Manning the Navy by Way of Impressment
Manning the Navy by Way of Impressment



Impressment, i.e. 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.

Image Above
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 blurred.

British impressment in particular 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 ran out.

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 ship.

This is from the Mariner's Museum:

During 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 the press.

To 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.

With demand 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 entire article.

^ "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 difference.

How many foreigners were impressed?

An 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.

Some of 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 Modern History

Impressment of Americans became one of the causes of the
War of 1812.

See also What is impressment? in the glossary of the War of 1812.


Pros and Cons of Impressment

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?

Apparently, 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.

The practice 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 Overseas
Map of the British Royal Navy Bases Overseas
Europe: Lisbon 1796-99, 1808-14 / Gibraltar / Ajaccio, Corsica 1794-96 / Port Mahon, Minorca 1797-1801 / Malta from 1800   Bermuda: from 1809   West Indies: Port Royal, Jamaica / Curacao from 1807 / Antigua / Martinique 1799-1802 / Barbados from 1806   Cape Town: 1795-1802 and from 1806
From The Royal Navy 1793-1815. Copyright Osprey Publishing

So far the pros and cons of impressment from the government's perspective.

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

:: 1597
According to The Social History of English Seamen by Cheryl A. Fury, "skilled mariners were bribing press officials to escape state service for 1."

:: November 17-19, 1747
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.

:: April 22, 1769
Michael Corbet, 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. Rex v. Corbet was the resulting criminal law case that was won by the young defense attorney John Adams.

:: June 5, 1790
The British impressed Hugh Purdie, a Virginia native. Fortunately for Purdie, the British captain was ordered to let him go. But before he did, he had Purdie flogged in front of the entire crew. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson 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:

The 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 Quota Acts 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 recruits.

:: May 28, 1796
The U.S. Congress passed 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 a British cannon:

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
The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair 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.

:: May 1, 1811
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
The 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 exchanged.

In subsequent inquiries both sides insisted that the other ship opened fire first. The Little Belt suffered 9 crew members killed and 23 wounded.

:: June 18, 1812
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.

See also 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 impressment.

In 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 previously.

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 early 1960s.

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.


Maritime Trivia

Life at sea had its constant companions: diseases.

Lemon 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 problems.

How much of a role did diseases play?

The 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.

An 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 action.

To these losses should be added the 113,273 men who deserted.

War and Peace in an Age of Upheaval,
The New Cambridge Modern History



In March 1798, British fishermen and other hearty souls united and formed a maritime militia, the 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 mistake. 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.

The "letters of protection" were a forger's dream. In 1740 you could get one for 5 or 6 guineas.

One guinea was one pound and one shilling. According to the National Archives' Old Money Converter, 5 to 6 guineas would be 453.02 to 543.63 worth today, which is roughly 650 to 790 US Dollars.

This loophole closed, of course, when letters of protection ceased to protect.

Dissatisfaction with the system of impressment was not exclusively American. Anti-impressment 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 navigators.
A female sailor is a sailoress.
Find out if you are eligible to join the Royal Navy (no piercings.)


More Research

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 family histories.



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 Maritime History
Labaree, Hattendorf et al, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1998




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