“a Sloop…is taken by One of our Cruizers, so Wine, & Punch will not be wanting to the Sons of Liberty. Let the Sons of Slavery get them how they can”: Madeira in the years prior to the Declaration of Independence
Quotation from Brigadier General Horatio Gates’ letter to Benjamin Franklin, November 7, 1775.
George Washington placed one order for Madeira during the years shortly before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This order was for four pipes of the very best Madeira from the house of Lamar, Hill, Bisset, & Company. Placed during the summer of 1773 these pipes represent George Washington’s last Madeira order for many years to come. Madeira was soon to become increasingly difficult to obtain.
In June 1774, the British closed the major ports of Boston and Charlestown using the Royal Navy to enforce the blockade. George Washington’s four pipes of Madeira made it safely to Virginia that very same month. The First Continental Congress soon met to address Colonial issues, finishing up during October 1774. One outcome of this meeting, in part due to the British blockade, was an economic boycott of Great Britain. Thus a non-importation declaration was passed which also banned the import of Madeira wine.
Any Madeira that did make it to the colonies in American ships was liable to be seized and sold off. One of the earliest examples is the schooner Polly which arrived into Annapolis in December 1774, just two weeks after the non-importation declaration. The Polly was carrying 23 pipes of Madeira. All of the Madeira was sold off with the owners compensated for their expense but all of the profit went towards the relief of the poor in Boston who were suffering from the blockade.
There was Madeira for sale during this period but with each year advertisements in Colonial newspapers became less frequent. In the three years just prior to the banning of Madeira imports, some 300 to 400 Madeira wine advertisements were placed annually in newspapers from Boston down to Williamsburg. Many of these advertisements list “choice old” and “excellent old” Madeira wine. In 1776, less than 200 advertisements were placed largely for plain Madeira wine.
Colonists largely obeyed the order to not import Madeira. The volume of Madeira shipped from the island to the colonies plummeted and so did prices. However, a significant volume of Madeira still reached American shores but it was intended for British troops. When the British occupied Boston in April 1775, George Washington, as Commander of the Continental Army, set up headquarters in nearby Cambridge. He used his troops to cut of land access for the British troops. The British could only be supplied by ships.
Obtaining supplies was important as winter approached in 1775. The Continental Navy had just been formed and the capture of British ships was approved. Both Continental cruisers and privateers could profit from capturing a British ship. It was also the only way to obtain new pipes of Madeira. Gathering supplies was of importance to the colonists but perhaps not so much for the British. One British captain was ordered to “burn & destroy every Vessel that shall appear to be fitted out from any of the Colonies with such traitorous designs”.
The approach of winter also meant it was nearing the end of advantageous weather for privateering. One ship wrecked in a gale on its way to Boston during November 1775. It was carrying 120 pipes of Madeira and all but two pipes were saved. This wreck and the Madeira in particular were widely discussed.
Boston was still occupied by British troops so it was believed that the Madeira was intended for the British. George Washington was immediately asked if the Madeira should be sent to headquarters in Cambridge or to remain where it was. George Washington decided to have the Madeira sent to Cambridge where the pipes were to be sold off for public use. Two weeks later it was determined the Madeira belonged to a gentleman of Philadelphia and was not intended for the enemy.
A few weeks later the sloop Polly and Ann met with bad weather en route to Boston becoming stranded on a beach in New Jersey. The sloop was laden with supplies which were confiscated. When the sloop was inventoried it was found that all of the labels on the packages, casks, and boxes were torn off. The captain of the sloop later confessed that several of the labels were directed to General William Howe in Boston. General William Howe was Commander in Chief of the British Army in America and oversaw the siege of Boston. It turned out that amongst the unlabeled cargo were three quarter-casks of Madeira belonging to General Howe. They cost him £22 10s each.
During February 1776, John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress, perhaps desirous for Madeira suggested to Congress to allow it to be imported. According to one gentleman, the proposal was not taken up because John Hancock was simply trying to please the southern delegates who wanted wine.
In the June 1776, the Portuguese monarchy aligned with the British and forbade any American colonial ships from calling on Portuguese ports. With the colonists remaining Madeira supply effectively cut off, it became imperative to capture any ships carrying Madeira intended for the British troops in America. Just two days after the Portuguese decree (and purely by coincidence) a large cargo of Madeira was captured. In this instance two privateers took three West India ships headed to London with 70 pipes of “best Madeira wine” in the ship Reynolds. This was seen as the opportune season to begin seizing West Indiamen on their return home to London. Robert Morris fancied the British would “have Cause to Repent” for they had more property to lose than the colonists.
George Washington was once again informed of the prize ship Reynolds this time by John Hancock. George Washington’s order was not awaited as the rules regarding prize ships had been established when the Continental Navy was created. The prize ship Reynolds eventually made its way to Bedford where the ship and cargo was auctioned off during August 1776.
There was little Madeira for sale in the weeks leading up to the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. Francis Johnston had a few quarter casks in Baltimore, John Mease had “Excellent old Madeira” in Philadelphia, and Philip Kissick had a bit in New York. Later that month another prize was taken with just over 50 pipes of Madeira. This lean period for Madeira was to persist for several more years. Even George Washington and his family ran out of Madeira in 1779.