AskDefine | Define impressment

Dictionary Definition

impressment n : the act of coercing someone into government service [syn: impress]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The act of seizing for public use, or of impressing into public service.


Extensive Definition

Impressment (colloquially, "the Press" or "press-ganging") is the act of conscripting people to serve in the military or navy, usually by force and without notice. It was used by the Royal Navy, beginning in 1664, during the 18th century and early 19th century, in time of war as a means of crewing warships, although legal sanction for the practice goes back to the time of King Edward I. The Royal Navy impressed many British merchant sailors, as well as some sailors from other nations. People liable to impressment were eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 55 years, though very rarely non-seamen were impressed as well. If they believed that they were impressed unfairly, pressed men were able to submit appeals to the Admiralty, and those appeals were often successful. The navy had little interest in impressing people who were not ordinary or able seamen, since they would be of no use on board a ship. Impressment was strongly criticised by those who believed it to be contrary to the British constitution — unlike many of its continental rivals, Britain did not conscript its subjects for any other military service aside from a brief experiment with army impressment in 1778–80, and the public opposed conscription in general — but as impressment was deemed vital to the strength of the navy and, by extension, to the survival of the realm, it was repeatedly upheld by the courts. The impressment of seamen from American ships caused serious tensions between Britain and the United States in the years leading up to the War of 1812. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Britain ended the practice and never resumed it.

Royal Navy recruiting and desertion

Working and living conditions for the average sailor in the Royal Navy in the middle of the 18th century, though harsh by modern standards, were generally better than conditions on British merchant ships (and often better than conditions on land for the poor), but pay was normally lower than in merchantmen. The main problem with recruiting, though, was a simple lack of qualified seamen at time of war, when it was necessary to launch many additional warships — privateers, the navy, and the merchant navy all competed for a small pool of ordinary and able seamen in wartime, and all three groups were usually short-handed. Impressment sometimes forced sailors to serve on navy ships when they did not want to, but on the other hand, it also gave them an exit from their engagement with merchant ships, with full back-salary paid by the merchant.
One of the largest impressment operations occurred in the spring of 1757 in New York City, then still under British colonial rule. Three thousand British soldiers cordoned off the city and plucked clean the taverns and other gathering places of sailors. "All kinds of tradesmen and Negroes" were hauled in, nearly eight hundred in all. Four hundred of these were "retained in the service".
All three groups also dealt with high levels of desertion, as seamen moved about frequently looking for the best deal and most comfortable working conditions. In the middle of the 18th century, desertion rates on naval ships were about the same for volunteers and pressed men, starting high, then falling heavily after a few months onboard a ship, and generally becoming negligible after a year — navy pay ran months or years in arrears, and desertion might mean not only abandoning companions in the ship's company, but also the loss of a large amount of money already earned (though authorities were sometimes lenient on this point). If a navy ship had taken a prize, a deserting seaman would also forfeit his share of the prize money.

The Impress Service and impressment at sea

The Impress Service was formed to force sailors to serve on naval vessels (there was no concept of joining the navy for non-officers at the time), based legally on the power of the King to call men to military service, as well as to recruit volunteers (who were paid a bounty upon joining, unlike pressed men). The Royal Navy also impressed seamen from inbound British merchant ships at sea, though this was done by individual warships rather than the Impress Service. Impressment, particularly press gangs, were consistently unpopular with the British public (as well as in the American colonies), and local officials often acted against them, to the point of imprisoning officers from the Impressment Service or opposing them by force of arms. However, about half of the seamen the Impressment Service brought in were volunteers, not pressed men (though some might have volunteered to make the best of a bad situation, avoiding impressment and collecting the volunteer bounty), and popular captains and other naval officers were often petitioned by sailors to be allowed to join their ships' companies.
In addition to impressment, England also used the Quota System (or The Quod) from 1795 to 1815, where each county was required to supply a certain number of volunteers based on its population and the number of its seaports. Unlike impressment, the Quota System often resulted in criminals or inexperienced landsmen serving on board ship.
Impressment was usually abandoned in peacetime, since there was a surplus of seamen available and willing to work in the navy, and merchant ship salaries usually fell, making them a less attractive alternative.

Conflict with the United States

In 1795 the Jay Treaty went into effect, addressing many issues left unresolved after the American Revolution and averting a renewed conflict. However, the treaty neglected to address British impressment of sailors from American ships and ports, a major cause of complaint among those who disapproved of the treaty.
During the wars with France (1793 to 1815), the Royal Navy aggressively reclaimed British deserters on board ships of other nations, both by halting and searching merchant ships, and in many cases, by searching American port cities. While non-British subjects were not impressed, Britain did not recognise naturalised American citizenship and treated anyone born a British subject as still "British" — as a result, the Royal Navy impressed over 6,000 sailors who claimed to be American citizens. While not directly mentioned as a reason for the declaration of war in the War of 1812, impressment caused serious diplomatic tension and helped to turn American public opinion against Britain.

