Manning the Navy by Way of
enlisting without consent, was the British Royal Navy's official staffing solution. Whenever
there was a shortage of voluntary recruits, "Join
the Navy" was no longer an invitation but an order.
Men, ashore or at sea, who
looked like they could be of any use on a boat, were
randomly taken and declared sailors. That's
abduction and forced labor.
And it was completely legal.
This from the
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London:
A caricature of a
naval press gang in action with the Tower of
London in the distance. Although only used in
times of war, the press gang was probably the
most infamous method of recruiting for the navy.
The Impress Service would organise gangs to roam
the streets of towns and villages forcefully
taking (pressing) men into the King's Navy.
Although landsmen were sometimes
taken by mistake or by malice, the press gang concentrated
their efforts on finding experienced seamen, who were often
taken from merchant ships.
Coloured etching. Technique
includes engraving. Published 1 June 1790
Impressment at Its Peak
In world history, impressment has
been employed since ages and by various powers. Sometimes the line between conscription and impressment was
British impressment in
definitely picked up during the war against Spain and France 1739-1748 (see
War of Jenkins' Ear.)
And it became rampant during the
Napoleonic Wars, which
were fought 1803-1815.
Ideally, the Royal Navy's Impress Service was
looking for British citizens, aged 18 to 55, that were trained seamen, and not already otherwise contractually bound. But they soon
Of course the forcefully drafted
escaped as swiftly as they saw an opportunity. Soon, a
multitude of recruiters (press parties) and runaways (deserters)
populated the seas and ports. Eventually, shore leave for the crew was out of the
question, simply because half of the men wouldn't return to
This is from the Mariner's
the latter part of the eighteenth century,
as England slugged its way through prolonged
wars with France, the need for able seamen
grew dramatically. During the peacetime that
preceded the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy
had about 10,000 men; by the War of 1812,
the number had risen to 140,000. The
overwhelming majority of these men came from
maintain the navy's strength, the press
gangs were constantly at work. Not only did
they have to replace men who were killed or
died in service, but they also had to
replace the countless vacancies created by
desertion. Lord Nelson estimated that
between 1793 and 1801 perhaps as many as
40,000 men deserted the navy.
for sailors always high and supply sometimes
lacking, it is not surprising that the press
gangs preyed from time to time on protected
men^, including Americans.
Here is the
"protected men" =
Men could be exempt from the press if they had on their
person a "letter of protection" stating their identity and
the reason for their immunity from impressment. Reasons could vary, e.g.
being part of the ship-building trade, being a "gentleman",
being already bound by contract to another party, etc.
So, being in
possession of such a letter, or being a foreigner, didn't necessarily make a
How many foreigners were impressed?
analysis of the average ship's company would
show about the following proportions:
volunteers 15 per cent, pressed men 50 per
cent, quota men* 12 per cent, boys 8 per
cent, foreigners 15 per cent.
the latter were there of their own free
will, but most had been impressed at sea and
were unable to obtain their release through
the normal consular channels.
War and Peace
in an Age of Upheaval, The New Cambridge
Impressment of Americans became one of the causes of the
War of 1812.
What is impressment?
in the glossary of the War of 1812.
Pros and Cons of
Chasing deserters was literally a royal
nuisance. In Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, Robert
J. Allison notes,
It was an article of faith
among Royal Navy captains that the American fleet was manned
by British deserters.
But was impressment worth its troubles? Was a
flight risk employee better than no employee?
Lord Nelson himself "regretted the necessity of impressment." But it did help
win battles. And in fact, it might have been the crucial factor
for British victory many times over.
This is the
First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham
in the House of Commons on
March 4, 1834:
... for notwithstanding all that the Honourable Gentleman has
said of the inefficiency of impressment, yet I will refer to
all the great actions to which he has adverted — Camperdown,
the Nile, Trafalgar, and Copenhagen, and assert that the
great majority of the seamen who fought those memorable
battles, and on those occasions sustained the honour of the
country, were seamen obtained by impressment.
has, therefore, been demonstrated to be effectual.
And this is a world map of the British naval bases around
the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Later added were bases on
Ascension, St Helena, Mauritius and Ceylon.
