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  • The Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770.

    Beatriz Camino

    The Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770.

    The Boston Massacre occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, on 5 March 1770. During this incident, nine British soldiers opened fire on a group of American colonists, resulting in the death of five individuals and the injury of six others. The incident played a pivotal role in escalating tensions during the initial stages of the American Revolution.


    In the mid-1760s, the Parliament of Great Britain sought to impose direct taxes on the Thirteen Colonies of British North America to generate revenue following the costly Seven Years' War. Despite Parliament's belief in its authority, American colonists disagreed, asserting their rights as subjects of the British Crown, which included the right of self-taxation.

    In April 1765, the British Parliament issued the Stamp Act, a direct tax on all paper documents. Consequently, outraged colonists protested in various ways, with colonial merchants initiating boycotts of British imports. Although Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, the colonists had little time to celebrate before the enactment of new taxes and regulations known as the Townshend Acts between 1767 and 1768. These imposed duties on goods like glass, paint, and tea, and established a Board of Commissioners headquartered in Boston to oversee tax collection. When the commissioners arrived in November 1767, they faced a cold reception from Boston's citizens. John Hancock, a wealthy merchant, refused to allow his Cadet Company to participate in a parade welcoming them. As a result, the commissioners seized Hancock's sloop, the Liberty.

    The arrival of British sailors to take possession of the Liberty in June 1768, sparked a widespread riot along the docks in Boston. In an effort to restore order, General Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America, decided to deploy 2,000 British soldiers to Boston. Led by Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, the British force sought quarters and provisions from Boston officials, but the colonial authorities refused.

    After days of negotiation, Dalrymple ordered his men into Boston, camping on Boston Common and taking shelter in various buildings. The tension between the colonists and the soldiers was evident from the start, as the colonists resented British sentries posted on major streets questioning their movements.

    In the meanwhile, colonial merchants persisted in their boycotts of the Townshend Acts. However, certain merchants, including Theophilus Lillie, resisted compliance, arguing that Bostonians had no right to enforce a boycott on him. This made him a target for Boston's liberty faction, and on February 22, 1770, a crowd carried a sign reading "Importer" to his shop, highlighting him as a boycott violator. Lillie's neighbour, Ebenezer Richardson, sought to disperse the crowd and fired a gun into the crowd, resulting in the death of eleven-year-old Christopher. In the weeks following Seider's funeral, conflicts between soldiers and Bostonians escalated further.

    The Massacre

    At 8 p.m. on March 5, 1770, Private Hugh White of the 29th Regiment stood guard outside the customshouse on King Street. While on duty, he witnessed Edward Gerrish, an apprentice, insulting an army officer. White, taking offence, struck Gerrish on the ear. News of the incident spread rapidly, and within 20 minutes, an angry Bostonian crowd surrounded Private White. The crowd verbally abused him, and when White threatened them with his bayonet, they retaliated with snowballs and chunks of ice.

    As the crowd didn’t disperse, Captain Thomas Preston, in command that evening, decided to intervene by directing six privates and a corporal to follow him into the crowd to rescue White. However, they soon found themselves trapped when the Bostonians closed in behind them. With the soldiers surrounded, Preston ordered them to load their muskets. The crowd, now numbering 300-400, continued throwing snowballs and ice at the soldiers. Captain Preston positioned himself in front, and a colonist warned him about the consequences if the soldiers fired. Despite the warnings, a soldier, Hugh Montgomery, slipped on ice, discharged his musket, and triggered a chain reaction. Eleven men were hit, and five of them died.

    Following the event, Preston and the soldiers were arrested and indicted for murder. Captain Preston, tried first in October 1770, was acquitted while the other eight soldiers were tried together a month later, with Adams successfully arguing self-defence. Six soldiers were acquitted, and two convicted of manslaughter received a light punishment: thumb branding instead of the initially considered death penalty.


    The Boston Massacre stands as a pivotal event that shifted colonial sentiment away from King George III and British Parliamentary authority. According to John Adams, the "foundation of American independence" was established on March 5, 1770, and Patriots utilized annual commemorations, known as Massacre Day, to foster public support for independence. Subsequent events, including the Gaspee Affair and the Boston Tea Party, continued to highlight the deteriorating relationship between Britain and its colonies.

    Post-incident, the divisions between American 'Loyalists', supportive of Britain, and 'Patriots', aligned with the cause of Liberty, became more pronounced. These divisions played a role in hastening the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and, eventually, the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence.


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