The British Occupation
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Introduction to Occupation
The British had ample reason to invade and occupy Aquidneck Island (called Rhode Island at that time). Newport had a fine harbor from which the British fleet could raid up and down the coast. It would enable them to blockade ships carrying supplies from abroad that were needed by the Americans. On December 8, 1776, British General Prescott landed at Weaver’s Cove. The American militiamen were unable to mount a defense and they escaped by using the ferries to Bristol and Tiverton.
The British Occupation of Rhode Island would last until October of 1779. Life for the residents deteriorated throughout that time. There were different experiences for those who lived in Newport and those who lived in the farmlands of Middletown and Portsmouth. Newport had more British sympathizers and life for them was good at first. The well to do and British enjoyed concerts, dances, card parties, and Christmas concerts after the British first arrived in 1776. In 1777 daily routines continued. The occupiers took over houses, shops, wharves, and farms. The British and Hessians came with wives and children and all needed food, supplies, housing and heat. The residents competed with the British for scare items. The British took hay and confiscated cattle and livestock. Residents could hunt birds, catch fish and collect shellfish. The British collected boats and guns. The longer the Occupation lasted, the harder it was on those in the maritime trades such as coopers, sailors, rope makers, etc. Wharves were pulled up for fire wood. Merchants had no supplies coming in so they had little to sell.
Local citizens couldn’t count on growing food for their families. Gardens were raided, fruit was plucked from trees and potatoes were dug up by British soldiers. There was no freedom of movement. Women could travel a little more freely at first, but later they needed passes to leave town. The border of Newport and the rest of the island was gated and locked There was no free press or local government. Births, deaths, marriages were not recorded and Newport lost its property records when the British shipped them to New York and they were ruined by water.
Destruction was even more disastrous when the French fleet was arriving in August of 1778. In creating defensive works. the British demolished homes, chopped down orchards and trees for abatis (a defensive obstacle formed by felled trees with sharpened branches facing the enemy.). Conditions worsened after the Battle of Rhode Island and through to October of 1779 when the British left the island.
A chart of the harbour of Rhode Island and Narraganset Bay surveyed in pursuance of directions from the Lords of Trade to His Majesty’s surveyor general for the northern district of North America : published at the request of the Right Honourable Lord Viscount Howe / by J.F.W. Des Barres, Esqr., 20th July 1776.
The Banisters of Rhode Island in the American Revolution: Liberty and the Costs of Loyalties. by Marian Mathison Desrosiers, Dec 14, 2020. The Bannisters lived through Occupation in Newport and this book provides insights.