Rhode Island Rebels Against the Sugar Act

Rhode Island Governor, Stephen Hopkins. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Rhode Island was an early leader in the resistance to British policies, especially the Sugar Act of 1764.

As part of its Mercantile System, Great Britain instituted a system of trade laws known as the Navigation Acts. However, merchants in the colonies were famous for ignoring them. Likewise, British officials, who were dealing with wars and disputes in Europe, tended to allow Americans to break the law. Britain’s unwritten policy of “Salutary Neglect” allowed American merchants to find ways to be successful.

To the Americans, it was good business. To the British, it was smuggling.

In Rhode Island, an industry that blossomed due to smudging was rum distillation. Molasses was a key ingredient in the process of making rum. Under the provisions of the Molasses Act of 1733, Rhode Island merchants were supposed to buy rum from British sugar cane plantations in the West Indies. However, the Rhode Island merchants were able to buy molasses at a better price from Dutch plantations in South America.

Sugar Cane Plantation, Making Sugar, Sugar Act Image
This illustration depicts how sugar was made on a sugar plantation. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Even before the Sugar Act was passed, Prime Minister George Grenville ordered British customs officials and the British Royal Navy to enforce the Navigation Acts. In effect, Salutary Neglect ended, and any ship suspected of shipping goods and products illegally, without paying the appropriate taxes, was accused of smuggling.

The Sugar Act was controversial for many reasons. Not only did it significantly raise the cost of doing business for many merchants, but it was also Parliament’s first attempt to levy taxes on its colonies in America. 

Rhode Islanders protested the Sugar Act politically, and with force. The colony’s Governor, Stephen Hopkins, published a pamphlet that criticized the law. Two incidents also took place that are not well-known but played a significant role in establishing American resistance to British customs officials. First, in July 1764, Fort George in Newport Harbor fired on a British ship, the HMS St. John. The following spring, in April, an American ship — the Polly — was caught with smuggled molasses. The Polly Incident led to open resistance by Americans toward British customs officials.

Rhode Island’s Political Opposition to the Sugar Act

After the French and Indian War, Rhode Island, like all of New England, suffered from an economic depression. In 1763, there were about 30 run distilleries in Rhode Island. They depended on molasses, and their customers depended on their rum — and so did the Colonial System of Triangular Trade. Rhode Island merchants would be hit hard by the Sugar Act, which would increase their cost of doing business. The Rhode Island General Assembly sent a written protest to the Board of Trade before the bill was passed, but it was no use. The Sugar Act was given Royal Assent on April 5, 1764, and went into effect on September 29. 

King George III approved the Sugar Act on April 5, 1764. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The colonists met the passage of the Sugar Act with resistance — not just because of economics — but because they believed raising revenue through taxes was unconstitutional. They believed it was a violation of their rights as Englishmen under the English Bill of Rights. Colonists started to openly protest against Parliament’s infringement on their business affairs. 

Stephen Hopkins, the Governor of Rhode Island, was a vocal opponent of the Sugar Act and Hopkins questioned the constitutionality of the Stamp Act in a pamphlet called “The Rights of the Colonies Examined.” Hopkins criticized Parliament for passing a law that not only hurt colonial merchants but also British merchants. He questioned why Parliament would pass a law, “to cramp the trade and ruin the interests of many of the colonies, and at the same time lessen in a prodigious manner the consumption of the British manufactures in them?”

Repeal of the Sugar Act

Parliament repealed the Sugar Act in 1766 but continued to pass laws that were intended to cut down on smuggling and bribery and force colonial merchants to pay shipping taxes. Parliament also passed laws like the Currency Act and Stamp Act, that increased taxes in other areas and increased its control over business and government in the colonies. All of this frustrated and shocked Americans. As Hopkins wrote in his pamphlet, “The colonies are at so great a distance from England that the members of Parliament can generally have but little knowledge of their business, connections, and interest…”

Fort George Fires on the HMS St. John

The Sugar Act affected Rhode Island because Rhode Island distillers were dependent on molasses to make rum. Merchants smuggled molasses to avoid paying taxes on their shipments. British ships were sent to patrol the waters off the coast of New England, to enforce the act and catch smugglers. The presence of the ships led to run-ins between the colonists and crewmembers, and one indecent led to shots being fired on a British ship, the HMS St. John

Fort Walcutt, View of Newport Rhode Island
This illustration from 1860 depicts the view of Newport from the fort on Goat Island. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In July 1764, the St. John was on patrol in Narragansett Bay. Some of the crewmembers went into Newport, Rhode Island, and caused some trouble. First, they were accused of stealing some chickens, and then they tried to force a man to join their crew, an act known as impressment. A fight ensued and the townspeople of Newport drove the crewmen off.

The local authorities wanted to arrest the crewmen, but their captain kept them on the ship and would not allow them to leave. This upset the townspeople, who then learned the crewmen were going to try to escape. 

Fort George was located on Goat Island and guarded the passage out of Narragansett Bay into open waters. Orders were sent from Newport to the fort, ordering the St. John to be disabled if it tried to get out of the harbor.

The St. John set sail. When the Rhode Islanders at the fort saw the ship approaching, they tried to hail it, but the St. John ignored them and continued to sail by. One cannon, under the command of Daniel Vaughn, opened fire on the ship. About 10 balls were fired toward the St. John. Some of them missed the mark, but others damaged the main sail. However, the damage was not enough to disable the ship and it sailed out of the harbor. 

It marked the first time colonial guns fired on a British ship, and it happened in Rhode Island.

The Newport Mercury Reports the HMS St. John Incident

This article appeared in the Newport Mercury on July 16, 1764.

The following Affair, which at the Beginning seemed to indicate a tragical Issue, happened here last Monday, viz.

