Part 1: A Conversation with Royal Governor Lord Dunmore
“And what is the latest from Fort Murray?”
“The rebels crossed the causeway at Great Bridge late last night and attacked.”
Though it is a report of the first clash of arms at the newly constructed fortification at Great Bridge, Lord Dunmore features remain sullen and indifferent. It is as if the Captain’s words were a mere continuation of their conversation of weather conditions. “Our casualties?” he asks, glancing at a seaman scampering up one of the ratlines.
“One dead, two wounded and a pair of missing sentries.”
“Any regulars?” the governor asks, his voice dry, expressionless.
“No.” The captain pauses, then adds, “All were Ethiopians. They were among the most recently acquired escaped slaves and had received minimum training.”
The governor nods. “And rebel losses?”
“The colonists conducted a probe. A small number were involved. Nothing more than skirmishers who were easily driven back.”
“Yes yes,” Dunmore cuts in. “And their losses?”
“Wounded and dead remain unknown, as they were able to carry their casualties off .”
John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore, looks upon his captain of infantry in a cool, apathetic gaze before turning his face away into the wind. With the death of his father nearly twenty years past, the tall Scotsman inherited a large estate, including a peerage in the House of Lords. It was 1771 when he accepted the position of Royal Governor to the New York Colony. After an unhappy year fulfilling his duties and tolerating what he called New York’s foul and despicable weather, he leaped at the opportunity to fill the shoes of Lord Botetourt, the recently deceased governor of Virginia. Quickly settling in among the aristocratic southern gentry, the genial nobleman had won favor with the colonists, especially for his handling of an Indian uprising. He had spent the next four years watching his popularity wane slowly, watching helplessly as colonial unrest gained strength.
Fearing for his safety, Dunmore had abandoned his offices in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, and sought refuge aboard the British warship HMS Fowey anchored in Norfolk Bay. It is early December, 1775, and the House of Burgesses has taken drastic measures. Authorizing the Virginia militias to advance whatever action is necessary to secure the interests of the colony, a short and bloody battle had been fought the previous month. This only induced the rebel force to strengthen its stranglehold on British forces confined to the Norfolk area.
Standing along the railing amidships, Lord Dunmore feels a frigid breeze flowing steadily across the bay. His Lordship stuffs his hands into his greatcoat’s pockets before looking at the immaculately dressed officer by his side.
Captain Leslie is the senior British officer in Virginia, commanding the only professional troops stationed in the colony. With the demise of both the regiment’s colonel and major, he leads the 14th Foot, or rather, the portion of what is left of it. After two years subjugating the maroons on St. Vincent, brutal bush fighting and rampant disease have devastated the regiment’s ranks, leaving fewer than two hundred men alive. At the conclusion of hostilities, the regiment was split between the Bahamas and Florida where they waited for transport to England. As conditions worsened in Virginia and Lord Dunmore requested military support, his superiors relented, sending the Florida detachment to him. Barely one hundred in number, men worn down by illness and fatigue were sent to quell the largest colony of the Americas and reestablish the Royal Governor’s authority.
Dunmore lifts his eyes to the sprawling deck of the man-of-war. He feels the power beneath his feet as his eyes settle on a long row of deadly cannon. Draped in fine silks and covered by his greatcoat of Scottish wool with seal skinned facings, the governor turns once more, aloof from his senior commander. Elbow on rail and chin in hand, he gazes at the water wistfully, looking out over the nearly one hundred vessels of varied size anchored in the extensive bay. Except for four men-of-war, a pair of transports and a few smaller sloops that were converted to river gun boats, he commands a fleet of merchantmen.
‘It’s becoming a floating city,’ he thinks pensively, ‘with fewer and fewer fighting men to suppress the flaring unrest swirling throughout this region. Along with Captain Leslie’s troops, I have but a scattering of loyalists, commandeered sailors, and fewer than three hundred newly armed slaves: our newly-dubbed Ethiopian Regiment. Damn it… I have barely six hundred men to return order to an area greater than all of England.’ He looks back to the captain.
Leslie, far shorter than his Lordship, raises his head to the broad shouldered, athletic Scotsman. Dunmore offers a weak smile. After all his Captain has been through in the West Indies, now thrust into a quickly developing situation, Dunmore appreciates the stout captain’s masked optimism. He turns his head and peers out over the bay towards the open ocean.
“I wonder if history will note the irony of all this,” he says in a hollow whisper.
Dunmore faces his captain. “Pray tell Captain Leslie, do you know what is the last refuge for a scoundrel? The last claim of legitimacy?” Having always taken pleasure in riddles, the Scotsman’s eyes suddenly sparkle.
“I believe Your Lordship has me at a disadvantage,” Leslie says, cautious while trying to discern the correct response when dealing with those of a higher station.
“Rogues draped by the robes of patriotism, Captain. Ah hah! Do you not see? And that little tribute is from my good friend and master of the English spoken word, Samuel Johnson.”
Leslie nods, recognizing the Englishman who had obtained international acclaim for publishing the first complete and comprehensive dictionary of the English language.
“Captain Leslie,” Dunmore says, his tone now more reflective, “you and I realize our responsibilities to the crown and our nation.”
“I know my duty to crown and country, Your Lordship. In that there is no question.” A balding man with a jowly face, Captain Leslie nervously shifts his weight from one leg to the other.
“That goes without saying my dear Captain,” Dunmore smiles. “You wear the White Horse of Windsor indicating the King’s favor. But there is more to this thing of duty that every Englishman is expected to accept openly and without hesitation.”
“I am afraid I do not follow your Lordship.”
