It was an evening in 1811. Twenty-two-year-old Robert Hay was leisurely walking through a London neighborhood. Suddenly he was accosted by a group of shady characters eager to know if he was a seaman. Within hours he found himself aboard a British Naval vessel setting sail for the open sea. In American parlance, Robert Hay had been "Shanghaied" - forced into naval service against his will. In England, the same activity was described as "Impressment."
Impressment had been a common method of filling the ranks of the
British Navy since the seventeenth century, particularly in times
of war. Gangs of British seamen would rove the streets of seaports
in search of likely candidates for naval service. Once targeted,
these hapless victims were forcibly taken aboard ship and sent
to sea. Britain's life or death struggle with Napoleon at the beginning
of the 19th century created a desperate need to fill the ranks
of its war ships. Impressment was revitalized with
vigor - a situation that would have direct consequences for the
relations between Britain and America.
Not surprisingly, this method of recruitment combined with the
harsh conditions aboard British naval ships to create a high rate
of desertion among its crews. In response, Britain initiated an
aggressive campaign of retrieving deserters. This included stopping
and searching American merchant ships on the high seas. Many of
those targeted as deserters during these raids claimed American
citizenship - a claim that
was ignored by the British. Tensions between the two countries
escalated and contributed to the outbreak of the War of 1812 -
War of Independence."
Britain's impressment campaign would also have direct consequences for Robert
Hays as he innocently strolled the streets of London.
Robert Hay was a ship's carpenter who
had made one voyage aboard a British merchant ship. We join his
story as he walks through a London neighborhood:
"I was, when crossing Towerhill, accosted
by a person in seamen's dress who tapped me on the shoulder enquiring
in a familiar and technical strain' What ship?' I assumed an air
of gravity and surprise and told him I presumed he was under some
mistake as I was not connected with shipping. The fellow, however,
was too well acquainted with his business to be thus easily put
He gave a whistle and in a moment I was in the
hands of six or eight ruffians who I immediately dreaded and soon
found to be a press gang. They dragged me hurriedly along through
several streets amid bitter execrations bestowed on them, expressions
of sympathy directed towards me and landed me in one of their houses
of rendezvous. I was immediately carried into the presence of the
Lieutenant of the gang, who questioned me as to my profession.
. . I made some evasive answers to these interrogations . . . but
my hands being examined and found hard with work, and perhaps a
little discolored with tar. . . I was remanded for further examination.
Some of the gang then offered me spirits and
attempted to comfort me. . .he very scoundrel who first laid hold
of me put on a sympathizing look and observed what a pity it was
to be pressed. . .. Such sympathy from such a source was well calculated
to exasperate my feelings, but to think of revenge was folly. .
In a short time I was reconducted for further
examination before the Lieutenant, who told me as I was in his
hands and would assuredly be kept I might as well make a frank
confession of my circumstances, it would save time and insure me
better treatment. . .. I therefore acknowledged that I had been
a voyage to the West Indies and had come home Carpenter of a ship.
His eye seemed to brighten at this intelligence.
'I am glad of that, my lad,' said he, , we are very much in want
of Carpenters. Step along with these men and they will give you
a passage on board.' I was then led back the way I came by the
fellow who first seized me, put aboard of a pinnace at Tower Wharf
and by midday was securely lodged on board the Enterprise.
As soon as the boat reached the ship I was
sent down into the great cabin, in various parts of which tables
were placed covered with green cloth, loaded with papers and surrounded
with men well dressed and powdered. Such silence prevailed and
such solemn gravity was displayed in every countenance that I was
struck with awe and dread. . .. No sooner did I enter the cabin
door than every eye was darted on me. . . .
A short sketch of what had passed between the
press officer and myself had been communicated to the examining
officer, for when I was ushered into his presence he thus addressed
'Well, young man, I understand you are a carpenter
'And you have been at sea?'
'One voyage, sir.'
'Are you willing to join the King's Service?'
'Because I get much better wages in the merchant
service and should I be unable to agree with the Captain I am at
liberty to leave him at the end of the voyage.'
'As to wages,' said he, 'the chance of prize
money is quite an equivalent and obedience and respect shown to
your officers are all that is necessary to insure you good treatment.
. .. Take my advice, my lad,' continued he, 'and enter the service
cheerfully, you will then have a bounty, and be in a fair way for
promotion. If you continue to refuse, remember you are aboard.
. ., you will be kept as a pressed man and treated accordingly.'
I falteringly replied that I could not think
of engaging in any service voluntarily when I knew of a better
situation elsewhere. He said no more, but making a motion with
his hand I was seized by two marines, hurried along towards the
main hatchway with these words thundered in my ears, 'A pressed
man to go below'. What injustice and mockery thought I . . . but
my doom was fixed and I was thrust down among five or six score
of miserable beings, who like myself had been kidnapped, and immured
in the confined and unwholesome dungeon of a press room."
This eyewitness account appears in: Hay, M.D
(ed.), Landsman Hay -The Memories of Robert Hay 1789-1847 (1953),
republished in: Charles-Edwards, T. and B. Richardson, They Saw
it Happen, An Anthology of Eyewitness's Accounts of Events in British
History 1689-1897 (1958).
How To Cite This Article:
"Shanghaied," 1811, EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com