Tuesday Talk - by John Fitzhugh Millar
If you lived in the colonial period, one thing would worry you more than anything else: how would you preserve your food? You could smoke things, dry things, and salt things, but those are not satisfactory – you have to add so much salt to cure a piece of meat that the microbes won’t want to eat it, and if they will not eat it, you will not want to eat it. That means you have to run fresh water over it for hours to get the salt out again – rather a nuisance.
However, there was another way: strong alcohol. Anything you needed to preserve you could submerge in alcohol for days or decades. In Scotland, they used whiskey, in France brandy, in the Netherlands gin, and in America...rum. Rum is distilled from molasses, and molasses is the by-product you get, whether you want it or not, when you refine sugar cane-juice into sugar.
Even a poor man’s house contained at least five barrels of rum, one for chunks of meat, one for chunks of fish, one for fruit, one for vegetables, and one for flour. If you go to the supermarket today and buy a bag of flour, it went through a radiation chamber before it got to the market, which killed the bugs that otherwise would have infested it. If you submerge a cloth bag of flour in rum, that will similarly inhibit the wildlife. The flour will get soggy, but you are going to make it soggy in the recipe anyway. It will develop a rum taste, but most people in the Colonial period thought that was a plus. In Scotland, the breakfast dish, “Athol Bros,” is oatmeal preserved in whiskey and garnished with honey, and it is still popular today.
Researchers at Colonial Williamsburg came to me in puzzlement years ago. Virginia, they said, imported every year enough rum from Rhode Island – where they do not even grow sugarcane – that every man, woman and child, including blacks and Indians could have a whole bottle a day. What were they doing with it? Preserving food, of course, but that does not explain the Rhode Island connection.
The English passed various mercantilist laws in the seventeenth century, saying essentially that English Colonists could buy sugar, rum and molasses only from another English Colony, and not from the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, or Danish. These laws were summed up in the Sugar Act of 1733, which was to remain in force for thirty years. Meanwhile, the French passed a very different law concerning their Colonial sugar enterprises. The French law encouraged the shipment of as much sugar as possible to France, but absolutely forbade the French Colonies (like Haiti) from making rum out of the molasses they collected as a by-product of the sugar production. The French did not want cheap rum flooding into France, where it would undercut the famous cognac brandy industry .
Therefore, the planters in Haiti were accumulating more and more molasses, and did not know what to do with it. They were not permitted to refine it into rum. They could not throw it in the sea, as that would kill the fish, so they dug huge pits to fill with molasses. One day, a brilliant Haitian planter found a possible solution: the people of British America were not allowed to buy the molasses, but perhaps they could receive it as a gift, with mahogany barrels thrown in for free. American merchants rushed back home to ask their governors for approval, but they were told that such a gift would be merely making an end-run around the law, and would not be tolerated. However, the governor of Rhode Island was different from the others: he was elected, whereas they were appointed (actually, the Connecticut Governor was elected, too, but with a great many restrictions on his activities). The Governor of Rhode Island encouraged his merchants to import as much molasses as they wanted. British officials could see what Rhode Island was doing, but since it was not hurting anyone they pretended not to see it.
Rhode Island had been founded in 1636 as an experiment to see if religious freedom, which had never been tried anywhere in the world, would actually work. When Rhode Island officials applied to Charles II for a charter in 1662, they pointed out that if he appointed a governor over them who did not believe in the experiment, then that could ruin the experiment. Charles II happily wrote into the irrevocable charter that Rhode Island could elect all its public officials; this was such a liberal document that Rhode Island maintained it as her instrument of government well into the nineteenth century, and even Virginia after passing its own Bill of Rights (George Mason) in May 1776 and its Statute for Religious Liberty (Thomas Jefferson) after the Revolution had fewer guaranteed freedoms. At first, Rhode Island officials abused their power by becoming too closely allied with pirates, but when the molasses situation presented itself the future of that trade appeared far more lucrative than piracy, and much more reliable. Rum distilleries appeared on the waterfronts of Newport and Providence, and Newport blossomed from a wide place in the road to the fifth-largest city in Colonial America, accompanied by distinguished artists, architects, furniture-makers, silversmiths, music composers, writers and scientists, along with a substantial college in Providence. Rhode Island also had a law giving freedom to all slaves after seven years of servitude, which means that when Rhode Island outlawed the importation of slaves in 1774 there would be no more slaves there from 1781 on – the first place in the New World to do so.
