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, August 20, 2019

The Burnings of the Liberty

The Boston Gazette was the town’s staunchest Whig newspaper, quick to attack royal officials and to defend locals against charges of unrest. But printers Edes and Gill weren’t so protective about other communities.

The Boston Gazette’s first report on the attack on the Customs sloop Liberty in Newport harbor, dated 24 July, had no detail about why people there were so upset at that ship. It had a lot of detail on how the crowd took their revenge:
a Number of Persons…went on board the Liberty as she lay at Anchor in the Harbour, and cut her Cables, and let her drift ashore, they then set her on Fire, but being informed a considerable Quantity of Powder was on board, for fear of endangering the Town, they extinguished it again; then they cut away her Mast, threw her Guns and Stores overboard, entered the Cabin and destroyed the Captain’s and his Wife’s Cloaths, Bedding, &c. broke the Tables, Chairs, China and other Things therein, and did not quit her till 3 o’clock in the next Morning, when, after scuttling the Vessel, they left her a meer Wreck, and now remains sunk near one of the Wharfs there.
The 24 July Boston Chronicle also mentioned how people had started to burn the ship, but gave a different reason for them stopping:
They also set fire to the sloop, but it being nigh a warehouse and some vessels where she was run on shore, they extinguished it for fear of the flames spreading.
The Providence Gazette of 22 July took more effort to protect local reputations by pointing the finger at men from the next colony over:
a Number of Men, chiefly from Connecticut, went on board, and after cutting away her Mast, and rendering her unfit for Service, they threw every thing that was valuable overboard, and scuttled the Vessel, after which they quietly dispersed.
Both that paper and the 24 July Newport Mercury omitted any mention of people trying to set fire to the ship.

A week later, on Monday, the Newport Mercury reported a new development:
Last Saturday Afternoon the Sloop Liberty was floated by a high Tide, drifted over to Goat-Island, and is grounded at the North-End, very near where the Pirates were buried; what this prognosticates we leave to the Determination of Astrologers!
And what do you know? The Liberty caught on fire again that very night! At least, that’s how the Rhode Island newspapers told it. On 5 August, the Providence Gazette reported:
Saturday last the Sloop Liberty was drifted by a high Tide to Goat-Island, since which we are informed she has been set on Fire by Lightning, and nearly consumed.
Two days later the Newport Mercury stated:
Last Monday Evening, just after the Storm of Rain, Hail, and Lightening, the Liberty Sloop, which we mentioned in our last to have drifted to Goat-Island, near where the Pirates were buried, was discovered on Fire; and she continued burning for several Days, till almost intirely consumed.
The Liberty was not the first royal government vessel that Rhode Islanders had burned in recent years, and it would not be the last.

TOMORROW: A sestercentennial commemoration.

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