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When John Stradley was discharged from the HMS Grafton during the American Revolution, he “fear[ed] of being Presst as I cum hom to take employment.” Stradley’s concerns proved well founded. Despite returning home with a certificate of protection and working in an armory making armaments for the Royal Navy, Stradley was, in fact, impressed. British sailors had reason to share Stradley’s anxiety of “being caught in the dog’s heels” of an impressment gang; approximately 250,000 British seamen were impressed during the long eighteenth century. Why were so many British seamen forcibly compelled to serve in the King’s navy? And what were the effects of this system of coerced labor? In The Evil Necessity, Denver Brunsman provides compelling answers to these questions while demonstrating the diversity of impressment cultures throughout the Atlantic.
Historians have generally fallen into two camps in analyzing impressment. N. A. M. Rodger has depicted it involving little violence, while Marcus Redicker, Jesse Lemish, and others have portrayed impressment as a tool of capitalistic exploitation that seamen resisted. While Brunsman devotes the second half of The Evil Necessity to an analysis of the lived experiences of impressed seamen, his primary focus is a consideration of the importance of impressment in the creation of the British overseas empire. In Brunsman’s analysis, it was the British blue-water imperial policy—the desire to maintain a vibrant mercantilist system while expanding naval forces during wartime—that best explained the central role of impressment in imperial expansion of the British. With the empire reliant upon tax revenue generated by its merchant fleet, it used a system of higher wages for merchant seamen and impressment for naval ships during wartime that managed to strike a balance between merchants’ and naval manpower needs. As Brunsman so pithily summarizes the situation: “no sailors, no navy; no navy, no empire” (p. 9). [End Page 120]
Brunsman convincingly demonstrates that the British desire to maintain a vast overseas empire also helps explain why, despite impressment being seen by many Britons as a threat to individual liberty, it was employed through the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The deep connection between war and commerce, the British desire to maintain their blue-water policy, and their fear of centralized manpower systems, such as the French maritime register, all served to support the continuation of the coercive labor system.
A particular strength of this book is its Atlantic approach to the subject of impressment. Employed wherever the Royal Navy might lack for men, impressment was an institution that connected the British maritime community across the globe. Through a detailed analysis of how individual officers, such as admirals Edmund Vernon and Charles Knowles, used impressment based upon their understanding of local politics, labor markets, and maritime practices, Brunsman deftly offers a depiction of how this coercive labor system was molded by negotiations between colonial officials and naval personnel, the resistance of seamen, and the experience over time of naval officers. Thus, while impressment practices in England were to press mostly men from in-bound merchant ships, so as to maintain a vibrant commercial sector during wartime, in the West Indies such a practice proved impractical. When English merchants in the region began to trade with foreign colonies rather than face a loss of seamen to impressment, Admiral Vernon adjusted the impressments to account for local conditions. His captains began to inspect all outgoing vessels to find deserters, banned impressment from American coasters that carried vital supplies to the islands, and, to avoid uprisings on inbound slave ships, allowed slave ships to dock before seizing seamen from them. In detailing Vernon’s and other naval officers’ efforts to balance mercantile interests and naval manning needs Brunsman effectively demonstrates the centrality of the British blue-water policy to the maintenance of the impressment system and at the same time reinforces his contention that impressment was experienced differently in the various regions of the Atlantic. [End Page 121]
With this book, Brunsman...