Most of what we perceive to be the ‘history’ of press-ganging is usually largely artistic interpretation and license. From Benjamin Britten’s opera, Billy Budd (1951), to Carry on Jack (1964), via lashings of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, what you will have seen is almost, totally inaccurate.
Why did press-ganging happen?
Strangely, but perhaps not unexpectedly, it came down to money. Naval pay, which seemed attractive in 1653, had funnily lost much of its allure by 1797, when it was finally increased – 144 years of stagnant wages proved little incentive to enlist.
When added to the fact that a staggering 50% of sailors might be lost to scurvy on any given voyage, one can see why persuasion was needed. After all, up to 25% of the entire force was deserting, annually. Writing in an official capacity in 1803, Nelson notes the figure of 42,000, in the previous 10 years.
In some ways, pressing looks from the outside like an elaborate game. At sea, merchant sailors could be pressed or replaced one-for-one by navy ships, giving the chance for good sailors to be pressed effectively in exchange for bad ones.
This effective piracy, was so prevalent, that even semi-decent crews of merchant ships would make lengthy detours, to avoid encounter with the Royal Navy. They effectively blackmailed the East India Company (no mean feat), with barricades preventing their movement and demanded a percentage of crew to carry on about their trade.
Not a nautical crime
Those who championed abolition were united in their vocal condemnation of pressing: it was an embarrassment to a country that prided itself on liberty, a paradox Voltaire picked up on in the famous anecdote of a Thames waterman extolling the virtues of British liberty one day, only to end up in chains – pressed – the next.
Rarely was violence needed or used, Pressing came with authority and should never be perceived as a nautical crime, unlike piracy, for example. It was on a far larger and wider scale and this was fully authorised by Parliament in times of war. For some unknown reason, sailors were not covered by Magna Carta and punishment by hanging was the penalty for refusing to be pressed (although the severity of the sentence greatly diminished over time).
Landlubbers were safe enough, as were non-coastal areas. Things had to be really bad for unskilled men to be desired on a ship’s deck. It was professional sailors usually at risk.
When did press-ganging begin?
The first Act of Parliament legalising this practice was passed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1563 and was known as “An Act touching political considerations for the maintenance of the navy”. In 1597 Elizabeth I’s ‘Vagabonds Act’, allowed the pressing of vagrants into service. Although pressing was first used exclusively by the Royal Navy in 1664, it reached its zenith in the 18th and 19th century.
Its use partly explains how such a small country as Great Britain could sustain such a world-beating navy, utterly disproportionate to its size. Pressganging was the simple answer. By 1695 an Act had been passed for the navy to have a permanent register of 30,000 men ready for any call-up. This was supposed to be without recourse to pressing, but if that had really been the case, there would have been little need for further legislation.
In addition, further acts of 1703 and 1740 were issued, limiting both the younger and older age-limits to between 18 and 55. To further reinforce the scale of these operations, in 1757 in still-British New York City, 3000 soldiers pressed 800 men, mainly from the docks and taverns.
By 1779 though things had grown desperate. Apprentices were released back to their masters. Even foreigners were being released upon request (as long as they hadn’t married a British subject, or served as a sailor), so the law was extended to include ‘Incorrigible Rogues…’ A bold and desperate move, that didn’t work. By May 1780 the Recruiting Act of the previous year was repealed and for the army at least, that was the permanent end of impressment.
Liberty at what cost?
The Navy, however, failed to see a problem. To illustrate the scale of operations, it’s wise to remember that in 1805, at the Battle of Trafalgar, over half the 120,000 sailors that constituted the Royal Navy were pressed. This had happened incredibly rapidly in what was known as a ‘hot-press’, sometimes issued by the Admiralty in times of national crisis. The Navy saw no moral conundrum using enslaved labour to promote and protect very British notions of liberty.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars and the onset of industrialization and redirected resources meant the end of and need for the vast six-figure sum of sailors in the British Navy. Yet even as late as 1835, laws were still being made on the subject. In this case, pressed service was limited to five years and a single term only.
In reality however, 1815 had meant the effective ending of Impressment. No more Napoleon, no need for pressing. Be warned though: like so many articles of British Parliamentary Constitutions, Pressing, or at least some aspects of it, remains legal and on the books.