Bad Luck and a Bleak Fate

     Americans tend to focus on the impressment of American merchant seamen by the British Navy, though British subjects ashore and afloat were in constant peril of the Impress Service, which was a sort of Selective Service mechanism in which the only element of selection was the bad luck in crossing paths with a Press Gang (often in combination with strong drink and strong-arm tactics) and being shanghaied to face a bleak fate.


      “It’s all the same if you dare to desert,” said the mainmast-man to those in the hammocks slung around him on the darkened gun-deck, “volunteer or ’pressed man, ’pressed ashore or ’pressed afloat.  Flogging if they need you, hanging if they don’t or you’ve brought complications upon yourself.”

     “I was ’pressed in a tavern in Norfolk,” said the mizzen-mast-man. “My brother and I had brought our flocks to market from Foulsham-on-Wensum.  Had a pint at the Maiden’s Head and a man offered to buy us another pint.  Woke up on a receiving ship at Yarmouth.”

     “Norfolk, Norfolkshire.  In The Broads,” said the mainmast-man to Edwin Lawrence.  “Not Norfolk, Virginia.  You Jonathans are ’pressed only at sea.  Stout-hearted Englishmen are ’pressed afloat and ’pressed ashore.”

     “Still,” said the erstwhile shepherd, “it could have been worse.  Four years on this frigate and I’m still alive.  Better to be at sea, with grog twice a day and food thrice, a hammock to sleep in.  My brother returned home to Foulsham but was caught in the next county levy.  Into the army, a red coat on him, two years in the Peninsula, two years marching behind Lord Wellesley’s arse up and down mountainsides in rain and mud, two years of sleeping on the ground, two years of fits and dysentery before a Frog bayoneted him, or so my cousin writes. Better the navy than the army, odds-on.”

     “There’s worse, and worst,” concluded the mainmast-man.  “My brother was with a coasting skiff at Rye one moonless night twelve years ago.  The Admiralty had posted a brig at the mouth of the Rother to intercept our own cartel ship, bringing home prisoners paroled by the Frogs in exchange for their own.  The cartel’s captain, God bless his soul, kens what’s about and slips by the brig, runs in close to shore, and lets three hundred men seek their own salvation.  A dozen are fools enough to come into Rye, where the Impress takes them, and a dozen are drowned, but the rest escape the unholy sum of the perils of the army and the perils of the navy.”


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