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press-gangs

press-gangs. The British crown possessed an ancient right to seize for naval service ‘seamen, seafaring men and persons whose occupations or callings are to work upon vessels and boats upon rivers’. The 18th-cent. jurist Blackstone stated that ‘The power of impressing men for the sea service by the royal commission … is of very ancient date, and has been uniformly continued by a regular series of precedents.’ The power was implicitly recognized in statutes from the late 14th cent. onwards. The term ‘impress’ derives from the ‘imprest’ money paid to recruits for the armed forces. Several attempts to replace this system of arbitrary conscription failed. A 1696 scheme for registering seamen for limited periods of service was abandoned in 1711. Pitt's Quota Acts of 1795 also failed to remove the need for impressment. Press-gangs hunting seamen came either from individual warships or from the Impress Service which developed within the navy in the later 18th cent. and reached its peak of sophistication during the Napoleonic War. In 1809 the service employed 24 captains and 56 lieutenants. With death rates in the navy very high, particularly in the West Indies, seizure by a press-gang was no light matter. Impressment fell into disuse after 1815, as social changes made its harshness unacceptable, but no satisfactory alternative for manning the navy was developed until much later in the 19th cent.

Norman McCord

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