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, February 05, 2020

Trading for Gunpowder Just Before the War

Last year I wrote about the New London, Connecticut, merchant Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., and his many ways of evading Customs duties on molasses and other goods.

Shaw’s experience moving molasses from the Caribbean to mainland North America was useful as New England went to war in 1775. The army outside Boston needed gunpowder and weapons, things that were on sale in West Indies as long as Americans had money to pay for them and ships to carry them past Royal Navy patrols.

In fact, Nathaniel Shaw started to trade in military supplies even before the war began. On their website the authors of a new book, Two Revolutionary War Privateers: William and Joseph Packwood of Connecticut, describe the voyage that the older of those two brothers undertook on Shaw’s orders:
Capt. William set sail on 7 Feb 1775 on the Macaroni with orders to obtain as much gunpowder and arms as he could. He visited many Caribbean islands in his search. After a three-week time period, Capt. William was at Anguilla (British) which is 230 miles east of Puerto Rico. . . .

Unable to purchase gunpowder at most places he stopped, Capt. William made his way down the Leeward Islands to St. Eustatius (Dutch) on March 1, Martinique (French) on March 4, and Dominica (French until 1763, then British) on March 6. . . .

Capt. William then went to Guadeloupe (French) on March 7, back to St. Eustatius on March 9, and finally to Haiti (French) on March 15. During the last half of March, he went back and forth between two of the major trading ports in Haiti: Môle Saint-Nicolas on the northwest tip of the island and Cap-Haïtien (called Cap François at the time) on the north coast midway to the Dominican Republic, the Spanish part of the island. He returned to St. Eustatius on April 9 and then went back down to the Môle on April 16.
Back in Connecticut, Shaw was keeping a keen watch on the markets. On 6 April, he wrote to a merchant in Guadeloupe that gin was selling slowly in New York and “Nothing will command cash but Molas. and Powder.” Two days later, after a request that Samuel Holden Parsons passed on for Roger Sherman, Shaw ordered “fifteen Tons of Lead” from his usual trading partners in Philadelphia.

On 25 April, soon after New London received word of the fighting in Massachusetts, Capt. Packwood returned to port. Shaw immediately wrote to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull:
Agreable to your Desire I have Sent up Eighty Three Barrels of Powder to Colo. Jed. Huntington Containg about 108 Each

the Remainder is in this Town I hourly Expect Thirty Two Barrels more that I have Account of the Capt. having it on bord

the Remainder of what Moneys was in My hands Capt William Packwood left with Capt. Jno. Mckibbin who is in One of my Vessels in the West Indies to Lay out in the first Powder that Arives, he says that a large Quantity was Daly Expected

he purchased all that Could be had and thought it best to push home with this Rather than Tarry Longer—this Quantity he Obtain’d through the Influence of the Famous Palunkey (who was An Old Commander of a Private Tear the Warr before Lasts) who Prevailed with the Governour of the Cape to take it out of the Kings Store—

In Short Packwood Says the French Seem to be Disposed in the Islands to Assist in this way as Much as in their power, I Intend he Shall Sail Again for the Cape Next Week and I Don’t Imagine he will be Gone More than Six weeks If you Intend to have any more Money Laid out in that way it will be a good Oppertunity 
The same day, Shaw told his New York connection that Packwood had brought back “fifty One Hogsheads and Eleven Terses of Mollasses and four hogsheads of Cocoa.” That voyage wasn’t just about military supplies. And Shaw hadn’t lost his usual “hope you’l Save the Dutys” by evading the Customs men.

TOMORROW: Placing a bigger order.

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