Spies and refugees on board the Asia.
Imagine standing on the shores of Manhattan Island in the summer of 1775. Off in the distance is the Asia, a 64-gun British man-of-war, ready at a moment's notice to fire upon New York City. To Patriots, the Asia is an ever-present threat, frustrating their hopes of a revolution. To Loyalists, the Asia is a reminder of the power of the British Empire, a floating sanctuary for the friends of the king.
Two years later, its mission in the rebellious colonies fulfilled, the Royal Navy recalled the Asia to Great Britain. Under Captain George Vandeput, the man-of-war successfully delivered British marines to Boston, patrolled New York City's harbour, and fired upon Rebel armies. Above and beyond its duties as a war ship, the Asia had also been a nerve centre for British intelligence operations and a ship of refuge for loyal colonists.
The stories of spy missions and narrow escapes related to the Asia are found in the records of the Royal Commission on the Losses and Services of American Loyalists (RCLSAL). Were it not for these transcripts, the ship's role in Loyalist history would be completely forgotten. After the Revolution, the loyal colonists, who had once sought out the Asia, were scattered from Great Britain to Saint John, New Brunswick, to Lower Canada and beyond. Here, for the first time, are the accounts of twenty Loyalists who, through their service to the Crown, "boarded the Asia."
In December 1774, the Asia made its first visit to the Thirteen Colonies. Five hundred marines disembarked from the man-of-war to reinforce the British garrison in Boston. By the following May, Captain Vandeput received orders to leave Massachusetts and set sail for the colony of New York where the population was rapidly dividing into Patriot and Loyalist factions. Cadwallader Colden, its lieutenant governor, asked for ships of the Royal Navy to protect the city's Loyalists from harassment.
As John Adams observed later, New York was "a kind of key to the whole continent." Two-thirds of New York City's property was owned by Loyalists and more than half of its chamber of commerce were supporters of the Crown. However, the colony's provincial assembly was decidedly pro-rebellion. It had recently increased funding for Patriot militias and was keeping a watchful eye on British sympathizers. Oddly, the assembly permitted Crown magistrates and courts to continue in their duties and it turned a blind eye to the fact that New York merchants were provisioning the Royal Navy ships in the city's harbour.
Local Rebels did, however, take note of John Watson, a ship's captain from Rhode Island. He carried dispatches to the Asia from Sir James Wallace, the British admiral stationed off the New England coast. New York Rebels seized Watson "on suspicion" but released him the next day. Word of Watson's courier services somehow reached Rhode Island's Rebels and, upon his return home, a mob attacked the Loyalist's house. They would have killed him if he had not signed a document in support of the Patriot cause. Watson's service and sacrifices were later rewarded at the RCLSAL hearings in England in February of 1785.
In June, William Tryon, the last royal governor of New York, returned from England. For a while he felt secure living in the city. The ominous presence of the Asia reminded New York Patriots that, if they caused any problems, Captain Vandeput could immediately open fire on the city. For Loyalists in both New York and nearby Connecticut, the man-of-war was a secure base to which they could direct the intelligence they had gathered from Patriot conversations overhead in their towns and villages.
Isaac Bell of Stamford, Connecticut, declared himself "a friend to the British government' in the opening days of the Revolution, a political stance that brought down the wrath of his Patriot neighbours. He was "frequently confined and once tried for his life for going on board the Asia."
Bell managed to escape execution but, by 1777, he had to flee to safety within British lines. His wife, Sushanna, later testified that within days of her husband's departure local Rebels came to their home, "took all the furniture excepting some for necessaries," and "put a guard at the door of his house." After serving the Crown as a pilot and a firewood forager for the remainder of the Revolution, Bell was reunited with his wife. The couple settled in New Brunswick.
Edward Thorp was another Stamford Loyalist who suffered for his dealings with the Asia. His Rebel neighbours imprisoned him for five days on the charge of giving intelligence to Captain Vandeput. Included in the information that Thorp delivered to the Asia were names of Loyalists in Connecticut. In a fratricide such as the Revolution, it was good to know whom one could trust.
It wasn't long before Rebels drove Thorp out of Stamford. He lost his home, shops, sailing vessels, and a tanning yard. In February of 1784, the RCLSAL recognized Thorp as a "zealous and active Loyalist," granting him compensation for some of his losses.
Sometimes those who found sanctuary on the Asia remained anonymous. In his testimony before the RCLSAL, Abiather Camp of New Haven, Connecticut, referred to a four-acre lot that he purchased north of Yale College. He had bought it from "a clergyman of the Church of England, who was obliged to take refuge on board the Asia on account of his loyalty."
The presence of the Asia reminded New York City Rebels of how easy it would be for Britain to capture Manhattan Island. They were all too aware that their city was bounded by navigable rivers to the east and west and was easily accessible by sea. Unlike the experience of Boston Rebels, successfully fending off a British naval attack would be almost impossible. Nevertheless, New York's Patriots began to hoard what meagre resources they had.
