February 2, 2024 at 11:00 p.m.

The Captain John Malcolm Incidents

George Hewes portrait, entitled “The Centenarian” by Joseph Cole, 1835.
George Hewes portrait, entitled “The Centenarian” by Joseph Cole, 1835.
(Image Source: www.emergingrevolutionarywar.org)

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Captain John Malcom was cursed with a fiery temper which under the slightest provocation flamed into ungovernable rage. The only thing that could quench this heat was more heat—hot tar. But there were only two occasions on which this remedy was available and was applied. His irascible nature led him into quarrels with his own brother, Captain Daniel Malcom, with Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts, with his fellow officers in the Customs, with people in Boston, Portland, Newport, and North Carolina; and the only reason why he did not quarrel with King George III was that he wished the King to create him a Knight of the Tar. As a strong Loyalist, Malcolm often faced abuse and provocation from Boston's Patriots, the critics of British authority.

During the War of the Regulation, the Boston native traveled to North Carolina to help put down the uprising. Working for the customs services, he pursued his duties with a zeal that made him very unpopular, especially since he was a Loyalist during the Tea Act, the three pence tea tax detested by the Patriots.

Early in the year 1771, a new chapter in the adventures of Captain John Malcom began. He was appointed Comptroller of His Majesty’s Customs at Currituck, North Carolina. He arrived, much to his delight, in time to play a vigorous part in the War of Regulation. Malcom joined the expedition led by Governor William Tryon against the Regulators. On May 15, the day before the Governor’s forces came into contact with the enemy, Tryon’s order book records the promotion of the fiery Captain. “Alamance Camp Wed. May 15th, 1771. Captain Malcolm appointed an additional Aid de Camp to his Excellency with the rank and pay of a captain.” The next day Malcom had a chance to display his energy on a stage where two armies could watch him. The best eyewitness account is in a “Journal of the Expedition Against the Insurgents in the Western Frontier of North Carolina, Begun the 20th of April 1771.” How much Captain John enjoyed this battle can be gathered from his proud boast in his petition to George III:

I have been in the time of Peace a Chief Aid de Camp to the Brave Governor Tryon and there we Subdued and Brought Near Seven Thousand Men to Obedience to your Majesty’s Laws and Commands. In that Battle in North Carolina with the Brave Governor Tryon I had two Horses Killed under me but I Escaped that Battle in North Carolina saved your Majesty or the Nation more than one Million and Half Sterling for if Governor Tryon had not then Subdued them it would have Cost more than that to have Subdued them and brought them to the same Obedience they was by us brought to.

The news that Captain Malcom had played such a dramatic part in the suppression of the Regulators was soon published in Boston and increased the public animosity toward him, for, as John Adams pointed out, “the Regulators were thought in Boston to be an injured people.” Thus, in the popular estimation, Malcom had placed himself on the side of tyranny.

At the end of the campaign against the Regulators Governor Tryon was transferred to New York and was succeeded by Governor Josiah Martin. During the rest of the year 1771 John Malcom unscrupulously used the powers of his office as Comptroller at Currituck for his own benefit and engaged in various malpractices and extortions. When complaints about these offences came to Governor Martin’s attention, he began an investigation. Four months later Governor Martin suspended Malcom and on June 5 informed the Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the Colonies, of his action:

Mr. Malcom Comptroller of the customs for the Port of Currituck having been charged upon Oath by sundry persons of venality and corruption as well as extortion in Office, I have thought it for his Majesty’s service to suspend him of which I have informed the Commissioners of his Majesty’s Customs at Boston and have transmitted to them the sundry depositions made of the misconduct of that officer.

Lord Dartmouth, who meanwhile had succeeded Lord Hillsborough replied on November 4 expressing his doubt that the Governor had the power to suspend an officer of the Customs:

The charges exhibited against the Collector of Customs for the Port of Currituck are of a nature that certainly seemed to require that he should be suspended from the Execution of his Office; but from what I have learned of the nature of that Officer’s appointment and from a comparison of it with the powers of suspension vested in you by your Instructions I very much doubt of the validity of the step you have taken and therefore cannot signify to you my commands from the King on that head until I have talked with Lord North on the subject.

