The Evil Necessity
British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
Publication Year: 2013
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.
In The 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
Published by: University of Virginia Press
Series: Early American Histories
Title Page, Copyright
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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...
1. Imperial Design
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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 comedy The World in a Village, seamen would not be at risk of capture. Officers in the press gangs advertised the terms of their off er in the theater’s playbill: “Lieutenant Kelly, Lieutenant King, and...
2. Ruling the Waves
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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 by philosophes, political commentators, and early humanitarians but by British statesmen, including Admiralty officials. Rather than complain that impressment was...
3. Cultures of Impressment
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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...
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Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2013
Series Title: Early American Histories