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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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Lydia—Have You Searched Lydia?

On Friday, 8 Apr 1768, as I mentioned yesterday, Owen Richards received an “Appointment & Deputation” as a tide waiter for His Majesty’s Customs Service in Boston. He later said that “His Sallary was £25 pr. an. & 1sh. 6d. when employed,” for a total of about £45 a year.

Richards may already have been working for the Customs department, which would make this a new assignment, a promotion, or a commission under a new legal authority. Under the Townshend Act, the Customs service in North America had a new structure, topped by a five-man commission headquartered in Boston. It had the added responsibilities of collecting new tariffs for the Crown, and it had additional resources from those tariffs, so the Commissioners were probably on a hiring spree.

On the very same day that Richards received his new paperwork, a cargo ship arrived from London: the Lydia, under the command of Capt. James Scott. The owner of the Lydia and of the wharf where it docked was John Hancock, a Boston selectman and representative to the Massachusetts General Court.

Hancock had already attracted the attention of the Customs Commissioners, they later wrote: “early in the Winter he declared in the General Assembly that he would not suffer our officers to go even on board any of his London Ships.” But Customs officers were supposed to go aboard a ship when it arrived to watch over the cargo.

The two tide waiters assigned to the Lydia were Owen Richards and Robert Jackson. According to a summary of events written by Massachusetts attorney general Jonathan Sewall, they boarded the ship about 1:00 P.M. and confirmed the cargo included “Tea, Paper, and other Customable Goods.” The tide waiters’ job was to watch until all those goods were unloaded and counted.

At 4:00, Hancock himself came on board and asked to see the Customs men’s paperwork. He also told Capt. Scott and the ship’s mate not to let Richards and Jackson “go under Deck.” The tide waiters remained on the ship Friday night and all Saturday. Sewall wrote:
About seven o’clock on Saturday Evening, the said Owen Richards went down into the Steerage; and in about ten minutes the Master came and laid his Hand upon their Shoulders and told them they must go out of the Steerage or he should lose his Bread and they accordingly went out:

and about eight o’clock the said Owen went down into the Steerage again and continued there until about eleven o’clock when Mr. Hancock came on board again, attended by eight or ten people, all unarmed, and after demanding of the said Owen what Business he had below deck and to come up, upon his refusal, he demanded sight of their orders, which were shown him, he also demanded a sight of their Commissions and the said Owen showed his; to which he objected that it had no Date;

he [Hancock] then demanded to know if they had any Write of Assistants; and being answered in the Negative, he ordered the Mate and Boatswain to turn him out of the Steerage; who accordingly took hold of him under the Arms and Thighs and forced him upon Deck, after which the Companionway being fastened, Mr. Hancock demanded of him whether he wanted to search the Vessel; to which he answered that he did not. Mr. Hancock then told him that he might search the Vessel but should not tarry below.
One of the people who came on board with Hancock was Capt. Daniel Malcom. He had had his own confrontation with the Customs service in 1766, and the Customs Commissioners were certain he had snuck “about Sixty pipes of Wine” into Boston just a few weeks earlier. As Richards was removed, witnesses reported Malcom helpfully saying things like, “damn him hand him up, if it was my Vessel I would knock him down.”

It’s not clear to me what exactly was going on here—why Richards went below, or why Hancock had him physically removed but then said “he might search the Vessel.” The historian Oliver M. Dickerson believed that the Boston Customs office operated as a “racket” and was out to penalize Hancock because of his defiant words that winter. He suggested Richards was acting on orders from his supervisors to provoke Hancock or catch him doing something illegal. Alternatively, Richards might have snooped around on his own; if he had detected smuggled goods, he would have shared in any fines the Customs service levied. As for Hancock’s statement that Richards might search the ship, that might have been contingent on him producing a legal writ, which Hancock knew he didn’t have.

On 15 April, the Customs service asked attorney general Sewall to prosecute Hancock and his employees for interfering with their enforcement of the law. After examining the testimony for a week, Sewall declined. No statute specified that tide waiters had the power to go below deck, he wrote, even “in extreme cold and stormy seasons.” Hancock and his men had therefore done nothing illegal in manhandling Owen Richards.

TOMORROW: The arrival of the Liberty.

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