This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the October 2002 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
An 18th-Century riot on the square in St. George’s showed Bermuda was a fractious and divisive place, but when threatened by outsiders, its people quickly put aside their differences.
Eighteenth-century sailors have a reputation as a hard drinking, rough and tumble lot with a strong sense of personal rights and readiness to resort to violence to defend them. Their wide travels, peculiar dress and language, constant exposure to nature’s wonders and dangers at sea set them apart as exotic and different from landed society, which often viewed them with suspicion. Among the general mass of seafarers, pirates and privateers were particularly notorious as lawless and volatile. A maritime population like Bermuda’s saw through many of the popular, stereotypical views of sailors, but also appreciated that exaggeration sprang from kernels of truth: the Island’s sailors were strong-willed and independent men who could and did fight back when they felt they had been wronged. And Bermuda fitted out privateers whenever hostilities commenced.
The problem with privateering is that wars inevitably come to an end. During the ‘long 18th Century’ (1689- 1815), Europe spent more time waging war than at peace-and Bermuda was on the front line of every war. The Atlantic world went through regular cycles of declared war (usually originating in Europe), rapid and massive build up of navies and conversion of merchantmen to privateers, maritime marauding in the shipping channels of the world, and then an announced armistice suddenly ending the hunt for prizes.
In the wake of war, European navies were massively downsized and privateering abruptly discontinued, dumping thousands of unemployed sailors trained up for war upon the ports rimming the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1710s, this fueled the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy, as many of these ex-privateers and former men-of-warsmen carried on their depredations without benefit of legal license. Bermuda experienced its own privateering crisis at the end of King George’s War in 1748, the product of a case where two age-old Bermudian practices -smuggling and privateering-came into irreconcilable conflict.
Even before colonization, Bermuda is thought to have been a base for privateering. Historian David Beers Quinn argues that French corsairs probably used the Island to raid home-bound Spanish galleons in the 1550s. Bermuda’ first English settlers also contemplated raiding Spanish shipping, a motive that factored into the Island’s early and heavy fortification. Gov. Nathaniel Butler in Bermuda and the Earl of Warwick in London were particularly interested in using Bermuda as a privateering base.
In the 17th Century, however, the Island served more as a platform for supporting privateers working out of Old Providence Island in the Caribbean than a base in its own right. During the Bermuda Company period, privateering in general was much more loosely organised in the Americas, with raids taking place during times of European peace because the Caribbean was considered beyond the ‘Line of Amity,’ and with privateers like Sir Henry Morgan getting post facto privateer commission if their marauding brought significant riches to royal coffers.
Privateering began to diverge significantly from piracy in the late 17th Century as the practice became thoroughly institutionalized. Bermuda’s shift from Company to Crown in 1684 led to the appointment of royal governor with the authority to license privateers in the colony, legitimising the practice locally thereafter.
In 1687 and 1696, a Vice-Admiralty Court was established in Bermuda to adjudicate prize cases. By the 1710s, the process of taking prize ships and having them legally ‘condemned,’ or awarded to their captor had become extensively regulated, and privateers had to adhere to a long list of acceptable prescribed behaviour during and after their attack to benefit from their capture. During the Spanish War (1719-1722), War of Jenkins’ Ear ( 1739-1741) and King George’s War ( 1744-1748), Bermudian privateers regularly followed the rules of obtaining a letter of marque and reprisal, or legal commission, before embarking on a privateering cruise and bringing their prizes to a colonial Vice-Admiralty Court to be condemned.
The Privateer Riot of 1748 stemmed from conflict between what different groups defined as a legitimate prize. Privateers not infrequently broke the rules of war and captured law-abiding vessels, hoping that court would condemn them anyway. Vice-Admiralty justices had not only a duty to enforce the law, but also an awareness that French and Spanish courts would apply similar standards to captured Bermudian and other colonial vessels. Although strictness of adjudication varied from colony to colony, cases were decided on their individual merits.
The case that led to the riot began in July 1748, when two Bermudian privateers manned mostly by men recruited in New England were cruising in the West lndies and encountered a Dutch merchantman carrying a general cargo that included guns and cutlasses bound for the Spanish Main. The Dutch captain produced a license from the governor of Curaçao to carry the arms, but the privateers deemed the cargo to be illegal war contraband. The vessel was captured, manned and sent to Bermuda to be condemned by the Vice-Admiralty Court there. Word of the dubious seizure quickly reached both Bermuda and Curaçao, however, and the Dutch governor threatened to seize the property of Bermudian merchants stored there if the vessel was condemned.
As a result, Bermuda’s three Vice-Admiralty Court justices-all major traders with the Dutch-declined to sit on the case, leaving the recently arrived Governor William Popple to be sole judge in the matter. Throughout the lengthy and tedious trial, the leading merchants of the Island (most of the Council and Assembly, in fact) lobbied Popple for an acquittal, since their smuggling with Dutch partnera would be compromised otherwise. The governor’a final verdict, based on a strict letter of the law ruling, condemned that portion of the cargo that was contraband of war (the guns and cutlasses), bur freed the rest of the cargo and the vessel. The Island’s merchants breached a sigh of relief but the privateer crews, denied a considerable sum of prize money, were disgruntled and enraged. Peace with France was declared midway through the trial, diminishing the success of future cruises by denying them French prizes. It looked like the war would soon be over and the privateers’ future prospects appeared dim.
