Thursday, August 11, 2016

"An Arbitrary Action, Contrary to Law, Inconsistent with Liberty": Customs Enforcement and Resistance, 1765 (Part III)

Detail from "New England from Chatham Harbour to Narragansett Bay showing Buzzards Bay"
(1779) Chart by
J.F.W. Des Barres & Lt. John Knight
His Majesty's Ship  Maidstone overwintered in Newport's normally ice-free harbor during the unusually cold winter of 1764-1765, replacing the 20-gun sixth rate Squirrel (1755). Maidstone's Captain Charles Antrobus could expect little thawing in naval relations with local authorities, merchants and seafaring interests in the Town, and was forwarded that his customs enforcement mission would be resisted. Actual armed conflict had already broken out over the navy's presence the previous summer, when a waterfront mob attacked and drove off a landing party from the six-gun Schooner Saint John (purchased just a month before in Boston).

The navy was in pursuit of a deserter who may well have been a pressed man, but the citizens were also upset about a recent customs seizure and the alleged theft of some chickens by three men from the schooner.  Pelting the sailors with stones, the large crowd injured a number of the men in Saint John's boat and
took a midshipman hostage. Then some of the mob took up muskets and pursued the retreating longboat back toward the Saint John in a sloop. Before the end of the affair, the colonial gunners at the Fort George on Goat Island even fired cannon (one shot allegedly piercing her Mainsail) at Saint John before Squirrel moved up to assist the navy schooner.

When Captain Antrobus arrived at Newport December, 1764, Governor Samuel Ward sought assurances that he would refrain from pressing Newporters and keep Maidstone's impressment activities offshore, preferably beyond the jurisdiction of the Colony. Whatever concessions might have been agreed to initially soon evaporated in the face of both active and passive interference with customs enforcement by local authorities as well as through crowd action.

Customs seizures made by the navy, similar to prizes taken in time of war, went through a legal condemnation process at a vice-admiralty court on shore. Confiscated cargos and vessels deemed in violation of customs and excise laws sold by the authorities and shares in the proceeds apportioned accord to the jurisdictions involved, which in North America might include the colonial governor and Admiral Corville in Halifax along with the Exchequer and the Crown.

It was rarely a straightforward process, with owners and seamen often counter-suing customs and naval officers for damages and with claims of unlawful seizure. Although the Collectors and Controllers of customs were appointed by the British government and backed by the navy, in charter colonies like Rhode Island the governor, High Sheriff and vice-admiralty judge were all local men elected to their positions and were often uncooperative in customs cases. Captain Antrobus soon had reason to consider the local authorities throughout Narragansett Bay to be completely unsupportive of Maidstone 's customs enforcement activities. Two incidents in later winter and early Spring, 1765 made that point very clear.

John Robinson, appointed Collector of Customs at Newport in 1764, was a man of a different stripe than his predecessors who had been willing to accept enormous bribes in exchange for lax enforcement of import duties and trade restrictions. Along with Customs Comptroller John Nicholl, he coordinated with the navy to aggressively interdict smugglers in Narragansett Bay and bring cases to court.

In late February, 1765, aided by Maidstone's 2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins, these men intercepted two vessels suspected of smuggling molasses in contravention of the Sugar Act. They were the brigantine Wainscott and the sloop Nelly. One of Wainscott's principal owners was Elisha Brown of Providence, a close ally of Governor Ward and soon to be elected Lieutenant Governor himself, while Nelly belonged to Thomas Greene, who was part of a prominent Quaker family in the Colony. According to the customs officials, "it was notorious that ["Wainscott" and "Nelly"] had run cargoes of molasses", but they encountered numerous obstacles trying to prove their case in the local Admiralty court.

Admiralty Judge John Andrews set a court date for the case just days after the customs men brought their charges. Robinson and Nicholl were aghast, writing the Court on March 10, 1765: "You can't suppose it possible for us, in the space of three Days, to procure proper proofs to Support these Suits; And we must Desire of you to Urge the Necessity of an Adjournment of the Court for at least a Fortnight." In response to this, Judge Andrews gave them a single week. When the Court reconvened, the Marshall failed to issue summonses to witnesses and, the Customs men complained bitterly the Advocate "Absolutely Declined for Reasons known only to himself." The plaintiffs were left to represent themselves before the Court, but without supporting evidence the defendants were acquitted. This was not the end of the affair, with suits and counter suits continuing until 1767 when Judge Andrews brought a £10,000 defamation suit against Robinson, and the latter only escaped imprisonment through appointment to another customs position in Boston.  

