Wednesday 26 August 2015

press-gang or 1812 overture

While the deportment of history—when one scratches the surface—shows affairs to be far otherwise, international largess, hegemony seems reserved as a soft-power to just a select few or active belligerents, an encouraging word to play along. Learning a little bit, however, about the long-lived British practise of impressment. Comparable to the phenomena that goes by the name of crimping or shanghaiing, so called press-gangs of the Admiralty, in lieu of a standing order for conscription or compulsory service, the privileged purchase of impressment was enjoyed from the times of George I until the early nineteenth century by English navies.
This practise of policing the idle and the incorrigible into service at sea was widespread and took place at sailors’ haunts by hook or by crook, with the poor having no recourse other than to oblige themselves to a fixed term aboard that was subject to multiple extensions with pay offset by half a year and no defined career track for non-officers. Any by-stander might fall prey to this scheme—especially merchant seamen that betray some degree of acumen. As tensions in European waters increased in post-revolutionary France, Britain believed it had a moral right to impressment, and revisiting one of the many issues left unresolved in the American War for Independence—once Canadian had had its limit with poaching—Britain refused to recognise the concept of naturalisation—that is, renouncing one’s subjecthood in order to gain citizenship and enter the employ of the more profitably import-export business. The acquisition of this labour-force (and of course the pay for commercial shipping was far better than service for king and country), in the pall of the Napoleonic wars, ignited the conflicts of 1812. The northern US states attested that such conscription was routine, sealed by a shilling sunk in a drink, while the South was vocally against this kind of slavery and the federalist prerogative. Never an attempt to reclaim the North American colonies but rather with the aim of destabilising revolutionary forces, this bone of contention and forced repatriation makes me think of the uniquely American habit (Uganda is also party, to the denunciation of the US) of universal taxation and burgeoning desire to leave it all. It strike me as if there is a bit of no quarter to be found here either, no matter what civil society has previously conceded to—like living off the grid or shedding one’s birth-rite. What do you think? Are we all still so impressed to allegiance to one system or other and left with little choice?