Overcoming Impressment


by Steve Gibbs

Great Britain, being engaged in war, claims a right to the services of all her natural-born subjects…This duty of allegiance is not only universal, or applicable of every subject, but I indefeasible, and cannot be put off. – W. Cowles (1)

To the natural-born subjects of “sea-faring” character, this duty to the state stipulated impressment into service of the Royal Navy. Service in the Royal Navy was for the majority a harsh life with few rights. One seaman, Johnathon corncob, recounts refusing an order to climb up the riggings of a sail during a gale after seeing two other men fall to their deaths following the same order. After receiving dozens of lashes, a more seasoned sailor advised Corncob that his “lenient” punishment was “a little sample” of naval discipline that was comparatively “a tickling.” (2) given this, it is neither little surprise that many likened the Royal Navy to floating Hell nor a surprise that recruitment involved coercion.

Although the British Empire venerated liberty in word, impressments demonstrated that it exalted coercion in deed. During the Napoleonic Wars, 3000 men worked as members of press gangs, Armed with sly toungues and clubs, press gangs duped subjects or lead them away in shackles to years in forced military service. Press gangs targeted those with least social power such as the poor criminals, and private seamen demanding higher wages. One man asserted that if he had known that he was destined to be impressed, he “would have instantly committed the horrid crime of self-murder.”(3)

This state repression did not go unchallenged. Many Maritimers, particularly Nova Scotians, found work as Privateers as an alternative to the Royal Navy. As state sanctioned pirates, privateers worked in relatively relaxed hierarchy, gained higher wages, and were legally, though not always in practice, exempt from impressments. Nevertheless, impressment at sea remained so feared by privateer that some British Privateers reportedly jumped from their ships to take their chances in the sea or as Spanish prisoners rather than be rescued by the British Navy.(4)

While formal petitions to curb the practice came from the privileged upper class of Nova Scotia, it was the direct action of those most affected by impressments that lead to its downfall. Thousands of person evading press gangs, carrying false American identity papers or deserting made this system of forced military service unworkable on the ground. It is estimated that 27 300 persons deserted suggesting that the Royal Navy lost as many men as it gained. In fact by some calculations, because of this resistance, the Navy lost more personnel than it impressed.(5)

(1) Author unspecified. The right and practice of Impressment as concerning Great Britain and America Considered. London. Printer for J. Murray, 50, Albemerable-street. By W.coles, Northumberland-Court, Strand, 1814. P. 3, 5.
(2) Jonathon Corncob. Adventures of corncob, loyal American refugee, Written by himself. London 1787. P. 155
(3) Kert, Margaret Faye. Research in Maritime History No.1: Prize and Prejudice: Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada in the war of 1812. 1997. P. 120
(4) Conlin, Dan. A private war in the Caribbean: Nova Scotia Privateering 193-1805. Thesis St. Mary U. 1996. P. 108
(5)Kert Margaret Faye. P.


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