Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
– Neil Young, “Ohio”
It’s generally true what they say about public history — that it’s easily trivialized and forgotten, so that we can soon start over again, and make the same mistakes next time, with more brio and technology-driven enthusiasm. And don’t even get me started on personal memory. Ever since postmodernism came along and said that just because the Foo shits on you doesn’t mean you have to wear it. We don’t really know what happened, or what hit us. We’re like the dinosaurs that way. Fuck, if I can remember where I left the keys, let alone my dignity. And I tell myself: if memory doesn’t flatter, what good is it?
I’ve been reading a lot of “history” lately. And it’s only made me more confused. Last year I read a book about mosquitoes the writer referred to as General Anopheles and how her bites changed the course of history. Napoleon might have ruled America, the writer claims, except that his men couldn’t handle the still loo water of mosquito incubation. So he sold Louisiana, and abandoned Haiti. One reads, gobsmacked, that the General has been responsible for the deaths of “as many as half of the people who have ever lived.” It’s not the butterfly effect we should be worried about, but the mossie effect.
And that’s history with some sobering science behind it. When looking into history that depends on “master narratives” the whole shebang is open to question. Says Who? is what you want an answer to. It depends on your point of view, and history, married to memory, is one big parallax view. Good luck, Mr.Truth! I keep these things in mind now as I plod through accounts in time — especially ones I thought for sure I understood, accounts pounded into me by thoughtless teachers playing out careers, accounts no more valuable in the end than the J-E-L-L-O ads I started out my language life with in the Fifties. Always somebody, selling something, against my will.
These were the deconstructive tools I took with me as I read into The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin. Rather than yet another standard angle on the bim-bang-boom of Red Coat muskets flashing and Sons of Liberty — plus Crispus Attucks — falling that cold snowbally night in March, Zabin asks the reader to consider other factors leading up to the “massacre” that paint the evening with more familial complexities at work. As she puts it,
In an eighteenth-century Anglo-American world in which family and government were closely connected notions, the shooting in Boston marked not the beginning of the American Revolution but the breakdown of a family.
The Massacre didn’t lead to treasonous insurrection immediately — and Zabin tells us why.
Sagas of surly Empire, and their overseas colonies, are often told from the point of view of sea captains, army generals, rummy sailors, and the powdered wigs who provide policies and directives from back home. But as her title suggests, Zabin is keen to provide a human vision of events, somewhat removed from mere political interpretations. It’s complicated, and humans aren’t always avatars for His Majesty’s wishes: Real people eat, shit and fuck — the Ol’In/Out — and produce other humans who do the same; they need a system that produces food, provides proper places for inevitable poopery, and protocols of attraction and opportunities to taste the punch and fall in love. But integrating military and civilian lives in a colony can get edgy, Zabin implies.
Zabin spends a few chapters describing the complicated logistics of 18th century colonial maintenance. Not many Brits wanted to be Red Coats; recruitment was not easy. Zabin cites an Irish estate manager who “bemoaned the difficulty of finding men to enlist, noting that ‘people are so full of bread, at present, that they care neither to work, nor be under any command of any kind.’” It was difficult to find incentive to join. There were sordid tales of soldierly demise in far flung colonies. Zabin writes, “Troops stationed anywhere, even on sundrenched islands in the Mediterranean, lost their will to live after too much time in isolation.” Newfoundland soldiers after only a few years there, were “reduced to mere Ideots [sic] by Drink and Debauchery.”
Marriage was discouraged in the military officer’s handbooks; women were depicted as “distractions,” shady distributors of VD, and likely to get soldiers drunk. But many of the same officers conceded that women offered valuable services. They nursed the ill, and they washed clothes — “an essential task, since privates were issued only one uniform each year (which they had to buy out of their own wages).” So marriages happened regularly, women and children became part of the military, and vice versa, in a symbiotic union that redeployed or regularly “rotated” from colony to colony. Though there wasn’t much to recommend to a would-be soldier, writes Zabin, “Putting on a red coat was one way for a young man to improve his chances at marriage.”
