The impressment squabbles between the British Military and the Colonists had roots in the 13th Century. The act of “pressing” by the British Navy was common place. It was an instantaneous draft into naval service without any consideration for the pressed person or his family. In this article we wish to identify the overreaching practices that pitted Englishmen throughout the Empire against Parliament's laws.
First Queen Elizabeth I, in the 16th Century introduced a law called “An Act touching politick considerations for the maintenance of the Navy”. Parliament attempted to legitimize, define and clean up the concept with the Vagrancy Act of 1597. It targeted British subjects that could not support themselves. Unfortunately, the Vagrancy Act was practiced by Naval officers that knew only the needs of their “Man of War”.
You are probably one step ahead of me. The Vagrancy Act did not make impressment kinder. While most impressments happened at sea there are classic examples of brute force on land. Grooms at their weddings were impressed, drunks of all social classes, the first male born of a lower class family and Indentured boys were impressment targets. Civilians on commercial British ships returning to England were impressed. A foreign citizen that married a British woman could be impressed. Imagine the impact on a family awaiting the return of their husband or father to learn that he was now impressed in the British Navy for three full years.
A modification of the Vagrancy Act in 1703, called The Recruiting Act, permitted local authorities to send apprentice boys to the Navy and confirmed that rogues and vagabonds were subject to impressment. The law was intentionally vague again to permit the Navy to judge for itself in time of war.
Oh, the pay was very good, but it was entrusted to the Admiralty for the full three years (to discourage desertion) and once tendered, six months pay was held to inspire re-enlistment. Would you desert if you were in a foreign port without a penny? How would your family support itself during your absence? Were you typically punished on-board to instill British discipline? What tasks were you given on-board if you had no nautical skills? Surely, there were no positive answers to the above questions. But they fed you well and ensured you had enough grog to keep you sedate.
The general population in England, Scotland, Ireland and Colonial America, were incensed with the practice. In 1740 Parliament attempted to add benevolence by limiting the Act to men 18 to 45 years of age, and excluded foreigners. No matter and perhaps expected by Parliament, the desperate British Navy continued to ignore the modifications.
In the Spring of 1757, the issue exploded in two English settlements, New York and Boston. “Three thousand British soldiers cordoned off New York City, and plucked clean the taverns and other sailors gathering places. "All kinds of tradesmen and Negroes" were hauled in, nearly eight hundred in all. Four hundred of these were "retained in the service."[i] In Boston twenty-four were impressed leading to the closing of the harbor as the Colonists loaded their cannon at Castle William to prevent the British Navy from leaving town with pressed men.
The above numbers are modest. Let’s put it in context, in 1805 Admiral Nelson defeated the French and Spanish Navies at Trafalgar. Total British Naval personnel was estimated at 120,000, among 425 ships and half of the personnel were impressed.[ii]
By 1778 the Acts were further amended to permit the British Army to impress. Some exceptions were granted around harvest time. The Act was repealed in May of 1780. The British Army was now double in size at 45,000.
The war of 1812 resulted from The British Navy’s inconsideration of American citizenship. As they exercised impressment, any American citizen born in England could be pressed.
How deep was impressments impact? In 1812, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote a poem on the issue at the age of six. On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man.” She was speaking for the masses.
Ah! The poor lad in yonder boat
Forced from his Wife, his Friends, his home,
Now gentle Maiden how can you
Look at the misery of his doom?[iii]
Yes, she was six years old as she penned this poem.
In the deep recesses of Samuel Adams mind, he believed that impressment of Colonists was banned. This appears to have been the case during the War of Succession of 1701-1714. Parliament exempted the Colonies from impressment. By the end of the war the British Navy began impressing again. As the dispute arose Parliament interpreted the exemption to last only during the war. Samuel Adams never let this issue rest and John Adams brought it to a head during the trial of four Irish seamen in Boston in the Spring of 1768. Please see our blog for background information on the “The Rose and the Death of Lieutenant Panton.
Finally, impressment was repealed by Parliament in 1835, but the practice appeared to have ended with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
The Imperial English Empire continued for another one-hundred and thirty years, finally granting India their freedom in 1948. Our independence so hard fought came one-hundred and seventy- two years earlier. For that we can be very grateful.
[iii] Elizabeth Barrett Browning Selected Poems, Edited by Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor broadview editions, New York, 1947.