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West Indies

“Agree for the Powder to be brought Down to the Mole”


The start of the Revolutionary War changed New London merchant Nathaniel Shaw, Jr.’s business environment.

For one thing, military supplies were much more valuable. On 25 Apr 1775 Shaw asked his connection in New York for “Five Hundred wt. of Powder, fifteen Hundred Flints and Eighteen Hundred weight of Lead.” But those things were already too scarce on the continent.

According to Robert Owen Decker’s The Whaling City: A History of New London, Shaw also urged the Connecticut government to order 400-500 barrels of gunpowder from him. He strongly supported the Patriot cause, even funding the colony’s delegates to the Continental Congress, but he also had a business to run.

On 11 May the colony treasurer placed its order: only 300 barrels. Shaw replied four days later, “you may Depend on my Supplying you with the Quantity of Powder you Mention.” He already had a captain in the Caribbean, John Mackibbin, with a line of credit and instructions to buy whatever gunpowder he could find.

The new book Two Revolutionary War Privateers, by William and Virginia Packwood, reports that on 29 May Shaw sent another captain, William Packwood, back out to the West Indies on the sloop Macaroni.

Mackibbin returned to Long Island Sound in the sloop Black Joke in July. He brought back “10000 Gallons Melasses, 15 Thousand wt. of Coffee, 26 Thousand of Sugar”—but no mention of gunpowder. Shaw dispatched him to Philadelphia on 12 July with “Orders to take the Sugar and Coffee on Shore without paying the Dutys and if it Can be avoided not to pay any for the Melasses.” Business as usual for Shaw so far.

But there was a new wrinkle. Shaw feared that after 20 July Mackibbin would not be able to “Clear out for N London” and perhaps not for any “Forreign Port.” The royal government was about to clamp down on trade with Connecticut for joining the attack on Boston.

Shaw therefore told his captain that his first course should be to load up with flour and barrel staves and sail for Haiti by 20 July. If Mackibbin couldn’t do that, he should try for some other port in the Caribbean, sell the ship for £300, or come home “in Ballast without Clearing out and Get me Two Thousand feet of Good Long Yellow Pine Plank.”

As for what Capt. Mackibbin should do in Haiti, Shaw wrote: “Purchase Gun Powder & Return as Soon as you Can. If that Article is not to be had Purchase Brown Sugar and Coffee. Dont keep this Letter on Board for Fear of Accidents but burn it.”

Five days later, Shaw sent another letter after Mackibbin:

I am Inform’d that there is a Large Quantity of Powder Arived at the Cape And I would have you in Case you Can Clear go Directly for the Cape and when you Arrive there you may Very Easily know wether you Can have Liberty to Trade there or not And if you Can Purchase Powder to the Amount of your Cargoe, and if you Cannot trade there you Can Agree for the Powder to be brought Down to the Mole

The “Cape” meant Cap-Haïtien and “the Mole” meant Môle-Saint-Nicolas at the end of the same peninsula. In other words, Shaw told Mackibbin that if he couldn’t load gunpowder openly at the main port, he should arrange to pick it up at a more secluded spot.

TOMORROW: Mr. Shaw’s new contact in Boston.