End of impressment

British impressment ended in practice after 1814, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars — the Royal Navy fought no major naval actions again until World War I, a century later, when conscription was used for all the military services.

British naval impressment laws

Impressment is an ancient practice. The first act legalising this practice was passed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth in 1563 and is known as "an act touching politick considerations for the maintenance of the navy". It was renewed multiple times until 1631. In the Vagabonds Act 1597, several lists of persons were subject to impressment for service in the fleet. The Recruiting Act 1703 was an act passed "for the increase of seamen and better encouragement of navigation, and the protection of the Coal Trade". This act gave parish authorities the power to apprentice boys to the sea and reaffirmed rogues and vagabonds were subject to be pressed into the navy. In 1740, impressment was limited to men between eighteen and fifty-five and it also exempted foreigners. The last law was passed in 1835 in which the power to impress was reaffirmed. This law limited the length of service of a pressed man to five years and added the provision that a man could not be pressed twice. Although Britain abandoned impressment in practice in 1815, impressment remained legal until the early 1900's. The various laws authorising impressment have not been repealed.
In 1708, parliament passed a law forbidding impressment in American waters, without clearly stating whether the law applied only to the navy or to civil authorities as well, and whether it applied only to the current war or to all future wars. Two attorneys general of Great Britain, one in 1716 and another in 1740 issued opinions that the law was no longer in effect, but many American colonists disagreed. As a result of the doubt over the legality of impressment in American waters, parliament passed a new law in 1746 stating that impressment was forbidden in the West Indies but not in America, leading to a riot in Boston the following year and continued tensions with the colonies, particularly New England.

British army impressment laws

Starting in 1645, the New Model Army raised by Oliver Cromwell to overthrow Charles I during the English Civil War was largely manned by impressment. After the restoration of the monarchy, impressment into the army was discontinued.
During the American Revolutionary War, after the losses at the Battle of Saratoga and the apprehended hostilities with France, the existing voluntary enlistment measures were judged to be insufficient. Between 1775 and 1781 the regular army increased from 48,000 to 110,000. Two acts were passed, the Recruiting Act 1778 and the Recruiting Act 1779 for the impression of individuals into the British Army. The chief advantages of these acts was in the number of volunteers brought in under the apprehension of impressment. To avoid impressment, some recruits incapacitated themselves by cutting off the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. The Recruiting Act of 1779 was repealed on May 26, 1780, and army impressment was permanently discontinued.
During the experiment, the British government allowed army impressment under severely restricted circumstances — both acts emphasised volunteering over impressment, and offered strong incentives to volunteers. The impressment portion of the 1778 act applied only to Scotland and the area around London, excluding Wales and the rest of England to avoid interfering with harvesting; the 1779 act applied to all of Great Britain, but was initially suspended everywhere except the area around London, and actually applied to all of Great Britain for only six months until the 1779 act as repealed in May 1780 and army impressment ceased in Britain.
Unlike naval impressment, army impressment applied only to "able-bodied idle, and disorderly Persons, who could not, upon Examination, prove themselves to exercise and industriously follow some lawful Trade or Employment, or to have some Substance sufficient for their Support and Maintenance" as well as smugglers according to the 1778 law, but excluding from that any men who were voters or harvest workers. The 1779 law extended impressment also to "incorrigible rogues" who had abandoned their families and left them as expenses on the parish. Impressed apprentices were released under appeal from their masters, and impressed foreigners were released when requested by their countries' embassies.

See also



  • Cray, Robert E., “Remembering the USS Chesapeake: The Politics of Maritime. Death and Impressment,” Journal of the Early Republic (Fall 2005) vol 25
  • Curtis, Edward, The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution. 1972, ISBN 0854099069
  • Nash, Gary, The Urban Crucible, The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution, 1986, ISBN 0674930584
  • Roger, N.A.M. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. W.W. Norton and Company, 1986.
  • Roger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
  • Anthony Steel, "Impressment in the Monroe-Pinkney Negotiation, 1806-1807," The American Historical Review, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Jan., 1952), pp. 352-369 online in JSTOR
  • Roland G. Usher, Jr. "Royal Navy Impressment During the American Revolution," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Mar., 1951), pp. 673-688 online in JSTOR
  • Smith, Page, A new age now begins, 1976, ISBN 0070590974

External links

  • The Impress Service, basic article on "press gangs" in British ports, charged with impressing sailors into the Navy.
  • Pressed Men: example of impressment of HMS Pandora crew in 1790.
impressment in German: Schanghaien

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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