L. F. Tantillo - "Salt Marsh Sanctuary"

The second case involved the sloop Polly, owned by Job Smith of Taunton, Massaschusetts. Polly arrived in Newport under the command of Master Timothy Doggett or Daggett on April 2nd with a cargo of molasses from Surinam in the West Indies Although her home port was up the Taunton River from Narragansett Bay in Massachusetts, Newport's customs house had jurisdiction. Master Doggett declared 63 casks of molasses and paid 3p/gallon in customs duty, then proceeded up the bay and into the Taunton River. As a hogshead at this time was 63 gallons, this was a conveniently round number. On April 4th, Robinson examined Doggett's customs declaration and, suspecting the report "was not just", brought the matter to the attention of Captain Antrobus.

Instead of dispatching a junior officer with a ship's boat to overtake the Polly, Captain Antrobus seems to have taken on this task personally. Accompanied only by a skeleton crew from Maidstone, Collector Robinson with his servant, Daniel Guthridge, and the Searcher of Customs Nicholas Lechmere, Captain Antrobus overtook Polly far upriver on April 6th near Dighton, Massachusetts. On boarding her they found their suspicions had been correct and twice as many casks of molasses in the hold as declared on the manifest.

Discovery meant that Robinson could libel the undeclared portion of the cargo and the sloop as customs seizures, but he was without the immediate means to secure his prize. No one in Dighton was willing to assist the handful of customs and navy men, so Robinson and Antrobus were compelled to return to Newport and dispatch a prize crew, leaving only Guthridge and Lechmere to keep watch over the at anchor offshore. By the time a naval detachment was sent back up river on April 8th by Captain Antrobus, the customs enforcement effort had been overtaken by events back in Dighton.

It did not help that there was a conveniently located tavern not far from shore. On April 7th, Lechmere and Guthridge rowed themselves over to quench their thirst, but found their skiff gone when they sought to return to Polly, 100 yards out in the river. At nightfall, about 40 local men "with blackened faces" sailed over to Polly and offloaded her entire cargo of molasses. Stripping her anchors and fittings, these interventionists then ran Polly ashore at high tide and stranded her on the riverbank. Neither could Lechmere and Guthridge get any support from the local Massachusetts authorities to look into the matter or support their customs seizure. Ruefully, they headed back down to Narragansett Bay to report to Robinson and Antrobus.

At this point, one can only imagine the Navy Captain's ire. One indication is the size of the force he took back to Dighton along with Robinson - thirty marines (more than Maidstone's full compliment) and forty armed seamen. On route they met the initial prize crew, which had been prevented from reaching Polly by a mob of over 100 angry men. When they boarded the grounded sloop, they found holes bored through her hull and other damage.

Undeterred, Robinson set out to recover the molasses on shore. Unable to secure a writ of assistance to aid in his search, he was instead confronted by a £ 3,000 damage suit filed by Master Daggett. Without any friends to post his bond, Robinson was jailed for several days while Antrobus worked to get the damaged Polly back to Newport. Just eight casks of Molasses were recovered, and Robinson and Antrobus decided they had had enough of local justice. Because the seizure took place in Massachusetts, they could bring the case to trial in Boston, but they preferred to take their prize to Halifax, instead, where there was an Admiralty Court that covered the entire eastern seaboard and was free from local influence. It would be very difficult for the defendants to call supporting witnesses for a case held at such great remove, but Polly ultimately was taken to Halifax later that summer and condemned as a lawful seizure.

Robinson and Antrobus went to Boston to arrange for the change of venue. Governor Bernard expressed reservations about moving the Admiralty case to Halifax (he would lose his share in any condemnation proceeds) and Antrobus told him, in so many words, to mind his own business. This left Maidstone in the hands of its 1st Lieutenant, Cuthbert Baines. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, at this same time that impressment activity spiked in Newport, culminating in yet another confrontation between the navy and a large waterfront mob, on the King's Birthday, no less. We will discuss what Rhode Islanders remember as the "Maidstone Affair" in the next post in this blog series.

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