Selection 3: An American Sailor Experiences Impressment in the British Navy

The British practice of impressment had its roots in laws that allowed naval officers to force civilians into service on their ships during times of national emergency. Between 1790 and 1815, as Great Britain fought a series of wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, the British Navy extended this practice to American sailors, claiming that they were British subjects who had deserted from British ships. American sailors often carried Seaman’s Protection Certificates issued by the US government to prove their citizenship, but British press gangs had little regard for such documents.

Joshua Penny was one of several thousand American seamen pressed into sendee with the British Navy during this era. A native of Long Island, he went to sea as a fifteen year old in

1788. His impressment in Jamaica in 1794 led to eleven years of unwilling service on a number of British ships sailing in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. He returned home to Long Island in 1805, but during the War of 1812, he went back to sea and was captured again by the British, this time enduring nine months of imprisonment. He published his story in 1815.

Credit: Joshua Penny, The Life and Adventures of Joshua Penny, a Native of Southold, Long Island, Suffolk County, New York (New York: Alden Spooner, 1815), 10-13, 25-27, 29-30.

Not many days had passed after our arrival [in Jamaica], ere [before] we were again haunted by press-gangs, and our whole crew impressed. We were put into the Alligator frigate of 28 guns, under the command of captain Africk. Four of us were Americans; the others chiefly Danes and Swedes. A fever raged in this ship, and out of forty men, there were eleven corpses to be interred on the first morning.

No sooner was the captain on the deck in the morning, than we were ready with our American protections [certificates proving their American citizenship]. He said, “men 1 will not look at your protections—my ship is in distress, and I will have men to carry me to England.” He refused to hear a word on the subject of liberating any one of our number. The ship got under way, and the next morning went into Montego Bay [Jamaica], and anchored in the harbour at 8 o’clock in the evening; her boats were manned to board the merchants’ ships lying there; and impressed from them without discrimination. This business of kidnapping continued until daybreak, when they got underway in season to prevent applications for relief. There were forty men impressed that night, some of whom were American mates and supercargoes [agents charged with overseeing a ship’s cargo]—some had been taken out of their beds on shore, without liberty to dress themselves. We ran down to the fleet in the offing, of 114 sail merchantmen waiting for this ship to join the convoy of two ships of the line and the brig Jack Tar. The next day however, our ship was dispatched by order of the admiral, on a commission to Havanna [Cuba]; we lay twenty-four hours at the Moro-Castle then went to sea and rejoined the fleet.

The next day I was taken sick of a fever—was soon deprived of my sense, and when I first recollected myself, was out of my hammock and attempting to walk on deck; sudden blindness prostrated my feeble frame, when 1 heard a general shout, “there goes another dead yankee.” I was returned into my hammock; the doctor shortly after came along, and on finding a corpse next to me, he called his lob-lolly boy [assistant] and chid[ed] him for not seeing that dead man’s hammock cut down; adding, “that other man (meaning me) will be dead before 12 o’clock; and you ought to have the dead removed immediately, to make room for me.” My fever was broken, so that the doctor’s prophetic sentence was entirely harmless ...

The sick had recovered after reaching the English Channel, and all the impressed seamen taken from Jamaica, were ordered on the quarter deck. The captain then addressing himself to us, said, “I want to know who of you impressed in Jamaica, are willing to take his majesty’s bounty [a cash bonus paid for enlisting]: it is customary to allow impressed men twenty-four hours to consider whether they will accept this privilege; if not, they are on arriving at the Spithead [Portsmouth, England], to be put on board some vessel bound to foreign parts, where they shall not have opportunities to write to the d d [damned] consul [the U.S. consu

late].” He called me singly and said, “You have been the sickest, and I have been a father to you: do you refuse the king’s bounty?” 1 answered (pointing to an arm chest) if he would give me that chest full of guineas and a lieutenant’s commission, he could not tempt me. He replied, “you had every day for two months, a dish from my own table, which no other man in the ship has had, and now you refuse to take the king’s bounty! You are a d d yankee rebellious

rascal!” At Spithead we were called on deck with our baggage: What was next to be done with us we were left to conjecture. A part of our company expected to be set on shore—others had previously written letters to be sent to the consuls of their respective nations; but all were disappointed. A launch conveyed us along side of the Stately 64 [guns], captain Douglass. In two hours our squadron was ordered to sea. This squadron consisted of the American 64, commodore Blanket, Ruby 64, Rattlesnake sloop of war, and two frigates, beside the Stately whose names I have forgotten. We had put our letters on board of a passage boat; and were sailing to some unknown part of the world. The officers, alike ignorant with the men, bet on our destination. Bets were laid on Batavia [modern Jakarta], Botany Bay [Australia], &c. but after being at sea ten weeks, we made the Table Mountain [a mountain overlooking the Dutch colony of Cape Town, South Africa]; and every preparation was made for action. The next morning at daybreak we were joined by admiral Elphinstone, with three 74’s, three frigates, two sloops of war, and a gun brig. At 8 o’clock, the signal to clear away for action was hoisted on board the admiral’s ship, and repeated by the commodore. We entered False Bay, where the Dutch had one fort of 8 guns, and another of four. Fifty men, who composed the whole force there, spiked their cannon and retreated to Cape Town, leaving our fleet to take possession of every thing. A frigate and man of war brig lay in the harbour. We pillaged the East-India stores [supplies of the Dutch East India Company] on the shore—stove the casks of wine and spirits, which ran like rivulets towards the sea. The liquor was said to be poisoned by the Dutch. English sailors would have drank the spirits, with permission, if they had really believed it to be poisoned; provided they could have got fairly drunk before they died. Our land forces were on shore the next day.


