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What is Impressment?

In the 13th century, the British Navy would kidnap able-bodied men from port towns and force them into service as sailors.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2014
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Impressment, commonly known as press-ganging, is a practice where people are forced to serve on ships or in the military. The British navy was notorious for using this practice, which started in the 13th century and continued up until the mid 1800s. Individuals who were impressed were seized from places like taverns and restaurants in port towns and dragged on board a ship to serve as sailors. Being forced into the military was less common, but still occurred, especially when soldiers were needed for remote conflicts.

Conditions in the navy and military of most European nations were very difficult through the 1800s. Sailors especially contended with extreme living conditions that included exposure to dangerous diseases, limited food, brutal punishment, and long trips away from home. As a result, voluntary enlistment sometimes did not supply enough manpower. A press gang of particularly strong sailors would be assembled to capture able men to fill the crew complement.

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Able-bodied men, typically those between the ages of 18 and about 45, were at risk for impressment, whether or not they were sailors. Skilled sailors were preferred, of course, and some press gangs would wait on the docks around incoming ships to grab those who had just been discharged. Any individual who was in decent physical condition could be swept up by a press gang, however, and while this practice was only supposed to apply to British citizens, others were captured as well. At sea, British officers could stop ships from other nations to look for escapees from the Navy, and they often seized this opportunity to impress sailors from other nations as well.

The British Navy was not the only national military to increase its manpower in this way; the Dutch and French practiced it as well. Mercantile ships would also often use press gangs to fill out their crew, especially ships used in the slave trade. Sailors tried to avoid slave ships because of the brutal conditions on board, and the men who volunteered to serve on slavers were usually in desperate situations.

A press gang would usually be headed by an officer of the ship, who would select a crew of strong and ruthless sailors to help him capture men. Initially, a gang might approach a man with an offer of employment, in an attempt to get him to come along willingly. If this failed, they would use brute force to capture the sailor, bringing him on board the ship and not allowing him up on deck until the ship had sailed, in order to minimize escapes.

When military conscription began to become more widespread, impressment fell out of favor. It was sometimes used to enforce conscription, but more frequently, it appeared in the form of a threat. Young men who wanted to evade conscription would send others in their place to avoid the appearance of a press gang, and the military was more concerned with numbers of conscripts than it was with their identities. By the 1800s, many nations had outlawed the practice of forcing men to serve in this way as an unlawful and morally questionable activity.

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