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.
Drawing on 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 1812.
Early American HistoriesWinner of the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for an Outstanding Work of Scholarship in Eighteenth-Century Studies
Denver Brunsman's examination of British impressment in the Atlantic world emphasizes the importance of sailors to British global power, and the clash of ideas with the American colonies that helped to spark both the War of Independence and the War of 1812 and that sustained Anglo-American antagonism down to the 1860s. It remains a potent metaphor for the tyranny of King George.
The first book-length study of British naval impressments in a transatlantic context, The Evil Necessity tells the fascinating story of impressments in the British and British colonial world. Denver Brunsman is a fine storyteller and an excellent writer, who offers a highly original piece of scholarship on a subject that has received remarkably little scholarly attention
The author reproduces some engaging engravings and provides a rich bibliography; his research is as thorough as his writing is fine. Given Brunsman's interest in liberty, his book especially reveals impressment's costs to individuals and to their families. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, faculty.
Impressment remains a potent metaphor for the tyranny of George III. The author reproduces some engaging engravings and provides a rich bibliography; his research is as thorough as his writing is fine. Given Brunsman's interest in liberty, his book especially reveals impressment's costs to individuals and to their families. Summing Up: Recommended.
Denver Brunsman, Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University, is an editor of both Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development and Revolutionary Detroit: Portraits in Political and Cultural Change, 1760–1805.