Newport exported its rum to all the Colonies in North America (after all, Rhode Island was a British Colony, so it was legal to import from Newport), and handily undercut the price of Jamaica rum. This was all very well, but what would Rhode Island do in wartime, when Haiti was enemy territory?
Luckily, Rhode Island found a loophole in the law. If you captured more enemy prisoners of war than you could afford to feed or house, you were permitted by international agreement to ship them back to their home country in a special ship, known as a “cartel,” which flew special flags, and no one was allowed to interfere with cartels. Since it was expensive to operate a cartel, cartels were also licensed to pick up a cargo in the enemy’s port. Some cartels may have carried as many as 200 prisoners, but Rhode Island cartels often carried only a single prisoner. While some Rhode Island ships were picking up Haitian molasses, others were out scouring the seas for French sailors to exchange, and British officials cited Rhode Island for prosecuting the war at sea more vigorously than any other colony! The Haitians fell into the game, too, as the Rhode Island Historical Society Library contains a letter from a Haitian governor in wartime, placing a huge order of Rhode Island-made furniture for his mansion.
When war against France and Spain ended in 1763, a new king was on the throne: the young George III. His grandfather George II and great-grandfather George I were Germans first and British second (it is said, for example, that when George I asked someone what was the name of the river at London, he answered Thames – pronouncing it as written – but the German king could not handle “th”, so he pronounced it “Tems” and Tems it has remained ever since). George III, on the other hand, was completely English. He saw how his two predecessors had been exceptionally permissive (which actually resulted in Britain’s most economically productive period ever), but he felt that it was his duty to tighten up the reins.
Therefore, since it was time to renew the Sugar Act of 1733 (which otherwise was due to expire), George III saw that it was rewritten to make it more difficult for Rhode Island to continue smuggling. The 20-gun frigate Squirrel arrived in December 1763 to enforce the Sugar Act, and she quickly arrested and confiscated the Rhode Island merchant ship Rhoda for smuggling. As soon as the Squirrel moved on in January 1764, the mob seized the Rhoda and returned her to her owner. This first act foreshadowed more trouble to come.
To make sure that Rhode Island received the message and obeyed the new rules, the Royal Navy was ordered to send a warship permanently on station at Newport. They could have sent a battleship, which would have been the end of the story, but instead they sent one of the smallest vessels they had, the 6-gun, American-built schooner Saint John, which arrived late in the spring of 1764. The Saint John was about 65 feet long on deck and 20 feet wide. She had a crew of about 50 men, and was commanded by 19-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Hill.
Coincidentally, the incident involving the schooner Saint John occurred at the same time as the conclusion of Pontiac’s Rebellion, whereby American Indians forced the British to sign a treaty excluding the Midwest from settlement by the British; opposition to that “Proclamation Line” was the major reason that the other nine Colonies agreed to join New England in the struggle for independence. Thus, two key incidents of about 1764 started the inexorable march to American independence.
The Saint John apprehended all the smugglers that came into Newport (which means virtually every ship that arrived), confiscated both ships and cargoes, arrested the captains, and put the crews ashore (at least, those whom they had not coerced into enlisting in the Royal Navy). The Rhode Island economy could not withstand such an assault for long. But the Saint John also indulged in another unfriendly activity: impressment. Landing parties would roam the streets of Newport kidnapping strapping young men and forcing them to join the navy. In spite of the passage of the Habeas Corpus law in 1679 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, this activity was legal in Britain, but Parliament had passed a law in 1707 in the reign of Queen Anne, exempting Americans from the navy’s press, in the interest of encouraging emigration to colonies in America. Hardly anyone remembered that law from almost 60 years before, but Rhode Island’s elected Governor, Stephen Hopkins, a self-taught lawyer, knew it well.
Hopkins had himself rowed out to where the Saint John was at anchor, climbed up the side, and introduced himself to the young captain. He told the captain that since the Rhode Island charter gave him authority over all military forces within the Colony, and since the Saint John was in violation of the law, he was ordering the ship to depart by sunset, and never to return. Lieutenant Hill, who assumed that he had almost limitless authority, rudely replied to Hopkins that any orders binding him came exclusively from his admiral, and if Hopkins did not leave the schooner by the count of five he would order the crew to throw him in the harbor.
