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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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Brook Watson: "worthy and steady friend"?

Last month I discussed Brook Watson (1735-1807), who was born in Boston, lost a leg to a shark in Havana, and went on to a very successful career in London as a merchant and politician. Because he was born in America and had a lot of business there, the British government viewed him as a bridge to the colonial leadership.

In January 1775 Watson sent the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the colonies, a handwritten essay recommending how the government should peacefully reform the colonial governments. The secretary’s secretaries noted this as “Mr. Watson’s Thoughts on American Affairs.” In fact, he had copied it from “Thoughts on the dispute between Great Britain and her Colonies,” an essay by Judge William Smith of New York. The author’s brother, Dr. James Smith, had sent a copy to the earl the year before, and Smith himself would send another in July, saying he had written it in 1767.

Around the same time, Watson testified in Parliament against the government’s bill to bar Massachusetts fisherman from the Newfoundland fishing grounds. He spoke for the whole empire’s merchants, who earned a lot from carrying the fish to Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Despite his argument, the bill passed, part of Parliament’s efforts to punish Boston for the Tea Party and general naughtiness.

Watson then sailed for New York, arriving in May 1775 to find that war had broken out. The Patriot party dominated the city at that time, though there were also many Loyalists and men who were genuinely undecided (such as William Smith). Whatever Watson told people convinced them that he sympathized with the Patriots and hoped for a reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain that would resolve all their problems. He set out for Canada, where he had extensive business.

Later in 1775, a couple of American armies also set out north, planning a quick conquest. One contingent, under Ethan Allen, was captured outside Montreal at the Battle of Longue-Point on 24 Sept 1775. But after that the local militias lost faith in British commander Guy Carleton and disbanded, letting a larger American force under Gen. Richard Montgomery take Montreal unopposed the next month. By then Watson was sailing back to London—but he had left some letters behind.

On 13 Nov 1775, Montgomery wrote to Gen. Philip Schuyler back in New York:

I send some choice letters of that worthy and steady friend of the Colonies, Brook Watson, whose zeal is only to be equalled by his sincerity. You will think them of importance enough, I believe, to be communicated to General Washington and the Congress. Your friend, Mr. William Smith, has been pretty well humbugged by this gentleman.
Montgomery enclosed four captured letters which Watson had written the month before. Among them was one to William Franklin, Loyalist governor of New Jersey (and son of Benjamin Franklin), dated 19 Oct 1775 and describing the results of the Longue-Point battle:
such is the wretched state of this unhappy Province [Quebec], that Colonel Allen, with a few despicable wretches, would have taken this city on the 25th ultimo [i.e., last month], had not its inhabitants marched out to give them battle. They fought, conquered, and thereby saved the Province for a while. Allen and his banditti were mostly taken prisoners. He is now in chains on board the Gaspee. This little action has changed the face of things. The Canadians before were nine tenths for the Bostonians. They are now returned to their duty, many in arms for the King, and the parishes. who had been otherwise, are daily demanding their pardon, and taking arms for the Crown.
Watson actually took charge of conveying Allen to Britain as a prisoner of war; the Vermonter later called him “a man of malicious and cruel disposition.”

Before the end of the war, Watson gained some lucrative military supply contracts through his close relationship with Carleton. In the following decades he retired from business and devoted his full-time talents to politics. (Thumbnail of the one-legged merchant and Lord Mayor courtesy of Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.)

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