by Thomas McCord
The first and arguably the most influential conflict between Jack Tar and the British was that of impressment. Impressment was the act of seizing seamen and forcing them to work on vessels, particularly in times of war. Impressment was a common practice for the British in the colonies. As far back as 1697, the British had dealt with their lack of seamen through the use of impressment, taking seamen off of colonial trade vessels.
Impressment had a severe two-pronged economic effect on the port. The navy mostly pressed seamen from trade vessels, reducing the number of men available to man the ships integral to trade. Furthermore, impressment deterred the seamen still available to work on trade vessels from doing so, for fear that they too might be pressed into service in the navy. So, as the navy pressed more men into service, few of the remaining men were willing to ship out on merchant vessels. Thus British impressment had a doubly detrimental affect on trade coming out of the port by removing seamen from trade vessels and frightening the remaining workforce away.
Impressment had a severe psychological impact on the port as well. When the British were particularly desperate for men, they would come on land looking for seamen. Although given instructions to only press seamen, the British would often press regular citizens into service. One of the most egregious examples of this occurred in the spring of 1757, during the French-Indian War. A man named Lord Loudon was attempting to assemble a fleet but was suffering from a diminished labor force because of the fear of impressment by another, less scrupulous British vessel, and the opportunity to join more lucrative privateer vessels. Despite promises of protection from impressment, Loudon resorted to more extreme measures after his voyage was delayed in May due to a lack of crew.
At two in the morning, on the Twentieth of May, Loudon and a handful of marines surrounded New York and systematically moved through the city, impressing not only deserted seamen, but many other townsmen as well. By the time the operation ended at sunrise, approximately one quarter of New York's male population had been pressed to service. Half of this number was eventually released, while the other half was pressed to service on Loudon's fleet. However, even with half of those taken returned, New York must have felt the effects of one eighth of the male population disappearing overnight.
Seamen did not respond kindly to the act of impressments and fought back, often resulting in fatalities of both the seamen and the British sailors attempting to impress them. Even once pressed to service, rarely did seamen serve their new vessels loyally. Desertion was common among pressed sailors, and in times of war a captain could not rely upon pressed sailors to follow orders or even remain on board.
Despite the clear restrictions on freedom which impressment imposed upon seamen, and an act was passed by Parliament in 1708 banning impressment in the colonies. Still, the practice continued up until the American Revolution. By the time more direct conflicts between England and her colonies arose, the seamen of New York were already well acquainted with the struggle against England for freedom.
For more on the seamen's involvement leading up to the Revolution, click here.
Lemisch, Jesse. "Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America." The William and Mary Quarterly, no. 25 (1968): 371-407.
Lemisch, Jesse. Jack Tar vs. John Bull; the role of New York's seamen in precipitating the Revolution. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1997.
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