A Motley Crew in the American Revolution


In October 1765 a mob of sailors wearing blackface and masks, and armed with clubs and cutlasses, visited the home of wealthy Charleston merchant Henry Laurens. Eighty strong and warm with drink and anger, they had come to protest the Stamp Act, recently passed by Parliament to raise tax revenues in the American colonies. Responding to the rumor that Laurens had stored in his home the stamped paper everyone would be forced to buy in order to conduct the business of daily life, they chanted, “Liberty, liberty, and stamped paper!” and demanded that he turn it over so that they could destroy it in an act of defiance. Laurens was rattled, as he later explained: they “not only menaced very loudly but now & then handled me pretty uncouthly.” Finally convinced that Laurens did not have the paper, the men dispersed across the waterfront, shedding their disguises and straggling into the smoky taverns and bare boardinghouses, onto the damp wharves and creaky ships.

Their protest had consequences. Parliament, taken aback by colonial protests, would soon repeal the Stamp Act. And in Charleston, one thing led to another, as a mob met in January 1766 to cry again for liberty. This time the protesters were African slaves, whose action caused greater fear and “vast trouble throughout the province.” Armed patrols stalked the city’s streets for almost two weeks, but the tumult continued. Since Charleston’s harbor was crowded with ships, the seafarers were soon “in motion and commotion again,” styling themselves, said a cynical Laurens, the “Protectors of Liberty.” South Carolina governor William Bull looked back over the events of late 1765 and early 1766 and blamed Charleston’s turmoil on “disorderly negroes, and more disorderly sailors.”

Laurens and Bull identified a revolutionary subject, often described by contemporaries as a “motley crew.” Rarely discussed in the American Revolution, the history of the motley crew extends from the piracies of the 1710s and 1720s to the slave revolts and urban insurrections of the 1730s and 1740s. The defeat of these movements allowed slavery and maritime trade to expand, as gangs of slaves extended plantation acreage and gangs of sailors manned ever-growing fleets of naval and merchant vessels. Britain confirmed its place as the world’s greatest capitalist power by defeating France in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, protecting and expanding its lucrative colonial empire and opening vast new territories in North America and the Caribbean for the hewing of wood and the drawing of water. And yet at the very moment of imperial triumph, slaves and sailors opened a new cycle of rebellion.

Operations on sea and land, from mutiny to insurrection, made the motley crew the driving force of a revolutionary crisis in the 1760s and 1770s. They helped to destabilize imperial civil society and pushed America toward the world’s first modern colonial war for liberation. By energizing and leading the movement from below, the motley crew shaped the social, organizational, and intellectual histories of the era. Their stories demonstrate that the American Revolution was neither an elite nor a national event, because its genesis, process, outcome, and influence depended on the circulation of proletarian experience around the Atlantic. Such circulation would continue into the 1780s, as the veterans of the revolutionary movement in America would carry their knowledge and experience to the eastern Atlantic, initiating pan-Africanism, advancing abolitionism, and helping to revive dormant traditions of revolutionary thought and action in England and Europe more broadly. The motley crew would help to break apart the first British empire and inaugurate the Atlantic’s age of revolution.

Two meanings of “motley crew” appear in this article. The first meaning refers to an organized gang of workers, a squad of people performing similar tasks or performing different tasks contributing to a single goal. The gangs of the tobacco and sugar plantations were essential to the accumulation of wealth in early America. Equally essential were the crews assembled from the ship’s company, or ship’s people, for a particular, temporary purpose, such as sailing a ship, making an amphibious assault, or collecting wood and water. These crews knew how to pull together, or to act in unison, not least because they labored beneath the whip. The first meaning, then, is technical to plantation and seafaring work. The economies of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this unit of human cooperation.

The second meaning describes a social-political formation of the eighteenth-century port city. “Motley crew” in this sense was closely related to the urban mob and the revolutionary crowd, which, as we shall see, was usually an armed agglomeration of various crews and gangs that possessed its own motility and was often independent of leadership from above. It provided the driving force from the Stamp Act crisis to the “Wilkes & Liberty” riots, to the series of risings of the American Revolution. The revolts of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this broader social form of cooperation.

