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Pirates in Boston: The Trial and Execution of John Quelch

On June 30, 1704, six men were hanged in Boston in what was the first trial for piracy by the British Admiralty Court outside of England.  The Arraignment, Tryal, and Condemnation of John Quelch provides a transcript of what is perhaps Boston’s earliest trial for piracy.  The court proceedings provide a detailed account of the events leading up to Quelch’s capture, as well as of the crimes committed Quelch and his crew. 

In July of 1703, Governor Joseph Dudley granted a privateering license to Captain Daniel Plowman of the Charles and sent the ship to attack French and Spanish vessels near Newfoundland and Arcadia.  However, while the ship was still in Massachusetts, Captain Plowman became extremely ill and was confined to his quarters by the rebellious crew.  Plowman’s lieutenant, John Quelch, was chosen to be the new captain by the crew and the ship’s course was changed.  Plowman was thrown overboard, whether dead or alive seems uncertain, and Quelch led the crew of the Charles on what would be nearly a year-long piracy spree against Portuguese ships in the Caribbean and off the coast of South America.

Between August of 1703 and February of 1704, Quelch and the crew of the Charles attacked and captured no fewer than nine Portuguese vessels off the coast of Brazil, stealing a wide variety of goods and valuables and committing a number of other crimes including murder.  Precise dates are given for each of the nine attacks, as well as detailed descriptions of the crimes committed and the goods stolen.  The various commodities stolen from the different ships include gold dust, sugar, molasses, rum, rice, textiles, pottery, and a large quantity of coined Portuguese money.  Quantities are listed for the goods taken, and values also provided, offering insight into the monetary value of these goods around the turn of the eighteenth century.  A value of thirty pounds is given for one of the ships, which had apparently been sunk by Quelch and his crew. 

The court record also provides historical information on Africans enslaved both in British and Portuguese colonies during this period.   A number of slaves of African descent are referred to in the records both as the property of the crew and as plunder from piratical raids.  At least three slaves are referred to in a letter of John Colman, provided in the appendix to the court proceedings, to colonial authorities in the West Indies.  Two of them, named Charles and Caesar, are mentioned by Colman as the property of a Colonel Hobbey.  The third, named Mingo, is listed as belonging to Captain Plowman himself.  Colman mentions the three men in a plea to the colonies of the West Indies to secure the goods on board the Charles and prevent them from being stolen by the mutinous crew.  Colman asks for the return of the men “and their shares,” and it is unclear whether this means that Charles, Caesar, and Mingo had any actual share in the goods on the ship, or whether it means the shares of their respective owners. 

At least two more enslaved men were captured by Quelch and his crew during several of their attacks on Portuguese ships.  Joachim, a slave aboard a Portuguese brigantine taken by the Charles, was valued at twenty pounds.  Joachim is described as baptized, possibly as a Catholic given his ownership by a Portuguese master, though this is not expressly stated.  He is the only slave in the record described as baptized.  Emmanuel, a slave valued by the court record at forty pounds, was the property of a Portuguese commander named Bastian whose ship was captured by Quelch and his crew near the River Plate (Rio de la Plata) in South America.  Bastian was shot and killed during the attack, apparently by Christopher Scudamore the ship’s cooper, according to the testimony of Emmanuel.  For a time Joachim and Emmanuel served the crew, but were both sold to crew members at some point during the voyage.  Joachim was purchased by one George Norton, and Emmanuel was purchased by Benjamin Perkins, both for undisclosed amounts. 

During the trial itself, three members of the crew, Matthew Pymer, John Clifford, and James Parrot, testified against Quelch in court and so avoided prosecution.  The transcript also repeatedly states that the English and Portuguese crowns had recently become allies at the time of Quelch’s crimes, further exasperating the case against him.  Among those presiding over the trial were Governor Joseph Dudley and Samuel Sewall, First Judge of the Massachusetts-Bay Province.  John Quelch, John Lambert, Christopher Scudamore, John Miller, Erasmus Peterson, and Peter Roach were sentenced to hang.  The execution was carried out “in Charles River; between Broughton’s Ware-house, and the Point.”

Joachim and Emmanuel were both called upon to testify against Quelch and certain members of his crew.  Emmanuel specifically identified Christopher Scudamore as the murderer of his master Bastian, while both men testified that Quelch and his crew ordered them to claim that they had been Spanish slaves rather than Portuguese upon returning to Boston in order to cover up the crimes against Portuguese ships.  Charles, Caesar, and Mingo were all charged with piracy along with the crew, though they were found not guilty.  Charles and Caesar were presumably returned to their master, Colonel Hobbey, while the fate of Mingo is not recorded.  The fates of Joachim and Emmanuel following the trial are not recorded either.  It is interesting to note that though they were considered property, slaves were still called upon to testify in an important trial like free men.

