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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Knowles Riot

Updated: May 13, 2022

"A riot and insult upon the King's government lately happen'd here of so extraordinary a nature, that I think it my duty to give your Lordships an account of it."

Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts in a letter to the British Lords of Trade, 1747

Rear Admiral Charles Knowles of the Royal British Navy had a problem. The ships under his command, currently anchored in Boston harbor, were critically understaffed for his anticipated return to the West Indies. Some of this depletion was due to casualties suffered during campaigns against the Spanish. Britain was embroiled in a war with Spain that had grown out of trade disputes over control of the Caribbean. A renewed conflict with France also looked imminent. Acerbating the loss of sailors was the number of deserters when they put into Boston. Life aboard a British naval ship was harsh, and men deserted to seek out better wages and conditions upon merchant vessels. He needed able seamen, those men who had hardened experience upon the sea and had the skills to man a warship. From his experience with recruiting, he knew he would not be able to attract enough of these kinds of sailors with traditional bounties. He needed a large number of men to fill his depleted ranks. Therefore, on November 16, 1747, he decided to fall back on the despised method of impressment. He organized groups of men, each led by an officer and armed with cudgels and cutlasses. These press gangs then departed their ships to scour the harbor for any able-bodied man. One of the press gangs encountered a small boat filled with local carpenters and laborers. The men informed the press officer that they were citizens of the province of Massachusetts and therefore exempt from being impressed. The officer ignored their claims and forcibly took the men prisoner. Another press-gang boarded a merchant vessel that had a crew of nineteen men. The captain explained he was outward bound, and thereby the British had no authority to impress his crew. Once more, the press officer ignored the claim and seized sixteen sailors. The following afternoon, the various press gangs had secured up to forty-six men for service in the Royal Navy.

The practice of impressment, basically the kidnapping of men into serving on warships, goes back to the Anglo-Saxon period. During the Tudors, the length of service in the navy went from being seasonal and short-term to a full year and longer. By the 17th and 18th centuries, as the British expanded their global empire, the need for seamen became acute. Therefore impressment increased in frequency. The practice was legal if specific rules were followed. At first, impressment applied only to able seamen, but it became open to anyone aboard a ship or being in a seaport over time. Exceptions were made for landsmen, gentlemen, apprentices, officers, and other skilled artisans. This meant the burden fell primarily upon the lower urban classes - common sailors and unskilled workers. The taking of men to serve in the navy meant reducing an already limited pool of labor, especially in the colonies. This potentially could disrupt trade and commerce, something mercantile Britain feared. Therefore you could only impress men from inward bound ships. Captains needed the permission of the local civil authorities before beginning any press-gang activities. In 1696, the British Privy Council ordered that royal governors were the sole dispensers of press warrants in the American colonies.

With increased warfare and desertions, ship captains, like Charles Knowles, far from home, were faced with a problem. To alleviate the dire shortage of men, these captains often resorted to extralegal methods of impressment. Colonials, who opposed impressment in general, viewed these actions as illegal. The British government complicated matters. The passage of the “Sixth of Anne” Act in 1708 prohibited impressment in the American colonies. But the law, as written, was ambiguous. Contemporary legal experts and politicians debated whether or not the law was temporary or permanent. The Admiralty decided on its own that captains could continue to impress but only with the formal approval of royal governors. With the issue unresolved in Parliament, the colonists believed they were still exempt from the press gangs. Riots were not uncommon in the ports of the West Indies, North America, and the British Isles. The laws, customs, and responses associated with impressment varied widely across the regions depending on local social, economic, and political conditions. The coming of war with Spain and then France in the 1730s and 1740s made impressment even more critical to the manning of the Royal Navy. Impressment in the West Indies led to disastrous results by creating food shortages and nearly destroying the vital sugar trade. Parliament finally took an official position in 1746 and declared the West Indies exempt from all impressment. Unfortunately, the act did little to clear up the confusion in North America. Both sides of the argument could defend the legality of their positions.