To say that the crew was motley is to say that it was multiethnic. This was characteristic of the recruitment of ships’ crews since transoceanic voyaging began with Columbus and Magellan. Its diversity was an expression of defeat—consider the deliberate mixing of languages and ethnicities in the packing of slave ships—but defeat was transformed into strength by agency, as when a pan-African, and then African American, identity was formed of the various ethnicities and cultures. Originally “ethnic” designations, such as the “free-born Englishman,” could become generalized, as shown by the case of the African sailor Olaudah Equiano.

This article will show how the second (political) meaning emerges from the first (technical) one, broadening the cooperation, extending the range of activity, and transferring command from overseers or petty officers to the group. We will observe the transition from one to the other in the actions of the motley crew in the streets of the port cities. As sailors moved from ship to shore, they joined waterfront communities of dockers, porters, and laborers, freedom-seeking slaves, footloose youth from the country, and fugitives of various kinds. At the peak of revolutionary possibility, the motley crew appeared as a synchronicity or an actual coordination among the “risings of the people” of the port cities, the resistance of African American slaves, and Indian struggles on the frontier. Tom Paine feared precisely this combination, but it never materialized. On the contrary, the reversal of revolutionary dynamics, toward Thermidor, shifted the milieu of the motley crew, as refugees, boat people, evacuees, and prisoners became the human form of defeat.


Sailors were prime movers in the cycle of rebellion, especially in North America, where they helped to secure numerous victories for the movement against Great Britain between 1765 and 1776. They led a series of riots against impressment beginning in the 1740s, moving Tom Paine (in Common Sense) and Thomas Jefferson (in the Declaration of Independence) to list impressment as a major grievance. Their militancy in port grew out of their daily work experience at sea, which combined daring initiative and coordinated cooperation. Sailors engaged in collective struggles over food, pay, work, and discipline, and brought to the ports a militant attitude toward arbitrary and excessive authority, an empathy for the grievances of others, and a willingness to cooperate for the sake of self-defense. As Henry Laurens discovered, they were not afraid to use direct action to accomplish their goals. Sailors thus entered the 1760s armed with the traditions of what we call “hydrarchy,” a tradition of self-organization of seafaring people from below. They would learn new tactics in the age of revolution, but so too would they contribute the vast amount they already knew.

Part of what sailors knew was how to resist impressment. This tradition had originated in thirteenth-century England and continued through the Putney Debates and the English Revolution, into the late seventeenth century, with the expansion of the Royal Navy, and on to the eighteenth century and its ever-greater wartime mobilizations. When, after a quarter century’s peace, England declared war against Spain in 1739, sailors battled and often defeated press gangs in every English port. Fists and clubs flew in American ports as well, in Antigua, St. Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica, New York, and New England. Admiral Peter Warren warned in 1745 that the sailors of New England were emboldened by a revolutionary heritage: they had, he wrote, “the highest notions of the rights and liberties of Englishmen, and indeed are almost Levellers,” referring to one of the most radical groups of the English Revolution.

During the 1740s sailors began to burn the boats in which press gangs came ashore to snatch bodies, cutting their contact with the man-of-war and making “recruitment” harder, if not in some cases impossible. Commander Charles Knowles wrote in 1743 that naval vessels pressing in the Caribbean “have had their Boats haul’d up in the Streets and going to be Burned, & their Captains insulted by 50 Arm’d Men at a time, and obliged to take shelter in some Friends House.” After Captain Abel Smith of the Pembroke Prize had pressed some men near St. Kitts, a mob of seamen “came off in the road and seized the Kings boat, hawled her up . . . and threatned to burn her, if the Captain would not return the Prest Men, which he was obliged to do to save the Boat, & peoples Lives, to the great Dishonour of Kings Authority (especially in Foreign Parts).” These attacks on the property and power of the British state were intimidating: by 1746 the captain of HMS Shirley “dared not set foot on shore for four months for fear of being prosecuted . . . or murdered by the mob for pressing.”