... 1 was drafted to the Sphinx, a ship of 20 guns, bound to cruise off St. Helena [a British post in the Southern Atlantic]. An American whaling ship lay near us at St. Helena, and four of us who messed together, all Americans, agreed to escape to the whaler; and after bribing the sentinel, plunged into the water. The others succeeded; but not being a good swimmer, I rested on our buoy and got with difficulty into the ship’s head by climbing on the cable.

One of the three who effected their escape was James Hall. He attempted to escape from on board of the Sceptre, before our draft from that ship, by swimming to an English Indiaman [merchant ship]. He stowed himself away on board the Indiaman, but when the watch list was called the next morning, he was missed. The captain of the Sceptre, on receiving the report of Hall’s absconding, ordered all boats out to search the ships in port. He was found in the first ship they searched, and was of course to be punished. All hands were called to see the culprit flogged; and stood as usual with their hats off. Hall was young, with thin skin; and on receiving three strokes of the cat [cat-o-nine tails, a whip used for flogging sailors] cried out “Oh captain! For God’s sake forgive me!” The captain then suspending the punishment, asked the unfortunate young man “if he would now promise to attempt no more to runaway?” To which Hall answered, “No, by G d [God] captain, 1 will never give it up for one bad job.” As often this

solemnity occurs, the surgeon stands by the captain, to give notice of the man’s fainting. After three strokes more were given, the surgeon communicated the danger of the patient; upon which the cat was again arrested. Hall, scarcely able to articulate; addressing himself to the captain, said “Captain, we Americans can’t bear flogging like you Englishmen, we are not used to it.” The captain turned, and walking off, with difficulty refrained from laughing aloud; but the whole ship’s company smiled, though they dared not laugh. Hall was released, because this captain did not happen to be a barbarian. I have always noticed, that when an American was whipped, he fainted.

A few days after my unsuccessful attempt to reach the American ship, in St. Helena, all hands were called to get our ship underway, and on calling the fore-top-men [crewmen], the three yankees were missing. The captain then called the purser’s steward to ascertain the missing yankees’ mess. 1 was then called upon to relate what I knew of their running off. 1 told the captain, as a number of men had been on shore watering the ship, I thought they had been there on duty. That was a falsehood, hut was not malicious. He asked me if I could swim? No, I answered. He then took a book out of his pocket and said, “You are a yankee, sir, and have been seven years in the navy without ever being flogged, and now I’ll flog you if you are God Almighty's first lieutenant!!!”

All hands were now called up on deck to witness my punishment; and I was immediately seized up. My senses left me when I had received three strokes of the cat. 1 fell (so I was afterwards informed) hanging by the wrists, with my head on one shoulder, until the whole number of stripes had been applied. The surgeon informed the captain of my condition, when the captain said, “he shall take his dozen, dead or alive!" I was cut down, and at first recollection of myself, they were washing my face with a tub of water.


Not long after this the 4th of June came, when the seamen are allowed to get drunk because this is their king’s birth day; and when the 4th of July came, I applied to Lt. Pingally [an officer of the ship] for liberty to get drunk. He said, “go along forward, you yankee rascal.” The captain then spoke to him, when he, as I suppose, informed him of my request. He called me to him, and asked—What do you mean, sir, by asking permission to do what you know is contrary to the regulations of this ship? 1 recollect, sir, said I, that about a month ago you gave the English liberty to get drunk because it was their king’s birth day; and now 1 want the liberty to rejoice on my nation’s birth day. The captain laughing heartily, ordered that two gallons of wine and one of brandy be procured from the shore for me and my yankee mess to rejoice. We all liked this captain. The glass passed merrily round in our yankee mess, of thirty in number, and they began to sing Hail Columbia, happy land! A north countryman [from the north of England], who called himself the bully of the ship, came along for the purpose of fomenting a quarrel, and told us, “get out of the way, you d d yankee buggers.” This

was, consequently, taken as an insult. I gave him an unceremonious box on the ear, and asked if that was what he meant. Yes, he answered, it is exactly what I want. A few blows were passed between us, when the officer between decks coming up, ordered fair play—he had observed that several others were aiding my antagonist by pelting me. A few more passes were made at each other; at last I struck him with the left hand, and in drawing back found two of the bully’s teeth sticking in the joint of one of my fingers. My antagonist, on losing his front teeth, yielded immediately.

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