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The Evil Necessity

British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

Denver Brunsman

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

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-4

Contents

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pp. v-5

Illustrations

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pp. vi-6

Acknowledgments

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pp. vi-xii

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Introduction

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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...

I. Empire

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1. Imperial Design

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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 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...

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2. Ruling the Waves

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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 by philosophes, political commentators, and early humanitarians but by British statesmen, including Admiralty officials. Rather than complain that impressment was...

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3. Cultures of Impressment

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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...

II. Sailors

chapter 4 | Men of War

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pp. 139-170

chapter 5 | Everyday Escapes

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pp. 171-209

chapter6 | Atlantic Impressment Riots

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pp. 210-240

Epilogue

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pp. 241-252

Notes

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pp. 253-306

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 307-350

Index

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pp. 351-364


E-ISBN-13: 9780813933528
E-ISBN-10: 0813933528
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813933511
Print-ISBN-10: 081393351X

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Early American Histories

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Great Britain -- History, Naval -- 18th century.
  • Great Britain. Royal Navy -- History -- 18th century.
  • Impressment -- Great Britain -- History -- 18th century.
  • Impressment -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Sailors -- Great Britain -- History -- 18th century.
  • Sailors -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Imperialism -- History -- 18th century.
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