Map of the British Royal Navy Bases
1796-99, 1808-14 /
Ajaccio, Corsica 1794-96 /
Port Mahon, Minorca 1797-1801 /
Malta from 1800
Bermuda: from 1809
West Indies: Port
Royal, Jamaica /
Curacao from 1807 /
Martinique 1799-1802 /
Barbados from 1806
Cape Town: 1795-1802
and from 1806
From The Royal Navy
So far the pros and cons of impressment from the
From the perspective of the
impresee, of course, there weren't many pros, if any. His best
hope was to be able to return home at all, after an unknown
period of time, sometimes years, from a bad pay / high risk job,
preferably not permanently injured, maimed, or dead.
In case he had to provide for a
family, their financial troubles began the day he was impressed,
being suddenly without an income. Nor did they know for how
long their provider was gone, if he would come back at all,
and in what shape. Disability was very possible,
unemployment practically certain.
Impressment — A Brief Timeline
of Highlights and Major Events
According to The
Social History of English Seamen by Cheryl A. Fury,
"skilled mariners were bribing press officials to escape
state service for £1."
Britain was at
war with Spain and
subsequently France. British press gangs in Boston were
especially relentless, which led to the
Boston Impressment Riot that lasted three
days. No fatalities. Also called the Knowles Riot for
British Commodore Charles Knowles.
Pierce Fenning, John Ryan, and William Conner were crewmen
on the brig Pitt Packet that was intercepted by the
H.M. Frigate Rose off Marblehead, Massachusetts. In
the attempt to impress the men, Lieutenant Henry Panton of
the Rose was killed by Michael Corbet.
Corbet was the resulting criminal law case that was
won by the young defense attorney
:: June 5, 1790
The British impressed
Hugh Purdie, a Virginia
native. Fortunately for Purdie, the British captain was ordered to let him go.
before he did, he had Purdie flogged in front of the entire crew.
Secretary of State
decided to make a big deal out of this incident because all
the evidence just lined up beautifully.
This is Jefferson in a letter to Joshua Johnson, U.S.
consul at London:
vexations of our seamen and their sufferings
under the press-gangs of England have become
so serious, as to oblige our government to
take serious notice of it. The particular
case has been selected where the insult to
the U.S. has been the most bare faced, the
most deliberately intentional, and the proof
the most complete.
:: 1795 / 1796
The British Parliament passed the
of 1795 and 1796 that required each county to present a
quota of men* for
service in the Royal Navy. The quota was determined by the
county's population and its number of ports. Although this
was an alternative to impressment, it didn't generate enough
:: May 28, 1796
The U.S. Congress
An Act for the relief and protection
of American Seamen, according to which American
sailors could be issued a certificate to prove their
citizenship. Unfortunately, forgeries of these documents
were soon widespread, prompting British officials to
disregard them altogether.
:: April 25, 1806
At the heart of the
Leander Affair was John Pierce's accidental decapitation by
The British frigate HMS
Leander (60 guns), under the command of
Henry Whitby, cruised
off New York harbor in search of possible British deserters
and French contraband. Along came
the American sloop Richard, under the command of
Jesse Pierce, two miles
from Sandy Hook. The
Leander fired three shots, one of which cut off
the head of the Richard's helmsman John Pierce,
incidentally the brother of its captain. The body of John Pierce was
brought to and mourned at the Tontine, aka the Tontine
Coffee House at 82 Wall Street, New York, NY.
:: June 22, 1807
took impressment to a whole new level: A British vessel opened fire on an
unprepared American frigate in American waters, shot the ship
to bits, killing 4, wounding 17, and abducting 4. No,
make that 3. One of the men who were arrested was indeed
a British deserter.
The John Diggio incident
took place off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, when the British
frigate HMS Guerriere boarded the American merchant
brig Spitfire, and seized John Diggio (also John
Deggins, Digo, or Digeo). Diggio was an American citizen
born at Cape Elizabeth in Maine. At the time, he worked as
an apprentice to the master of the brig, Mr. Josiah Fichet,
or Fichett, a ship carpenter from Portland, Maine.
The impressment of John Diggio
is historically significant because it prompted U.S.
Navy Secretary Paul Hamilton
to send Commodore John Rodgers on patrol,
which in turn, 15 days
later, prompted the President-Little Belt incident.
