The 1689 Uprising in Boston, revisited (episode 165)


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Early one April morning, the people of Boston rose up in revolt against the royal government of Massachusetts. Militia marched in the streets, while an alarm brought more armed men from towns all over the area. Soon, the rebels controlled the mainland, while the royal navy still commanded the harbor. You might think I mean the “shot heard ‘round the world” that started the American Revolution in Lexington. Instead, we’re talking about the 1689 Boston revolt, when the people rose up and overthrew their royal governor, 86 years and one day before the battles at Lexington and Concord.

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The 1689 Uprising in Boston

Boston Book Club

A few months ago, the Journal of the American Revolution published an article by Alexander Cain called “Massachusetts Privateers During the Siege of Boston.” A frigate belonging to the Royal Navy plays a key part in this week’s story of the 1689 Boston uprising, but of course, the Navy would play an even more central role in the siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776. After patriot forces surrounded Boston, the occupying redcoats could no longer trade with the surrounding countryside for food, fuel, and other supplies. At first, they tried to buy or confiscate supplies from farms on the Boston Harbor Islands. Because the islands were small, and because the patriots began opposing these missions, this strategy didn’t last very long. By the late fall of 1775, the British Army and Navy, as well as the people of Boston would be heavily dependent on supplies brought in from the Caribbean, Canada, and the British Isles.

Success for the patriot cause depended on cutting these long supply lines and starving the British out. By the end of 1775, Congress had authorized the new Continental Navy, and Massachusetts was building its own naval force. However, neither of them had any significant capabilities before the siege ended. Instead, Massachusetts would rely on privateers to chase, engage, and hopefully capture the merchant vessels that were bringing supplies to Boston. Privateering is often described as legalized piracy, with privately owned and employed ships and crews authorized by a government to take on an enemy’s ships for profit. By the end of 1775, Massachusetts was cranking out dozens, perhaps hundreds, of the letters of marque that authorized a privateer. The article says, “these privateers traveled in groups that varied in size from a few ships to over twenty. One such squadron from Newburyport consisted of twenty-five vessels and over 2,800 men. A second from the same town boasted thirty vessels.”

The article uses sources from both sides of the war to outline how successful the privateer soon were. The patriots gloat about the sheer number of vessels their privateers were capturing, which not only denied supplies to the enemy, but also helped their army with stores of food, weapons, and vast stocks of ammunition. On the Redcoat side, hardship was the watchword, as fall turned to winter, and the situation in Boston became desperate. Private soldiers blamed their officers, and in many cases, the officers blamed British Admiral Samuel Graves, who they thought was being too cautious with his fleet, securing them in Boston Harbor instead of pursuing the privateer menace.

Along with the article, there’s also a companion interview with Alexander Cain on the podcast Dispatches.

Upcoming Event

At noon on January 8, PhD candidate Miriam Lieberman of the City University of New York will be giving a lunchtime talk at the Massachusetts Historical Society about the role of women during and after the American Revolution. Titled, “Thus Much for Politicks: American Women, Diplomacy, and the Aftermath of the American Revolution,” here’s how the MHS describes the event:

This talk looks at the ways women used non-republican methods of politicking on behalf of the United States while abroad in Europe, focusing on Abigail Adams’s time abroad in London and Paris. Situating Adams in an international and diplomatic context highlights the ways she influenced American foreign and domestic policy while abroad. Using five different themes— letters, politics and political intrigue, money and economic diplomacy, social networks, and republicanism and aristocracy abroad— this work analyzes her politicking in Europe.

The talk is free and open to the public with no reservations. Just bring a brown bag lunch to enjoy while Ms Lieberman speaks.

170 episodes