Rear Admiral Charles Knowles

Knowles already had a reputation for illegal impressment in the West Indies, and his actions ignited many of the violent protests that led to the impressment exemption. Despite this, he was promoted from commodore to rear admiral in 1746. This situation did not sit well with colonists in North American ports. He was assigned a new post in Jamaica, but he needed to stop in Boston to refit and resupply his ships before continuing his voyage to the West Indies. He was warned of Boston’s strong anti-impressment sentiments and advised not to utilize press gangs while harbored in the port.

The British government considered Boston of strategic importance, especially when it went to war with France. Boston was the closest port to both Europe and Canada. The British Navy considered it as their leading supplier of men rather than other ports such as New York and Philadelphia. Impressment had severe consequences for Boston’s economic vitality. The city relied on trading vessels from other colonies to supply it with food and fuel. Even the surrounding communities sent their goods in by boat. Plus, Boston was a vital component of the West Indies trade. Whenever rumors of the possibility of a press gang surfaced, vessels of all sorts avoided the harbor. Laborers stayed home, and common sailors fled the town. This created labor shortages that drove up wages and cut into profits. Inflation, war, and impressment created a severe economic downturn in Boston while its rival ports prospered. Bostonians of all classes resented impressment.

William Shirley

Governor William Shirley continually pressed the colonial legislature to outlaw the practice of imprisonment but to no avail. In the meantime, he tried to adopt a middle way by recognizing the colony’s economic needs and the Royal Navy’s need for recruitment. He granted permission for press gangs to operate if they only limited their efforts to non-Massachusetts men on inbound, non-coastal vessels. The only problem he had was that these “foreign” sailors fled to Rhode Island, where they knew they wouldn’t be pressed into service. It was into this volatile atmosphere that Rear Admiral Charles Knowles sailed.

On November 17, the morning after Knowles’s press gangs conducted their sweeps of the harbor, a mob assembled in the streets of Boston. Contemporary accounts place the number of the crowd to upwards of three hundred. The mob seized a group of Knowles’s officers and held them hostage. They demanded that the impressed sailors be released. They marched to the governor’s house, and Governor Shirley negotiated the release of four of the British hostages. The crowd had swelled to more than a thousand by the late afternoon. The crowd stormed the Court House (now called the Old State House), where the colonial assembly met. They broke windows on the lower floor with bricks. Despite being forced up the stairs, militiamen defended the upper floor and pushed the rioters back. At the time, Governor Shirley was meeting with the colonial legislators trying to get them to call out the militia to suppress the rioting. Again, Shirley addressed the mob. He empathized with their grievances, and if they disbanded, he would ensure the impressed sailors would be released. The crowd refused, and instead, they sought to burn a barge in front of Shirley’s house. Fearing the risk of setting the entire town on fire, the mob burned the barge on the Common instead.

Court House (Old State House), Boston, 1751

The next day, Governor Shirley awaited the arrival of the militia by retreating to the safety of Castle William, the fort guarding the harbor. From here, he exchanged a series of communications with Knowles. The rear admiral would not agree to anything until he knew the fate of his officers being held by the mob in Boston. The militia still hadn’t arrived except for a few officers. On November 19, Shirley wrote a strongly worded letter to the colonial legislature imploring them to restore order. The legislature adopted a set of resolutions that condemned the riot. It instructed the militia to turn out in full force. When the militia arrived the next day, the crowds dispersed and went home. The kidnapped navy officers were exchanged for the impressed inhabitants of the town. Knowles would depart Boston harbor by the end of the month.

The riot sparked by Knowles’s egregious actions was the largest protest against British authority prior to the crisis over the Stamp Act in the 1760s. Governor Shirley and other colonial officials wished to avoid the British government’s anger, so they blamed the riot on sailors, Negroes, and foreigners. Yet, those in the colonies were already becoming disenchanted with British rule in North America. A young printer and agitator by the name of Samuel Adams would praise the Boston rioters. He described them as an assembly of people attempting to defend their natural rights to life and liberty, especially when the government failed to protect them. This would be the first instance where the ideas of the political philosopher John Locke were used to justify opposition to British authority in colonial North America. Impressment would continue to be an issue. It would be among the grievances against King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence. Impressment would also be one of the causes of tension between the young republic of the United States and Great Britain. These tensions would ultimately lead to the War of 1812.


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