Navy Customs and Traditions – Recruitment of Sailors – “Impressment” – “Press Gang” – “Shanghai”


Navy Customs and Traditions By Vikram Karve


Impressment means forcing men into Naval Service by compulsion.

Colloquially – Impressment – the practice of “pressing” men into Naval Service – was also called “Press Gang” or “Shanghai”.

In the 16th 17th and 18th Centuries (the era of Sailing Ships) – in order to explore the world and create colonies all over the world – European Nations developed powerful Navies with large number of Ships.

Those days – on age of sail – working conditions for Sailors were harsh and life was dangerous.

So – most citizens were unwilling to work on ships as sailors – resulting in a shortage of crew on ships.

Navies of several nations used forced recruitment by various means.

The large size of the British Royal Navy in the Age of Sail resulted in impressment being most commonly associated with Britain.

Impressment practices included kidnapping and abducting men and putting them on board ships to serve as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, violence, drugging, or by getting them drunk.

Impressment was used by the Royal Navy since 1664 and during the 18th and early 19th centuries as a means of crewing warships.

In the early 18th century – impressment was given legal sanction.

Impressment – wherein the British Crown had the right to capture men and force them into Naval Service – was passed by Acts of British Parliament in 1703 – and later in 1705, 1740 and 1779.

All “eligible” men of between the ages of 18 and 55 years were liable to impressment to serve on ships.

Impressment relied on the legal power of the King to call men to Naval/Military Service – and – as far as citizens were concerned – the failure to allow oneself to be “pressed” into service was punishable by hanging – although the punishment became less severe over time.


Impressment was implemented by the “Impress Service” (colloquially called the “Press Gang”).

Gangs of Thugs – called “Press Gangs” – were engaged to enforce impressment.

“Press Gangs” were paid handsomely.

These “Press Gangs” physically rounded up and captured men from Pubs, Markets and other public places – often at night. They also trapped unwilling people by defrauding them or getting them drunk.

The “captured” men were taken on board ship and locked up until the ship sailed out to sea.

These “captured” men who were “pressed” into service would be on the high seas by the time their absence was noticed ashore.

Some of these “pressed” sailors later died due to worsening of the injuries sustained during their capture while others succumbed to the dreaded disease “scurvy”.

Appearance of the dreaded “Press Gangs” in an area could force men to flee from there.

“Press Gangs” were most active in the 17th and 18th centuries – in fact – laws were passed as late as 1835 to uphold impressment.

Of course – all Naval Officers were “volunteers” – and – so were “key” Seamen like Warrant Officers, Boatswains (Bosuns), Ratings etc. – and – there were a few “volunteer” Sailors too (who were paid a bounty upon joining) – but – most of the “lower deck” comprised “pressed” men.

At the time of the Battle of Trafalgar more than half the Royal Navy’s 120,000 sailors were “pressed” men.

The Royal Navy also impressed seamen from Merchant Ships at sea.

However – this was done by individual warships – rather than by the “Impress Service”.

The impressment of seamen from American Merchant Ships by Royal Navy Warships caused serious tensions between Britain and the United States in the years leading up to the War of 1812.

Though the public opposed “Impressment” – the practice of impressment was repeatedly upheld by the courts as it was deemed vital to the strength of the Navy – and – by extension – to the survival of the British influence and realm.

Although no Foreigner could normally be “pressed” into Naval Service – they lost their protection if they married a British woman – or had worked on a Merchant ship.

In some exceptional cases – the British Government protected certain men from “impressment”– by issuing “Protections” against impressment – which the “protected” men had to carry on their person at all times.

But – in times of crisis – the Admiralty would order a “Hot Press” – which meant that no-one remained exempt from “impressment”.

In due course – the practice of “Impressment” became increasingly unpopular with the British Public.

On occasions – local officials acted against “Press Gangs” – sometimes – to the point of imprisoning officers from the Impressment Service – or – opposing them by force of arms.

However – the practice of “impressment” continued.

At the time of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) more than half the Royal Navy’s 120,000 sailors were “pressed” men.

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 – Britain ended the practice the practice of “Impressment”.

However – in lieu of “Impressment” – they started the practice of “conscription”.

And – the practice of “conscription” was not limited to the Royal Navy – but covered all Armed Forces.


Whereas “Press Gang” refers specifically to impressment practices adopted by the British Royal Navy – the term “Shanghai” is more generic in nature applying to the Merchant Navy and Foreign Navies.

“Shanghaiing” means to take someone against his will for compulsory service – especially on board a ship.

To “Shanghai” someone is to kidnap or trick them into working for you.

The traditional way to “Shanghai” someone is to drug him and put him on a ship.

When the person wakes up – the ship is at sea – and he has no choice but to get to work.

The practice of “Shanghaiing” dates back to the 1800’s when all ships were Sailing Ships.

In Nautical Parlance – “Shanghai” means to enroll or obtain (a sailor) for the crew of a ship by unscrupulous means – as by force or the use of liquor or drugs.

The nautical term “To Shanghai” may have its origins in view of the fact that Shanghai (China) was the most common destination of merchant ships for which such abducted sailors were forcibly conscripted by unscrupulous methods to collect crews for ships sailing from England/America to Shanghai which was considered the most long, risky and difficult sea voyage for which it was difficult to assemble crews since sailors were not willing to sail for such and long, hard and dangerous voyage.

Ships needed crews – but working conditions on ships were so bad that crews were often obtained by trickery, bribery, force and outright kidnapping – or by getting a man drunk till he passed out or by drugging him to sleep – and then – abducting him on board the ship. When the man woke up after a few hours the ship would be sailing on the high seas – and the hapless “Shanghaied” sailor could do nothing except complete the voyage.

The Captain of a ship would “shanghai” people when his ship was short of sailors.

The “shanghaied” person would wake up and find himself at sea – often on a long trip like to Shanghai, China.

“Shanghaiing” was made possible by the existence of Boarding Masters (aka “Crimps”) – whose job was to find crews for ships.

Boarding Masters were paid “by the body”.

So – Boarding Masters had a strong incentive to place as many “Sailors” on ships as possible.

This “Pay” was called “Blood Money”.

The most straightforward method for a “Crimp” to “shanghai” a sailor – was – to render him unconscious by getting him drunk – forge his signature on the ship’s papers – put the “shanghaied” sailor on the ship – and – pick up his “Blood Money”.

Though nautical in origin – over the years – the meaning of the term “shanghai” has since become more generic.

Today – in broad terms – the word “Shanghai” means to induce or compel someone to do something by trickery.

The term “Shanghai” is also used for Non-Naval “abductions”.

For example – if you trick your best friend into coming home with you so she can do your chores – you “Shanghai” her.


In countries like India – due to huge population and rampant unemployment – you will always have plenty of “volunteers” seeking jobs as sailors in the Navy – so – there will be no need for stratagems like “impressment”, “press gang” and “shanghaiing”.

On the other hand – those nations which face a shortage of “volunteers” for military/naval service – these nations may have to resort to “conscription” – albeit – not the “Press Gang” type of “Impressment” which may not be acceptable in the “Human Rights” standards of today.


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