18. A ‘Motley Crew’ in the 1747 Knowles Riot in Boston

Knowles ‘riot’ against impressment

In November 1747, a large insurgency of Boston-based sailors, slaves, and other workers, of English, African, and other backgrounds arose together, seized the city, and held British naval officers hostage for three days. They demanded the freedom of dozens of their comrades ‘press ganged’ into captivity as would-be sailors on a British warship.

‘No taxation without representation!’ was the major rallying cry we all learned about in school for the 1776 American War of Independence against Britain. I always thought it rather wimpy, which belonged farther down among a list of outrages or other causes. First, you had to be wealthy enough to pay significant taxes, and second, any of the upper crust sent off to sit in parliament in London was not likely to have matters of the majority–the exploited, the enslaved, and the expropriated—foremost among their concerns.

But what did fire me up as a young student was the stories of the impressment of sailors and their resistance. Perhaps it was because my father was a sailor in WW2 and would tell us stories of his challenges a sea. ‘Impressment,’ moreover, was an odd word, so archaic you had to look it up, along with ‘press gang’ that went with it.

So I dug into it, and the more I learned, the more outrage I could feel. For starters, seamen of any sort in the Atlantic in these years had a hard and dangerous life. They were ‘motley crews’ made up of all nationalities and skin colors, free and escaped slaves and Native peoples too. They were captured or ‘pressed’ into the ships in what amounted to kidnapping outside the law. Their rations were so poor as to leave them diseased before reaching a port. Captains were permitted to whip them so long as they avoided the limit of mutiny. And they were paid little, and sometimes not at all. They sometimes had to wait a year for their pay and were dead or long gone elsewhere. Once in port, they often tried to escape, and any new targets of ‘press gangs’ often resisted.

Charles Knowles was ‘Admiral’ of the British warship being repaired near Boston. His crew was hanging out in town or nearby, and many decided to seek other livelihoods as best as possible. The Admiral needed to fill out his crew, so if you were a young laborer of any sort anywhere near the docks, you were a target for kidnapping and made to be a sailor, even if you had never been to sea. The ‘press gangs,’ moreover, killed two laborers who resisted.

So this time, the young men had enough of it. They rebelled and seized several British officers as hostages, demanding the release of those ‘impressed.’ The streets were in turmoil for three days, and the history books call it the ‘Knowles Riot’ after the Admiral. It would be better described as a ‘motley’ class revolt of sailors, laborers, and slaves against their British overlords and any local appeasers.

‘Town officials,’ states Wikipedia, ‘claimed that “the said Riotous Tumultuous Assembly consisted of Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negros & other Persons of mean & vile condition.” Some historians believe this was an effort to deflect blame, while others treat it as fact. Hutchinson estimated the crowd’s size at “several thousand,” remarkable in a city with a population of just 16,000. In addition to sailors and other maritime workers, the crowd likely included most of Boston’s militia, as well as some middle-class shopkeepers and merchants, women, and others whose lives were affected by impressment.’

In the end, a bargain was struck, and the hostages were freed and returned to their ship, while the ‘impressed’ Boston residents were also set free. Eleven men were arrested, three were fined, and the rest were released.

One young Bostonian, a budding journalist named Sam Adams, was quite impressed with the event. He wrote up an early pamphlet on the matter, fearful of signing it with his own name, using ‘Amicus Patrie’ instead. Using the ideas of John Locke, he argued: “For when they are suddenly attack’d, without the least Warning, and by they know not whom; I think they are treated as in a State of Nature, and have a natural Right, to treat their Oppressors, as under such Circumstances.”

What the slaves and free Blacks had to say, however, is unknown. There was no one recording it. Nor do we know the future of all these insurgents as to whether they became ‘settlers’ set against the Native people to their West. Several accounts state that many were ‘Scotch,’ which could have meant either immigrants from Scotland or the Ulster ‘Scots-Irish.’ In either case, they were likely, if they lived, to have become settlers and dispersers of Native peoples, a life with new contradictions. More to come.

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