Not a stranger to risk and chance . . .
Lawrence was not a stranger to risk and to chance: he knew that Providence had spared him the pox that had killed one older brother and the fever that had taken another, leaving him heir to his father’s merchant-house. His years before the mast had taught him the dangers of the sea firsthand, and his work in his father’s firm had taught him the less proximate but more readily calculable chances of ships lost, cargoes spoiled, prices collapsing, and markets drying up. He knew that residing in Lisbon he would risk death by earthquake, by epidemic, by a return of the political upheavals which had followed the French incursion into Iberia, outbreaks of revolution and anarchy in which foreigners were not spared but targeted. And he knew that by traveling to Lisbon he was facing the perils of the sea: a storm might sink the packet; a fever might sweep the ship and kill so many of the crew and passengers that it would arrive at its destination almost a ghost-ship.
Lawrence had not, however, feared impressment. That was a fear of common sailors, spoken of in hammocks and in the tops and at the scuttlebutt when he himself shipped before the mast a dozen years before, but a fear he had left behind after that apprentice voyage. For the common sailors, impressment was one of the perils they took in stride, along with the perils of storm, work aloft in bad weather, illness, maltreatment . . . .
Lawrence blushed at the ignoble thought, one which would have been expressed only incompletely and complicitously in a Boston drawing-room by one merchant to another. They well knew though seldom said that they had profited from the risks born by the merchant seamen. They knew well that among the calculations of profit and loss, the chance of impressment was borne only by the common seaman: the merchants stood to lose specie, bank notes, negotiable bills, choice parts of cargo to boarding parties, and occasionally an entire ship to a British prize court, but it was only the common sailor who bore the risk of impressment. Moreover—as Lawrence had invariably heard his peers say when their calculated indifference to the danger of impressment of sailors trailed off in ellipses—what could be done? War with Britain? How vain would be war against the Mistress of the Seas, since Trafalgar the unchallenged naval power of all the world!