On the evening of 23 August 1775, a group of Rebels stealthily approached the Battery, a fortification on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Their mission: to seize the twenty-one cannon before they were commandeered by the British. Having received reports from his spies that the Rebels might try to capture the Battery's guns, Captain Vandeput sent some of his men in a boat to keep an eye on the shore. The British were not the only ones ready for a fight. Aware that the Asia might try to stop them, Captain Lamb of the Provincial Artillery prepared his men for the possibility of an attack from the man-of-war.
Just after midnight the Rebels carried off the first of the Battery's cannon. A British musket fired, a shot that Vandeput would later maintain was merely a signal to the Asia. However, the nervous Rebels thought that they were being attacked. They fired back, killing one of the Asia's crew. The situation quickly escalated.
The Asia fired three of its cannon on the Battery. Some nearby buildings received minor damage but it was not Vandeput's intent to harm the city, merely to scare off the raiders at the battery. Nevertheless, Rebels spread the alarm that the city was under attack.
Hugh McGregor remembered this day. The Scottish immigrant had just arrived in New York, his first stop on the way to New Johnston in Tryon County. McGregor would not enjoy his nine-acre homestead for very long. He joined the Loyalist cause and fled to the colony of Quebec in 1780. He served with the engineer's department on Lake Champlain "all the war." After 1783, McGregor settled in Quebec, renamed Lower Canada in 1791. When he made claims for compensation five years later, he described his first day in North America as the day "when the Asia fired on the town."
It was an unforgettable day for New Yorkers too. They were thrown into a panic. Patriot drums called men to arms and church bells rang in alarm. Gathering up what they could carry, hundreds of frightened citizens fled out of range of the Asia's guns to the safety of the countryside.
Outraged by the "attack," Rebels formed a mob that sought out a target to avenge the Asia's assault on the Battery. Unable to seize Tryon, Colden, or Matthews (the city's Loyalist mayor), the mob surrounded the home of Dr. Myles Cooper, the outspoken Loyalist president of King's College. They threatened to take him from his bed, cut off his ears, slit his nose, and strip him naked. Cooper managed to escape out a back window, fleeing across Manhattan in his night shirt. He hid in the old Stuyvesant mansion near the East River until he could find refuge on the Asia.
In the morning's light, Governor Tryon hastily convened a meeting between Vandeput and local officials to smooth over the affair. Although things calmed down, one local minister reported that the city looked as deserted as it might in the midst of a plague. The political skies were beginning to darken with the clouds of war.
Within weeks of the Rebel seizure of the Battery's cannon, Captain Vandeput received orders from Admiral Graves in Boston, "to seize and keep in safe custody any Continental Congress delegates, any Rebel General Officers or the chief radical leaders in New York." While there are no records of Vandeput arresting any Rebels, Loyalists began to flock to the Asia in greater numbers to escape persecution from their Patriot neighbours.
Ephraim Sandford of Salem, Westchester County, "suffered from his Sentiments being known in favour of [the] British Government." He "went on Board the Asia to take Refuge" in 1775, staying there until the arrival of the British fleet in 1776. He later recruited sixty-three men for the British army, becoming a captain in the Queen's Rangers. At the end of the Revolution, Sandford spent time in Nova Scotia, England, and New Brunswick. He finally settled in the colony of Quebec, making his appeal for compensation in Montreal in the fall of 1787.
Two other New York Loyalists are noted as having found sanctuary on the Asia. Both men would later leave families to grieve for them. Rebels arrested Alexander Grant of Dutchess County while he was visiting in Massachusetts. Had he not escaped to the Asia, he would have been imprisoned in an underground mine. This Loyalist later settled in Annapolis Royal. He died on his way to compensation hearings in Saint John when his ship ran aground on the New Brunswick coast.
Peter Harris of Poughkeepsie, New York, had to take shelter on the Asia after the "breaking out of the troubles." His Patriot neighbours did not appreciate his successes in recruiting for the Crown. Thinking he was safe from harm, Harris returned home where Rebels arrested him. The Loyalist managed to escape his captors and once again found refuge on the British man-of-war. Poughkeepsie's Rebels then banished Sarah Harris and she eventually joined her husband in New York City. Within two years, Harris died, never knowing how the Revolution ended. Sarah left the Thirteen Colonies to settle in Nova Scotia with other Loyalists.
In September of 1775, Governor Tryon learned of a Rebel plot to have him kidnapped and then imprisoned in Connecticut. Knowing that New York City would doubtless be fired upon in reprisal, the governor decided to move his headquarters to the safety of the Duchess of Gordon that was anchored off of Staten Island near the Asia. The man-of-war's sixty-four guns made sure that Rebels saw the futility of any further plans to abduct their loyal governor.
