Saturday, 6 February 2010

Press Gangs

Impressment (colloquially, "the Press") was the act of compelling men to serve in a navy by force and without notice. (Pictured right: Press gang, British caricature of 1780). It was used by the Royal Navy, beginning in 1664 and during the 18th and early 19th centuries, in wartime, as a means of crewing warships, although legal sanction for the practice goes back to the time of Edward I of England. The Royal Navy impressed many British merchant sailors, as well as some sailors from other nations. People liable to impressment were eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 45 years, though, albeit rarely, non-seamen were impressed as well.
Impressment was strongly criticized by those who believed it to be contrary to the British
constitution; unlike many of its continental rivals, Britain did not conscript its subjects for any other military service, aside from a brief experiment with army impressment in 1778 to 1780. Though the public opposed conscription in general, impressment was repeatedly upheld by the courts, as it was deemed vital to the strength of the navy and, by extension, to the survival of the realm.
The impressment of seamen from American ships caused serious tensions between Britain and the United States in the years leading up to the War of 1812. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Britain ended the practice, and never resumed it.
Royal Navy recruiting and desertion
Working and living conditions for the average sailor in the Royal Navy in the 18th century were harsh by modern standards and generally much worse than conditions on British merchant ships; their pay was around half that paid by merchantmen and was lower than that paid to a farm labourer. In fact Naval wages had been set in 1653 and were not increased until April 1797 after sailors on 80 ships of the Channel Fleet based at Spithead mutined to get an increase. Roughly half of all Navy crews were impressed and these not only received lower wages than volunteers but were often shackled while the vessel was docked and were never permitted to go ashore until released from service.
The main problem with recruiting, though, was a simple lack of qualified seamen during wartime, when it became necessary for the Navy to quickly recruit an extra 20,000 (early 18th century) to 40,000 men (late 18th century) — privateers, the navy, and the merchant navy all competed for a small pool of ordinary and able seamen in wartime, and all three groups were usually short-handed. The recruitment figures presented to Parliament for the years 1755 - 1757 list 70,566 men of which 33,243 were volunteers (47%), 16,953 pressed men (24%) while another 20,370 were also listed as volunteers separately (29%). Although there are no records that explain why volunteers were separated into two groups, it is likely these were pressed men who became "volunteers" to get the sign-up bonus, two months' wages in advance and a higher wage as it is known large numbers did do this. Volunteering also protected the sailor from creditors as the law forbade collecting debts accrued before enlistment. Other records confirm similar percentages throughout the 18th century.
The Impress Service and impressment at sea
The Impress Service was formed to force sailors to serve on naval vessels (there was no concept of joining the navy for non-officers at the time), based on the legal power of the King to call men to military service, as well as to recruit volunteers (who were paid a bounty upon joining, unlike pressed men).
In Elizabethan times impressment as a form of recruitment became a statute and with the introduction of the Vagrancy Act in 1597, men of disrepute (vagrants) were drafted into service. In 1703 an act was passed limiting the impressment of men to only those under 18 years of age. A further act in 1740 raised the age to 55. Although no foreigner could be pressed, if they married a British woman, or had worked on a British merchant ship for two years they lost their protection. Some governments, including Britain, issued "Protections" against impressment which had to be carried on the person at all times but in times of crisis the Admiralty would order a "Hot Press" which meant that no one was exempt.
The Royal Navy also impressed seamen from inbound British merchant ships at sea, though this was done by individual warships, rather than the Impress Service. Impressment, particularly press gangs, were consistently unpopular with the British public (as well as in the American colonies), and local officials often acted against them, to the point of imprisoning officers from the Impressment Service, or opposing them by force of arms.
The press gang would try to find men aged between 15 and 55 with seafaring or river-boat experience but this was not essential and those with no experience were called "Landsmen". From 1740 Landsmen were legally exempt from impressment but this was ignored in wartime unless the person seized was an apprentice or a "gentleman". Two Landsmen were considered by captains to be the equivalent of an Able Seamen. If a Landsmen was able to prove his status to the Admiralty he was usually released. A man in the street would first be asked to volunteer and if he refused he was often plied with alcohol or simply knocked out and taken. A commonly held belief of a trick used in taverns was to surreptitiously drop a King's Shilling ("prest money") into his drink as by "finding" the shilling in his possession he was deemed to have volunteered, and that this led to some tavern owners putting glass bottoms in their tankards. However, this is urban legend; press officers were subject to fines for using trickery and a volunteer had a "cooling-off" period in which to change his mind.
Contrary to popular belief, the great majority of men pressed were taken from merchant ships at sea. This was legal as long as the Navy replaced the man they took and many Naval captains would take the best seamen, replacing them with malcontents and landsmen from their own ship. It was also common for "trusted" volunteers to act as substitutes; they would then desert as soon as the merchant ship docked, and return to their Navy ship. Outbound merchant ships, officers and apprentices were exempt from impressment. When war broke out the Navy would blanket the coast with cruisers ready to intercept every inbound merchantman, many of which would flee to Ireland to offload their best men before returning to England. In 1740 a merchantman fired on a cruiser attempting to impress its crew; similar violence to avoid being pressed was not uncommon, especially with the East India ships whose crews had been away from their families and England for a considerable time. In times of an extreme shortage of men the Navy would "embargo" the coast for a short time; merchantmen had to supply a portion of their crew in exchange for permission to sail. Many merchant ships had hiding places constructed where their best crew could hide when approached by a Naval vessel.
In addition to impressment, England also used the Quota System (or The Quod) from 1795 to 1815, whereby each county was required to supply a certain number of volunteers, based on its population and the number of its seaports. Unlike impressment, the Quota System often resulted in criminals serving on board ships as counties who failed to meet their quota offered prisoners the option of completing their sentence or volunteering.
Britain last used impressment in 1815 but the statutes allowing it have never been repealed. In 1835, a statute was passed that exempted sailors who had been impressed and had spent five years in the navy from being impressed a second time.
End of impressment
British impressment ended, in practice, after 1814, at the end of the Napoleonic wars — the Royal Navy fought no major naval actions again until World War I, a century later, when conscription was used for all the military services.