Thursday, August 11, 2016

"An Arbitrary Action, Contrary to Law, Inconsistent with Liberty": A Hot Press in Newport, 1765 (Part IV)

1770 British Press Gang print
(clothing more typical of 1760s)
Relations between Newport, Rhode Island and representatives of the Royal Navy deteriorated throughout the month of May, 1765 to such a degree that the Town was practically under blockade by His Majesty's ship Maidstone and her ship's boats.  The navy's customs enforcement mission in Narragansett Bay had been obstructed at every turn by local authorities and through extralegal crowd action in support of customs evasion.  Perhaps in retaliation, Maidstone now began stopping and searching vessels large and small entering Newport, often pressing seamen in the process. 

The impact of these tactics on trade and commerce, as well as the lives or ordinary Newporters, was deeply felt.  A letter published in the  Newport Mercury on June 10th, 1765 (written by a writer identified only by the initials O.G.) paints a picture of a community besieged:

"[the]Severity exercised by the Officers and People of the Maidstone, which, together with the Behaviour of this Set of Myrmedons, for four of five weeks past, who have visited every Vessel entering the Harbour, our wood Boats, and the very smallest Coasters not excepted, to impress Men, and have generally taken all that did not belong to the town of Newport, as Capt. Antrobus had given his Word to the Sherriff, that he would take none of those; yet the Consequence of these arbitrary and Illegal Measures, especially in Time of profound Peace, proves as fatal to the Inhabitants of the Town: we already feel the Effects; Seaman’s Wages advanced nearly one Dollar and a half per Month; our Wood Wharves almost clear of Wood; The Coasters from the neighbouring Governments shunning our Port, to escape the hottest Press ever known in this Town; and if a speedy Stop does not take Place, the Lamentable Condition of the poorer Part of the Inhabitants, the approaching Winter; will be truly Affecting, as in May, June, July and August, the Town is mostly supplied with Wood...– Our Fish market, a considerable Support of the Town, is greatly distressed, as few of the Fishermen dare venture out, it being reported none shall escape the Impress.

detail from "Abandoning Ramillies" by R. Dodd (1783)

In short order, coastal trade came close to a standstill, the only shipping entering port being those engaged in the transatlantic and West Indies trade that had not yet heard of the increased risk on impressment, setting the stage for the inevitable escalation of this standoff to open resistance to the navy and crowd violence.

On June 4th, 1765 - The King's birthday, a Newport vessel arrived in harbor at the end of a year-long slaving voyage and was promptly intercepted by Maidstone almost as soon as she made port.  This was the brigantine "Ospray", owned by merchant Naphtali Hart who was a prominent member of Newport's Jewish community.   Kyle Dalton, who writes the British Tars blog and will be portraying the Ospray's Master Richard Champlin during our upcoming recreation of this episode on August 27th in Newport, has written an excellent piece about what we know about the brigantine and her voyage to Africa and return via Jamaica.  What happened after she returned to Newport sparked a riot.

The letter writer in the Newport Mercury declared;

"The Cause of this Mischief was, the Officers of the Maidstone, a few Hours before, impressing all the men out of a Brigantine from Africa, last from Jamaica, after some small Resistance made by the Crew, and not a little Severity exercised by the Officers and People of the Maidstone..."

Maidstone's Captain Charles Antrobus, who was away at the time, naturally gave a different interpretation in his account to the Admiralty in London, summarized by the Admiralty clerks as follows:

"The report was that the cause of the outrage was the impressment of some men belonging to the colony; but Capt. Antrobus thinks it was entirely owing to the [customs] seizure made by him. Out of the impressment a dispute arose between the Governor and Capt. Antrobus, the former claiming jurisdiction over the King’s ships in harbor, and the latter repudiating his claim."

Whatever the spark, all seven of the crew of the Ospray, Master Champlin excepted, were overcome by the press gang and taken into naval service on Maidstone. The irony of slavers being themselves enslaved probably occurred to few of their contemporaries. Some of these men were certainly from the community, though, and feelings ran high. By early evening a very large crowd had gathered at the waterfront, where one of the ship's boats had brought 2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins ashore, and took matters into their own hands.

There was a tradition of violent resistance to Royal Navy impressment throughout the Atlantic world. A common element was to destroy the means used by the press gangs to bring their captives back to their ships, and such was now the case in Newport. Lieutenant Jenkins was overwhelmed and his boat seized by an angry mob that Governor Ward would later downplay as "consisting altogether of the dregs of the people and a number of boys and negroes.” It was a stock response in such cases for the authorities to claim that "no person of the least note was concerned in the riot", but there were usually instigators of considerably higher status who actively supported the rioting.

The Newport Mercury's letter writer described the event this way:

"TUESDAY Evening last, about Nine O’Clock, his Majesty’s Ship the Maidstone’s boat was taken from one of the wharfs, by a mob consisting chiefly of Sailors, Boys and Negroes, to the Number above about Five hundred, haul’d up through Queen-Street to the Common, at the upper End of the Town, where they burnt her, in the Circle of the exasperated Tumult, which I believe every sensible Man in Town now regrets, and am persuaded was out of the Power of the Authority to Prevent her Fate, as it was but a few Minutes from the Time of their taking her to her being in Flames."

The correspondent "O. G." continued:

"...The Measures taken by the Rabble is by no Means to be countenanced, much less approved of; yet it is to be hoped, the Authority, or the principal Part of the Gentlemen in Town, will interpose in its Relief, before our Distresses are more sensibly felt, or it’s past Remedy for this Season, either by persuasive Arguments with Capt. Antrobus, to desist pursuing or allowing the unpopular Methods of manning His Majesty’s Ship, by impressing in the very Bowels of the Town; or, if this should fail, and Excursion of every Power which ought, and must, necessarily take Place, for Self-preservation , for Safety of Life and Property.”

