Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"An Arbitrary Action, Contrary to Law, Inconsistent with Liberty": Planning a 1765 Naval Impressment Scenario in Newport, Rhode Island (Part I)

The Liberty of the Subject (1779) by James Gillray
The Newport Historical Society is hosting a Naval Impressment event on August 27th, 2016 for which I and several of my fellows bear a great deal of responsibility.  What began with a casual remark at last year's Stamp Tax Protest about incorporating a proper press gang into our activities has grown to be one of the most eagerly anticipated living history happenings of the Summer, featuring a Royal Navy press gang lead by a teenage Midshipman front and center.  I've done a considerable amount of research for this event, along with Elizabeth Sulock of the NHS who has generously supported our enthusiasm for this idea while ensuring that it serves the interpretive goals of her organization, complies with local permitting requirements, &c.  We owe her and the NHS a debt of gratitude for their support, flexibility and professionalism.

The concept for this scenario is to recreate episodes relating to customs enforcement and naval impressment during June and July, 1765 that were to culminate in the the Newport Stamp Tax riot later that August.  It has attracted some of the finest historical interpreters of the laboring classes in this period - and of 18th century nautical subjects in particular - and among other things has transformed my 13-year-old son into a proper Royal Navy Midshipman to lead the press gang. 

detail from The Press Gang (1770) by Walpole
In addition to depicting sea-officers and sailors from H.M.S "Maidstone", our cast of characters reflects the waterfront and mercantile aspects of Colonial Newport in 1765: a volatile period when customary rights of colonial citizens and their elected authorities were challenged by royal naval assertion of superseding prerogatives and powers that derived from the King. 

Both customs enforcement activity and naval impressment created great friction in Rhode Island and several other North American colonies during the mid-1760s.  To place these conflicts in their proper context requires an examination of both the interpretation and enforcement of laws respecting the collection of customs duties in the colonies following the French and Indian War and manning His Majesty's navy when serving in North America.

The Royal Navy faced a serious manning problem when stationed outside home waters.  On a two year voyage, losses to illness, accidents and desertion could leave vessels stranded in port without enough capable hands to operate the ship.  These conditions persisted even in peacetime, though the legality of impressment as a means to address this problem was highly questionable in those brief periods in the 18th century when Britain was not at war.

The conditions under which impressment could be used, against whom it could be employed, and under what legal authority, were understood quite differently in the 18th century when it occurred in home waters than when in British colonial possessions overseas.  The King and his sea-officers generally did not consider the sovereign's right to press seamen to maintain the Royal Navy in time of war to be limited by local authority, and the governors of charter colonies like Rhode Island and their seafaring citizens thought otherwise.

Article IX of the "Sixth of Anne" 1708, concerning protection from Impressment in North America and the West Indies
From time to time the Crown did appreciate that excessive impressment of merchant seamen could badly damage trade.  Enacted in 1708, the so-called Sixth of Anne protected merchant seaman in North America and the West-Indies from impressment unless they were Royal Navy deserters.  It was not at all clear that this protection remained in force after Queen Anne's War ended in 1713, and furthermore the colonial governors tended to believe that any impressment in areas under their jurisdiction required their approval to be legal.  The situation became more confused in 1746, when modification were enacted to protect trade in the West Indies by prohibiting impressment without approval of the colonial authorities, but this was not extended to the rest of British North America.  The Sixth of Anne was finally repealed in 1775 at the outset of the American War of Independence, which cleared up any remaining ambiguity as to its continued application in the Colonies. 

detail from Paul Revere's Engraving of British Troops landing at Boston (1768)
Pressed men were most often skilled sailors who subsequently lost their rights as merchant seamen to serve on a vessel of their own choosing for a contracted period of time and the higher wages of the merchant service.  This lose of liberty made the waterfront the front line of resistance to royal authority. 

Resistance to impressment came to a violent head in the American colonies well before the Sixth of Anne was formally abandoned as Crown policy.  In 1747 during King George's War, Admiral Knowles began a "hot press" in Boston that prompted three days of rioting.  In 1760 during the French and Indian War, an impressment attempt in New York Harbor by Captain John Hale of H.M.S. Winchester lead to the repulse of a boarding party by the crew of the merchant ship Samson, who kept up a heavy small arms fire and killed four of the Royal Navy seamen.  In 1769, a standoff between four merchant sailors barricaded in the forehold of the American brig Pitt Packet and a press gang from H.M.S. Rose resulted in the spearing death of Royal Navy Lieutenant Henry Panton.  John Adams defended these merchant sailors at their trial, during which he attempted to use the Sixth of Anne as evidence of the illegality of impressment in North America.  Rather than open that can of worms, Governor Hutchinson adjourned the court, which rendered a verdict of justifiable homicide the following day.

detail from "Ships of the Gun Wharf at Portsmouth (1770) by Serres
The use of impressment in British North America continued after the French and Indian War, in large part because of the expanded naval presence required for its new customs enforcement mission.  The Sugar Act of 1764, combined with more aggressive enforcement of the Navigation and Currency Acts and associated customs duties, put the Royal Navy squarely at odds with the interests of colonial merchants, and seamen, especially in the Northern colonies. 

Colonies like Rhode Island felt deeply constrained by these measures, which limited their trading partners and initially imposed high duties on molasses that lead to an underground economy with increased smuggling. In  The Economic History of Newport Rhode Island from the Colonial era to beyond the War of 1812, author Kenneth Walsh analyzed customs duties on imported molasses in 1769, when import duties had been reduced to just a penny per pound, and concludes that between 2/3 and 3/4 of all molasses carried on Newport ships in that year did not go through customs.

Conditions of lax enforcement, including outright bribery of customs officials, changed after Parliament and the Grenville government assigned the Royal Navy the task of seaborne customs enforcement in the American Colonies.  The Fifth of George III, passed by Parliament in 1765, reinforced the authority of the Royal Navy in spite of opposition from the colonial authorities to make seizures at sea as part of its customs enforcement mission, including

"all seizures made by the commanders or officers of His Majesty's ships or vessels of war, duly authorized for that purpose, anywhere at sea, in, or upon any river, and which shall not be actually made on shore, within any British colony or plantation in America."

This was but one in a series of measures taken by the Grenville government to assert royal authority over local affairs in British North America, where charter colonies like Rhode Island still retained the right to elect their own charters governments and court officials and other Crown colonies had their governors appointed by the King.  Resistance to customs enforcement took place not only on the waterfront but in the local admiralty courts, which often refused to recognize the legality of seizures and sometimes allowed significant damage claims against Royal Navy officers by the owners and crews.  This situation lead to hardened attitudes on the part of thwarted enforcement agents, which in turn could lead to more aggressive use of impressment without regard for customary colonial protections.

Such was the case in Newport in 1765, when the officers of H.M.S. Maidstone confronted a resistant governor, an uncooperative local court system, and acts of defiance by those engaged in smuggling and their supporters.  We will examine the Maistone, her customs enforcement mission, and her Captain's increased use of impressment while stationed at Newport, in the next post in this series.

An 18th century Brigantine

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