A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview

8
A Lawless Rabble

IF NEWPORT'S MERCHANTS had not been so dependent on a steady supply of cheap molasses, the inhabitants of the town--indeed, the entire colony--probably would not have been condemned as "a set of lawless piratical people... whose whole business is that of smuggling and defrauding the king of his duties...." 140 If merchants from all the American seaports evaded the navigation laws to some extent, those from Newport stood alone as the greatest offenders. And just as the wheels of commerce spun out patterns of wealth, poverty, family structure, and ethnic composition, so too they created a lawless atmosphere which pervaded the community at large.

It is a testament to the crucial importance of molasses and rum to Newport that merchants were willing to go to such lengths to carry on the trade. Moreover, merchants showed an incredible creativity in their various methods of evading the navigation laws. There were many ways of falsifying shipping papers, and, as a result, customs officers constantly complained that "masters and seamen [were] not making true reports of their cargoes...."141

In a letter to their ship captain Thomas Rodman, Newport merchants Godfrey and John Malbone explained their particular method of avoiding customs payments on a shipment of French molasses. Rodman was told to proceed to Jamaica and

if it can be done without Risque, to get a clearance from the Custom House there for as much molasses as you shall judge your vessel will stow, and proceed with your casks filled with water for Ballast to Port au Prince... and address yourself to our Friend John Baptist La Barthe who will deliver you a cargo of molasses which you are to load with the greatest Expedition Lest the Date of your Jamaica Clearance should discover the Transaction. You are to endeavour as much as possible to keep your going to Hispaniola a profound secret, as a Discovery thereof might be attended with bad consequences. 142

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A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Abbreviations and Short Titles vi
  • Editorial Note vi
  • Contents vii
  • Tables viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Preface to the Paperback Edition xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Notes 6
  • I - A Good Voyage and Safe Return"" 9
  • 1 - Any Scheme of Trade"" 11
  • 2 - The First Wheel of Commerce"" 16
  • Reflections 34
  • II - An Interdependent People 47
  • 3 - A Mercantile Metropolis 49
  • 4 - The World of the Wealthy 53
  • 5 - Dependent People, Helping Hands 63
  • 6 - The Cruel Sea 69
  • 7 - The Black Community 76
  • 8 - A Lawless Rabble 84
  • Reflections 91
  • III - A Dependent People 107
  • 9 - Economic Arguments and Mob Rule 109
  • 10 - A Town at War with Itself 126
  • Reflections 141
  • Epilogue 157
  • Notes 166
  • Bibliography 169
  • Index 187
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