Governor Ward was out of town that evening, but on his return he dispatched the High Sheriff to  Maidstone where he found 1st Lieutenant Cuthbert Baines in command during Captain Antrobus's absence. The Governor subsequently wrote to Antrobus on June 11th that he has insisted on

"the dismission of several inhabitants of this Colony, lately impressed and detained on board said ship, contrary to law. In return to which, he acquainted me that it was not in his power to comply with my order; but that he hourly expected your return, and was very confident you would give me sufficient satisfaction upon that head.”

In the same letter, Governor Ward noted that the Sheriff had brought back Lt. Baine's written "account of the illegal proceedings of some persons of this town in taking and burning a boat belonging to His Majesty’s ship Maidstone, and abusing Mr. Jenkins, the second lieutenant."

Thus began a correspondence between the Governor and the Captain that lead to neither one's satisfaction. Ward, whose letters are far more readily available to researchers than those written by Antrobus, was most emphatic that the navy was in the wrong:

"Sir, I must observe, that the impressing of Englishmen is, in my opinion, an arbitrary action, contrary to law, inconsistent with liberty, and to be justified only by very great urgent necessity.”
“But as the ship under your command lay moored in the harbor of an English Colony, always ready to afford you all assistance necessary for his Majesty’s service, I could not conceive any possible reason sufficient to justify the severe and rigorous impress carried on by your people in this port.”
“You assert that while your ship is afloat, the civil authority of this Colony does not extend to and cannot operate within her.”

“But I must be of opinion, Sir, that while she lies in the body of a County, as she then did, and still does, within the body of the County of Newport, all her officers and men are within the jurisdiction of this Colony, and ought to conform themselves to the laws thereof and while I have the honor to be in the administration, I shall endeavor to assert and maintain the liberties and privileges of His Majesty’s subjects and the honor, dignity and jurisdiction of the Colony.

While each man disputed whose behavior had been improper and whose actions were legal, problems in Newport continued.   After several weeks of this standoff, Captain Antrobus released those pressed men who belonged to Newport but retained those from other colonies.  While the "Ospray"'s men were still detained, the Masters of various vessels who attempted to bring impressed men on Maidstone their pay were, according to "O.G.", treated with all imaginable Contempt and Disrespect...Others that went on board to carry Seamen their Chests and Bedding, had their Boat turn’d adrift, and themselves put under Confinement; and detained all Night."  The navy may have perceived this incident differently, believing that evidence of the higher wages paid in the merchant service might entice other sailors to desert.  

Neither was Newport through with mob action as the crisis continued. One again, 2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins was in the thick of things, and again bore the brunt of the community's anger. A local merchant, Christopher Champlin (undoubtedly related in some way to the Master of the Ospray), held the contract to supply His Majesty's warships while in Harbor. According to a later Admiralty report, an attempt by Champlin to bring supplies to Maidstone was opposed onshore by "a merchant who, at the head of 40 or 50 men, endeavoured to prevent the merchant who contracted for the victualling of the King’s ships from sending some provisions on board."

Captain Antrobus would protest to Governor Ward that Mr. Jenkins was at risk of his life had not two other passing gentlemen intervened, but the Governor brushed him off, saying in yet another letter written in March, 1766 that both Lieutenant Jenkins and Mr. Champlin had full recourse to the local courts but had failed to act upon it.

"Of the other tumultuous proceedings mentioned in the close of your letter, I can recollect nothing at present, except your representation of Mr. Champlin’s being surrounded by a mob, &c., upon which I must observe that if that gentleman had been insulted and forcibly prevented from supplying the King’s ships with provisions, and had made application to me on the occasion, I should have immediately have given him all necessary aid, protection and assistance; but as he never made any complaint to me; I conclude that he has received no injury, and that the behavior of the persons concerned in the matter proceeded wholly from the resentment which they conceived, on the inhabitants of the town being impressed and detained on board the Maidstone, and not from any real design of distressing any of his Majesty’s servants, and the uninterrupted manner in which the ship hath since been supplied, confirms me in the sentiments I then entertained of this matter. "

The customs enforcement and impressment struggle in which Maidstone played so significant a part in Newport primed the pump for even more disturbance and crowd action that year Within a month, rioting would break out in Newport once more, this time over the impending implementation of the Stamp Act. Maidstone, however, soon left the scene, sailing to Halifax for repairs on or about August 19th, 1765.

detail of a chart of the coast of New England showing the south shoal of George's Bank
 Postscript:     Captain Antrobus would later command His Majesty's ship Jason but died of disease in March, 1769 at Antigua.  Master Timothy Doggett of the Sloop Polly died that same year at his home in Dighton, Massachusetts.  John Robinson played a prominent target of the stamp tax riot in Newport, and went on to notoriety in Boston. Lieutenant Baines remained in service, but only briefly commanded his own vessel before retiring to the half pay list in 1774.  In 1809, still in retirement, he was senior enough to finally be made Post Captain, dying the following year.

On the south shoal of George's Bank in 1765, Maidstone's tender, a small American schooner, foundered with the loss of all 12 hands.   This was at least the third ship's boat that Maidstone lost since Antrobus took command - the first sunk or smashed during the crossing from England in 1763, the second consumed in flames in Newport in 1765. I will have to wait until I can read the log books and ship's muster from the Admiralty archives to be certain, but it is quite possible that this loss of the tender happened during Maidstone's passage to Halifax that August.  It would have been either a midshipman's or a junior lieutenant's command.  2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins disappears from the available records after the incidents in Newport.  Perhaps it was he who commanded the little schooner that was lost on the Banks. 

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