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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Sunday, June 10, 2018

John Hancock’s Busy Month of May 1768

On 9 May 1768, A couple of weeks after the Customs Commissioners failed in their attempt to have John Hancock prosecuted for interfering with their employees, another of Hancock’s ships arrived in Boston harbor.

“Barnard from Madeira,” reported the Boston Gazette’s shipping news. That meant that Capt. Nathaniel Barnard on the Liberty had arrived from Madeira, a Portuguese island. Though Madeira wasn’t part of the British Empire, for over a century the laws had made an exception for importing Portuguese island wine, and North American ships could even trade there directly.

The Sugar Act of 1764 specified the duty to be paid on that wine:
For every ton of wine of the growth of the Madeiras, or of any other island or place from whence such wine may be lawfully imported, and which shall be so imported from such islands or place, the sum of seven pounds
Capt. Barnard declared that he had brought in 25 casks of wine. Two tide waiters from the Customs service watched the unloading and certified the next day that they had seen nothing unusual.

On that same day, 10 May, Hancock lost a captain. The 16 May Boston Gazette reported:
Tuesday Morning last died very suddenly, Capt. JOHN MARSHALL, in the 32d Year of his Age: For several Years Commander of the Boston Packet in the London Trade.—His Funeral was attended last Friday Afternoon.
The Boston Packet was Hancock’s regular back-and-forth ship to London, and Marshall appeared often in his correspondence from the mid-1760s.

Later in May, as I described in postings starting here, Hancock got into a dispute over whether his militia company, the Cadets, would serve as an honor guard for a banquet that included the Customs Commissioners. While that argument ended peacefully, it exacerbated the bitter feelings between the young merchant and the men in charge of the Customs office. In those same weeks, Hancock was voted onto the Council but then vetoed off by Gov. Francis Bernard.

Meanwhile, on 17 May H.M.S. Romney arrived in Boston harbor. This was a fifty-gun warship that required a crew of over 300 men. In the Royal Navy’s time-honored way, Capt. John Corner began stopping merchant ships and drafting men from their crews to serve under him.

Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson recognized that this spelled trouble:
It is unfortunate that in the midst of these difficulties the Romney has been impressing seamen out of all inward-bound vessels and although he does not take men belonging to the Province who have families, yet the fear of it prevents coasters [ships trading along the coast] as well as other vessels coming in freely, and it adds more fewel to the great stock among us before. It is pity that in peaceable times any pressing of seamen should be allowed in the colonies.
Gov. Bernard was likewise arguing against impressment, and thinking he should get more credit in Boston for doing so.

On Sunday, 5 June, locals threw rocks at boats from the Romney to keep them from landing, fearing that those sailors were coming to impress men. A couple of days later they rescued a sailor away from a press gang. As both a merchant and a politician, Hancock was involved the official protests against the navy’s practice.

As all that happened, Hancock’s Liberty was being loaded with its outgoing cargo: 200 barrels of whale oil and 20 barrels of tar. It was ready to sail. And then on 9 June, one of the tide waiters who had watched the Liberty in May declared that in fact he had seen it used for smuggling.

TOMORROW: What the tide waiter saw.

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