:: May 16, 1811
President-Little Belt incident took place off
Cape Henry (Virginia Beach) where the USS President
(54 guns), under the command of
John Rodgers, was on patrol to guard against
British impressment. The President spotted
what they thought might be the HMS Guerriere, but
later turned out to be the British sloop of war HMS
Little Belt (20 guns). After a seven-and-a-half hours
chase, the President finally caught up. An attempt to communicate failed
and heavy fire was
In subsequent inquiries both
sides insisted that the other ship opened fire first. The Little Belt suffered
members killed and 23 wounded.
:: June 18,
Impressment was listed as one of the
official grievances against Great Britain in the
U.S. declaration of
war, signed by U.S. President
James Madison on June 18, 1812.
Which, by the way, is the reason why impressment is usually
associated with the War of 1812, although it has been a
menace in history for quite a long time before this conflict.
War of 1812
What is the
Difference Between Impressment and Conscription?
Impressment is conscription raw;
the draft medieval style. Both are compulsory methods to
obtain recruits for military service.
By the way, what's better:
mandatory or voluntary military service? Compare by country
military service age and obligation.
When Did the
Royal Navy Stop Using Impressment?
The National Museum of the Royal
Navy at Portsmouth tell us,
Impressment was last used in Britain during
the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815. Although
not used after that period, the right
to use impressment was retained. In 1835, a
statute was passed that exempted sailors who
had been impressed and had served for five
years in the navy from any further
1853, the navy introduced continuous service
for sailors who wished to make a career in
the navy. After a fixed number of years,
they would receive a pension. This reduced
the need for general impressment and it died
out in the form that it had been used
However, in the twentieth century, during
the two world wars, another type of
impressment has been used in the form of
compulsory national service or conscription
and this type of service continued until the
The peace treaty of
the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent,
confirms this statement in that it didn't even mention the issue any more, even though impressment had been one of the principle
reasons the war was fought.
Life at sea had its constant
juice was introduced in 1795 to combat scurvy, and canned
meat in 1813. Eventually, a vaccine for smallpox was found, which left typhus and yellow fever as the two main
How much of a role did diseases
strain on the country's manpower made by the
necessity of maintaining great fleets at sea
was intensified by the losses due to disease
and to desertion.
analysis of the 103,660 deaths recorded
during the war suggests that 82 per cent
died of disease, 12 per cent by shipwreck or
accident and only 6 per cent by enemy
To these losses should be added the
113,273 men who deserted.
War and Peace
in an Age of Upheaval,
The New Cambridge
March 1798, British fishermen and
other hearty souls united and formed a maritime
Sea Fencibles, to guard their
coasts from invasion.
The Sea Fencible Service was in
action until October 1810 (with
interruption from October 1801 to July 1803.)
Sometimes, a man could forego
impressment if he could find a
volunteer of similar value in his stead. Some bright
lads used foreigners as their
stand-ins who then
applied to be discharged on the
grounds that there must have been a
This scheme worked until mistakes in
the recruiting process didn't matter any more.
Often, press gangs
made themselves comfortable in a
harbor and lay in wait for
incoming ships. Sometimes the harbor
community managed to take arriving crew
to shore undetected via pilot-boats.
"letters of protection" were a
forger's dream. In 1740 you could get one
for 5 or 6 guineas.
guinea was one pound and one
shilling. According to the National
Converter, 5 to 6
guineas would be £453.02 to £543.63
worth today, which is roughly 650 to
790 US Dollars.
loophole closed, of course, when letters of protection
ceased to protect.
Dissatisfaction with the system of
impressment was not exclusively
sentiments were voiced by British citizens
of all social groups, and it was a
hot topic in politics.
In desperation mode, the
Royal Navy also recruited in prisons. Criminals could choose
between staying behind bars and joining the navy, adding
an extra hue to an already colorful fabric of nautical
A female sailor is a
Find out if you are
eligible to join the Royal Navy
Cambridge tells us that
The Naval Chronicle, published in 40 volumes between 1799 and
1818, is a key source for British maritime and military
history, and is also sought after by those researching
There was no quicker way to empty a waterfront tavern or
brothel than the cry "Press gang!" Nor was there anything to
make a sailor more nervous at sea than to have his vessel
ordered to heave to and prepare to receive a press gang from
one of His Majesty's vessels.
America and the Sea - A
Labaree, Hattendorf et al, Mystic
Seaport Museum, 1998