Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Book Review: "Defying Empire"

In his new book Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York (Yale University Press), Thomas Truxes recounts a little-known but wonderfully complicated and dramatic aspect of the Seven Years' War: an illicit and illegal trade between American merchants and French colonial ports (mostly in the Caribbean). Vessels from many American ports were involved with the trade, Truxes writes, but he concentrates on New York for the purposes of this book, as that city was at the center of this fascinating web of trade.

In the early years of the war, Truxes argues, a combination of good rewards for informers and stiff penalties for those caught trading illegally failed to amount to much, since there was little enforcement mechanism in place and the New York political and commercial communities were so intertwined as to make any prosecutions unlikely. Through the summer of 1755, merchants blatantly continued trading runs to French settlements in Cape Breton; when that became untenable they switched to indirect trade, hauling supplies of produce and other goods to Dutch or Danish outposts in the Caribbean (St. Eustatius and CuraƧao being the primary locations) which would later be shipped on to the French in exchange for sugar and other French products.

After passage of the Flour Act, which took effect in July 1757 and banned the export of foodstuffs from colonial ports, New York's merchants got tricky. They obtained customs permits for other ports along the eastern seaboard (preferably ones with amiable customs officials, like New London or Perth Amboy), checked in there, and then continued on to Monte Cristi, a Spanish (and, thus, neutral) port on Hispaniola just a few miles from French St. Domingue (Haiti). When the British government wised up to that, the shippers tried some even more devious tactics, like obtaining flags of truce (ostensibly to transport prisoners for exchange), or arranging for "collusive captures" (in which a friendly privateer would 'capture' a New York ship returning from a French port so that customs authorities couldn't seize the cargo).

By late 1759, British officials begin a crackdown on the illegal trade, ending the practice of granting flags of truce, interdicting American ships laden with French goods on their way out of port, and rounding up suspected French agents in American cities. By early 1762, military officials manage to stamp out the trade to a large extent, and New York's attorney general arranges for the arraignment of 18 merchants for violations of trade laws. He wins just one conviction though, and the sentences for that end up being sharply reduced on appeal. The merchants, and their crews, stick together, and manage to keep most of their cash.

Truxes writes scholarly history with a fine narrative flair, adding to the story some fascinating asides about the practice of flag-trucing: one lieutenant-governor of Pennsylvania, William Denny (who Truxes calls "a model for corrupt politicians everywhere"), took to selling these by the dozen, profiting hugely from the practice; in another case, a pair of captains who were supposed to have French prisoners to exchange couldn't find any, so they hired French-speaking impersonators instead). There is also a wonderful section about the treatment of George Spencer, an informer against several New York merchants who was nearly killed by a mob, jailed for more than a year, and then so badly outmaneuvered by the merchants and their witnesses in court that his reputation was damaged still further. (A few years later, in England, the tin-eared Spencer suggested that a tax on tea "will greatly appease the clamor of those people.") The characters Truxes introduces us to, from Spencer to the wily merchant Waddell Cunningham and the erstwhile prosecutor John Tabor Kempe, may not be household names, but that in some ways makes them much more interesting and enjoyable to read about.

In his final chapter, Truxes puts the crackdown on illegal trade into the context of the post-1763 "reforms" which precipitated the Revolutionary crisis, combining as they did British "disdain" with American "distrust" (a formulation I quite like). Following the text, Truxes provides a detailed chronology of the illegal trade, a useful dramatis personae, a glossary of terms and a chart of relevant statutes. The endnotes are quite nice, although a full bibliography would have been welcome.

There are minor errors (one unfortunate one comes in the very last line of the book, where Truxes says that Elbridge Gerry signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, of course, but refused to sign the final product), but they are of minimal impact. The book as a whole is a delight to read, and I would be most interested to see a larger study of other American ports and their role in defying the empire.