Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thomas M. Truxes' "Defying Empire"

Thomas M. Truxes is a senior lecturer in the history department at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and a member of the Irish Studies faculty at New York University. His previous books include Irish American Trade, 1660-1783.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York, a British warship, HMS Cerberus, is desperately searching for a powerful French squadron loose somewhere in the western Caribbean. At that very moment (late summer 1759), the North American coast--from Charleston to Boston--has been stripped of its naval defense in order that the Royal Navy might give its full support to General James Wolfe’s assault against the French fortress at Quebec, the most important British military operation in the French and Indian War.

While looking for Admiral Bompar’s squadron, the captain of HMS Cerberus stumbles across a New York merchant vessel loaded with provisions and military supplies for the French enemy. The American ship is carrying documents issued by corrupt colonial officials granting it permission to enter French West Indian ports under a white flag of truce in order to conduct a prisoner-of-war exchanges. When news of this discovery reaches the commander of the British fleet in the Caribbean, he sends out his cruisers in an aggressive campaign to interdict American trading ships in the service of the enemy. In the weeks and month that follow, British seizures cause consternation in New York City, but they only embolden the most hardened participants in the trade.

Defying Empire tells the story of New York’s illicit wartime commerce with forward-moving action, vivid settings, and memorable characters. The trade involved the most powerful New York families in activities that brought prosperity to the city and made fortunes for the participants, among whom were signers of the Declaration of independence and other Founding Fathers of the United States. But there were consequences. The events associated with the British crackdown played a critical role in the early phase of the American Revolution.

The text below is most of page 99 from Defying Empire:

As the summer wore on, British cruisers in the Caribbean had trouble picking up the scent. Patrolling along the southern coast of Saint-Domingue in late July, HMS Cerberus received intelligence that Bompar had slipped into Port Saint Louis. On August 3, Captain Charles Webber sent his second lieutenant and a mate “to Orange Quay to reconnoiter the ships.” They learned that Bompar had come and gone. He was, in fact, at Cape Fran├žois. Discovered, the men from the Cerberus “were fired upon by a Dutch armed sloop who took them prisoners and carried them to the governor of Port Louis.” The French accused the British officer of being a spy but returned the mate “on Captain Webber’s sending a boat.”

In the midst of all this, HMS Cerberus seized a New York flag-trucer coming into Port Saint Louis. Following Captain Webber’s return to Port Royal in mid-August--delayed by long days of “very little wind” along the south coast of Hispaniola--his report of the capture of the snow Hercules was an epiphany for Admiral Cotes.

The vessel carried a clearance from Connecticut and nearly seven hundred barrels of flour, which, the British admiral reported to London, “I have reason to believe ... was ordered for the supply of Monsieur Bompar’s squadron.” Cotes learned that New Yorkers were getting an exorbitant amount for flour and beef in the ports of Saint-Domingue at the very time a visitor at Port au Prince saw a Jamaican flag of truce “land quantities of gunpowder, which was disposed of at a very great price.”

“These trading flags must certainly be very lucky in escaping His Majesty’s ships,” editorialized the New-London Summary, “for we have not yet heard of so much as one of their number being seized and sent to Jamaica; the Monte Cristi men appear to be the only objects of their pursuits.” For the flag-trucers, the bubble was about to burst.
Read an excerpt from Defying Empire, and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue