In the decades before the Revolution, riots against impressments—the drafting of young men in the colonies for the British navy—multiplied throughout the colonies. In Newport, Rhode Island, for instance, five hundred seamen, white and black, rioted after having been impressed for five weeks by the British navy. Here is an account of one of the earliest of these pre-Revolutionary incidents, an uprising against Commodore Knowles, reported in a letter1 from Governor Shirley of Massachusetts to the Lords of Trade in England.From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
A riot, and insult upon the King's government lately happen'd here of so extraordinary a nature, that I think it my duty to give your Lordships an account of it.
It was occasioned by an impress made on the sixteenth of November at night out of all the vessels in this harbour, by order of Commodore Knowles, then on board the Canterbury, for manning his Squadron....
The first notice, I had of the mob, was given me between nine and ten o'clock in the forenoon by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who had pick'd up in the streets Captain Derby of his Majesty's Ship Alborough, and the Purser of the Canterbury, and brought 'em under his Protection to me for shelter in my house acquainting me at the same time, that the mob consisted of about three hundred seamen, all strangers, (the greatest part Scotch) with cutlasses and clubs, and that they had seiz'd and detain'd in their custody a lieutenant of the Lark, whom they met with at his lodgins on shoar; The next notice I had was about half an hour after by the Sheriff of the County, who with some of his officers had been in pursuit of the mob in order to recover the Man of Wars lieutenant, and to endeavour to disperse 'em; and who coming up with four of' em separated from the others, had wrested a cutlass from one and seiz'd two of' em; but being overtaken by the whole mob, (who were apprized of this), as he was carrying those two to goal, was assaulted, and grievously wounded by 'em, and fore'd to deliver up his two prisoners, and leave one of his deputies in their hands, for whose life he assur'd me he was in fear.
Thereupon 1 immediately sent orders to the Colonel of the Regiment to raise the militia of the town and suppress the mob by force, and, if need was, to fire upon 'em with ball; which were scarcely deliver'd to him, when they appear'd before my gates, and pan of 'em advane'd direcdy through my court yard up to my door with the Lieutenant, two other sea officers, that part of the mob which stay'd at the outward gate crying out to the party at my door not to give up any of their prisoners to me. Upon this I immediately went out to 'em and demanded the cause of the tumult, to which one of 'em arm'd with a cudass answer'd me in an insolent manner it was caus'd by my unjustifiable impress warrant; whereupon I told 'em that the impress was not made by my warrant, nor with my knowledge; but that he was a very impudent rascal for his behaviour; and upon his still growing more insolent, my son in law who happen'd to follow me out, struck his hat off his head, asking him if he knew, who he was talking to; this immediately silenced their clamour, when I demanded of'em, where the King's Officers were, that they had seiz'd; and they being shewn to me, I went up to the Lieutenant and bid him go into my house, and upon his telling me the mob would not suffer him, I took him from among 'em, and putting him before me caus'd him to go in, as I did likewise the other three and follow'd 'em without exchanging more words with the mob, that I might avoid making any promises or terms with 'em; But my son in law, with the Speaker of the Assembly, the Colonel of the Regiment, and Captain of the Massachusetts frigate, who were now come into the house, stood some time at the door parlying and endeavouring to pacify 'em 'till upon the tumults increasing, and their threatning to recover the sea officers by force, if I did not deliver 'em up again, or the Lieutenant did not come out to 'em and swear that he was not concern'd in the impress, I sent an Under Sheriff, then lately come into my house, to desire the gentlemen to let 'em know that I should consent to neither; and to retire into the house; and arm'd the offi[c]ers, who were now seven or eight In number, to stand upon their defence, in case the mob should be so outrageous as to attempt to break into the house, and had the door shut against 'em; upon which the mob beset the house round, made some feint appearances of attempting to force the door open, abus'd the under-sheriff in my court yard (whom they beat and at last put in the publick stocks) and after behaving in a tumultuous manner before the House about half an hour, left it....
