Sixty-three years before the Boston Tea Party, outraged men launched a nighttime attack on a ship belonging to Andrew Belcher in Boston Harbor. And in a preview of upcoming events, they intended to remove the ship’s cargo.
But it was bread, not tea that enraged the attackers.
Belcher had singlehandedly caused a bread shortage in 1710, and Bostonians decided to take justice into their own hands.
Less than a century after the Puritans landed in a howling wilderness, Boston merchants engaged in international trade – with the West Indies, Newfoundland, Portugal, Spain, England and Ireland. Entrepreneurs sold whatever they could on the international market at the best prices they could, regardless of the welfare of their community.
Andrew Belcher, one such entrepreneur, was born in 1646 in Cambridge, Mass. He married the daughter of a rich Connecticut merchant and established his own successful trading business.
He lived in a mansion, rode around Boston in an elegant carriage and owned many slaves and ships. His son, Jonathan Belcher, would serve as royal governor.
In 1703, Massachusetts officials made Andrew Belcher commissary general, though his critics charged he sometimes sold spoiled food.
The working poor of Boston had no use for him either. He hoarded grain in his warehouses during food shortages and then shipped it off to the West Indies.
The 1710 Food Riot
By 1710. Queen Anne’s War had started. Food grew short and bread grew terribly expensive. Andrew Belcher bought up all the wheat in the countryside surrounding Boston. Then he held it until prices went up, and sold it to himself as commissary general for a very nice profit.
He singlehandedly caused a bread shortage in Boston.
One night one of his ships was about to sail away with 6,000 bushels of grain. Under cover of darkness a group of marauders approached the ship and sawed through the rudder, according to Judge Samuel Sewall’s diary.
The next night 50 Bostonians commandeered the ship and tried to force the captain ashore, intending to loot the grain. Authorities arrested some of the attackers.
But their Grain Party was so popular a grand jury refused to indict them.
The incident revealed the transformation of Boston from a Puritanical city on a hill, with an emphasis on the common good, to an ethic of individualism. The Bostonians were “appalled that a leading townsman would put profits ahead of the welfare of the community,” wrote historian Gary Nash. They demanded food at prices they could afford, despite merchants’ insistence on the laws of supply and demand.
Authorities responded by banning the sale of grain abroad during times of shortages, regulating bread prices and establishing a public granary.
The 1713 Food Riot
Three years later, Andrew Belcher tried it again with a similar result. He hoarded grain in his warehouses while prices rose, then tried to sell it in Dutch Curacao in the Caribbean. Two hundred Bostonians attacked his warehouses and emptied them of flour. When the lieutenant governor tried to stop them, they shot him.
Andrew Belcher died Oct. 31, 1717.
If you enjoyed this story about Andrew Belcher, you may also want to read about the female food riots of the American Revolution in Boston here or the 1914 macaroni riots in Providence here.
With thanks to Red White & Black and The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution by Gary Nash.
This story last updated in 2023.