Zabin concentrates on the 29th Regiment as they prepare to rotate from their base in Cork, Ireland to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1765. She discusses the harsh administrative decision-making involved in such a move, especially the rule governing accompanying families — given ship space, a provisions budget, and abiding officer reservations about women — “only one in ten soldiers” was allowed to take along his family. Under this rule, hundreds of sorry soldiers would sail, leaving their families behind in destitution for years or even life. As he planned the rotation to Halifax, Lieutenant General Robert Rich, to avoid having Cork foot the costs of providing for families left behind, worked out a scheme that allowed all families to travel with their soldiers. Happy beams all around.
Zabin focuses on one family in the 29th Regiment — the Chambers. This device allows Zabin to humanize the soldiers (from the 29th) who fired on Bostonians that fateful March night. They were as ordinary as the townies they lived amongst; they were, you could argue, the equivalent of the National Guard who took out four students at Kent State 200 years later — not hated, until they fired, and immediately changed how the middle class saw their government. The miserable languishing in Halifax, with its privations, boredom, and limited opportunity for social engagement, seems set up by Zabin as a prelude to the bustling and raucous — and healthy — environment the regiments would be called in to police in Boston.
Zabin introduces us to the grievances behind Boston’s “troubles.” In a nutshell, England had been using a hands-off or laissez faire approach to its colonies, allowing for relatively stress-free local governance with limited local taxation. Zabin paints it like a family portrait — we’re all Brits in this frame. But then, the Sugar Act of 1764 placed an excise tax on sweet stuff, and that was followed a year later by the Stamp Act, which taxed “stamped, or embossed, paper, produced in London and used in the Colonies.” Invoices, receipts and bills of lading…. Zabin writes, “The Sugar Act had provoked grumbling; the Stamp Act would produce riots.”
“Bostonians were feeling distinctly underappreciated,” writes Zabin. “Having paid for the [Seven Years] war in ‘blood and treasure,’ they did not see why the new costs of empire should fall on them.” Locals published threatening rhymes such as:
What greater Joy Can New England see
Than Stamp men hanging on a tree.
Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard panicked at the popular response and expressed in ‘hurried’ letters to other governing confidantes, such as Thomas Gage of New York, that he was “feeling completely powerless and ‘extreamly weak’ in the face of a popular uprising.” He fled from the city to an island in Boston Harbor and called in, against Gage’s advice, policing regiments from Halifax. Some of his pollie pals called him “spineless” behind his back.
But though popular pressure led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, it was soon replaced with the so-called Townshend Acts, a series of laws that included: import duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea; and the precedent-setting establishment of the British Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to establish a collection commission headquarters in Boston. “That meant,” writes Zabin,” that the men responsible for overseeing the new taxes, known as the Board of Customs Commissioners, would be living in a town of only sixteen thousand people,” and knocking door-to-door to collect taxes. This was a new experience for Bostonians and it didn’t go down well.
It’s into this milieu that three regiments of Red Coats and their families– including the 29th with the Chambers family — arrived in Boston from Halifax in early November 1768. Matthew Chambers “[gazing] at the buildings ahead of him and the barracks behind him on Castle William…must have wondered where his own family, once they finally disembarked, would sleep that night.” His 29th Regiment ended up pitching tents “among the cattle that grazed” on the Boston Common.
Boston’s King Street was like a grand bazaar of worldly goods, imported and local — “French Indigo, Albany Peas, Connecticut Pork, Esopus Flour, new-York Butter-Bread, refin’d Iron, Pig Iron, Ship Bread, Cordage, Anchors, Spermaceti Candles, Cotton Wool, Silk Handkerchiefs, Feathers, Logwood, &c, &c.” — and slaves. There was strain in the new comminglings. As Zabin writes, “Given this influx of more than a thousand new residents, Bostonians could not help but encounter military families at every turn: in the streets, in the churches, and eventually even in their own homes.”
Bostonians had to accommodate the surliness of starchy officers drinking to excess and mouthing off in their beloved taverns, while soldiers marvelled at the general unruliness and disorder of the populace. Still, there were record desertions, 10% annually in Boston, according Zabin. Single soldiers were beatlemania-ed by uniform-loving local lasses; other soldiers created labor friction by working jobs for lower wages.
But behind the scenes was a controlling force, a virtual secret society called the Sons of Liberty, whose espoused purpose was to seditiously resist the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and any other forms of taxation initiated in London that amounted to “taxation without representation.” No, they said. And boldly blew governmental shit up to underline their point. (Oh, those italics.) Members included Paul Revere and Sam Adams, who would become important framers of the narrative describing the Incident on King Street and its eventual catalytic conversion to revolution. Oh, and those SOLs (soon to be sons of guns) didn’t much care for Red Coats dating their daughters.