The struggle against impressment took a creative turn in 1747, when, according to Thomas Hutchinson, there occurred “a tumult in the Town of Boston equal to any which had preceded it.” The commotion began when fifty sailors, some of them New Englanders, deserted Commander Knowles and HMS Lark. In response, Knowles sent a press gang to sweep the Boston wharves. A mob of three hundred seamen swelled to “several thousand people,” seized officers of the Lark as hostages, beat a deputy sheriff and slapped him into the town’s stocks, surrounded and attacked the provincial council chamber, and posted squads at all piers to keep naval officers from escaping back to their ship. The mob soon faced down Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, reminding him of the murderous violence visited upon sailors by the press gang in 1745 and threatening him with the example of Captain John Porteous, the despised leader of Edinburgh’s City Guard, who after murdering a member of a protesting crowd in 1736 was seized and “hanged upon a sign post.” Governor Shirley beat a hasty retreat to Castle William, where he remained until the riot ran its course. Meanwhile, armed sailors and laborers considered burning a twenty-gun ship being built for His Majesty in a local shipyard, then picked up what they thought was a naval barge, carried it through town, and set it aflame on Boston Common. Commodore Knowles explained their grievance:

The Act [of 1746] against pressing in the Sugar Islands, filled the Minds of the Common People ashore as well as Sailors in all the Northern Colonies (but more especially in New England) with not only a hatred for the King’s Service but [also] a Spirit of Rebellion each Claiming a Right to the same Indulgence as the Sugar Colonies and declaring they will maintain themselves in it.

As sailors defended liberty in the name of right, they captured the attention of a young man named Samuel Adams, Jr. Using what his enemies called “serpentine cunning,” and understanding “Human Nature, in low life” very well, Adams watched the motley crew defend itself and then translated its “Spirit of Rebellion” into political discourse. He used the Knowles Riot to formulate a new “ideology of resistance, in which the natural rights of man were used for the first time in the province to justify mob activity.” Adams saw that the mob “embodied the fundamental rights of man against which government itself could be judged,” and he justified violent direct action against oppression. The motley crew’s resistance to slavery produced a breakthrough in revolutionary thought.

Adams thus moved from “the rights of Englishmen” to the broader, more universal idiom of natural rights and the rights of man in 1747, and one likely reason why may be found in the composition of the crowd that instructed him. Adams faced a dilemma: how could he watch a crowd of Africans, Scotsmen, Dutchmen, Irishmen, and Englishmen battle the press gang and then describe them as engaged simply in a struggle for “the rights of Englishmen”? How could he square the apparently traditional Lockean ideas in his Harvard master’s thesis of 1743 with the activities of “Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and other Persons of mean and vile Condition” who led the riot of 1747? The diversity of the rebellious subject forced his thought toward a broader justification. Adams would have understood that the riot was, literally, a case of the people fighting for their liberty, for throughout the eighteenth century the crew of a ship was known as “the people,” who once ashore were on their “liberty.”

The mass actions of 1747 moved Adams to found a weekly publication called the Independent Advertiser, which expressed a remarkable, even prophetic variety of radical ideas during its brief but vibrant life of less than two years. The paper reported on mutiny and resistance to the press gang. It supported the natural right to self-defense and vigorously defended the ideas and practices of equality, calling, for example, for popular vigilance over the accumulation of wealth and an “Agrarian Law or something like it” (a Digger-like redistribution of land) to support the poor workers of New England. It announced that “the reason of a People’s Slavery, is . . . Ignorance of their own Power.” Perhaps the single most important idea to be found in the Independent Advertiser appeared in January 1748: “All Men are by Nature on a Level; born with an equal Share of Freedom, and endow’d with Capacities nearly alike.” These words reached back exactly a century to the English Revolution and the Levellers’ Agreement of the People, and simultaneously looked forward to the opening words of the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