Several important documents and letters are provided in the appendix, including Captain Plowman’s commission from Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley as well as his instructions.  In the commission, Dudley explains to Plowman that he is “Hereby Authorizing you in and with the said Briganteen and Company to her belonging, to War, Fight, Take, Kill, Suppress and Destroy, any Pirates, Privateers, or other the Subjects and Vassals of France, or Spain, the Declared Enemies of the Crown of England, in what Place soever you shall happen to meet them.”  Plowman is warned that “Swearing, Drunkenness and Prophaneness be avoided,” and that no one, even enemies of the British crown, “be in cold Blood killed, maimed, or by Torture or Cruelty inhumanly treated contrary to the Common Usage or Just Permission of War.”  Also included are correspondence between Plowman and the Charles’ owners John Colman and William Clarke regarding Plowman’s illness and his growing mistrust of the crew.   

Taking place during Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), the crimes of John Quelch and the crew of the Charles should be viewed in the context of the affairs between the European colonial empires in the New World at the dawn of the eighteenth century.  Licensed by Governor Dudley as a “private man-of-war,” the Charles was expressly instructed to attack the ships of “Her Majesty’s enemies,” namely France and Spain.  Instead, the crew mutinied against their licensed captain and, to the chagrin of Governor Dudley and British colonial authorities, they attacked the ships of Britain’s ally Portugal.  It is clear from the text that these crimes are taken very seriously not only as acts of piracy, but as an embarrassment to the crown. 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 January, 2015, 1:00 AM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: An Introduction

In my previous post, I explored the world of early twentieth-century travel by train. Inspired by the glimpse into another era the diary behind that post evoked, I went looking for other travel diaries from the same era and found an anonymous diary kept by a Boston woman while on a steamer cruise up the Nile in Egypt.

Intrigued by the notion of an American tourist riding donkeys out to explore Egyptian archeological sites and having tea at British colonial resorts while Europe was at war, I have decided to use this diary as a jumping-off point to write a series of posts this winter placing this diary, and the adventure it describes, in broader historical context.

The diary begins abruptly on 25 November 2014 with our diarist already en route up the Nile by steamer. The author begins each day with the date and writes a few lines about her daily activities -- notes on where and how she and her party traveled, the sites visited, as well as where and when she had breakfast, lunch, and tea. Even without detailed information about the author’s identity and the personal context of her foreign travel, her written record of progress up the Nile can serve as a catalyst for a number of historical questions.

We might explore, for example, what the diary can tell us about the history of travel, and particularly the history of women travellers. Her story is part of a long history of Anglo-American fascination with Egypt and the Middle East that bears unpacking -- by virtue of her anonymity her experience may shed light on the experience of everyday, rather than famous (or infamous), Americans abroad.  We might ask what her narrative can tell us about the materiality of travel, about human interaction with the natural and built environment. We can also note the silences and erasures within her narrative: those aspects of Egypt which she may or may not see, but certainly doesn’t write about.

Stay tuned for the second post in this series, coming in February, in which we will delve into the timeline of our diarist’s journey up the Nile and some of the activities she did record along the way.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 1:00 AM

A Vacation of the Mind

I went to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) this morning. The flight from Boston normally costs upwards of $1,000. Flight time, with layovers, averages 24 hours. However my trip to Ceylon did not cost me a dime or any flight time. I went on a “mind vacation.” The concept sounds a little quirky but a mind vacation is a great way to visit another place or time without actually spending the money for a flight or inventing time travel. (Although if you are currently devising time travel, I want in.)

My mind vacation materialized as I read Reverend James Cordiner’s Description of Ceylon. In these two volumes, Cordiner recorded his experiences in Ceylon while serving as chaplain to the garrison of the capital Colombo from 1799 to 1804. The first volume contains descriptions of the island’s geography, resources, inhabitants and climate. When I first read the climate description of Colombo, thoughts of the brisk January temperatures in Boston today -- and the approaching blizzard -- simply melted away.

With great detail, Cordiner contrasts the climate of Colombo with the nearby British trading port of Madras (modern day Chennai, India).  “…with the arid plains, withered vegetation, scorching winds, and clouds of burning dust, which, for several months in the year, cast an inhospitable gloom around the vicinity of Madras. There in, the month of May, 1804, Farenheit’s thermometer appeared above ninety degrees before nine o’clock in the morning, and, in the course of the day, rose in many houses to one hundred and nine degrees.” Cordiner considers this port’s climate to be lacking. I also think Madras is a little too hot and dusty for a comfortable mind vacation.

I find his description of Colombo comparatively restorative to read in the middle of January. “The smallest inconvenience from heat is never felt within doors at Columbo. Even passing through this moisture under the full blaze of the meridian sun, the air is ten degrees cooler that than of Madras … There is then always a fresh breeze from the sea, which greatly lessens the effects of the sun’s power.” Colombo is a tropical vacation compared to dusty Madras -- and snowy Boston!  With temperatures in the 80s and a sea breeze, who would not want to visit?

Do you need a mind vacation this week? I encourage you to visit our reading room (although check our homepage, as we may close due to snow) for a mind vacation to plenty of local and distant destinations throughout the centuries available in our collections.  I would love to hear your adventures.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 26 January, 2015, 12:00 AM

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution

Amendment XVIII

Section 1.

