Originally published on the The Old Salt Blog
In his new book, “Defying Empire, Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York“, Thomas Truxes gets it right. The book is at once a meticulously researched history of a largely overlooked period prior to the American Revolution, and at the same time, is a riveting account of the struggle between freewheeling merchants and the belabored agents of the Crown. The story stretches from the streets of colonial New York, to the privateer infested waters of the Caribbean, to the beach of Monte Cristi, a bizarre entrepôt on Hispaniola, then back again to London and the battle fields of the Seven Years War. The characters on both sides of the conflict are dynamic, self-serving, courageous, craven, surprising, contradictory and always fascinating.
The source of the conflict was simple. The English Trade and Navigation Acts of the 1660s imposed various requirements on colonial trade which, for close to a hundred years, both the colonial merchants and the government of England had largely ignored. The problem arose when England and France again went to war in 1756 in the conflict known in the colonies as the French and Indian War. New York merchants continued to ship flour, beef and a wide range of supplies and manufactured goods to their customers, the French. To the merchants, it was business as usual. To the Crown and particularly to the military is was “little short of treason.”
“Defying Empire“details the back and forth as New York traders, led in large part by a community of Irish merchants, find ways to continue their illegal trade while various royal governors, generals and prosecutors attempt to stop the movement of critical supplies to their enemy.
What makes “Defying Empire” such an entertaining read is that Truxes brings to life a wonderful range of characters who shaped the period. From the misbegotten George Spencer who mistakenly believes that he will find his fortune in the royal bounties offered to those who inform on the illegal trade, to Waddell Cunningham, the de facto leader of the Irish merchants in New York, who along with Thomas Lynch, Samuel Stilwell, and other prominent merchants, organize a mob to terrorize Saunders and to have him thrown into debtors prison. Admiral Charles Hardy and General Jeffrey Amherst are intent on stopping the illegal trade while the Lieutenant-Governor James Delancy does all he can to deflect attention away from the city’s trade with the enemy. Without overloading the reader, Truxes uses these and a many other intriguing individuals to bring the events of the period to life.
While focused on New York City, most of the action in the book takes place in the Caribbean where colonial merchants used a variety of strategies to continue their lucrative trade. Monte Cristi, a barren cove on the coast of Spanish Hispaniola, became a major harbor and market place for transhipping goods to and from the from the French. Likewise, the then perfectly legal transport of prisoners under a flag of truce, in which cargo could be transported to defray the costs, was exploited beyond credulity, with veritable fleets of “flag-trucers” sailing into French Caribbean ports fully laden with cargo to trade for French sugar and indigo. And to add to the stakes, French privateers hunted the colonial ships flying British colors, while British privateers from Nassau and later the British fleet stopped and seized the New York ships carrying French cargoes. New York privateers were also hired as escorts and even engaged in “collusive captures” where they appeared to seize colonial ships before the British Navy or other privateers could do the same.
The tale ends with the trials of Waddell Cunningham, Thomas White and other prominent New York merchants in 1763 for trading with the enemy. Cunningham and White were found guilty on all charges and were ordered to pay large fines. By then though, the war was over. The large fines against were reduced on appeal to 100 pounds each and Cunningham and White went on their way.
The British had learned their lesson, though whether it was the right lesson or not remained to be seen. The age of “salutary neglect” was past. The Parliament’s increasingly aggressive attempts to control trade and to raise revenues in the form of the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act would only increase American colonial resistance and would lead directly down the path toward revolution.
Thomas Truxes is among of that relatively rare breed - a meticulous historian who also writes well. “Defying Empire” is a wonderfully engaging book. Like both good history and good fiction, it left me wanting more.
Description of: Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York
Author: Thomas M. Truxes