An Impressed People

“In 1700s, impressed seamen became second only to African slaves as the largest group of unfree laborers in the British Empire”: and yet, the appreciation of the historical reality and magnitude of impressment by the British Navy doesn’t go beyond very limited circles.

Press gangs (composed by naval officers and sailors) hit the road and used violence or its threat to recruit the necessary crewmen for British ships. Billy Budd arrived on the HMS Indomitable following this path. In Melville’s novel, and even more so in the Benjamin Britten’s opera (which spares no charge to naval discipline), Billy Budd’s complacent attitude towards his compulsory recruiting contrasts with the very nature of impressment.

This incongruousness is somehow at the heart of a remarkable book, The Evil Necessity. British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World, written by Denver Brunsman, Associate Professor of History at the George Washington University.

The book is divided in two parts, aptly entitled “Empire” and “Sailors”: the first concentrates on the needs and motivations behind impressment, from the point of view of the government that demanded impressed sailors. The second presents the readers with a fairly detailed catalog of “everyday forms of resistance” by those who fell victim to impressment.

This is an invaluable work, particularly because it illuminates, rather than solves, some ambiguities. Think of Billy Budd, who is forced to leave the crew of the Rights-of-Man, a merchant ship which is, in a rather unambiguous symbolism, named after Tom Paine’s pamphlet. Billy Budd is a docile young man, a handsome sailor who passively submits to his destiny.

Real-life sailors were less peaceful in submitting to impressment: they did “everything possible to resist the threat posed by impressment to their lives and livelihoods.” And yet “they differed from other forced laborers in the eighteenth century, particularly enslaved Africans, in concentrating their acts of resistance to bondage before, not after, capture.”

So, it could well happen that some sailors fiercely resisted naval authorities upon the threat of being impressed, and later stood up as committed and brave fighters for their country—whose forcible claims upon their own life they had previously fought against.

It could be surmised that this was the result of a naval discipline which was as effective as it was harsh. However, even for those who do not underestimate the role of fear in human affairs, this would make a victorious fleet basically the mere result of the wisdom and skill of its officers.

Self-interest, however, is likely to have played a role too: you could dislike the forcible conscription that brought you on board but once you’re on the battlefield you prefer to win and live.

American Civil War historian James McPherson, Brunsman notes, “divided the motivations for soldiers to fight between ‘cause’and ‘comrades.’” For impressed sailors “working together as comrades to return home safely was itself a cause.” Fighting over the sea was such a complex and risky endeavor, that cohesion between sailors and the full exercise of the talents of each of them were required, in order to increase the chances of coming back home in full. However, Brunsman explains,it would be wrong to assume there were no genuine episodes of patriotism, on the part of impressed sailors. Impressment, our author maintains, deflects any “single narrative”.

These truisms don’t stand Brunsman’s careful examination.

Contrary to what most still believe, impressment didn’t serve the purpose of emptying the King’s prisons, nor was it a brutal and yet casual phenomenon, in which all fishes got caught into too wide a net. In striking contrast, the key problem of naval authorities was finding good sailors, who otherwise did not lean towards joining the Royal Navy.

“The navy tried a variety of financial incentives and benefits to induce able seamen to volunteer,” Brunsman explains, and yet

the government could not compete with the deep pockets of merchant capital, and the various incentives succeeded in attracting only about half of the navy’s seamen to volunteer. In the eighteenth century, merchant seamen’s wages stayed within a fairly stagnant range in peacetime, between 24 and 30 shillings per month, or about what they could make in the Royal Navy. But during wars, the scarcity of maritime labor and potential riches in smuggling made merchant wages skyrocket.

The rationale of impressment thus lied in the law of supply and demand: a law that governments never feel pressed to obey. “The one advantage that the state held over its merchant competitors for skilled seafaring labor was a monopoly of violence,” and it took full advantage of it. Impressment spared government from paying a higher price for the sailors’ services, and prevented the latter from realizing the full market value of their effort and skills. But, also, it robbed sailors of “the one thing, short of property, that made them independent adult men—their freedom of movement.

There are thus similarities and differences between impressment and military conscription. The modern draft (never a British practice, before WWI) served the purpose of adding cannon fodder to governments’ armies: but recruitment of qualified professionals followed a different track, as military talents that could find a legitimate way to express themselves as such in civil society were rare. Sailors could lead a better life, and earn more money, on commercial vessels. And because doing so they accumulated experience and added to their skills, those were precisely the “precious” sailors the navy wanted to recruit!

Brunsman argues that “we do not have to deny the injustice of impressment or sailor resistance to recognize the extraordinary achievements of British seamen in the eighteenth century”—and he sticks to this point. The practice dates back to Anglo-Saxon England and survived the Norman Conquest. But impressment in modern times could hardly be considered a feudal left-over: as in the Middle Ages the need for impressed men was modest, whereas it escalated inasmuch as Britain erected its glory on naval success. With erudition and detailed analysis, Brunsman forces us to understand that impressment was “a fundamental component of Britain’s imperial success”.

