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, September 07, 2007

Taking Gunpowder from Bermuda

Yesterday I quoted a British naval history on the unauthorized removal of gunpowder from the government magazine on Bermuda. I found a detailed account of that theft in the first volume of the Naval Documents of the American Revolution (a kind gift a few years back from Bart Reynolds). On 17 Aug 1775, Gov. George James Bruere reported to the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the colonies:

I had less suspicion than before, that such a daring and violent Attempt would be made on the Powder Magazine, which in the dead of night of the 14th of August was broke into on Top, just to let a man down, and the Doors most Audaciously and daringly forced open, at the great risk of their being blown up; they could not force the Powder Room Door, without getting into the inside on Top

They Stole and Carried off about one Hundred Barrels of Gun powder, and as they left about ten or twelve Barrels, it may be Supposed that those Barrels left, would not bare remooving. It must have taken a Considerable number of People; and we may Suppose some Negroes, to assist as well as White Persons of consequence. . . .

The next morning the 15th Instant, (of August) one Sloop Called the Lady Catharine, belonging by Her Register to Virginia, George Ord Master, bound to Philadelphia, was seen under Sail, but the Custom House Boat could not over take Her.

And likewise a Schooner Called the Charles Town and Savannah Packet, belonging to South Carolina, from South Carolina Cleared out at Bermuda the 11th of August with 2,000 Sawed Stones for Barbados John Turner Master. And was seen under Sail the same day, at such a Distance off, that the Custom House Boat could not over take either of the Vessels.

It may be supposed that neither of the vessels came near the Shore, to take in the Powder, if they did carry it away, but it is rather to be imagined that it must have been Carried out by Several Boats, as both these Vessels, Sailed from a Harbour at the West End, twenty Miles off, of the Magazine.
The Bermuda legislature offered reward of £100 to anyone who gave evidence to convict someone of this theft. Bruere offered a personal reward of £30 and a pardon to any informer, or £10 “to be paid to any Negro, or Negroes, to inform against any other Negro or Negroes.” There’s no indication that anyone tried to claim either reward.

At the same time this was going on, Gen. George Washington and Gov. Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island were in correspondence about sending a ship to Bermuda to obtain that very powder. On 8 August Cooke wrote, “If the Powder supposed to be at Bermuda be private Property it must be immediately paid for. If not I imagine it will be settled with our own Disputes”—i.e., by stealth and force justified by politics. By the time a ship left Newport for the island, however, that gunpowder was on its way north.

And what of the anxious governor’s sons in Boston, whom I also mentioned yesterday? By the 2nd of September Bruere had heard a rumor that “both my Sons, very promising Youths, are Said to be Killed, and I know nothing to the Contrary.” Indeed, the governor’s eldest promising youth, John Bruere, had been killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill; he seems to have been a military retiree serving as a volunteer officer with the 14th Regiment.

The next oldest promising youth was merely wounded at Bunker Hill. George Bruere (1744-1786), a lieutenant in the grenadier company of the 18th, survived to marry fourteen-year-old Martha Louisa Fatio in 1777 and serve as Bermuda’s lieutenant governor in 1780-81, after his father had died.


Anonymous said...

In the current issue of _Colonial Williamsburg_ (Autumn 2007), an article about the reconstructed George Jackson House includes the following:
"Jackson's daughter Sarah inherited the (1767) property and lived in it on and off until her death in 1854. A Williamsburg newspaper reported in her obituary that her father was:
'a patriot, who at a gloomy period of the American Revolution, chartered a vessel to Bermuda, and there secretly at eminent peril of life, procured a supply of gunpowder, with which he returned in safety to the Old Dominion, and placed in the possession of his then desponding country.'"
Was there no security on the gunpowder in Bermuda at all? Were the Bermudians selling to all customers? Or did people have to steal it "at peril"? Is the story about Jackson true, I wonder?

J. L. Bell said...

When the Rhode Island ship got to Bermuda, the captain reported an extremely happy welcome from the populace. Apparently the islanders had no ideological quarrel with the Whigs on the continent, and were happy to sell them their government's gunpowder.

I don't know why Bermuda didn't join the thirteen big mainland colonies the war, though. Perhaps the planters feared an uprising of their enslaved workers too much to risk breaking with royal authority. Perhaps they were okay with resistance, but didn't like the notion of independence. Perhaps they preferred commerce to fighting.

It would be good if the George Jackson story had a date attached to it. But the Bermuda powder did go somewhere in the summer of '75.

AJSwtlk said...

Old stories never die, somewhat. Ran across your blog in our early days. Then, saw this of late while researching families from New England (south and north) who met going west thereby joining lines across the region.

In particular, J.F. Dorman (noted historian/genealogist on the subject of Virginia; editor of the William & Mary Quarterly) mentions that George Jackson of Williamsburg VA did such a feat as get gunpowder from Bermuda which he brought back to the Old Dominion.

To think, there could have been fifteen colonies.