A man signed on as mate in a merchant vessel though without the required qualifications and without pay. The origin of the term, and the practice, is believed to have arisen at the time of the Napoleonic occupation of Genoa and Livorno in 1796. Many of the sons and favourite employees of the English merchants at these places were signed on in this way by American merchant ships to escape capture by the French, and possible impressment at sea if the ship were stopped by British cruisers.
Impressment at sea by the British Navy was permissible in the case of British nationals serving in foreign ships, but it was thought that British naval officers would be unlikely to question the nationality of a man serving as mate, or second-in-command, of an American ship. Such a rank automatically implied American nationality and it was not difficult for an Englishman to assume an American accent, if questioned, with a good chance of getting away with it.
Subjects: Maritime History.