Although the Patriots controlled who had access to Tryon, they allowed him to receive visitors from the city. Among these guests were Loyalist spies. One of them was Benjamin Ogden, a New York carpenter, who had been arrested in 1775 for being "a friend of Government." Azor Betts, a fellow Loyalist, later testified that Ogden was "the first man he thinks [was] apprehended and confined on account of his loyalty at New York."
Ogden would later be "confidentially employed" by Tryon. Forced to leave his wife and family in the city, the carpenter lived for a time on the Asia and then the Duchess of Gordon. Rebels promptly seized all of Ogden's furniture and tools (the latter were plentiful enough to supply twelve to twenty men). Rachel Ogden and her four children gathered up what was left of their possessions and joined Benjamin on Staten Island. Ogden's service to the Crown ranged from espionage to recruitment and finally to a commission as a lieutenant in Governor Brown's Brigade. He was killed during the battle at Hanging Rock in South Carolina in 1780.
Rachel Ogden married Timothy Wetmore and settled in New Brunswick with her son Andrew. Three of her children, Rachel (Mrs. George) Wetmore, Benjamin Jr. and Albert established themselves in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Albert Ogden eventually returned to the United States, becoming a merchant in the city where his father had once found refuge on the Asia.
Despite the presence of the Asia and other ships of the Royal Navy in New York's harbour, General Charles Lee established a headquarters for the Continental Army at Number One Broadway Avenue in January, 1776.
A conflict larger than the incident at the Battery was looming on the horizon.
On February 12th, Patriots forced Tryon's personal secretary, Edmund Fanning, to "fly for refuge on board the Asia. "He later testified that he "had been frequently exposed to insults from the mob while in the execution of the Governor's Orders." After the arrival of the British fleet, Fanning served as a colonel in the King's American Regiment of Foot until the end of the Revolution. In 1783, he became Nova Scotia's lieutenant governor and, in three years' time, he assumed the same office on Prince Edward Island. He served in this post until 1805.
Tensions mounted in New York when word reached the provincial assembly that Britain was sending its fleet to occupy the colony later in 1776. The presence of the Asia in the waters off Staten Island discouraged Manhattan Island's Patriots from rising up as the citizens of Boston had done a year earlier, it also affected the Rebels' morale. It is little wonder, then, that the Asia became a target of Rebel wrath.
One night, New York Patriots loaded barrels of gunpowder into a small vessel and set it adrift along the route taken by Asia's crew when they went ashore to collect provisions. The Rebels had every reason to believe that the British sailors would happily seize the unexpected spoils of war and that they would store the gunpowder in their ship's ammunition magazine.
What the Asia's crew did not know was that the Patriots had hidden a musket-lock and some clockwork inside one of the gunpowder barrels. When the clockwork wound down, this 18th century time bomb would explode within the ship's magazine, setting all of the ammunition on fire. The hated British warship would be thoroughly destroyed by a massive explosion from within.
However, instead of immediately storing the gunpowder in the hold, Captain Vandeput ordered that the barrel-laden boat stay in the water at a distance from the Asia for the night. Had he received a tip about a plot to bomb the ship from one of his local spies?
John Saltmarsh, a New York Loyalist, testified that he was employed by Governor Tryon and Captain Vandeput "to get intelligence of the Enemy for five months" in 1776. Rebels imprisoned him for espionage, but he was later able to serve in the British fleet. After being wounded twice, Saltmarsh sailed for Ireland in March of 1779. He made his way to England and, in February of 1784, recounted his war time services aboard the Asia.
David Matthews, the last Loyalist mayor of New York City, risked his life to acquire "information concerning the designs of the insurgents which he communicated to Captain Vandeput." After the Revolution, Matthews became the first attorney general for the colony of Cape Breton before it was made a part of Nova Scotia. He died there in 1800.
The plot to blow up the Asia was known to at least one man aboard the man-of-war, a Patriot prisoner held in the ship's brig. Somehow, this prisoner learned that the booby-trapped powder barrel was near the ship. Time was short; the bomb could go off at any moment. Even at a distance, the exploding barrel might inflict serious damage on the Asia.
The Rebel had little desire to die in the hold of a British man-of-war, no matter how worthy the Patriot cause. In terror, the prisoner had Vandeput called to the brig and warned him of the ship's danger. Thanks to Vandeput's caution and a prisoner's fear, an explosion that might have ignited a Patriot uprising in New York City never happened and almost disappeared from memory.
In April, the Asia and its entourage anchored off the Narrows, securing British control of the body of water that connects New York City to the Atlantic Ocean. In late June, Captain Vandeput welcomed forty-five ships of the British fleet to the Thirteen Colonies. By June 29, more than 100 vessels, "looking like a forest of trimmed pine trees," had anchored in the Lower Bay. Martha Washington, the general's wife, was among hundreds of Patriots who began to flee New York City.