The key question, for a student of political thought, is the following:

[T]he British state limited slavery three different times—in 1772 (ending slavery in Britain proper), in 1807 (closing British participation in the Atlantic slave trade), and in 1833 (emancipating West Indian slaves)—before ever reforming naval impressment.

“Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the wave/ Britons never will be slave”, so proclaimed an 18th century popular song. When the Royal Navy set for preserving European liberty from the rapacious Napoleon, it resorted to coercion for manning its ships.

How come impressment was not clearly equated with slavery, and thus likewise fought over and repealed? Sure, impressed seamen, vis-à-vis slaves, were not in a permanent position of hereditary subjugation. Most certainly, impressment had a “public good” dimension that slavery lacked altogether. But this whole issue calls into question the great fabric of political thinking.

Political culture was key. This can be seen by the very different reactions the recourse to press gangs raised in various territories of the British Empire. Brunsman writes of different “impressment cultures”, suggesting that the relative success of impressment was seriously affected by the different condition of seaports and regions. “In colonial seaports, a combination of statutory law, local customs, Admiralty policies, regional economies, civil officials, and crowd violence all helped to determine how, when, where, and whom British press gangs could force into service.

A clear example is provided by the Knowles riot. In mid-November 1747, after repairing its ships from the damage inflicted by a violent storm, Commodore Knowles “reacted to a series of new desertions by making up his entire shortage of nearly fifty seamen in one continuous pressing operation”. Boston erupted in three days of rioting, including the kidnapping of officers by roving mobs and the burning of a garage that the crowd mistook for the press gang’s (ironically, it turned out “it belonged to a Scottish shipmaster who was in the crowd!”). Then twenty-five-years-old Samuel Adams is “the likely author of an anonymous pamphlet published days after the disturbance that used Lockean reasoning to defend rioting against impressment (…) For the first time in the American colonies, a writer used a natural rights argument to justify mob activity”. Another future American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, was to be a vocal opponent of impressment.

Traditionally, the American colonies were “reluctant to accept even a small amount of naval impressment” as “they did not have the same traditions of direct service to the crown that had evolved over centuries in some English communities.” The so-called “Sixth of Anne”, the Act for the Encouragement of Trade to America, made impressment illegal for some decades (with some doubts of interpretation). The communitarian spirit of the colonies, the distance from London, the lack of historical experiences with impressment, made America particularly problematic, from the Navy’s perspective.

Insofar as slavery is concerned, “within the Atlantic world’s spectrum of free and unfree labor, impressment was a step up for many black seafarers. The institution so often compared to slavery in the eighteenth century could in fact serve as a pathway to freedom,” though impressed slaves never exceeded a small minority.

In his juvenile pamphlet “An Essay on Naval Discipline,” libertarian thinker and polemicist Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) argued that the ruling classes were misguided in hypothesizing that the Brits would not have stood up voluntarily to defend their country. Hodgskin maintained that “as opinions guide the actions of men, whenever a general opinion pronounces a thing impossible, it becomes absolutely so.” Postulating that coercion was necessary, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But, according to Hodgskin,

Our people have never been passive under injuries; they have never submitted to violence with patience. It is even with difficulty they can be made to bear with pressing and coercion, though patience under them is encouraged, by a general opinion that they are greatly necessary to the welfare of the country; and our people might be safely trusted to this principle or resistance, inherent in our nature, to man our fleets.

It wouldn’t have been necessary to impress sailors, if the Navy had a purely defensive purpose: British would have gallantly joined it against Napoleon, anyhow. But of course building an empire was a different story.

Hodgskin was then a young man, court-martialed and released to civil life after spending half his life, starting at age twelve, on sea. In this pamphlet, his first literary endeavor, he reflected with great passion upon the misdeeds of Naval Discipline, contrasting the good nature of the British people with the evil character somehow produced by naval discipline. Was flogging really a necessary policing instrument, in order to make the most of the mariners’ skills?

Hodgskin (whom N.A.M. Rodger, the illustrious scholar of the Royal Navy, thought was “an ex officer with a guilty conscience”) believed that seamen weren’t indolent by nature, and if they engaged in some apparently wicked behavior, it was essentially because they were so moulded. The regimen of terror built upon the frequent recourse to unnecessary punishment (flogging was customary) and coerced manning couldn’t but affect people’s personalities. Having known naval discipline as a boy, Hodgskin never ceased to reflect upon crime and punishment for his entire, subsequent intellectual career. In his latest writings, he reflected on the fact that crime was in the main created by the cultural predispositions and legal constraints imposed by the very ruling classes that denounced its spread and clamored for harsher punishments.

The basic contradiction of impressment, that Brunsman highlights, was precisely the one spotted by Hodgskin some 200 years ago: British sailors with their efforts and courage prevented “despotism from overshadowing the earth, and destroying that liberty they were in early life taught to indulge a love of, and which they still regard as sacred, though no longer permitted to taste its blessings.”

David Brunsman has given us a great book, that explains the nuances of a terrible and yet complex practice.