Just days before the Shooting, there was an incident involving a local ropemaker and a Red Coat. The soldier was looking for work. Zabin writes,
[O]ne rope maker offered a soldier work requiring no particular skill: cleaning his latrine. The soldier was offended at what he took to be fighting words, and a quarrel escalated over the next several days, as each side brought more friends into the fray.
A dunny-brook of words ensued, as the People (“working class people”) and Soldiers got increasingly shitty with each other.
Then one ill-lit night (quarter moon, snowy sky, no torches) on March 5, 1770, 250 years ago, after days of exchanged catcalls and newspaper doggerels, Edward Garrick, an apprentice wigmaker, with a hair across his ass, yelled out to a freezing Red Coat, Hugh White, guarding the Customs house (wherein the evil taxes were stored), and busted his balls for non-payment of a peruke. Whatever Garrick said, he crossed the White line and received a musket-whipping for his troubles. The townie cried out in pain, the soldier called for help. The commotion emptied the bars, snowballs and sticks flew, more Red Coats arrived, and then — bimmety-bangety-boomany — down dropped liberty lovers in the night. Crispus Attucks, a recently freed slave, was the first to be shot by the po-lice in Red Coats (maybe the only totally believable part of the narrative). Here’s a re-enactment.
After the event, a word fight broke out in the Press between the Sons of Liberty and more conciliatory, circumspect media voices, and the fight to frame the narrative was on. Paul Revere got on his high horse and commandeered (i.e., plagiarized) a drawing by Henry Pelham that depicted the shooting. “Pelham called his work ‘The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,’” writes Zabin. “Revere, of course, called his ‘The Bloody Massacre.’” The Boston Gazette pushed Revere’s interpretation, and most Bostonians were in no mood to consider other angles. When the Boston Chronicle settled for calling the event an “unfortunate affair,” townspeople boycotted the paper and “most of its advertisers pulled their support…; it folded less than four months later.”
The war of words continued in the “official” accounts of what happened. Sons of Liberty members James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton were assigned the task of coming up with a Boston-friendly account, which was long-titled, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March, 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIX Regiment. This went up against the army version of events, A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. Both versions played for the hearts and minds of politicians, wits and wags in London. It was the shot heard — across the bow.
The trial itself was a decrescendo from the high-strung, orchestrated noise that colored accounts of the event. The officer in charge of the Red Coat shooters, John Preston, was tried separately, and though it looked grim at first, as soon as he saw two buds on the jury, he knew he’d be walking. The others got off relatively easy, too, thanks to the wise counsel of Sam’s cousin, John Adams, the future 2nd president of the U.S. Zabin writes,
In the end, the defense was almost entirely successful. Wemms, McAuly, White, and Hartigan were exonerated. Kilroy and Montgomery were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and their punishment was commuted from hanging to branding on the thumb.
The soldiers left town before they could be lynched.
By the time the trial was over all the regiments had been removed from Boston and it was no longer a garrison town. And with the tension released, temperatures simmered for a few years until, lesson unlearned, the British parliament once again imposed new taxes and it was Tea Party Time. Late in the book Zabin owns that
In the end, however, even if we had the ability to ascribe responsibility for those deaths 250 years ago, the answer would bring us no closer to understanding how the massacre brought us to the American Revolution.
After all the music of her humane re-telling, the admission is rather disconcerting.
Tea parties come and go, in some we dress as Indians and in some we dress as Mad Hatters; and there have been only a few decades, since Crispus Attucks took one for the team, that Americans haven’t been firing shots heard around the world. As Zabin points out, even today, after countless hours spent by academic interrogators trying to break the privileged code of 18th century colonial Boston, nobody really understands the argot or what caused the events of that night to happen the way they did.
TIn some depictions, the Sons of Liberty were scalawags, as much as heroes– helpful to later democracy the way scalpers (scalperwags?) outside Fenway are helpful in liberating a couple of Benjamins from your wallet for Yankees tickets. Sometimes I wonder what Paul Revere got up to when he wasn’t riding his high horse. When I think of Sons of Liberty today, I think: Revere Sugar, Hancock insurance, and Sam Adams beer.
I don’t know if I like them apples or not.