- The Press Gang: Naval Impressment and its Opponents in Georgian Britain
The Press Gang is based on evidence drawn from an extensive range of primary sources, the most important being the correspondence and papers of the Admiralty (The National Archives, Kew, London: ADM 1) and an array of contemporary newspapers and pamphlets. In analysing such material, Professor Rogers provides a comprehensive, engaging account of the deployment of the Impress Service to address the “manning problem” experienced by the Royal Navy, especially during the frequent wars of the era. Particular attention is afforded to the efforts of seafarers, maritime communities and local administrators to resist the press gangs, a facet of the subject that has hitherto lacked a rigorous appraisal. There is also much to interest historians of the merchant shipping industry, privateering, the fisheries, the inland waterways and other employers of men who were “used to the sea” and therefore liable to be pressed into naval service. Moreover, Professor Rogers reflects upon the Navy in the emergence of a “British identity” as well as representations of impressment in Victorian literature.
This wide-ranging appraisal is presented in thematic chapters that focus on the legal status of impressment, resistance to this coercive form of enlistment, case studies of the operation of press gangs in Bristol and Liverpool, the recruitment of naval manpower in the colonies, and the nation’s identification with the Navy in the 1793–1815 wars. Within this structure, the author mixes detailed accounts of particular incidents with broader considerations of the ramifications and significance of impressment in political, military, social and cultural terms. Although generally effective, the analysis is not without shortcomings, notably with regard to topics that are peripheral to the central themes of the book. For example, the role of privateering in the economy of mid-eighteenth century Liverpool is overstated. Liverpudlians were not “passionate about privateering”, nor was there a “privateering interest” in the port (p. 69). Rather, it was only during the 1778–1781 phase of the American Revolutionary War, when other opportunities were severely constrained, that investors turned to privateering on a large scale. And, as Professor Rogers perceptively reveals, it was during this period of commercial dislocation and its corollaries, unemployment and industrial conflict, that a seemingly paradoxical situation emerged in which impressment was both productive of recruits and resisted with vigour by the local population (p. 73). [End Page 1327]
Such caveats aside, this study is rich in evidence, balanced, multi-dimensional and subtly argued. Professor Rogers amply demonstrates that impressment was a symptom and partial cause of an imperfect labour market, a facet of state policy that was both accepted and contested by contemporaries, and a device that the Navy implemented in various ways with varying degrees of success. Armed with detailed data and sharp insight, he fires telling broadsides at the scholarly literature on maritime manpower. In particular, he challenges N. A. M. Rodger’s view that the Navy was generally a benevolent institution (pp. 13–14), takes issue with the notion of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker that seafarers were “revolutionary” (pp. 14–15), and disputes Linda Colley’s contentions regarding the “making of Britishness” in the early nineteenth century (pp. 103–11). The Press Gang therefore constitutes a very valuable contribution to the literature on seafaring labour in the early modern era.
Hull, United Kingdom