Hopkins was rowed ashore, and he immediately entered the fort on Goat Island that guarded the harbor. (No sign of Fort George remains today, and Goat Island is now covered with condominiums, time-shares, and a resort hotel.) Hopkins ordered the master gunner to sink the Saint John. The master gunner, who must have assumed that Hopkins was drunk, questioned the order to attack a unit of their own navy, but Hopkins coolly explained the situation. As a result, the gunner had all the fort’s massive 18-pounder cannons loaded and he opened fire on the hapless schooner. Two shots hit her and turned big chunks into splinters, so the young lieutenant had a brilliant idea: he would take his ax, cut the anchor cable and sail away, never to return. These were the first shots of resistance fired against British authority in America, 9 July 1764, twelve years before the Declaration of Independence.
The following year, the British sent another small vessel, known as Maidstone’s Tender to continue the pressure. This time, the people of Newport did not wait for the Governor to decide what to do. They rowed out in the middle of the night, took the crew off, and burned the vessel. The next British ship, the sloop Liberty (an ironic name for a ship involved in oppression; she had previously been a Boston smuggler, owned by John Hancock, before she had been confiscated), arrived in 1769, and the people burned her as well. The next British ship, the schooner Gaspee, arrived in 1772, and when she ran aground on a chase up Narragansett Bay in June she was burned in the middle of the night by a large group of men from the Providence area (many dressed as Mohawk Indians), led by Abraham Whipple. Her captain, Lieutenant William Duddingston, was wounded.
Each time these incidents occurred, the British would learn about it months later because of bad communications. They would write a blistering letter to the Rhode Island Governor, and he would receive it several months later. He would be able to reply that he knew nothing about the incident because he had not been Governor at the time – he had just been elected in the past few weeks. He would appoint a commission, which would report back in due course. The commission always reported back brazenly that persons unknown, believed to have come from Connecticut had done the deed. After Gaspee was burned, the British decided they had had enough of persons unknown from Connecticut, so they sent their own commission to investigate, and gave over $2.5 million in today’s money for a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in burning the Gaspee. Almost 300 people had been involved in burning the schooner, so there was practically no one in tiny Rhode Island who did not know at least one person involved. In spite of that, no one came forward to claim the reward, and the commission had to return to England empty-handed.
However, before they left, Stephen Hopkins came into the story again. He was no longer Governor, but he was now Chief Justice. Hopkins appeared before the Gaspee Commission and told them that even though Parliament had established the commission the enquiry was illegal on two counts: first, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 guaranteed any accused the right of a trial by jury, but anyone indicted by the commission would face only a judge. Second, Englishmen had a right of being tried in the courthouse closest to the crime, which in this case meant in Rhode Island, but anyone indicted by the commission was to be taken to England for trial. Those two points, said Hopkins, meant that the commission’s work was unconstitutional. They replied that he could jump in the harbor with the constitution.
Hopkins took matters into his own hands again. This time, he wrote letters to legislators he knew in all the other Colonies, proposing that they should join together in a series of Committees of Correspondence. The British, he wrote, were trampling over the constitution in dealing with Rhode Island, and next time they may do so with other Colonies, it was therefore important to develop a joint response. The idea fell on fertile ground, and Virginia was the first to reply to Hopkins’ suggestion. The Committees of Correspondence of 1773 marked a major step on the road to independence, but they did not work very well because in the days before the Internet communications between the Colonies were tenuous at best.
After a few months of watching the committees not functioning as well as he had hoped, Hopkins circulated his next idea. The members of the committees should meet face-to-face for a discussion of this and other related matters. He selected Philadelphia as the location, September 1774 as the date, and he called it a Continental Congress. Most history books say that the Continental Congress was founded as a result of the Boston Tea Party. No doubt the Tea Party was one of the factors that made the idea more attractive, but the Continental Congress was Hopkins’ idea. He had previously served in the Albany Congress in the French & Indians War, and had been responsible for founding the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, so he had an idea about what he was doing. Off went Hopkins to Philadelphia, sharing a carriage with his Rhode Island former arch-rival, Samuel Ward.
A few months after the Continental Congress assembled, the British increased the pressure in Rhode Island. On 12 December, 1774, the 24-gun frigate Rose (her present day replica-built ship is now known as Surprise from the movie Master & Commander) arrived to clamp down on the smuggling industry...