prospect and force him onto their ship. After requesting the service of a sailmaker, carpenter, or doctor on their docked ship, they may refuse to let the individual leave the ship later. The press gangs would also buy men in taverns an endless stream of drinks until they passed out - only to wake on board the ship, already out to sea, the next day. Although impressment was legal according to the Constitution of the United Kingdom, the underhanded methods used resulted in public - and sometimes political - backlash against the practice and the Impress Service itself. And when combined with the harsh treatment Royal Navy seamen received, impressment created a cruel image of the British Empire that would eventually hurt their reputation in the colonies.

In the 1760's and 1770's many Bostonian dockworkers participated in actions such as the Stamp Act riots, the Liberty Tree demonstrations, and the Boston Tea Party. Many of those men, now in their 30's and 40's, had been impressed into service on British ships when they were in their 20's, and had experienced specific forms of Royal tyranny aboard those ships. Those same men - many probably still bearing the scars of floggings and beatings received on board His Majesty's ships - were now willing to provide the "muscle" needed by the Sons of Liberty and the movement toward independence. Immediately after the Revolution, the Royal Navy did not recognize naturalized American citizenship, and impressed 6000 American seamen into service. Thus impressment even created more conflict between the United States and England after independence. While it was not a specific reason for the declaration of the War of 1812, impressment certainly played a role both in igniting the conflict and keeping anti-British sentiments alive in the new republic even after indepedence had been attained.


Rediker, Marcus: Villains of All Nations (2004, Verso Books, London, England UK)

Cordingly, David: Under The Black Flag (1995, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York NY)
Edited by Marisa Callaje

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