Some Men belonging to His Majesty’s Schooner St. John, then in this harbour, commanded by Capt. Hill, had been guilty several Days before of some irregularities in Town, of which Information was given by one concerned in the same, who had made his Escape, and being observed to be on a Wharf nearly opposite to her, a Boat, with some men armed, came in Quest of him, or, as is said, to impress Men at Work on board a Vessel. But, whatever were their Motives for their coming ashore in that Manner, this is certain, that a smart Skirmish was the Consequence, by which it is said the Schooner’s Men were considerably bruised and very expeditiously went off, leaving the commanding Officer behind, who was immediately taken into Custody. The defensive Party, it is also said, received some slight Wounds.

This Transaction, with the Men who had been guilty of the Disorders, being detained on board the Schooner, after they had been demanded by Authority, greatly incensed the people of the Town. — But it may be proper to observe that B. Smith, Esq., Commander of His Majesty’s Ship Squirrel (who, since his Residence here, by a Conduct becoming the Spirit of a Gentleman of Honor and Generosity, has justly merited the Esteem of the Inhabitants) and the Captain of the Schooner, were absent, otherwise the Affair might probably have been amicably adjusted. —

But it being apprehended that the Delinquents might make their Escape, Orders were sent over to Fort George to stop the schooner in case she should attempt going out of the harbour. Towards Evening she got under Sail, intending to come to under the Squirrel’s Stern, who lay without the Fort, and was endeavoring to beat out (the Wind being a-head) when she was hailed from the Fort, which she disregarded. Soon after the Gunner, pursuant to his orders, fired a Shot, which being ineffectual, was repeated, to the Number of 8 or 10, none of which had any Effect, and the Schooner got safely moored under the Squirrel’s Stern.

Captain Smith has since ordered the Men, who was the Cause of the above Disorder, to be delivered up to be dealt with agreeable to Law.

The Polly Incident

In April 1765, an American merchant ship, the Polly, arrived at the port in Taunton, Massachusetts. The ship was owned by Job Smith, a merchant from Taunton. The British customs officials at the Port of Newport suspected the ship was smuggling molasses, likely because it had sailed from the Dutch colony of Surinam. The ship was inspected, and smuggling was confirmed when illegal molasses was found. After the British officials left the Polly, it was towed into the harbor. That night, a group of men took small boats out to the ship and boarded it. When the British saw them, the men threatened them with violence and proceeded to offload the illegal molasses. The Polly was scuttled, and the British were blamed for the incident. On April 13, Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts issued a proclamation for the capture of the men. Some of them were arrested and admitted to the plot. The Polly and the rest of its cargo were recovered by the customs officials.

The following article appeared in the Providence Gazette on April 27, 1765.

Governor Francis Bernard, Massachusetts
Governor Francis Bernard. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

On the 13th Inst. His Excellency Governor Bernard, of Boston, issued a Proclamation for apprehending the Persons concerned in the riotous Proceedings at Taunton, occasioned by the Seizure of a Vessel there by John Robinson, Esq., Collector of His Majesty’s Customs for the Port of Newport, the Substance of which is as follows, viz.

Whereas a Representation has been made to me by the Honorable John Temple, Esq., the Surveyor-General of His Majesty’s Customs for the Northern District of America, That the Collector of the Customs for the Port of Newport, suspecting that ⎯⎯ Dogget, Master of the Sloop Polly, owned by Mr. Job Smith, of Taunton, lately entered from Surinam, had reported only a Part of her Cargo, did thereupon, accompanied by Capt. Charles Antrobus, of His Majesty’s Ship Maidstone, proceed to Taunton River in the County of Bristol within the province of Massachusetts-Bay, where the said Sloop then lay, and together went on board the said Sloop and found that she was loaded with double the Quantity of Molasses reported as aforesaid; and that thereupon the said Collector seized the Overplus, and also seized the Vessel, both as forfeited; and then left on board the said Sloop Mr. Lechmere, the Searcher of the Customs for the Port of Newport, and the said Collector’s own Servant, in order to see the Delivery of the said Cargo; but that the said Searcher and the Servant aforesaid, having Occasion to go ashore to refresh themselves, the Boat they went ashore in was, after their Landing, taken away, and they could get no other Boat to go aboard of the said Sloop, she then lying within one Hundred Yards of the Shore, and as soon as it became dark the Vessel was surrounded with Boats, into which the whole Cargo was delivered [removed] by at least Forty Persons in Disguise, with their Faces blacked, and the said Searcher and the Servant aforementioned threatened with ill usage if they made any Attempts to prevent what was doing; and that the said Sloop, being thus unloaded, was after-wards stripped, and she was at a full Tide ran high up on the Shore and scuttled: And that a Boat and Crew sent up the River by the Officers of the Customs to assist in navigating the Vessel was obliged to put back because that about One Hundred People were there ready to oppose them: And

Whereas it is of great Importance to the Peace and Order of this Government, and to the carrying into Execution within the same the several Acts of Parliament for regulating the Plantation [colonial] Trade, that such high-handed offenders should be brought to speedy and condign Punishment:

I have thought fit, with the Advice of His Majesty’s Council, to issue this Proclamation, hereby requiring all Justices of the Peace, and Sheriffs and their Deputies, and all Civil Officers within the said Province, to use their utmost Endeavors for discovering, seizing, and bringing to Justice the several offenders aforementioned, or any of them;…

In Consequence of this Proclamation, a Number of the Offenders have been apprehended and secured, some of whom have disclosed the whole Affair; and the Vessel, with great Part of her Cargo, is recovered by the officers of the Customs.

Learn More About Colonial Rhode Island on American History Central

James Otis, Portrait, Illustration, NYPL
James Otis of Massachusetts was a vocal opponent of the Sugar Act. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Learn More About the Sugar Act on American History Central