Boston Bread Riots – 1710 to 1713
I have always associated Boston with tea and the locals’ ill-conceived idea that they could make a decent cuppa by pouring the leaves into the sea. Naturally, the resultant brew was too diluted to be potable. They soon reverted to the conventional method of making the beverage by putting just a few leaves into a teapot and adding some boiling water.
In the first half of the 18th century Bostonians had a bit of a rep for being uppity. From 1700 to 1764 there were 28 riots in the colonial town, the causes ranging from protests against customs regulations, brothels, impressing sailors and Catholicism. But the principal catalyst for public unrest was the periodic shortage of corn and rye. Being situated on a crowded peninsula Boston had very little land fit for agricultural cultivation and was almost totally reliant upon imports, either from other parts of the thirteen colonies or from foreign parts. The war fought between 1702 and 1713, the so-called Queen Anne’s War, for control of the American continent between England and France just exacerbated the situation.
But one man’s shortage is another man’s opportunity for profit. The merchants controlling the grain trade in Boston started to hoard the necessary ingredient for the staff of life and even exported it rather than reserve it for domestic use, “to Forraign markets for Private Advantages”, as a contemporary noted. One of the most egregious exponent of this form of racketeering was Andrew Belcher, owner of the second largest fleet in the town, who twice suffered from the actions of the Boston mob.
In April 1710 when grain was scarce, one of his ships was resting at anchor in the harbour, its hold full of grain. A group of men attacked the rudder, “because Capt Belcher was sending of her away laden with Wheat in this time when Wheat is so dear”, noted Judge Samuel Sewell, and on the following day 50 men tried to force the ship’s captain to come ashore. They all had their collars felt but such was the level of popular feeling against Belcher that they were released without charge.
In October 1711 a devastating fire broke out in the town, killing several people and leaving 110 families homeless. This led to another riot. In 1713 the incorrigible Belcher was at it again. This time he was hoarding grain to sell at an exorbitant profit to the sugar plantation owners in the West Indies. Showing the insensitivity that only a well-fed clergyman can muster, Cotton Mather sought to placate his congregation by pointing out, “Tis the Lord who has Taken away from you that He has Given to Others”. Unsurprisingly, the hungry begged to disagree.
On 19th May 1713 a crowd of some 200 gathered on Boston Common and as well as attacking some of Belcher’s ships broke into his warehouses “looking for corn and shot the lieutenant governor when he tried to interfere”. This time the riot had some positive effect. Emergency legislation was passed prohibiting merchants from exporting grain when it was in short supply. Moreover, all ships docking in the town were required to sell their grain to 15 identified bakers at a set price. In 1714 a public granary was established where the poor could buy grain at subsidised prices.
Laudable as these measures were, they did not solve the underlying problem and in 1741 the public granary was attacked by “the poorest sort” and emptied. Bread, after all, is the staff of life.