Another connection between 1747 and 1776 appeared in Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, delivered and published in Boston in early 1750. The eminent clergyman delivered his sermon at a time when the riot and its consequences were still on the minds of towns-people, especially the traders and seafaring people who made up his own West Church. By 1748 Mayhew’s preachings were considered heretical enough to get one listener, a young Paul Revere, a whipping by his father for his waywardness. By early 1749 Mayhew was tending toward what some saw as sedition, saying that it was not a sin to transgress an iniquitous law, such as the one that legalized impressment. Mayhew defended regicide in his sermon of January 30, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, which was to him no day of mourning but rather a day for remembering that Britons will not be slaves. Like Adams before him he argued passionately for both civil disobedience and a right to resistance that utilized force; indeed, passive nonresistance, Mayhew claimed, was slavery. Mayhew’s influential defense of the right to revolution could not have been made without the action of the riot and its discussion among Sam Adams and the readers of the Independent Advertiser.

The ideas and practices of 1747 were refined and expanded during the 1760s and 1770s, when Jack Tar took part in almost every port-city riot, especially after the end of the Seven Years’ War (1763), when the demobilization of the navy threw thousands out of work. For those who remained at sea, the material conditions (food, wages, discipline) of naval life deteriorated, causing many to desert. The Admiralty responded with terror. In 1764 deserters John Evans, Nicholas Morris, and John Tuffin took seven hundred lashes on the back; Bryant Diggers and William Morris were hanged. Admiral Alexander Colvill admitted that these were, for desertion, “the most severe punishments I ever knew to have been inflicted.” Such deadly punishments at sea imparted a desperate intensity to shoreside resistance once the press gang resumed its work.

Sailors revived their attack on the king’s naval property. They recaptured pressed men, forced naval captains to make public apology, and successfully resisted efforts in court to convict any member of the mob of wrongdoing. Soon after, another mob of maritime workers in Casco Bay, Maine, seized a press boat, “dragged her into the middle of Town,” and threatened to burn it unless a group of pressed men were freed. In Newport in 1765 a mob made up of sailors, youths, and African Americans seized the press tender of HMS Maidstone, carried it to a central location in town, and set it ablaze. As popular antagonism toward the customs service rose in the late 1760s, sailors began to attack its vessels. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that in Boston in 1768, “A boat, belonging to the custom-house, was dragged in triumph through the streets of the town, and burnt on the Common.” Seamen threatened or actually torched other vessels belonging to the king in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in Nevis in 1765, in Newport again in 1769 and 1772, and twice in New York in 1775. Sailors thus warned local leaders not to sign press warrants as they twisted the longest and strongest arm of state power.

In the late 1760s sailors linked movements in England and America by engaging in revolts that combined workers’ riots over wages and hours with protests about electoral politics (“Wilkes and Liberty,” in which the London mob supported John Wilkes, the journalist and ruling-class renegade, in his battles with King and Parliament). The sailors of London, the world’s largest port, played leading roles in both movements and in 1768 struck (took down) the sails of their vessels, crippling the commerce of the empire’s leading city and adding the strike to the armory of resistance. Seamen’s strikes would subsequently appear on both sides of the Atlantic with increasing frequency, as would struggles over maritime wages, especially after the reorganization of British customs in 1764, when officials began to seize the nonmonetary wages of seamen, the “venture” or goods they shipped on their own account, freight free, in the hold of each ship. In leading the general strike of 1768, sailors drew upon traditions of hydrarchy to advance a proletarian idea of liberty. One writer, looking back on the uprising, explained: “Their ideas of liberty are the entering into [of] illegal combinations.” Such combinations were “a many headed monster which every one should oppose, because every one’s property is endangered by it; nay, the riches, strength, and glory of this kingdom must ever be insecure whilst this evil remains unchecked.”

