Colonial Smuggling 1763 to 1775

Economic Slavery

To understand how such a statement came to be – there are two factors.      One was that America, in particular, Massachusetts was a colony of Britain, which was an Empire.        In this kind of political setup, all wealth was to flow into the Mother Country.        What did the Communists always say about the Europeans?     They were imperialists.         Technically, the Americas were to be weak, subordinate and dependent on England with all their wealth flowing back to the British Isles.      And when it came to the New England States, if the status quo was maintained; they would have indeed been a miserable lot.       They had nothing to sell to England.       In Virginia, it was Tobacco which was in great demand throughout Europe; Georgia had cotton and the Carolina’s had rice and wheat.      The only possible commodity for New England was lumber and it was rapidly disappearing with even the far reaches of Vermont stripped of its supply. 

New England though had rum.     Showing the ignorance of our present day politicians, the Daily News reported a politician blaming the Puritans for the limited number of liquor licenses allowed to be issued by a local town or city.    The Puritans drank copious amounts of rum; the limiting of licenses came from the abstinence movement of the 19th century and culminated in Victorian-issued limits.      

The difficulty was the molasses to make the rum could only be received in from England and its Caribbean colonies and most of that resource was also sent off to the Mother Country with little being diverted to the Middle Atlantic Colonies and New England.

With relative freedom to trade legally and illegally, the colonists became rich with a trade balance that was actually in their favor.     Though they were supposed to only buy and sell to England, the British benefitted since the American’s newfound wealth usually gravitated toward fine manufactured goods from England. By not enforcing against smuggling, the Crown ended up enriching themselves with the taxable revenue right in their homeland.

Starting in 1763, this came to an end with the British no longer bogged down by war, with their royal coffers emptied with war debt from the French & Indian War, which was on the European side, called the Seven Years War. Largely with great expense from the conflict to directly benefit the British colonies, now England greedily looking over at the colonist ever-increasing wealth.   

At the end of the French & Indian War, Parliament began to pass first the Molasses Act of 1733, and the Enforcement of the Navigation Acts. Cracking down on smuggling was necessary as British enforcement would guarantee the funds going back to the Crown.      

At the same time enforcement increased, Parliament waged tariffs on American goods. This meant that Americans, if they were law abiding would have no market in the homeland and thus could not generate hard cash for obtaining fine British goods. The colonialists realized that this was basically economic slavery. This only increased the smuggling as there was no other way to make hard currency than to trade with the enemies (often) of Britain. In return, to face this explosion of smuggling; the British began to send troops and specifically revenue ships to crack down militarily and politically.

It was this explosive situation which set off the American Revolution. 

In a Smuggler Town, Don’t be a Squealer!

Admittedly, we have always been drawn to period accounts of mob violence in Pre-Revolutionary War Boston. Little did we know that forty miles to the north the seaport town of Newburyport was carrying out its own brand of mob justice that rivaled that of Boston or Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 

  In September of 1768, word reached Newburyport that British troops had been dispatched by His Majesty’s government to Boston. Naturally, the news caused great concern and stress. Worse, rumors began to surface in the town that spies and informants working on behalf of royal custom officials were visiting seaport communities to identify smuggling operations. 

  Understandably, coastal towns that were invested in illicit trafficking did not take kindly to those who reported the activities to royal custom officials. For example, in Salem, an informant was discovered and quickly seized by an angry mob. Afterwards, “his Head, Body and Limbs were covered with warm Tar and then a large quantity of Feathers were applied to all Parts, which by closely adhering to the Tar, Exhibited an odd figure, the Drollery of which can easily be imagined.” He was set in a cart with the placard “Informer on his breast and back and escorted out of town” by the mob, who warned him of worse treatment if he returned. 



In early September, 1768, a Newburyport captain and smuggler named John Emery arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. While on shore he was arrested by custom officers for violation of the royal revenue laws. Word traveled back to Newburyport and Joshua Vickery, a ship’s carpenter, and Francis Magno, a Frenchman, were quickly identified as the informants who disclosed Emery’s smuggling ring. 

  The alleged basis for the accusation was simply that the two men were present in Portsmouth at the time of Captain Emery’s arrest. 

On September 10, 1768 a large mob armed themselves with clubs and began to search for the two men. According to the September 27th edition of the Essex Gazette, Vickery was quickly found and “in a riotous manner assaulted in the Kings Highway [Present-day High Street] in Newbury-Port, seized and carried by Force to the public stocks in the said Town, where he sat from three to five o’clock, in the afternoon, most of the Time on the sharpest stone that could be found, which put him to extreme Pain, so that he once fainted.” 

When he regained consciousness, Vickery was “taken out of the Stocks, put into a cart and carried thro’ the Town with a Rope about his Neck, his Hands tied behind him until the Dusk of the Evening, during which time he was severely pelted with Eggs, Gravel and Stones, and was much wounded thereby; he was then taken out of the Cart, carried into a dark Ware-houfe, and hand-cuffed with Irons, without Bed or Cloathing, and in a Room where he could not lay strait, but made the Edge of a Tar Pot serve for a Pillow, so that when he arofe the Hair was tore from his Head.” 

  Vickery spent the next day (Sunday) under guard in the warehouse. Several of his friends attempted to visit the carpenter, only to be rebuffed by the mob. Only his wife, “who with Difficulty obtained Liberty to speak to him” was granted access. 

  On Monday, September 12th, Vickery was dragged out of the warehouse and subjected to intense questioning. Surprisingly, he was able to convince mob leaders “that he never did, directly or indirectly, make or give Information to any Officer of the Customs, nor to any other Person, either against Cap’ John Emmery or any other man whomsoever.” 


  Magno did not fare as well. He remained in hiding until Monday morning when he was captured. While in custody he confessed to being an informant for royal custom officials in Newburyport and Portsmouth. He was carried to a horse cart and tossed into it. Although exonerated of his accusations, Vickery was still compelled to lead the cart through the town. Afterwards, Magno “was stripped naked, tarred and then Committed to Gaol for Breach of the Peace.” 

  What became of Magno after his release is unknown but it’s almost certain he fled Newburyport. Vickery and his wife remained in Newburyport until 1783 when they moved to Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. According to early 19th century accounts from the town, “he was a good penman, and reputed to have been a good citizen.” 

How did they get the smuggled goods past the British Customs Agents?

Most smuggling occurred as ‘slight of hand’.      A ship’s cargo coming into port for the 19th century and earlier was largely unknown.     A ship would be partially unloaded off-port or would slip quietly into an obscure wharf for partial unloading.    The ship’s manifest altered accordingly and then the vessel would proceed to the customs house (in Newburyport, at Sommersby Landing at the foot of present-day Green Street) for reporting.     Most customs agents were short-staffed, and there were corrupt “pilots” who would be complicit in guiding the ship into an obscure wharf.     As much as a third of the cargo would then be smuggled duty free and transported to waiting eager markets. 

Most smuggling amongst merchants was done on a gentleman’s unwritten agreement.    Never mentioned with no paper trail and no testimony. 

Of course, many custom agents with an unwritten nod from England; would ‘look the other way’, receive regular bribes; or were often in on the smuggling operation.


“In a Riotous Manner Assaulted in the Kings Highway ” – When A Newburyport Mob Turned on Joshua Vickery, by Alexander R. Cain,, November 4, 2018