Malcom, however, came north again and was made Comptroller at Falmouth (now Portland), Maine. The odor of tar would now be mingled with the tang of the sea...In October 1773, the brigantine Brothers, John Walker master, arrived in the Sheepscut River from Cowes, Isle of Wight. Captain Walker did not have a register. The old one had been taken from him in South Carolina owing to a change in the partnership which owned the vessel, and the new one had not yet reached him. An informer notified John Malcom that Captain Walker had no register, whereupon Malcom immediately seized the vessel. A detailed narrative of this case, including a picturesque account of Malcom’s activities, appeared in the Boston Gazette, February 14, 1774. It was signed “A Friend to the Liberties of Mankind” saying:

“Last Week sailed from Portsmouth, bound to White Haven, the Brigantine Brothers, John Walker, Master, who had been seized (on account of an information given by the noted John Malcom, for which he in November last received a Reward from the Sailors at Sheepscut River) by one of his Majesty’s Vessels, and cleared by Order of the Hon. Commissioners of his Majesty’s Customs.”

In November 1773, sailors in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, tarred and feathered him, though they did not strip his clothes from him before they did so. It did not end here…

While in Boston, a confrontation with the Patriot shoemaker George Hewes thrust Malcolm into the spotlight even more so than he already was. On January 25, 1774, according to the account in the Massachusetts Gazette, Hewes saw Malcolm threatening to strike a boy with his cane. When Hewes intervened to stop Malcolm, both men began arguing, and Malcolm insisted that Hewes should not interfere in the business of a gentleman. When Hewes replied that at least he had never been tarred and feathered himself, Malcolm struck Hewes hard on the forehead with the cane and knocked him unconscious.

That night, a crowd seized Malcolm in his house and dragged him into King Street to punish him for the attack on Hewes and the boy. Some Patriot leaders, believing that mob violence hurt their cause, tried to dissuade the crowd by arguing that Malcolm should be turned over to the justice system. Hewes, who had recovered, also protested the attack on Malcolm. The crowd refused to relent, however, and cited among other arguments Ebenezer Richardson, a customs official who had killed an 11-year-old Bostonian, Christopher Seider, but escaped punishment by receiving a royal pardon.

Malcolm was then stripped to the waist and covered with tar and feathers before he was forced into a waiting cart. The crowd then took him to the Liberty Tree and told him to apologize for his behavior, renounce his customs commission, and curse King George III. When Malcolm refused, the crowd put a rope around his neck and threatened to hang him. That did not break him, but when they threatened to cut off his ears, Malcolm relented. The crowd then forced Malcolm to consume copious amounts of tea and sarcastically toasted the King and the royal family. Malcolm was finally freed and was sent home but continued to endure physical beatings as he returned.

On May 2, 1774, Malcolm moved to England where he hoped to secure compensation from the suffering he had endured in Boston. Even though he submitted a petition for King George III, the king was already aware of about his "famous case". While awaiting a reply, Malcolm unsuccessfully ran for Parliament against John Wilkes, the controversial champion of colonial rights. Having received no reply through a messenger about his petition, on January 12, 1775, Malcolm himself "attended the levee at St. James’s, knelt before the King, and gave his petition into His Majesty’s own hands." Despite writing in his petition that he wanted to return to Boston and resume his duties as a customs official, and being tarred and feathered was now a badge of honor for him, the king was not impressed. Malcolm never returned to Boston due to the outbreak of the American Revolution. He was later given a commission as an ensign in 1780, for "an Independent Company of Invalids" at Plymouth, England. Malcolm died on November 23, 1788, and two and a half years later his widow in Boston applied for a pension.George Hewes portrait, entitled “The Centenarian” by Joseph G. Cole, 1835. 


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