If the captain/former captain of a merchant ship joined the navy or was press ganged into the the navy would they be put in command of a ship or would they have to work they way up through the ranks? I would appreciate any information or references on this topic as I have failed to find anything myself.

  • 16
    I think this describes a situation that could not occur in reality; this is a bad hypothetical. My impression is that for most of the RN's Age of Sail, they had more Captains than they needed; there were Captains a plenty on half pay. Impress/press gang were for the lower ranks of seamen. Is there any historical record of impress of an officer?
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 14:05
  • Re-reading the question, my complaint is only about the second half. I suspect there are historical examples of Captains joining the Navy - the answer will depend on which navy. I believe this was not uncommon in the US Navy (which started with zero ships and zero Captains). It will be more rare in the Swiss navy <grin>.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 14:08
  • 5
    If a civilian captain joined the navy, wasn't it usually that he joined together with his ship, possibly in a non-combat role, like transporting supplies, etc? (or as a privateer, not "technically" joining the navy)
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 23:26
  • If the ship is transporting supplies, why join the navy? Even during war there is civilian shipping, and imposing naval discipline on civilian sailors would be a waste of time and effort. This is beginning to stray into the hypothetical.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 17:49
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    @MarkC.Wallace That's almost another question altogether. The RN hired merchant vessels for 4 main roles, troopships/cavalry ships (for moving the army about), army victuallers (army supplies), navy victuallers (navy supplies) and naval store ships (supplying overseas dockyards and bases). At its peak, during the Napoleonic wars, they had 980 hired vessels - which was over 10% of the registered British merchant tonnage.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 20:58

2 Answers 2


As has been remarked in the comments, the main impediment to a merchant captain gaining command of a Royal Navy vessel (and I'm assuming we're talking the English/British Royal Navy) is that he would have been at the back of a long line of candidates. At some points in the Age of Sail there were 7 times as many Post-captains as there were ships for them to command. The situation for Lieutenants (who served as Commanders of unrated vessels) was similar.

The press-gangs were out looking for able bodied men (not necessarily seamen) to provide the labour to work the ship and her guns. Typically up to 80% of a warship's crew would be there to operate the guns. While they would be found other work when not in battle, it only required a much smaller crew to simply sail the vessel. So they generally wouldn't be looking to press a more mature officer.

There were also rules for impressment that meant that most merchant captains couldn't be pressed anyway.

Merchant officers, for example — Masters, Chief Mates, Boatswains and Carpenters — could not be taken when at sea provided that their ships were of 50 tons burthen or over; nor could they be taken on land if, upon coming ashore, they hurried to a local Justice and swore to being what they professed.

A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815, pg.106

So any merchant captain that found themselves joining the RN at this time wouldn't simply walk into an commissioned officer's post. In order to pass for Lieutenant, a candidate had to have 6 years of service at sea, on a RN vessel, before they could take the examination (which a merchant captain would probably have the skills to pass). If they did so, they would then have to wait their turn for a posting like everyone else.

I suspect than anyone taking this route (unless exceptionally talented) would find themselves viewed as an outsider with little chance of advancement. Much of the movement of officers was the result of 'interest' - sometimes subtle and sometimes clearly nepotism - that was part and parcel of the service during the Age of Sail. Relationships that were created among junior officers and midshipmen, with their peers and seniors could often last for whole careers - so it's was as much who you know as what you know that got you advancement or a commission.

To address an additional question from the comments, if the whole ship was hired into the Navy (i.e. as a commissioned vessel) to supplement their warships, then generally the crew came along.

For this the Navy Board usually hired the vessel complete with master and crew, either for a specific period or indefinitely, for a regular month rate. The Admiralty supplied a regular naval officer (usually a Lieutenant) as commanding officer, while the civilian master habitually served under him as sailing master.

British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714-1792, Rif Winfield (Seaforth 2007)

For clarity, it should be noted that the captain of a merchant ship was referred to as the ship's master rather than as the ship's captain to differentiate the role from that of a Post-captain. As noted, if the ship was hired into the Navy, the civilian master lost command to a RN commissioned officer.

Privateers, as the name suggests, were privately operated warships. These were never commissioned as part of the Royal Navy and, therefore, their masters and crew were never Navy personnel.

Recommended reading:
A Social History of British Naval Officers 1775-1815, Evan Wilson (Boydell, 2017)
A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815, Michael Lewis (Allen & Unwin, 1960)
The Wooden World, An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, N.A.M Rodger (Collins, 1986)


This answer is about the Royal Navy, the most notable user of the press-gang. A merchant sea captain would not be qualified to command a warship. While he would be capable of sailing it, he would not be familiar with naval administration, etiquette, strategy or tactics.

If one joined the RN as a volunteer, he'd be given a post and rank that made use of his skills and experience. That would be Master's Mate or Sailing Master, and he might well be encouraged to take the examination for Lieutenant, which had to be passed to qualify for a commission as a naval officer.

A merchant captain would be unlikely to be pressed, because the ship-owner he worked for would promptly call in favours to get him released. Even if he was unemployed, he'd usually be considered a gentleman, and therefore not subject to the press under the class system of the time.

A pressed man would certainly never be put in charge of anything or given the chance to escape until he'd accepted naval service and was trusted.

No, I don't have sources, this is deduction. The situation has never come up for me in a great deal of reading about the history of the Royal Navy.

  • Fair answer - but a little reading on "press-ganging" would clarify that there were two main circumstances: (1) Enticing a seaman or landman to "accept the King's shilling", on occasion by modest trickery while intoxicated, and thus be enlisted. (2) Searching merchant vessels for deserters or those who could be reasonably accused of such. There could be no intention to deprive such a vessel of being able to continue its voyage, as that would be piracy. Depriving a vessel of its captain or master would be such an act of piracy. Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 14:15
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    I'd like to see some evidence for the third paragraph's assertion that ship-owners could "call in favours to get him released". That might be plausible for HEIC ships but most merchant vessels were much smaller operations; it was often the case that a merchant ship owner and her captain were one and the same person. Likewise, a merchant ship captain wasn't necessarily a gentleman (for much the same reason).
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 15:21

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