[T]he mob now increas'd and join'd by some inhabitants came to the Town House (just after candle light) arm'd as in the morning, assaulted the Council Chamber (myself and the Council being then sitting there and the House of Representatives a minute or two before by accident adjourn'd) by throwing stones and brickbatts in at the windows, and having broke all the windows of the lower floor, where a few of the Militia Officers were assembled, forcibly enter'd into it, and oblig'd most of the officers to retire up into the Council Chamber; where the mob was expected soon to follow 'em up; but prevented by some few of the officers below, who behav'd better.
In this confusion two popular members of the Council endeavoured, but in vain, to appease the mob by speaking to 'em from the balcony of the Council Chamber; after which the Speaker of the House and others of the Assembly press'd me much to speak two or three words to 'em, only promising to use my endeavours with Mr. Knowles to get the impress'd inhabitants and some of the outward bound seamen discharg'd; which, against my inclinations, and to prevent their charging any bad Consequences, which might happen from this tumult upon my refusal, I yielded to; and in this parley one of the mob, an inhabitant of the town call'd upon me to deliver up the Lieutenant of the Lark, which I refus'd to do; after which among other things he demanded of me, why a boy, one Warren now under sentence of death in goal for being concern'd in a press gang, which kill'd two sailors in this town in the act of impressing, was not executed; and I acquaint'd 'em his execution was suspended by his Majesty's order 'till his pleasure shall be known upon it; whereupon the same person, who was the mob's spokesman ask'd me "if I did not remember Porteous's case who was hang'd upon a sign post in Edinburgh I told 'em very well, and that I hop'd they remember'd what the consequence of that proceeding was to the inhabitants of the city; after which I thought it high time to make an end of parleying with the mob, and rerir'd into the Council Chamber: The issue of this was that the mob said they would call again at the Council Chamber the next day to know whether the impressed men were discharg'd; and went off to a dock yard upon proposal made among 'em to burn a twenty gun ship now building there for his Majesty; whereupon I went to my own house accompanied with a party of Officers, Sir William Pepperrell, and the gentlemen of the Council; within a quarter of an Hour after which the mob, who had been diverted from their purpose against the Kings ship by the sudden coming to shoar of a barge, which they took to belong to one of Mr. Knowles's squadron, seiz'd and carry'd it in procession through the town with an intention to burn it in my court yard; upon which I order'd a party of officers to go out and oppose their entrance at my outward gate, which about ten of'em immediately did, and upon the appearance of the mob's preparing to force that gate open, cock'd and presented their musketts at 'em through an open palisade fence, and fir'd upon 'em, if Sir William Pepperrell had not instantly call'd out to the Officers to hold, 'till such, who might only be spectators could be warn'd to separate from among the mob; which they perceiving, and that the windows of the house were likewise lin'd with arm'd officers, desisted and immediately alter'd their scheme to that of burning the barge in an out part of the Common, not discovering, 'till after it was burnt, that it really belong'd to a Master of a Scotch vessell, one of their ringleaders....
The day following Mr. Knowles upon hearing of these outrages wrote me word, that he purpos'd to bring his whole squadron before the town the next morning, but 1 dissuaded him from it, by an immediate answer to his letter: In the evening the mob forcibly search'd the Navy Hospital upon the Town Common in order to let out what seamen they could find there belonging to the King's ships; and seven or eight private houses for officers, and took four or five petty officers; but soon releas'd 'em without any ill usage, as they did the same day Captain Erskine, whom they had suf-fer'd to remain in a gentleman's house upon bis parole, their chief intent appearing to be, from the beginning, not to use the officers well any otherwise than by detaining 'em, in hopes of obliging Mr. Knowles to give up the impress d men.
Footnotes1 Letter from William Shirley to the Lords of Trade (December 1, 1747). In Charles Henry Lincoln, ed., vol. 1 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912), pp. 412-17.