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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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Black Drummers of the 29th Regiment

Roger Fuller at Minute Man National Historical Park alerted me to this online image of a small exhibit at England’s Worcester City Museum on the black drummers of the British army’s 29th Regiment of Foot. And here’s an article about that regiment’s tradition of recruiting drummers of African descent; its pictures come from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it names the drummers going back to Revolutionary times, as compiled by John Ellis.

Now “tradition” and “recruited” might not be the right words for the practice in 1768-70, when the 29th was in Boston. According to other sources, Admiral Edward Boscawen bought the first “eight or ten boys” to serve as drummers in 1759 and gave them to his brother George, who was colonel of the 29th. So those boys most likely arrived as slaves, not of their free will, and the tradition was only about a decade old.

Or are those other sources accurate? Ellis’s study notes three drummers who retired from the regiment with years of service dating from before 1759, at least two of them middle-aged by that year:

  • John Charloe—born on St. Kitts, 1710; served 1751-80
  • John Bacchus—born on Jamaica, 1726; served 1752-80
  • Joseph Provence—born on Santo Domingo; served 1755-90
Perhaps the 29th had some black drummers before 1759, but the Boscawens decided to employ only black men. Perhaps the term “boys” was inaccurate, and a bit pejorative. A later commander of the 29th, John Enys, stated that when he joined in 1775, at least three of the original ten black drummers were still serving, which matches with the data above.

Bacchus was the drummer for Capt. Ponsonby Molesworth’s company in 1769, according to muster rolls. Cpl. William Wemms (or Wemys), one of the Boston Massacre defendants, came from that company.

Ellis’s research lets us identify the other drummers of the 29th’s time in Boston as Robert Baird (born 1738, discharged 1792), Lushington Barrett (died 1787), Thomas Othello (Capt. Archibald Campbell’s company in 1770, died 1777), John Rufael (deserted 1770), John Archer, Thomas Walker, and possibly John Blenheim.

The best documented of that group is Thomas Walker, who got caught up in the fight at the ropewalk on the Friday before the Boston Massacre. He left a deposition about his experience, and Justice John Hill mentioned the “tall negro drummer” in his own testimony. Walker served in Capt. Thomas Preston’s company. Ellis found that he was with the regiment in 1765 and 1774, and might be the drummer “Samuel Walker” listed as dying in 1781 but otherwise unknown.

In the British army (as later in the Continental Army), drummers were responsible for whipping men convicted of crimes. The Worcester City Museum website says, “recruits were sometimes deterred by the thought of being flogged by a black man, and the citizens of Boston even wrote to the commanding officer about it.” That refers to protests like this, from an October 1768 dispatch that the Whigs sent to newspapers in other colonies:
In the forenoon one Rogers, a New-England man, sentenced to receive 1000 stripes, and a number of other soldiers, were scourged in the Common by the black drummers, in a manner, which however necessary, was shocking to humanity; some gentlemen who had held commissions in the army, observing, that only 40 of the 170 lashes received by Rogers, at this time, was equal in punishment to 500, they had seen given in other regiments.
The locals’ main point was how British military punishments far exceeded what the local courts doled out, even when corporal punishment was standard. But the Whigs made sure to slip in the detail about the drummers being black, which could rile up people. As the Boston Evening-Post expressed it on 6 Oct 1768: “To behold Britons scourged by Negro drummers was a new and very disagreeable spectacle.”

Another dispatch from the same series shows a drummer himself being punished the same way in Feb 1769:
There has been within these few days a great many severe whippings; among the number chastised, was one of the negro drummers, who received 100 lashes, in part of 150, he was sentenced to receive at a Court Martial;—It is said this fellow had adventur’d to beat time at a concert of music, given at the Manufactory-House.
It appears that even if these drummers arrived as slaves, they enjoyed a respectable standing within the regiment and retired as free men—but they had to get through the discipline of British military service first.

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