On 02 July, the British established their headquarters on Staten Island. Within a month's time, forty-five ships bearing 3,000 troops arrived from South Carolina. Three days later, the twenty-one ships of Sir William Howe's fleet from Halifax weighed anchor in New York's harbour. Finally, one hundred more ships sailed into the Hudson, taking an entire day to do so. Three thousand British troops and 8,000 Hessian soldiers had just arrived.
The Asia, that had struck so much fear in the Patriots of New York City, was small compared to other vessels in the British armada. The fleet off of Staten Island numbered four hundred and seventy-three ships. These vessels made up the greatest expeditionary force of the 18th century, the largest, most powerful armada ever sent forth from Britain or any nation. A total of 32,000 troops disembarked at Staten Island, a trained force that outnumbered the population of New York City. Local Loyalists could not help but believe that the Revolution was in its dying days.
On the morning of 27 August, the British launched their attack on the colony. George Washington, who was in Brooklyn at the time, saw the Asia and four other ships sailing up the East River. By noon the British were victorious. Within three days, the Patriots had lost the Battle of Long Island. On 15 September, British troops stepped ashore onto Manhattan Island near the same house to which Myles Cooper had fled in August 1775.
As soldiers marched through the streets of New York, the Asia and two other vessels sailed up the North River to attack the Rebel battery at Paulus Hook. Patriot fire ships failed to set Vandeput's vessel aflame and, by the end of the day, New York City had become the new headquarters for the British forces in the Thirteen Colonies.
Loyalists still made their way to the Asia, but now it was to enlist. Until the Revolution, William Harding had been providing for his young family by transporting goods along the Hudson River in a sloop. After settling in Saint John, the Irish immigrant later testified that he "went on board the Asia and joined the British at New York soon after it was taken." Harding initially served the Crown as a pilot. Later, he enlisted with Captain Ward's regiment, was wounded, and then imprisoned in chains in a dungeon for three weeks.
Colin Hamilton, a native of New York City, recounted his war record to the RCLSAL when it convened in Montreal in 1788. He also had enlisted on board the Asia. Chief among his memories of his going to the man-of-war was that he brought nothing with him, not even his carpenter's tools or clothes. Hamilton served in the 84th Regiment throughout the Revolution and eventually settled in modern-day Cornwall, Ontario. John Hamilton, a fellow Scottish immigrant and Loyalist, boarded the Asia the same day as Colin, but his service to the Crown was not recorded.
While the Asia's more dramatic adventures in New York City were drawing to a close, the man-of-war received a notation in the records of Long Island Patriots. Sometime around 1776, the Rebels had been systematically disarming the Loyalists of Queen's County. Their efforts were thwarted, however, by the fact that the Asia was promptly replacing the confiscated arms. Benjamin Whitehead, Dr. Charles Arden, Joseph French and John Polhemus, all Loyalists of Long Island, were consequently summoned before the provincial congress to explain why they had accepted weapons from the British man-of-war.
In 1776, French was placed under guard for thirty-four days with no less than twelve men and an officer keeping an eye on him. The fact that French distributed the money used to raise a corps of Loyalists at Tryon's request did not garner him any favour with the local Patriots. Dr. Arden was later tried for "persuading other adherents of the Crown to have no concern with congress," but he managed to make his escape to England before the Revolution was over. In 1783, Polhemus led a company of Loyalists to settle in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.
The Asia was finally ordered home in January 1777. Its three year mission in the Thirteen Colonies had made its captain and crew witnesses to some of the most crucial events of the American Revolution. Although the man-of-war is only given the briefest of references in history books, the ship was remembered vividly by at least twenty Loyalists. To them, the Asia would always be a source of sanctuary and a site of war-time service.
There were four British Navy ships called Asia ...
1694: HMS Asia was a hulk purchased in 1694. It foundered in 1701. No illustration was found of this ship.
1764: HMS Asia was a 64-gun third-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched on 3 March 1764 at Portsmouth Dockyard. She was the first true 64. As a result, the Royal Navy ordered no further 60-gun ships. In 1775, Asia was in New York Harbor during the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. She was part of Admiral Richard Howe's flotilla at the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776. Later that year, she survived a fire ship that the American Silas Talbot led against her while she was in New York Harbor. The fire ship did foul Asia and set fire to her but the crew were able to extinguish the flames. Asia was recommissioned in May 1793 and involved in the capture of Fort Saint Louis, Martinique, 1794. She was broken up in 1804.
1811: HMS Asia was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy. This ship was launched on 2 December 1811 at Frindsbury. In 1828 Asia was reduced to a 50-gun ship, and broken up in 1865.
1824: HMS Asia was an 84-gun second-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched on 19 January 1824 at Bombay Dockyard. In 1908 she was sold out of the navy.
Stephen Davidson UE