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2.

The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.

 

The 18th amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by Congress on 18 December 1917. About thirteen months later, on 16 January 1919, Nebraska signed on as the 36th state approving the amendment, thus ratifying it as law. For the next 14 years, the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was illegal in the United States.

The calls for prohibition and temperence were nothing new. In fact, Massachusetts already had experience dealing with prohibitory laws. In 1855, a law passed that forbade the sale of all intoxicating liquors (including beer, wine, and cider) as a drink or medicine, except when sold by certain agents of the State. Appeals for a more lenient license law were constant until 1875 when the new Governor Gaston recommended repeal of the law. As it turns out, not everyone was strictly abiding by the law while it was in place, a problem that was endemic during the national prohibition decades later

Here at the MHS, we have documents relating to these issues going back a century before the 18th amendment became law. Much of the material here is in support of prohibition and is pro-temperance. In some cases, women involved in the suffrage movement tried to combine forces with the temperance movement, encouraging suffrage so that the temperance movement could have more votes. Francis Parkman, a temperance advocate, disagreed with the strategy:


 

However, among all the 19th century voices condemning the consumption of alcohol, there were still those opposed to full prohibition, even some that were members of the clergy:

 

After just a few years, there were claims that Prohibition and the 18th amendment were already failing. One such example comes from Joseph Curtis who wrote a pamphlet simply titled Prohibition is a Failure in 1924. Prompted by an article stating that stricter enforcement of the law was soon to come (embodied in the Volstead Act), Curtis recounts reading a statement by Dr. C.W. Eliot calling for such enhanced enforcement and how he felt that his "life, liberty and happiness, and that of every other american citizen was going to be imperiled if Dr. Eliot's views should prevail. For without liberty and happiness, life isn't worth living..." 

To find out what else the MHS has regarding temperance and prohibition, try searching the terms in our online catalog, ABIGAIL. Then raise a glass to the liberty and happiness of Mr. Curtis which make life worth living!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 16 January, 2015, 4:17 PM

Homegrown Gifts: George Washington’s Locks

Our exhibition Father of His Country Returns to Boston closes today as the holiday season wraps up. The exhibition commemorates the 225th anniversary of President George Washington’s month-long tour of New England in October 1789. One of the most interesting items on display as part of this exhibition is a lock of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton worked closely with Washington throughout the American Revolution and their political careers. Hamilton was born the second illegitimate child of James Hamilton and Rachel Faucett Lavien on 11 January 1755 or 1757 in Charlestown on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. He worked as a clerk until he traveled to the British North American colonies for education. In New York, Hamilton became increasingly involved in the rumblings of Revolution during his studies at King’s College before responding to a call for recruits in 1776. Washington appointed Hamilton to the position of aide-de-camp at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on 1 March 1777. Washington mentored Hamilton as he did with all his aides-de-camp until a parting of ways in February 1781 when Hamilton resigned from Washington’s staff position over insult. However, their working relationship did not end there. Washington later appointed Hamilton as first Secretary of the Treasury in  September 1789 just before the President’s tour of New England commenced in October.  The circumstances surrounding the gift of Washington’s hair to Hamilton however remain undocumented.

The practice of gifting hair seems particularly strange to the 21st century observer. Nowadays people share photographs of themselves and their families in holiday cards or digitally through social media. Portraiture remained the primary way individuals shared images of themselves prior to the invention of the daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s. But the gift of hair also held considerable value. Hair was often woven and incorporated into rings, bracelets, and other jewelry throughout the 18th century. Lovers, friends, and family often exchanged locks of hair as mementos.   Vestiges of hair traditions remain even today when parents save locks of their children’s hair.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has not just one but two separate locks of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton. Mrs. Charles Mason donated the first singular lock to the Society on 11 May 1876. The second lock of Washington’s hair is framed together with a lock of Hamilton’s own hair. The son of Alexander Hamilton, James A. Hamilton of Nevis, gave these locks to Eliza Andrew, wife of Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, on 27 October 1865. The Society later received the locks from Andrew’s children, Edith and Henry Hersey Andrew in December 1920.

The text of the frame states:

“The above is the hair of my Father
Alexander Hamilton, presented
by me to Mrs. Andrew
Octo. 27 1865
James A. Hamilton”

“The above is the Hair of “The Father
of his Country” Geo. Washington pre=
sent to his friend Mrs Andrew by
James A. Hamilton
Nevis
Oct 27 1865”


Marble bust of Alexander Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1794

Their working relationship tempered by respect endured any snarls. Washington’s death on 11 December 1799 came as a great loss not only to the country he fathered but also to his former mentee. In a letter to Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear on 2 January 1800, Hamilton wrote, “Perhaps no man in this community has equal cause with myself to deplore the loss. I have been much indebted to the kindness of the General, and he was an Aegis very essential to me.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 9 January, 2015, 1:00 AM

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