May, 1767: Seizure of a Schooner Sets Off a Major Contest between British Officials and Charles Town Merchants

Charleston Harbor in the Days of Sailing Ships, courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society

After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 to end the French and Indian War, the British stationed troops and ships in the colonies to prohibit the Spanish and French from regaining territory. To fund this action, Prime Minister George Grenville encouraged taxing items that the colonies imported. Since regular customs officials had difficulty stopping colonial smugglers, the British deputized commanders of Royal Navy vessels as customs officers. Most of the British ships were stationed near northern colonies, to discourage merchants in those areas from smuggling molasses, an essential ingredient in rum.

While the Sugar Act of 1764 was intended to affect the molasses trade, it ended up disturbing Charlestonian’s trade in rice and indigo. Due to South Carolina’s shallow coastline waters, large boats docked offshore, and freight had to be loaded onto vessels that could transport items to shore. According to the Sugar Act, these vessels had to post bond of £1000 or £2000 for each voyage. When the Act was first passed, the customs collector for the port of Charles Town overlooked the requirement for the coasters, since they were not sea-going ships, and did not charge the bond. In early 1766, the colonial agent from Britain notified the Board of Trade and Plantations that the charge was being overlooked. As a result, the Royal Navy started seizing vessels that didn’t post the bond.

In August 1766, a small British sloop-of-war named the Sardoine was stationed in Charles Town harbor under the command of Captain James Hawker. Hawker was about thirty years old and the Sardoine was his second command. He was intent on following orders to the letter and sent a party to board each vessel that arrived in territorial waters. In May 1767, Hawker sent a small boat with a boarding party to inspect the schooner Active. The schooner was carrying pitch and tar from Winyah Bay to Charles Town. Finding that the ship had no papers, the British seized it immediately. Hawker then went to vice-admiralty court to prosecute the schooner. While the Active was acquitted, the judge ruled that Hawker had “probable cause” for the seizure and fined the owner of the schooner nearly twice the value of the vessel. As word of the settlement spread, the merchants of Charles Town became outraged.

Later that month, on May 23rd, Hawker sent a small boat to board a schooner that was anchored near the wharf in Charles Town. According to Hawker’s letter to the British Admiralty, a crowd of locals gathered, “headed by a person who had the appearance of a Gentleman.” Once they realized that the schooner was being inspected, they began to throw “stones, logs of wood, staves, and anything they could lay hold of” at the boat carrying the boarding party. Harker claimed that the protest wounded an officer and caused two other crewmen to jump overboard. As the British sailed away “with difficulty,” the crowd cheered and threatened the men of the Sardoine.

In the same letter, Hawker expressed his outrage and reported that he ordered all the Sardoine’s boats “manned and armed.” He then stood in the bow of the first boat with his pistol drawn and “the British Flag in my hand.” Much to his chagrin, Hawker found that “instead of having that respect paid” to the flag that he expected, “it received the highest insults.” He then boarded the schooner himself but was “met by the Mob (by this time considerably increased) armed with cutlasses, axes, stones, clubs, etc. to resist me forcibly in the execution of my duty.” He was dismayed that those local authorities who were nearby did not come to his aid. “The affair happened at Exchange Time,” he reported, “when most of the principal People were there within 40 or 50 yards of the place, but none interposed their influence or authority, nor did a single Magistrate appear to suppress it.” As it turned out, the schooner, unlike the Active, did have all the required papers onboard, and Hawker was satisfied. He announced that that he was content, and the incident ended without further violence.

The Sardoine returned to England shortly after the incident on the Charles Town wharf. Captain Mark Robinson succeeded Harker in Charles Town and apparently got along much better with the locals. No records exist of Robinson seizing any coastal schooners and, when he departed Charles Town in 1771, seventy merchants signed an address praising him and offering “the warmest thanks of your fellow-subjects.”

For more on this topic, see Neil Stout, “Charleston Versus the Royal Navy, 1767” in South Carolina Historical Magazine Vol. 93 (1992) pp. 196-201.

Written by: Faye Jensen
Date: May 1, 2024