“In 1700s, impressed seamen became second only to African slaves as the largest group of unfree laborers in the British Empire”: and yet, the appreciation of the historical reality and magnitude of impressment by the British Navy doesn’t go beyond very limited circles.
Press gangs (composed by naval officers and sailors) hit the road and used violence or its threat to recruit the necessary crewmen for British ships. Billy Budd arrived on the HMS Indomitable following this path. In Melville’s novel, and even more so in the Benjamin Britten’s opera (which spares no charge to naval discipline), Billy Budd’s complacent attitude towards his compulsory recruiting contrasts with the very nature of impressment.
This incongruousness is somehow at the heart of a remarkable book, The Evil Necessity. British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World, written by Denver Brunsman, Associate Professor of History at the George Washington University.