Revolutionary Rhode Island
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By 1750 Newport, Rhode Island was a large, wealthy city, the fifth largest in the British North American colonies, and the third busiest port. The large, deep harbor was well sheltered, and the merchants, ship owners and ship captains made the most of it. Newport ships ranged much of the world buying, selling and trading goods.
This high level of trade was frequently interrupted by a series of wars fought between Britain and France. From 1757 to 1763, British and American colonial forces fought the French and Indian War, which resulted in France having to give up its North American colonies. It was a win for the British, but a very expensive win. Needing to shore up its treasury the Crown enacted a series of laws creating new taxes and increasing enforcement of older ones. These taxes were often in the form of duties on imports and thus impacted Newport’s commercial accounts directly.
In 1764 Parliament enacted the Sugar Act which placed duties on the import of sugar to the colonies. Sugar was a major part of Newport’s economy which relied heavily on sugar, the principal ingredient in rum. The 22 rum distilleries in Newport certainly produced more rum than the population of Newport, about 9500 at the time, could consume. Rum became a main currency, used by the commercial sector of the economy. Mercantilist theory, to which Britain ascribed, called for hard currency to be restricted to the home country. The colonies would do business by barter. Newport’s rum was loaded into ships and used as money for the purchase of goods. For example, rum was traded for slaves in Africa. Then the slave ships sailed to the West Indies, the Sugar Islands, where the slaves were exchanged for sugar in the form of molasses which was then brought to Newport. Increased taxes on sugar (molasses in this case) hence rippled through the Town’s economy.
What made the tax even more offensive to Newporters was the stationing of ships in Newport harbor to enforce the tax and apprehend smugglers. The Crown tasked the Royal Navy to enforce the payment of the tax and gave the ships’ captains extraordinary powers to stop ships, seize cargos, and press commercial seamen into service with the Navy. Often these captains and their crews treated to locals very badly, refusing to pay for goods taken from local shops and generally abusing verbally or physically the locals.
One such ship was the Schooner HMS St John. The crew, ashore in Newport in the summer of 1764, had committed “irregularities in the Town.” They were accused of stealing chickens and livestock as well as threatening local seamen with impressment. Some days later on July 9, 1764, the schooner was in Newport harbor when a group of locals, likely under orders from Governor Stephen Hopkins, entered Fort George on Goat Island in the harbor and proceeded to fire the Fort’s cannon at the Schooner. The reports of the number of shots fired vary from eight to thirteen as do damage reports from a hole in one sail to the splintering of a mast. Newporters like to consider these the first shots fired in the Revolution.
A year later HMS Maidstone, Captain Charles Antrobus commanding, was on customs duty in Narragansett Bay. Antrobus had impressed many American sailors from commercial ships and even fishermen in the Bay. On the 4th of July 1765, the King’s birthday, a mob seized a longboat from the ship, dragged it into the central square, and set it afire.
The summer of 1769 saw another incident. Two years earlier in 1767, a commercial vessel, the Liberty, then owned by Boston merchant John Hancock, was seized as it entered Boston, and its cargo confiscated. Hancock was never prosecuted, but neither did he get his ship back. It was re-christened HMS Liberty and stationed in Narragansett Bay. Captain William Reid stopped a New London based brigantine, seized the ship, and towed it and a Connecticut based sloop into Newport harbor. Joseph Packwood, the brigantine captain recruited a mob which surrounded Reid and forced him to call the entire crew ashore. At this point the mob boarded the Liberty, looted it, set it afire, and cut its mooring. The ship drifted until it burned to the waterline. London protested to Rhode Island authorities, but the matter was dropped. The incident set the stage for the more widely known burning of HMS Gaspee three years later.
Keagle, Mathew, “The French in Newport Walking Tour,” unpublished walking tour script, Newport Historical Society, 2010. Used by permission. Newport Historical Society runs an array of walking tours through the colonial section of the city. They are well-researched and provide the opportunity to learn about Newport’s colonial history at the locations where events took place.
Derderian, Michael R., This Licentious Republic: Maritime Skirmishes n Narragansett Bay 1763-1769. Journal of American History, October 2, 2017.
Winthrop, Christian, Step Back in Time to the Summer of 1765 with Newport Historical Society. Newport Buzz, August 17, 2016.