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The Evil Necessity

The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    The Evil Necessity
    Book Description:

    A fundamental component of Britain's early success, naval impressment not only kept the Royal Navy afloat-it helped to make an empire. In total numbers, impressed seamen were second only to enslaved Africans as the largest group of forced laborers in the eighteenth century.

    InThe Evil Necessity,Denver Brunsman describes in vivid detail the experience of impressment for Atlantic seafarers and their families. Brunsman reveals how forced service robbed approximately 250,000 mariners of their livelihoods, and, not infrequently, their lives, while also devastating Atlantic seaport communities and the loved ones who were left behind. Press gangs, consisting of a navy officer backed by sailors and occasionally local toughs, often used violence or the threat of violence to supply the skilled manpower necessary to establish and maintain British naval supremacy. Moreover, impressments helped to unite Britain and its Atlantic coastal territories in a common system of maritime defense unmatched by any other European empire.

    Drawing on ships' logs, merchants' papers, personal letters and diaries, as well as engravings, political texts, and sea ballads, Brunsman shows how ultimately the controversy over impressment contributed to the American Revolution and served as a leading cause of the War of 1812.

    Early American HistoriesWinner of the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for an Outstanding Work of Scholarship in Eighteenth-Century Studies

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3352-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    On July 1, 1666, the great English diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys went to bed with a lot on his mind. He had spent that day, like so many during his tenure in the navy as Clerk of the Acts (1660–73) and Admiralty Secretary (1673–79, 1684–89), tending to the problems of impressed sailors. Pepys went to the Tower of London, where captured seamen were then kept, multiple times until finally at midnight he oversaw the last of them being sent down the River Thames to join awaiting navy warships. “Lord, how some poor women did cry,”...


    • CHAPTER 1 Imperial Design
      (pp. 19-50)

      In November 1794, the sailors of the northeastern English seaport of North Shields received a temporary respite from naval impressment. The port’s three press gangs announced that during performances in the local theater of John O’Keefe’s comedyThe World in a Village,seamen would not be at risk of capture. Officers in the press gangs advertised the terms of their offer in the theater’s playbill: “Lieutenant Kelly, Lieutenant King, and Lieutenant Bevis, Pledge their Words of Honour, that no Seaman whatever shall be molested by their People, on Play Nights, from the Hours of Four in the Afternoon to Six...

    • CHAPTER 2 Ruling the Waves
      (pp. 51-90)

      Naval impressment has never received the credit it deserves for the success of the early British Empire. The practice came under attack during the eighteenth century not simply byphilosophes,political commentators, and early humanitarians but by British statesmen, including Admiralty officials. Rather than complain that impressment was too tyrannical, these officials argued that it was not effective enough at producing seamen. In February 1741, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–43), an authority no less than the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Charles Wager, complained about impressment to his leading admiral, Edward Vernon. “We have now 100...

    • CHAPTER 3 Cultures of Impressment
      (pp. 91-136)

      On a summer evening in July 1742, Admiral Edward Vernon had one of the more unpleasant dining experiences of his storied career in the Royal Navy. Vernon joined his fellow admiral Chaloner Ogle for dinner at the home of the Jamaican governor, Edward Trelawny, in Port Royal. Ever since Vernon’s successful bombardment of Porto Bello nearly three years earlier, his fleet had experienced a string of spectacular defeats attempting to further reduce Spanish colonial possessions in the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–43). Moreover, the admiral’s ships faced chronic shortages of men due to death, disease, and desertion in Caribbean...


    • CHAPTER 4 Men of War
      (pp. 139-170)

      A gap in logic has pervaded writing on the British Royal Navy from the eighteenth century to today. One the one hand, contemporaries and historians have long cited superior seafaring as a key advantage of the navy over its European rivals. On the other hand, past and current commentators have maligned the British naval manning system—the same system that provided for the navy’s superior sailors—as at best inefficient and at worst barbaric. So if impressment was so bad, why was the British navy so good? The following chapters will analyze this paradox by closely examining the lived experience...

    • CHAPTER 5 Everyday Escapes
      (pp. 171-209)

      Everything that we know about the sailor William Symons comes from a tip provided by an anonymous informant to London’s press gangs in August 1779. That month, England faced one of its most serious invasion threats since the Norman Conquest of 1066, by a combined Franco-Spanish fleet that briefly gained control of the English Channel. Symons’s primary concern during the crisis, however, was not his country’s security but doing everything necessary to avoid capture by a press gang. He represented one of the British state’s most formidable challenges during the long eighteenth century: the naval escape artist.¹

      In August 1778,...

    • CHAPTER 6 Atlantic Impressment Riots
      (pp. 210-240)

      In May 1748, Admiral Charles Knowles faced the familiar prospect of having to find recruits for his woefully undermanned Jamaica naval squadron. For most of the 1740s, Knowles had struggled to keep his ships at fighting strength wherever the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–43) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48, known in America as King George’s War, 1744–48) had taken him. His usual response to the problem had been to impress British seamen from merchant trading vessels or in British seaports to serve in his Royal Navy ships. But not in the spring of 1748....

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 241-252)

    Naval impressment supported Britain’s imperial ambitions in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world and beyond. The protection of overseas trade, the maintenance of permanent naval stations, and the contest with imperial rivals for control of Europe and colonial territories across the globe all demanded unprecedented amounts of skilled seafaring labor. In the 1700s, impressed seamen became second only to African slaves as the largest group of unfree laborers in the British Empire. During wars, press gangs provided the Royal Navy with an elite sailing corps by removing the Atlantic’s most talented sailors from homebound merchant vessels in the British Isles. Press gangs...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 253-306)
  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 307-350)
  11. Index
    (pp. 351-364)