Soon after Popple’s verdict was announced, a large body of privateers descended upon St. George’s on July 30. They arrived by boat and by foot, and two men reportedly swam across Ferry Reach to get to town. When the governor heard rumours that they intended to blow up the ship and break open the storehouse where the Dutch cargo was held, he immediately called up the Independent Company and gathered the militia.
At 4 p.m., Robert Brown, a St. George’s merchant and part-owner of one of the privateers, called on Popple, then living in Bridge House, as spokesman for the disaffected sailor. (In the summer of 1748, Popple was living in Bridge House rather than at Government House on the hill atop modernday Kent Street because the latter was in poor repair. That the standoff took place in St. George’s Square is revealed by documentary references to Robert Brown standing on “the Platform,” the battery of guns built by Gov. Robinson on the Parade facing Town Harbour.)
Robert Brown demanded the cutlasses that the governor had condemned to the privateersmen by law, but Popple was not stupid enough to arm the angry mob. Instead, he stalled for time by sending for Atorney General John Slater to weigh the legality of the request. Slater, perhaps cowed by the sight of so many unruly men milling around Popple’s house, refused to come. As Popple and Brown waited, the governor heard with relief the martial drum of the militia, drawing up on the Parade near the storehouse on Water Street where the arms were kept. Hearing the militia, Brown stormed out of the mansion and he and the privateersmen retired for the evening.
The next morning, one of the privateer captains named Griffith and five of his men called on Governor Popple to request relief in light of the paltry value of their award, to which Popple agreed. After they had left, Popple “perceived a body of seven or eight more and looking still downward, I observed a very large number more coming up in a Tumultuous, Disorderly manner,” led by Robert Brown. The Independent Company and local militia were once again hastily assembled and a tense standoff ensued in which the Bermudian lined one side of the Parade and the privateer mob assembled across from them.
When the governor came out on the front porch to quell the disturbance, the mob asked again about relief. Popple told them that he had already agreed with Captain Griffith to help them, which satisfied a portion of the crowd. A few in the crowd asserted that the vessel was a good prize and that Popple had wronged them, to which the governor answered, “if wrong has been done them, it was not by me.” Robert Brown then loudly countered, “Gentlemen, the governor has wronged you and he is the only man that has wronged you,” and then told them that yesterday Popple had refused to give them their cutlasses. Brown then insulted the assembled military officer and encouraged the privateers to assault them. Popple’s warning to Brown to “take care of what he said” went unheeded, and the privateers cheered Brown with many hurrahs.
At this tense moment a shrill bosun’s whistle blown by colonial secretary George Tucker warned Popple of the approach of Captain Griffith and Captain Hurst, the other privateer commander. Griffith also claimed that the Dutch vessel was a fair prize and that Popple as judge had made an “unjust decree,” to which Popple suggested he appeal the case to Britain if he was dissatisfied. After a consultation amongst themselves the privateer men left the Parade with Captain Griffith’s ominous threat that “we might pay you a visit sooner than you expect.” A brave Popple coolly answered, “I should take care to be upon my Guard and prepared at any time to see you.” Much to the relief of the assembled Bermudians, the privateersmen marched out of town and dispersed, after which the governor wrote to General Nathaniel Butterfield ‘up country’ to call up the rest of the Island’s militia to suppress future trouble.
Ac 6 p.m., privateer men returned to St. George’s, where they found the town’s militia. George Tucker relayed a note to the governor from Griffith, in which the captain expressed “concern for his behaviour … ,which he attributed to his being in a passion and of a Cholerick Nature.” He arranged a private interview with Popple, in which he asked for food for his men and liberty for his men to “lye aboard their ship [they] not being provided with lodgings.” Popple agreed, but kept the two militia companies assembled under arms all night to maintain a strict watch on the privateers.
The conclusion to the standoff was anticlimactic. Popple wisely never released the actual cutlasses to the privateer men, but instead purchased them himself at a very liberal price and turned over the sum to their captains-essentially a bribe for them to go away. The privateers soon left to cruise against the Spanish, with whom Great Britain was still at war. Robert Brown was never tried for his actions, although Popple clearly had enough evidence to bring charges of sedition, contempt, or high treason. The governor’s actions must have impressed the leading men of the Island, but this did not top them from steadily opposing him during his 15-year term as governor. Life quickly returned to normal in St. George’s and the incident, if not forgotten, certainly was not commemorated in any way.
Although it did not result in the violence typical of many 18th- Century port riots, the Privateer Riot put Bermuda under a great deal of stress that revealed social cleavages normally hidden from view. It is clear that in the face of danger, the cohesion of a common Island identity bound most Bermudians together. The St. George’s militia and the Independent Company risked personal injury when they faced the numerically superior mob of privateer men, composed chiefly of outsiders, landsmen and sailors recruited abroad. The country, despite their hatred of St. George’s stemming from a London requirement that all ships must load and unload there, nevertheless rallied to the capital during the crisis. Under normal conditions, Bermuda was a divisive, fractious place, bur when threatened from without, the inhabitants quickly put aside their differences and joined together to meet the crisis. Disruptive Bermudian mariners were tolerated by the landed society, but unruly outsiders met with a united front of opposition. This solidarity and closing of ranks has characterized Bermudian society from the dawn of settlement. To a significant degree, it is a residency still alive and well today.