Impressment, or removing seamen from U.S. merchant vessels and forcing them to serve on behalf of the British, was one of the main causes of the War of 1812, according to most sources. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), the Royal Navy expanded to 175 ships of the line and 600 ships overall, requiring 140,000 sailors to man. While the Royal Navy could man its ships with volunteers in peacetime, it competed in wartime with merchant shipping and privateers for a small pool of experienced sailors and turned to impressment when it could not operate ships with volunteers alone. Britain did not recognize the right of a British subject to relinquish his status as a British subject, emigrate and transfer his national allegiance as a naturalized citizen to any other country. Thus while the United States recognized British-born sailors on American ships as Americans, Britain did not.
The United States believed that British deserters had a right to become United States citizens. Britain did not recognize naturalized United States citizenship, so in addition to recovering deserters, it considered United States citizens born British liable for impressment. Aggravating the situation was the widespread use of forged identity or protection papers by sailors. This made it difficult for the Royal Navy to distinguish Americans from non-Americans and led it to impress some Americans who had never been British. (Some gained freedom on appeal.)] American anger at impressment grew when British frigates were stationed just outside U.S. harbours in view of U.S. shores and searched ships for contraband and impressed men while in U.S. territorial waters. “Free trade and sailors’ rights” was a rallying cry for the United States throughout the conflict.
Between 1803 and 1812, approximately 5,000-9,000 American sailors were forced into the Royal Navy with as many as three-quarters being legitimate American citizens. Though the American government repeatedly protested the practice, British Foreign Secretary Lord Harrowby contemptuously wrote in 1804, “The pretention advanced by Mr. [Secretary of State James] Madison that the American flag should protect every individual on board of a merchant ship is too extravagant to require any serious refutation.”
The Royal Navy also used impressment extensively in British North America from 1775 to 1815. Its press gangs sparked resistance, riots, and political turmoil in seaports such as Halifax, St John’s, and Quebec City. In 1805 this led to a prohibition on impressment on shore for much of the Napoleonic Wars. The protest came from a wide swath of the urban community, including elites, rather than just the vulnerable sailors, and had a lasting negative impact on civil–naval relations in what became Canada. The local communities did not encourage their young men to volunteer for the Royal Navy.
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The brainchild of Arlee Bird, at Tossing it Out, the A to Z Challenge is posting every day in April except Sundays (we get those off for good behaviour.) And since there are 26 days, that matches the 26 letters of the alphabet. On April 1, we blog about something that begins with the letter “A.” April 2 is “B,” April 3 is “C,” and so on. Please visit other challenge writers.
My theme is ‘The War of 1812’, a military conflict, lasting for two-and-a-half years, fought by the United States of America against the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, its North American colonies, and its American Indian allies. The Memoirs of a British naval officer from the war is central to my novel “Seeking A Knife” – part of the Snowdon Shadows series.
Further reading on The War of 1812: