In a discussion of his new book An Empire on the Edge, British author Nick Bunker told a small but interested audience Sunday that Vineyard Haven, under its bygone name of Holmes Hole, was a smugglers den in the late 18th century. According to Mr. Bunker, Martha’s Vineyard, Buzzards Bay, and Rhode Island encompassed an area which the British considered a regional hotbed of illicit importation of commodities, including tea, which were subject to a tax.
In a discussion moderated by Martha’s Vineyard Museum oral historian Linsey Lee and sponsored by the Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Mr. Bunker discussed his new book onstage at the Katharine Cornell Theater. He noted that Martha’s Vineyard played a small but notable role in instigating colonial rebellion.
In his book, Mr. Bunker approaches the triggers of the Revolutionary War from a fresh slant: not only from the American perspective, but quite heavily from British perspective. Tapping archived journals, maritime logs, military records, governmental correspondence, and personal letters that reside solely in the United Kingdom, Mr. Bunker was able to illustrate political and economic decisions from the other side of the pond that accelerated what had been a slow-burning fuse.
In response to a question from Ms. Lee, Mr. Bunker revealed that in the winter of 1772, the British Navy had commandeered the sloop Swanzey off Newport, Rhode Island, for having an improperly documented cargo of rum and sugar. Not game to navigate around the Cape in ice and darkness, the British naval contingent, under the commander of an officer named Christie, took the sloop into Holmes Hole Harbor for shelter. The plan was to wait until morning, then sail for Boston where the sloop could be thoroughly examined. During the night, the sloop was attacked by colonial Americans dressed as native Americans. They disarmed the navy men and deposited the lot of them in a dinghy before making off with the Swanzey.
The next morning, the British Customs schooner HMS Gaspee arrived and collected Christie and his men. The British suspected that the Swanzey may have been hidden up a nearby creek. They went up the creek and found nothing, but as they returned they came under fire from the shoreline. Three hundred Islanders began peppering them with musket balls. The British returned fire, but it soon became obvious the situation was a stalemate and the Gaspee withdrew. Mr. Bunker pointed out that the incident was an undeniable precursor to the impending revolution.
The following summer, tensions in the region were further ratcheted up when the very same vessel, the Gaspee, ran aground off Rhode Island and was subsequently sacked and set ablaze by Rhode Islanders. A more serious incident by far, but still years from The Shot Heard Round the World.
Nick Bunker’s book is available in hardcover at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, smuggling not required.