White Soldiers Whipped by Black Men: Boston, 1768-1770
Many of the sources regarding crime in the 29th are from newspapers in Boston during the occupation of 1768-1770. One of the first of these pieces was a widely republished article detailing the severe punishment typical of 18th century armies. Flogging of soldiers was well documented. The regiment would be drawn up and arranged around a pair of crossed halberds to which a convicted soldier, stripped to the waist, was tied. The drummers of a that soldier’s regiment were tasked with delivering the blows with a “cat-o’-nine-tails.” The cat was a leather or wooden handle from which strips of leather hung, would lash across the naked back of an offender.
Bostonians were unaccustomed to being a garrisoned town, and had little exposure to soldiers, much less the harsh punishments to which they were subject. The unique make-up of the 29th Regiment’s musicians only exacerbated the shock of American observers. For decades, the drummers of the 29th were all of African descent. Massachusetts, like her sister colonies, permitted slavery. To see a white enlisted soldier, an embodiment of martial masculinity, whipped by a black man was horrifying to Bostonians. To have such a display exhibited for all soldiers and the entire city to see was bad enough, but the explicit endorsement from officers of the Crown was intolerable.
On October 6, 1768, The Boston Evening Post reported, “To behold Britons scourged by Negro drummers was a new and very disagreeable spectacle.” The Boston Journal of the Times was restrained when it reported on October 14, 1768, “One Rogers, a New England man, sentenced to receive one thousand stripes, and a number of other soldiers, were scourged by the black drummers, in a manner, which however necessary, was shocking to humanity.”
The implications of such acts were far reaching. Slave rebellion was certainly not unknown to colonists. These punishments pre-dated the war itself by half a decade, as well as Dunmore’s Proclamation declaring all rebel slaves free if they would take up arms with the British, but it had a similar affect on colonists’ perception of the British army. Encouraging black men to strike white men with official endorsement was a frightening precedent.
It appears that British officials were aware of the implications of slaves or former slaves whipping white men in a slave-holding society. The following February the Boston Evening Post related, “There has been within these few days a great many severe whippings; among the number chastised, was one of the negro drummers, who received 100 lashes, in part of 150, he was sentenced to receive at a Court Martial;—It is said this fellow had adventur’d to beat time at a concert of music, given at the Manufactory-House.” Severe punishments were often given for minor offenses, as appears to be the case here. The actual infraction is a little enigmatic, as beating time at a concert of music would be little more than annoying, rather than a criminal act. It is possible that the drummer was punished more as a demonstration to the people of Boston of control exerted by British officers over their drummers, rather than as a retaliation for an actual offense.