By Tom Dietzel
The second article in a four part series detailing the fascinating story behind the Belgian angels on display inside Old North Church.
The concept of the local population supporting the military is not alien to the American people today. The image of the minuteman, the citizen soldier always at the ready, is romanticized and honored by many Americans. Yet, the minuteman is a classic example of the colonial defense system already in place by the time of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Every town had a local militia, not exactly a standing army, but men who would train in the military customs of their day and who could be called upon to fight if it was so required. These men were not paid by the government for service unless they were called into action. They were not provided with weapons or uniforms, every accoutrement was their own property. This exact concept was adapted to the ocean as well.
The cost of maintaining a navy in peacetime was immense, to do so in wartime could be crippling to the taxpayers. Dating back to the fifteenth century, European merchant ships had been plagued with piracy, causing countries to dispatch armed escorts with these merchant convoys to guarantee safe passage. Noting the effect that piracy could have on a commerce-based nation, these countries figured they could use this to their advantage. By the sixteenth century, privately owned, privately outfitted, and privately crewed ships were sailing the oceans prepared to hunt down the merchant vessels of an enemy nation. This way, naval operations could be put to better use and the seas would still be patrolled without additional cost to the national treasury. Because of the private nature of the property being used, these ships became known as privateers. Today, many often confuse the words pirate and privateer, and many believe the words to be synonyms. This is not entirely a safe practice. While the physical act of hunting, attacking, boarding and taking prize of a vessel is similar to that of a pirate, the calls to action were entirely separate.
The biggest difference between a pirate and privateer is the questions of legality and naval warfare. Privateers were called upon during a state of warfare by their governments. These ships were typically owned by more than one investor and these owners would be given a letter of marque, a legal document from the government that acted as a sort of military contract by contemporary comparison. This letter of marque specifically outlined the types of vessels that were to be attacked as well as the area in which the privateering was to take place. Privateering was an investment, and the way to gain on that investment was through the taking of prizes and spoils. As opposed to being paid by the government, the letters of marque outlined how the prizes were to be split between the government, the investors, the officers and crew. The letters, however, were not free tickets for murderers and marauders; they were carefully crafted documents of war. While most privateers were joint ventures, there were many who would act outside the confines of their letter of marque and begin to hunt wherever they pleased. If caught, these privateer crews and officers could be brought up on charges of war crimes and could even be held liable for damages by the opposing nation. This deviation from the legal performance of a privateer is where the two can begin to toe the line of piracy. In fact, there are many examples of legitimate privateers turning pirate, such as Captain Kidd, or Captain Morgan, but these tend to be exceptions rather than the rule.
At the outbreak of King George’s War, Boston was one of the biggest towns in the British colonies, with 15,000 people living in only three square miles, and every one of those people made their living, in some form or another, from Boston Harbor. As a chief city in the colonies, Boston had an enormous amount of wealth making up its population, predominantly in the North End. Boston was founded in 1630 by the Puritans, English religious dissenters who opposed the Anglican Church, for its eccentric ways and its foundation in Catholicism; needless to say, they were even less fond of the Catholic Church itself, which they viewed as corrupt, sinful, gaudy, and displeasing to their god. By 1686, after the failed attempt to dissolve the crown and rebuild a new world during the English Civil Wars, the Glorious Revolution saw a new monarchy with a new Parliament to coincide. This meant the colonies living under charters drafted during the old regime needed to be rewritten, including Massachusetts Bay. This new charter denied the Puritans the right to refuse religious observance to others outside their sect. With that, the Anglicans moved to Boston. King’s Chapel was their first house of worship and it flourished. As Boston turned from a religious colony to one based on trade, the Anglicans, with political, economic, and religious ties to the royal government, were not seen as outcasts, but as staples of Boston’s economy. With a majority of the wealthy merchants living in or near the North End, the crowded congregation at King’s Chapel started looking for a means of expansion; by 1722, a plot of land near the top of Copp’s Hill was purchased and by the end of the next year Christ Church in the City of Boston was opened.
To be continued …