A fundamental component of Britain’s early success, naval
impressment not only kept the Royal Navy afloat—it helped to make an empire. In total numbers,
impressed seamen were second only to enslaved Africans as the largest group of forced laborers
in the eighteenth century.
In The Evil Necessity, Denver
Brunsman describes in vivid detail the experience of impressment for Atlantic seafarers and
their families. Brunsman reveals how forced service robbed approximately 250,000 mariners of
their livelihoods, and, not infrequently, their lives, while also devastating Atlantic seaport
communities and the loved ones who were left behind. Press gangs, consisting of a navy officer
backed by sailors and occasionally local toughs, often used violence or the threat of violence
to supply the skilled manpower necessary to establish and maintain British naval supremacy.
Moreover, impressments helped to unite Britain and its Atlantic coastal territories in a common
system of maritime defense unmatched by any other European empire.
ships’ logs, merchants’ papers, personal letters and diaries, as well as engravings,
political texts, and sea ballads, Brunsman shows how ultimately the controversy over impressment
contributed to the American Revolution and served as a leading cause of the War of
Early American HistoriesWinner of the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for an
Outstanding Work of Scholarship in Eighteenth-Century Studies