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, August 29, 2018

“The Mohawks were prepared to do their Duty”

On the afternoon of 22 Apr 1774, Capt. James Chambers admitted to the committee enforcing New York City’s tea boycott that he had brought in eighteen chests of tea on his ship London.

The 25 April New-York Gazette reported, “The Owners [of the ship?] and the Committee immediately met at Mr. Francis’s.” That was Samuel Fraunces’s tavern in southern Manhattan, now the Fraunces Tavern Museum, shown above. Which makes it only logical for the museum’s new exhibit “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty” to highlight this confrontation from 1774.

Despite having been alerted by two informants, the committee must have been a little surprised by Chambers’s action. As Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden wrote on 4 May, “Last Voyage he claim’d applause here, for being the first who refused to take the India Company’s Tea on Board his Ship; and received Public thanks from the People of this place for it.” For that reason, his arrival with tea “drew the particular Resentment of the People upon himself by the duplicity of his Conduct.”

Chambers might have argued that he hadn’t broken his promise because he hadn’t imported tea that still belonged to the East India Company and was designated for its American sales agents. As he told the committee, “he was sole Owner of it.” Did Chambers just not realize that the tea boycott had been extended to include all tea from Britain?

It’s worth noting that Chambers had done something similar back in the Stamp Act crisis. He had carried stamped paper into New York harbor, reportedly designated for Connecticut agent Jared Ingersoll, in early January 1766. In that case the captain had left London on 22 October, meaning he had probably heard about the early anti-Stamp Act demonstrations in Boston and elsewhere before setting out, but he was still willing to risk carrying politically incorrect cargo.

Chambers couldn’t plead ignorance of the broader tea boycott since he had repeatedly lied to committee members about having any tea on board. It wasn’t hard for those men to deduce what the captain was up to: he hoped to make a nice profit for himself by reselling his eighteen chests of tea into a market deprived of fresh caffeine.

In 1766, Chambers had received “public censure” for carrying stamped paper. This time, the crowd wasn’t in a mood to be so lenient. In fact, it looks like the committee saw themselves as standing between Chambers and the mob. Fortunately, the Boston Tea Party (and second Boston Tea Party) provided a model for what Whig activists should do in this situation.

The New-York Gazette reported what happened next:
After the most mature Deliberation, it was determined to communicate the whole State of the Matter to the People, who were convened near the Ship; which was accordingly done.

The Mohawks were prepared to do their Duty at a proper Hour, but the Body of the People were so impatient that before it arrived a Number of them entered the Ship, about 8 P. M. took out the Tea, which was at Hand, broke the Cases and started their Contents in the River, without doing any Damage to the Ship or Cargo.

Several Persons of Reputation were placed below to keep Talley, and about the Companion to prevent ill disposed Persons from going below the Deck.

At 10 the People all dispersed in good Order, but in great Wrath against the Captain; and it was not without some Risque of his Life that he escaped.
As quoted back here, New Yorkers had been referring to “Mohawks” destroying tea since the preceding fall. (It took another century before that term became regularly linked to the Boston Tea Party.)

TOMORROW: A send-off for the captains.

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