Sailors also continued the struggle against impressment, battling the press gangs in the streets of London in 1770 (during the war against Spain) and 1776 (during the war against the American colonies, not a popular cause among sailors). “Nauticus” observed the clashes between seamen and the navy in London in the early 1770s and wrote The Rights of the Sailors Vindicated, in which he compared the sailor’s life to slavery and defended the right to self-defense. He echoed the Putney Debates more than a century earlier when he imagined a sailor asking a magistrate, “I, who am as free-born as yourself, should devote my life and liberty for so trifling a consideration, purely that such wretches as you may enjoy your possessions in safety?” Like Sam Adams, Nauticus went beyond the rights of Englishmen, pitting the rights of private property against common rights and the “natural rights of an innocent subject.” John Wilkes also began to argue for the right to resist impressment in 1772.

The motley crew helped to create an abolitionist movement in London in the mid-1760s by setting in motion the eccentric but zealous Granville Sharp, who became one of slavery’s most implacable foes. The key moment was a meeting in 1765 in a queue at a London medical clinic between the obscure, flinty clerk and musician, Sharp, and a teenager named Jonathan Strong, formerly a slave in Barbados who had been pummeled by his master into a crippled, swollen, nearly blind indigent. Sharp and his brother, a surgeon, nurtured him back to health, but two years later his former master imprisoned and sold him. To prevent such inhumanity, the African sailor Olaudah Equiano pushed Sharp to study the law and the writ of habeas corpus, the most powerful legacy of the “free-born Englishman,” because it prohibited imprisonment or confinement without due process of law and trial by jury, and thus might be employed against impressment and slavery alike. Sharp believed that the law should be no respecter of persons and concluded in 1769 that “the common law and custom of England . . . is always favourable to liberty and freedom of man.” He was especially moved by the struggles of black sailors on the waterfront; he used habeas to defend several who struggled to resist reenslavement, often by the press gang. Sharp won a lasting victory in his legal defense of James Somerset in 1772, which limited the ability of slaveowners to possess and exploit their human property in England. Habeas corpus, however, was suspended in 1777, although not without opposition. Meanwhile, the police magistrate, John Fielding, founded the “Bow Street Runners,” an urban metropolitan parallel to the notorious slave “padrollers” of the southern plantations. He paid close attention to the motley crew in London and observed their westward circulation back to Caribbean insurrections.

Sailors and the dockside proletariat attacked slavery from another angle in 1775, when they went on strike in Liverpool, as three thousand men, women, and children assembled to protest a reduction in wages. When the authorities fired upon the crowd, killing several, the strike exploded into open insurrection. Sailors “hoisted the red flag,” dragged ships’ guns to the center of the city, and bombarded the mercantile exchange, leaving “scarce a whole pane of glass in the neighborhood.” They also trashed the property of several rich slave-trading merchants. One observer of the strife in Liverpool wrote, “I could not help thinking we had Boston here, and I fear this is only the beginning of our sorrows.”

There was a literal truth to the observation that Boston, the “Metropolis of Sedition,” had popped up in English ports on the eve of the American Revolution. An anonymous eyewitness noted that multiethnic American sailors “were among the most active in the late tumults” of London in 1768. They were “wretches of a mongrel descent,” the “immediate sons of Jamaica, or African Blacks by Asiatic Mulatoes.” When such seamen chanted “No Wilkes, No King!” during the river strike of 1768, they displayed the independent revolutionary spirit that informed their actions ocean-wide. An escaped indentured servant named James Aitken, better known as “Jack the Painter,” took part in the Boston Tea Party, then returned to England to wage revolutionary arson in 1775 against the king’s ships and shipyards, for which he was captured and hanged. The mobility of sailors and other maritime veterans ensured that both the experience and the ideas of opposition carried fast. If the artisans and gentlemen of the American Sons of Liberty saw their struggle as but “one episode in a worldwide struggle between liberty and despotism,” sailors, who had a much broader experience of both despotism and the world, saw their own as part of a long Atlantic struggle between slavery and freedom.