J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 07, 2014

When Did London Learn of the Boston Massacre?

Another aspect of my talk at the Lexington Depot tonight is how long it typically took for news to travel from Boston to London.

We can measure that time by looking at the spread of news of the Boston Massacre, which took place on the evening of 5 Mar 1770. According to the 21 June 1770 Boston News-Letter, the first word about the shooting on King Street had reached London on 22 April. Government ministers met to discuss the situation the next day. So if a ship had sailed out of Boston harbor on 6 March, it needed 47 days to cross the Atlantic.

In addition, the issue of the London Chronicle dated 26-28 April and published on the latter date included a letter from Boston dated 12 March. Again, that totals to 47 days.

That separation in space and time was crucial in how the London government managed its North American colonies. By the time colonial officials saw the ministry’s response to some news from America, at least three months and possibly four had passed since it had happened, meaning the situation could have changed drastically. Orders from London were usually expressed in contingent and conditional terms, not just because of upper-class British politesse but because the ministers knew they had to give their appointees enough leeway to adjust policy to events on the ground.

I don’t think we should imagine those officials sitting around and moping that they couldn’t communicate more quickly, however. The British imperial communications system was one of the fastest and more dependable humans had ever come up with. Officials and merchants could rely on regular shipments of mail and news. Three thousand miles of ocean in just forty-seven days!

However, after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress wanted to send the news faster than usual. They wanted their version of events to be the first to reach Britain. At tonight’s talk, I’ll discuss why and what steps the Patriots took toward that goal.

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