A British naval squadron commander in November 1747 incited the worst Boston riot until violence broke out against the Stamp Act of 1765.
Commodore Charles Knowles anchored his vessel in Boston Harbor in the fall of that year, refitting and replenishing his ships en route to the West Indies. Many of his sailors deserted to escape the harshness and danger of the British Navy. Knowles desperately needed seamen for the rest of his voyage.
On the evening of Nov. 16, Knowles ordered his men to round up innocent civilians along Boston’s waterfront to replace the deserters.
The British Navy notoriously kidnapped seafaring men to crew warships during the 17th and 18th centuries. The press gangs generally targeted simple tradesmen, sailors and laborers unlucky enough to be taken by force. They did it throughout the British Empire — including British North America.
Bostonians were especially vulnerable to impressment during the 1730s and 1740s, as Boston was the closest seaport to Europe and Canada and a good place to launch expeditions against the French.
Impressment didn’t just affect the men taken by the press gangs; it depressed commerce throughout the town. Merchant ships avoided Boston when they perceived a threat their crews would be impressed by the British Navy. Working-class Bostonians stayed out of the streets and sailors fled for other ports.
In 1746, Parliament banned impressment in the West Indies because it had created food shortages and depressed the sugar trade.
By tradition and law, citizens of the Province of Massachusetts believed they were exempt from impressment. Knowles didn’t care. His press gangs rounded up 46 shocked sailors, carpenters and laborers from the streets and ships of Boston’s waterfront on the night of November 16 and the morning of the 17th.
One of the kidnapped citizens, Jonathan Tarbox, later testified,that he and ‘two or three persons all inhabitants of Boston going in a Boat to Mistick (having their Tools with them) to Caulk a Vessel there–they were chafed by three Boats belonging to Commodore Knowles Squadron.’
Tarbox told the press gang they were Boston residents, but the press officer ‘in a very rough manner answered they did not care for that, for the Commodore had ordered them to Impress all they could meet without distinction.’
The Boston Riot Starts
The Boston riot began the morning of November 17. Working-class Bostonians rampaged through town, seizing British officers and seamen as hostages. For three days, the rioters controlled Boston and paralyzed the provincial government.
A crowd of about 300 captured the lieutenant of one of Knowles’ ships. British officials managed to free him, but the sheriff arrested two rioters. The mob turned on the sheriff, forced him to deliver up his prisoners and took a deputy as hostage.
Gov. William Shirley, hearing of the outrage, ordered out the militia to quell the Boston riot and ‘to fire upon ’em with Ball’ if need be. The militia stayed put.
His order backfired. A large crowd appeared outside his house with British hostages in tow. Shirley confronted the crowd, rescued the hostages and took them inside. That further inflamed the mob. They had with them the sheriff’s deputy they’d taken, and beat him in Shirley’s courtyard before putting him in the stocks.
Shirley called for two regiments from Castle William, the fort on Castle Island, to guard his house and the hostages he rescued. Then he went to the Old State House (then called the Town House) to win the General Court’s cooperation in suppressing the Boston riot.
As Shirley tried to persuade the lawmakers to support him, a large armed crowd, numbering in the thousands by one estimate, appeared outside the State House. They smashed the windows with rocks and brickbats, then stormed the building. The militiamen on the first floor were forced up the narrow staircase, but then defended it as a chokepoint.
Negotiations began between the angry crowd and the governor. Shirley said the impressment angered him and he would do his best to free the victims. He asked the crowd to disband.
That they would not do. Instead, they found a barge and decided to burn it in front of Shirley’s house. Once there, they realized they risked setting the town on fire, so they took the barge to a safer place and burned it there.
Shirley woke on the morning of November 18th to find the militia refused to appear. Horrified, he fled to Castle William, where he learned he had bigger problems. Commodore Knowles, infuriated by the Boston riot, threatened to bombard the town. He ordered his men to load his 24 guns.
Shirley. through an exchange of letters, calmed Knowles down. He persuaded him to trade the impressed men for the rioters’ hostages. And he finally persuaded the General Court to order a strong military watch to protect the town.
Knowles released all the men who proved they were residents of Boston. To the great joy and relief of the town, he sailed out of Boston Harbor on Nov. 20, 1747.
The British officials tried to blame the Boston riot on seamen, African Americans, servants and foreigners. A young Sam Adams argued otherwise. In his newspaper, The Independent Advertiser, Adams portrayed the rioters as an assembly of people defending their natural right to life and liberty.
With thanks to Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence by Jack Tager. This story about the Boston riot was updated in 2022.