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, June 12, 2018

“I put the Kings Mark on the Main Mast”

On 10 June 1768, the Customs office in Boston determined that there was enough evidence to charge John Hancock with smuggling. They hadn’t caught him red-handed, but they had sworn testimony from tidesman Thomas Kirk saying that his staff had covertly unloaded casks of wine from his sloop Liberty the previous month so as to avoid paying duties.

What’s more, that ship had been reloaded to sail outbound without all the proper clearances—though ship masters almost always loaded while preparing that paperwork. The whale oil and tar now on the Liberty made it doubly valuable: the service could confiscate both the ship and the cargo, and the Customs officers involved would share in the proceeds.

Those officials knew, however, that such a seizure wouldn’t be easy. Collector Joseph Harrison described the situation in a letter to the Marquess of Rockingham dated 17 Jun 1768. He explained that Hancock, though “a generous benevolent Gentleman,” was “subject to the influence of [James] Otis and other Incendiaries.” Even worse, the young merchant was “the Idol of the Mob, just as Mr. [John] Wilkes is in England. Hancock and Liberty being the Cry here, as Wilkes and Liberty is in London!” So any move against Hancock would be unpopular.

Harrison described how he proceeded:
Under these Circumstances a Seizure must necessarily be attended with the utmost Risque and Danger to the Officer who should make the Attempt. However as I was judged to be the properest person to Effect it, I was deteremined that no Danger should deter me from the Execution of my Duty, tho’ I was then so ill as to be just able to stirr abroad.

So after sending on board the Romney Man of War (which then lay in the Harbour) to request their assistance in case a Rescue should be attempted, I proceeded to execute my Orders; first informing my Brother Officer Mr. [Benjamin] Hallowell the Comptroller of the Service I was going upon who generously declared that I should not singly be exposed to the fury of the Populace, but that he would share the danger with me, accordingly we set out together towards the Wharf where the Vessel lay and in our way thither my Son [Richard Acklom Harrison] (about 18 Years of Age) accidentally joined us in the Street and went along with us.

When we got down to the Wharf we found the Sloop lying there and after waiting till we saw the Man of Warrs Boat ready to put off the Comptoller and I, steped on board, seized the Vessel, and I put the Kings Mark on the Main Mast:

By this time the People began to muster together on the Wharf, from all Quarters; and several Men had got on board in order to regain Possession just as the Man of Warrs Boat well Man’d and Armed had got along side: They soon drove the Intruders out and I delivered the Vessel into custody of the commanding Officer. We then went a Shore and walked off the Wharf without any Insult or Molestation from the the People, who were eagerly engaged in a Scuffle with the Man of Warrs Men and endeavouring to detain the Sloop at the Wharf.
One of the young officers on the Romney, Midshipman William Senhouse, later told his service’s side of the seizure in a memoir:
Our Boats Mann’d & Arm’d were accordingly dispatch’d under the commnd of Mr. [John] Calendar, who was Master of the Romney, Mr. [William] Culmer, one of the Mates, and myself. We proceeded directly to the Sloop, wch was laying alongside of the Long Wharf [actually Hancock’s Wharf] and found her in possession of the Towns people, who on our near approach pelted us very severely with Stones. We nevertheless boarded the Vessel, drove the mob on shore, cut her fasts or moorings, and carried her off in triumph, bringing her to an Anchor under the Guns of the Romney.

Notwithstanding the rude reception we expected, form the people of the Town, we had received special directions not to fire upon them, but in the very last extremity. Billy Culmer however, tho’ he knew well how to obey, was extreamly urgent with the Master for his orders to fire and had this honest Madman been gratify’d in his wish, a terrible slaughter no doubt, wou’d have succeeded. As it was, we happily accomplished our purpose, at the expence only of some blows and bruizes of no great consequence.
But then the waterfront crowd turned its attention back to the Customs officers.

TOMORROW: The Liberty riot.

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