One of History’s Little Ironies – the HMS Romney

I love historical ironies like the one I recently wrote about regarding Paul Revere. Here’s another one to ponder – the HMS Romney.

I ran across this ship just this morning while reading a biography: John Hancock, Merchant King and American Patriot. So far, it’s truly outstanding. The author, Harlow Giles Unger, has the ability to describe events so that you almost feel as if you were there. I’ll try to post more on this after I finish the book.

The Loss of the Romney Man of War
Artist: Richard Corbould
Anyway, in June 1767, the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts. For those of you, like me, who might need a little refresher on history, the Townshend Acts were first proposed by Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain. England was suffering huge debts due to the Seven Years War and the French and Indian War. (For the most part, these were the same war and fought mainly against the French. They just had different names in Europe and in America.)

Originally, the British passed the Stamp Act, which required a stamp to be affixed, at a cost, to every piece of paper in the colonies. This included everything from playing cards to wills to official documents. Without going into too much detail, Americans rebelled and commerce between the Colonies and England slowed to the point where merchants on both sides of the pond were demanding the Act be repealed.

Charles Townshend
1725 - 1767
Artist: Sir Joshua Reynolds

This left Townshend in a bit of a snit – and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one. He proposed the Townshend Acts, which seem to me to be as much about punishing the Americans as about replenishing the British coffers.  These Acts raised import duties on glass, lead, paper, paint and tea. They also allowed customs officials to board American ships without provocation and seize suspect cargo. Incidentally, Charkes Townshend died in Sept 1767 less than a month after news of the Acts' passing reached America. He was only 42 at the time, but since he safely ensconced in England and died of a fever we can probably rule out foul play. (at least by the Americans anyway)

These Acts served as the catalyst that brought John Hancock and other Boston Merchants into the fray, prompting them to urge colonists to boycott all British goods. One of the ways the British retaliated was by siccing the HMS Romney on Boston. The Captain of the Romney sent swarms of British sailors ashore to terrorize the citizens of the town and impress any able-bodied men they could find. (If you’re not familiar with the term in a naval sense, impressment essentially means capturing a poor fellow and forcing him to serve aboard ship whether he has any desire to or not! It was a common means of expanding the ranks of the world’s most powerful naval force at the time.)
Caricature of British Press Gang, circa 1780

I would love to know for whom the Romney was named, but I sincerely doubt there are any ties to Mitt Romney. (Sorry, lovers of political conspiracy theories!) I just think it’s ironic that Massachusetts elected a Governor with the same name as one of the ships that had terrorized the town of Boston little more than two hundred years before.

Please be sure to comment if you know more about this little irony or if you have a favorite historical irony of your own.


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