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The Press Gang: Forced naval service

Press gang, British caricature of 1780

PortandTerminal.com, January 23, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – What do you do when you’re short of men and have a vast naval fleet to man? During the age of sail in England, from the mid-16th to the mid-19th century, the answer was impressment.

The practice of manning naval ships with “pressed” men, those who were forcibly placed into service, was a common one in English history, dating back to medieval times. 

In the 16th-century, as England was on its way to becoming the world’s leading naval power, the need for able-bodied sailors outstripped the supply. The Royal Navy competed with the Merchant Navy and privateers for crew and during times of war especially, all three groups were often short-handed.

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I
Impressment was formally legalized by Queen Elizabeth I in 1563

The Royal Navy’s solution to the problem was impressment on a massive scale. To make it work though, it needed to have some sort of legal standing. That solution came in 1563 when the practice of impressment was formally legalized by Queen Elizabeth I who passed “an Act touching politick considerations for the maintenance of the Navy“. Seamen who resisted impressment could be punished with execution by hanging.

A George the III oak press-gang club or truncheon that came up for auction in 2016
A George the III oak press gang club or truncheon that came up for auction in 2016

There were some rules though that had to be followed. “Impressment” for the Royal Navy was restricted by law to men between the ages of 18 and 55 years of age with seafaring experience. But even non-sailors known as landmen were impressed although this happened rarely. These were often able-bodied vagabonds or criminals who could be taught the skills of a sailor.

Led by a naval officer, press gangs were empowered to stalk the streets, rounding up any seamen they came across with the aid of clubs. “Mariners were easy to pick out because of their distinct way of speaking, dressing, and walking,” writes Colin Woodard in The Republic of Pirates.

A black and white drawing of a sailor being dragged by Royal Navy men out of a pub at night.
“Mariners were easy to pick out because of their distinct way of speaking, dressing, and walking,” writes Colin Woodard in The Republic of Pirates.

So terrified of being caught by the press gangs that it was not unheard of for sailors to pretend to marry pub or coffeehouses owners so they could claim to be homeowners, who were exempt from naval service.

One common misconception is that impressment took place only onshore. In fact, it was far safer and productive to employ press gangs at sea so much of it took place offshore as well. From a man of war, the press gang would board a merchant ship and take enough sailors to fill out the ship’s crew. Unless sailors jumped ship, which was very dangerous at sea, they were not getting away.

A color drawing from the 1779 of a man being taken by a press-gang as women and others protest angrily
The Liberty of the Subject, by James Gillray, 1779, National Portrait Gallery (UK)

Impressment onshore could be dangerous for those doing the pressing. When the press gangs arrived, it sometimes caused brawls and riots. There were also instances of locals and press gang members being killed. The Greenland whalers in Greenland Dock London earned a reputation of taking on press gangs with harpoons and flensing knives. In 1755, hundreds of them attacked the press gang of the HMS Chichester killing three of them and successfully rescuing the men who had been kidnapped.

In the Caribbean and Atlantic waters during the late 18th century and early 19th century, American merchant vessels were frequently the target of the Royal Navy for impressment.

A color drawing of American sailors being led at gun-point by a musket carrying Royal Navy man onto a British Navy ship.
The Royal Navy impressed 15,000 American citizens into the Royal Navy.

Britain was fighting the Napoleonic wars in conflict with France and needed men to supplement their navy. American independence was still recent and the English, who’s Navy was far superior to the American’s, saw the upstarts as easy pickings.

The English argued that all Americans born before the Revolution had been born British subjects and did not lose that citizenship due to the American Revolution. Therefore, anybody on an American ship who had been born during the colonial era could rightfully be taken and pressed into service for the Crown.

Detail from The Press Gang drawing showing a mother on her knees with her children crying as her husband is being taken by a press-gang.
Detail from The Press Gang, artist unknown, 1770,
Yale University Lewis Walpole Library

As a result, up to 15,000 American citizens were impressed into the Royal Navy. This aggression along with other factors led to the United States government declaring war on Britain, causing the war of 1812.

After the Napoleonic Wars impressment was ended in practice, though not officially abandoned as a policy. The last law was passed in 1835, in which the power to impress was reaffirmed. It limited the length of service of a pressed man to five years and added the provision that a man couldn’t be pressed twice.

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