Men of War: British Sailors and the Impressment Paradox

In: Journal of Early Modern History

Abstract

In the long eighteenth century, the British Royal Navy established dominance of the seas with the widely despised forced labor system of impressment. Previous attempts at explaining this paradox have erred either in deemphasizing the devastating personal and communal costs of impressment or by stressing that the navy’s oppressive system of discipline left sailors with no choice but to serve admirably. In fact, sailors exercised their agency both by resisting British press-gangs and by serving to the best of their ability on naval vessels. The British navy created incentives that appealed to mariners’ professional self-interests and male gender aspirations. Through naval service, sailors regained some of their dignity and sense of manhood that capture by press-gangs had taken away.

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