American Rum 18: The Royal Navy Against America
The 21 ships of the North American Squadron left England late in the summer of1763. Their arrival and purpose for coming was well publicized in the colonial press, causing great concern in the colonies: “The publication of orders for the strict execution of the Molasses Act has caused a greater alarm in this Country than the taking of Fort William Henry did in 1657” wrote Francis Bernard, Governor of Massachusetts.
Britain needed troops and ships to control the Indians, to defend the new vast territories and to deter France, and troops and ships cost money, a lot of it. American colonists were the first beneficiaries of these military expenditures and the British Parliament thought they should share the burden. By far, the greatest financial problem of British revenue in America was the poor return from the Molasses Act of 1733. Parliament and successive British Governments tackled the problem head on, by deciding to enforce collection of the six penny duty on foreign molasses after 30 years of extremely lax implementation. During 1763 new laws and rules were passed to make smuggling more difficult. For example, an Act stated that ships of less than fifty tons found ‘loitering’ within two leagues of the coast without making for port could be seized as smugglers. The act also prohibited ships of less than fifty tons (later raised to one hundred tons) from importing certain easily smuggled goods (foreign brandy, rum, spirits, tea and tobacco) into the colonies.
American Rum 18
But the most important decision, the one most fraught with consequences, was to charge the Royal Navy with enforcing the trade and revenue laws. It entrusted a military corps with the task of facing not the armed forces of an enemy country at war, but of repressing civilians in peacetime, something alien to British Constitutional tradition. To make things worse, the relations between the Navy and the Customs were not clearly defined, thus paving the way for unpleasant, damaging quarreling about how to share out the proceeds of the seizures. Traditionally, in war time the seizures of foreign ships made by the Royal Navy were shared equally between the king and the officers and the men of the seizing ship, whereas in America the (few) ships seized and confiscated for smuggling by the Customs officials had always had their proceeds divided into three parts: one third for the king, one third for the Governor and one third for the officials that had made the seizure. And the spectacle of Customs officials and Navy officers squabbling over the spoils of a seizure did not contribute to fostering the colonists’ trust towards the British authorities.
Perhaps there was something else. The period of the Seven Years’ War witnessed an unprecedented expansion of the trade of the Continental Colonies. American ships replaced French ships in the slave trade and went everywhere, as far as Russia, selling even rum. In the meantime, the British occupation of Cuba, Guadalupe and other sugar- islands seemed to be definitive and opened up to new, huge opportunities to Americans. We already know that the restitution of the sugar islands to France in order to keep Canada was also a result of the pressure of the sugar Lobby in Parliament. I cannot be entirely sure, but it is reasonable to think that behind the new measures against smuggling in America there was also the pressure of that same lobby and a general wish of Parliament to keep the excessively dynamic Continental Colonies under control.
Anyway, Americans fought back with complaints and petitions. They stressed the economic damage done to the colonies by the new measures, which would bring about the ruin of their trade and would harm the mother country too, because the impoverished colonies would stop buying British goods. Gradually they shifted the focus to the political level, by questioning the right of Parliament to impose taxation on the colonies.
As well as issuing petitions, the colonists started to pursue very concrete actions, first of all a sort of veritable legal guerilla war fare.Since all the seizures due to smuggling had to be confirmed by a court, every seizure was followed by a long, exhausting legal war where the juries, and often the judges too, took the side of the defendants. The hearings were postponed all the time, and perhaps held when witnesses and accusers could not be present, thus undermining the prosecution. Often, when the verdict came, American juries simply refused to convict the accused. Quite the opposite, in many cases the Navy and the Customs officers who had made the seizure were taken to court for the damage caused and sometime seven jailed. Meanwhile newspapers and mobs intimidated the witnesses (if there were any), the informers and the officials themselves.
Moreover, American merchants refused to carry goods destined to the Royal Navy and offered help, shelter and relatively high wages to the sailors that deserted the Navy and discouraged navy enlistment. As a result, many ships were unfit for service.The Navy was sometimes obliged to resort to impressment, but that angered the sailors and the inhabitants of port towns, who often used the force to block the press gangs. Finally, but one could go on indefinitely, when the Navy ships needed local pilots to enter a port or to sail in dangerous waters, they often refused.
-Article written by Marco Pierini-
My name is Marco Pierini, I was born in 1954 in a little town in Tuscany (Italy) where a still live. I got a degree in Philosophy in Florence and I studied Political Science in Madrid, but my real passion has always been History. And through History I have always tried to know the world, and men. Life brought me to work in tour ism, event organization and vocational training. Then I discovered rum. With Francesco Rufini, I founded La Casa del Rum (The House of Rum),that runs a beach bar and selects and distributes Premium Rums in Italy, www.lacasadelrum.it.
And finally I have returned back to my initial passion: History. But now it is the History of Rum. Because Rum is not only a great distillate, it’s a world. Produced in scores of countries, by thousands of companies, with an extraordinary variety of aromas and flavors; it has a terrible and fascinating history, made of slaves and pirates, imperial fleets and revolutions.
All this I try to cover in this column, in my FB profile, www.facebook/marco.pierini.3 and in my articles on the Italian webpage www.bartender.it