“There are financial obligations. Those of English blood who still reside not only within England’s shores, but dotted throughout the globe; men of good stock who know they must pay taxes to help their government meet the expenses of services rendered to her people. All her people, my dear Captain.”
“Rest assured, Your Lordship, that is a responsibility understood by our countrymen.”
“You are correct Captain… but only a partial segment of our countrymen,” the last word spoken as if he had swallowed rancid beef. “We recently incurred the costs of a very expensive war, a war in which these colonies benefited handsomely,” the tall Scotsman said with a sweep of hand. “Therefore it is only right that British citizens, both on English soil and in her colonies accept the necessary taxes levied by the crown to pay for that war. Do you not follow?”
“Yes Your Lordship. As I inferred, it is morally and rightfully they do so.”
“But they do not!” Dunmore exclaims, his fist rapping the railing. “Not here in the Americas. Do you realize we Englishmen and Scotsmen pay nearly ten times the amount in taxes compared to what is expected by Parliament of these colonists? Yet they bawl to the pillars of heaven’s gate that even that small pittance is far too much for their tastes.”
“Your Lordship,” Leslie offers, signing a docket presented to him by his ensign, “not intending to play the devil’s advocate, but perhaps it is their wish to manage their own affairs that drives these people to express their desires so forcefully. They hold tight to their purse strings to make a point.”
“Manage their own affairs,” grumbles Dunmore. “Poppycock. It is an excuse. Nothing more. They hold their purse close to their breasts for reasons far beyond reasons of self-rule. And as for expressing their desires, that my dear Captain is an understatement. Open revolt is more proper.”
Hatless, Lord Dunmore’s vivid crop of red hair twists in the stiffening breeze. “Captain Leslie, these colonists convey the extreme in their endeavors and expect to have it both ways. Complete autonomy, including all financial obligations, yet as soon as the rosy picture they paint for themselves becomes frayed at the edges, when savages make their presence felt, or when the price of commodities in London slip, they demand our protection and aide. No, there is much more to this picture than the bold outlines of self-government which these colonists sketch.”
“Your Lordship, Captain Fordyce and I held similar discourse as to the motives for this uprising. It does seem that those who inhabit this land go to great ends to put their personal wealth far above that of others, including the crown. They claim fiscal responsibilities to cloak their desire not to open their purse, a purse fattened by the labor of those of mid-station and the poor, not to mention the large number of African slaves.”
“True, Captain Leslie, but we in England are no saints in that matter. And it is we who have delivered the slaves unto American travail. The only difference is that we are beginning to grasp aspects of financial duties as well as attention to social needs. Our courts have been moving nobly towards rectifying the inefficiencies in caring for all her citizens. Over time – and it will take time – we will advance to better this situation. But here – this land,” he shakes his head, raising his eyes to the skeletal yardarms of reefed sails above.
“The seeds of greed and selfishness have been sown, Captain Leslie. The roots continue to spread. Deeper and deeper they burrow, intertwining this land with each passing decade. These people will forever remain suspect of government, even their own. They will persist in seeking the enhancement of their own wealth over the betterment of others. Those of power, through fear and misinformation, will convince those mindless dolts of lesser means and education to follow their lead. And they will, just as now, fight to obtain their flagrant lifestyle at the expense of the masses. They will place blame for the majority of colonists’ discontent on England’s shoulders in the sordid name of taxation. You and I, Captain, we have become the enemies of this day. And afterward, when we are vanquished, those who retain power in this land will turn upon their own; any who try to rise above the rhetoric of monetary responsibilities to further social concerns for those of lesser means. Mark my words Captain. It is an American curse that is destined to plague this land for centuries to come.”
A chilling wind flows over the deck. “Your Lordship,” Leslie enjoins, “may we cross the deck to lee to lessen the affects of the wind?”
Pulling his greatcoat tighter around his body and tugging at his furred facings, Dunmore follows the Captain. “I am tired by these colonists balking at the most modest payments due the crown.” Dunmore sighs pressing his bulk against the oak railing. “Instead they choose to take up arms against their nation. But they cannot do so without a scapegoat. A phrase. A word. Something to draw the masses to their way of thinking that is neatly packaged in a simple cause. And what is this unifying specter of righteousness that has been so dearly deprived these well fed colonists and fat merchants?”
Dunmore glances at his captain. A smirk creases his face. Captain Leslie’s blank look reveals the anticipation of letting His Lordship answer for him.
“Freedom,” Dunmore says, leaning out over the ship’s side and breathing in the still sea air just below the fife railing. “Simply put,” he says, righting to his full height while gazing out over the water, “they level their justification for revolt based on independence. Their desire for freedom… the driving passion of mankind.”
Dunmore turns to his officer. “Bullocks! Love of money. That is what fuels this rebellion! That is the true cause! And that is what mankind will eternally seek above all else. History may paint whatever noble portrait of this episode it may, but it is greed, my dear Captain Leslie, greed acquired from the barrel of a cannon, that will satisfy the rising aristocracy of this land. And that, my dear captain brings us to the outrageous irony of it all!”
Dunmore turns from Leslie to watch a royal marine standing before a half dozen black soldiers. The officer holds a musket high so all can see him demonstrate the proper way to clean the weapon. His Lordship nods towards the small group of escaped slaves crowding around the young lieutenant.
“Captain Leslie, I fatigue from lack of nourishment. Let us continue our conversation below deck over a fine glass of port and a hearty portion of roasted mutton.”
Without waiting for a response, His Lordship turns from the stern railing and from those far beyond his former friendship and influence. Sighing heavily, he pulls his greatcoat tightly round his body and quickly vanishes below deck.