Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
15 October 2013
Review by Michael K. Beauchamp, Texas A&M University at Qatar
The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
By Denver Brunsman
Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 364. ISBN 978–0–8139–3351–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 18th Century, Revolutionary War, Naval Warfare Print Version

In The Evil Necessity, Denver Brunsman (George Washington Univ.) has provided a superb first study[1] of British impressment from an Atlantic perspective rather than as a national practice.[2] At its center is an exploration of what Brunsman terms "the impressment paradox"—that the practice of impressment, despite the significant discontent and resistance it caused, still helped the British successfully man their navy. Indeed, impressment was a key component in the creation, expansion, and protection of the British Empire, which produced commercial benefits for and protected the liberties of Englishmen, even as it violated the liberties of thousands of sailors. Brunsman carefully steers between social arguments centering on working-class resistance[3] and more laudatory accounts of the British navy that downplay the evils of impressment.[4] He draws on US and British archives, including naval and merchant marine sources, political pamphlets, court records, depictions of sailors' lives, and the comments of eigthteenth-century observers like Samuel Pepys.

The first of the volume's two parts traces the history of impressment from its medieval antecedents up to the time it became a central component of British imperial naval supremacy. Given the maritime nature of the British Empire, recruitment of sailors, especially in wartime, became problematic for a nation that also had to man a vast merchant fleet. Consequently, Britain's Navigation Acts were relaxed to allow more foreign sailors on its merchant vessels, while British sailors were pressed into naval service. Impressment became a year-round practice that targeted skilled sailors.

What also changed from the 1600s was England's intense focus on a single laboring class—deep sea mariners—to carry such a heavy burden for maintaining its empire. In the 1700s, the British government forced large numbers of its subjects, most notably convicts, to serve as settlers and workers in its overseas colonies, but no group paid a higher domestic cost for empire than sailors. Unlike every other major group of forced laborers in the British Empire, seamen were not targeted primarily for their race, class, or ethnicity, but for their talents. (35)

Despite complaints over the violations of English liberties, impressment remained indispensable to the maintenance of naval superiority. In 1696, an attempt to raise sailors through a naval registry like those of England's European competitors failed since sailors would not register because the government did not provide regular bounties and support for widows.

Given the weak, decentralized nature of the British Empire, impressment represented an efficient, economical way to tap the manpower of sailors on land and at sea. At the same time, however, press gang abuse and mounting criticism that impressment retarded the English merchant marine led to reforms after the Nine Years' War restricting it to inbound vessels. Parliament also began to exempt men engaged in vital trades, over- and underage sailors, foreigners, masters, and chief mates, among others. In order to better manage impressment, the navy created an impress service, but never extended it to the colonies. Instead various ad hoc arrangements gradually created working "cultures of impressment." When naval officers violated these local understandings, violent protests sometimes ensued.

An Order in Council of 1696 shifted the power of impressment in the Western Hemisphere from individual captains to local governors, which necessitated their cooperation. During the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), these earlier limitations fell away and a ban on impressment (deserters excepted) was imposed in the Western Hemisphere, the so-called "Sixth of Anne" or Act for the Encouragement of Trade to America (1708). In the aftermath of the war, it remained unclear whether impressment was legal in the colonies. In the West Indies, officials worried that it would endanger their transatlantic trade and trigger slave revolts. Naval officers managed to circumvent local sensibilities by seizing sailors outside of colonial jurisdictions, especially Africans and Indians, and by taking sailors from outgoing rather than incoming vessels, lest impressment cause slave revolts aboard ships or in the colonies. Governors in the West Indies regularly came to agreements with naval officers to make impressment function smoothly. By contrast, naval officers found it more difficult to make deals with mainland North American governors, who often faced constituencies strongly opposed to impressment.

In the second half of his book, Brunsman examines impressment from the sailors' perspective. Resistance was common as a matter of course, for impressment took men away from their families and more rewarding work lives. Even so, many men, once impressed, did not resist, in part because of the persuasive power of naval discipline, but also because of the attractions of regular provisions (particularly the alcohol ration), routine working conditions, camaraderie with fellow sailors, and better medical care and pensions than were available in the merchant marine. Rather than stressing ideological factors, Brunsman adduces the handling of slave resistance to put resistance to impressment in its proper context.[5]

Ever in motion, sailors faced an endless series of contingent situations that demanded hard choices. It should not come as a surprise that in exercising their agency, mariners more often than not pursued their own self-interest. This self-interest led them to make decisions that may appear ideologically inconsistent to us—fighting the British state one day, fighting for it the next. But to truly understand the world of early modern seafarers, we must resist imposing on them our standards for logical and consistent action. (169)

Not all men saw impressment the same way. Indeed, African slaves and apprentices often wished to be impressed into service, in hopes of receiving compensation and their freedom after a conflict. The most blatant form of resistance, desertion, generally occurred in the first year of a sailor's impressment, but other acts of opposition were more common. These did not occur as large-scale, concerted efforts, but as individual, usually minor, rules violations. Such infractions amounted, Brunsman writes, to negotiations by sailors with officers over their treatment rather than serious attempts by the impressed to secure their release. In general, shipboard resistance tended to be sporadic acts by individuals rather than collective or politically motivated insurrections, the Naval Mutinies of 1797 being a notable exception.

When it did take place, collective resistance was highly political and manifested itself in riots, especially when press gangs failed to recognize the local cultural parameters governing impressment. Such riots exposed the weakness of British imperial authority. The North American colonies, given their distance from the imperial center, activist provincial governments, and small numbers of seamen, were particularly prone to riots. The most significant of these—the 1747 Knowles riots in Boston—occurred when Admiral Charles Knowles violated accepted practice by taking men from Massachusetts rather than from outside the colony and by seizing sailors from both incoming and outgoing vessels. Knowles mistakenly felt free to act more heavy-handedly in the colonies than he might have done in Britain. The decentralized empire's ongoing reliance on impressment raised substantial opposition on the imperial margins, whose populations feared violations of their liberty.

This richly detailed and variegated account of British impressment in the eighteenth century avoids the interpretive pitfalls of both Marxist histories of resistance and admiring nationalistic accounts. The organization of the work facilitates this evenhanded approach, as Brunsman examines the structural issues of impressment in the book's first part, then shifts focus to the experience of individuals in the second. This occasionally leads to repetition since, once the cultures of impressment are detailed, the outlines of local resistance become clear. But this is a quibble about an excellent work that sets a new standard of scholarship on its topic. The Evil Necessity will appeal strongly to naval historians as well as students of nationalism, the British Empire, Early America, and the Atlantic World.[6]

[1] The manuscript of the book won the 2012 Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for outstanding manuscript in eighteenth-century studies.

[2] Brunsman has previously coedited Revolutionary Detroit: Portraits in Political and Cultural Change, 1760–1805 (Detroit: Detroit Hist Soc, 2009); Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development (NY: Routledge, 2010); Border Crossings: The Detroit River Region in the War of 1812 (Detroit: Detroit Hist Soc, 2012); and The American Revolution Reader (NY: Routledge, 2013).

[3] See, e.g., Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Pr, 2000), and Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750 (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 1987).

[4] See, e.g., N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (NY: Norton, 1986), and John Brewer, Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783 (Cambridge: Harvard U Pr, 1988).

[5] See Walter Johnson, "On Agency," Journal of Social History 37 (2003) 113–24, and Gerald W. Mullins, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1972).

[6] In his epilogue, Brunsman lays the groundwork for a future study of impressment from the aftermath of the French and Indian War through the War of 1812.

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