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No. 455:
A Navy Born of Rum

Today, we attend the birth of the U.S. Navy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Colonial Rhode Island was a nest of pirates. The other colonies called it Rogues Island. It's economy was based on rum running and shipbuilding. All that traced to French policy in the West Indies. The West Indies grew sugar. Molasses was a sugar by-product, and rum is made from molasses. The French colonies provided France with sugar, and with a place to sell French brandy. They wouldn't let their colonies make molasses into rum, because it would compete with their brandy.

So Rhode Island bought molasses, fermented it, and smuggled out rum. The other American colonies soaked up the rum, not so much for liquor as for a preservative. They used it to preserve everything -- even meat. Rum was Rhode Island's medium of trade.

England turned a blind eye on Rhode Island. It was too small to bother with. She was far more worried about Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. But things came to a head after Rhode Island helped them fight the French and Spanish in 1756.

Rhode Island paid dearly in lost ships. England's thanks was a new effort to stop her molasses trade with the French. Final- ly, Rhode Island fired the first shots in the American Revolu- tion. In 1764 her shore batteries drove off an English ship.

England didn't react right away. The smuggling went on. Then, in 1772, she sent another ship. Rhode Island merchants went out in long boats and burned it under the cover of night. Finally the English sent a 24-gun frigate to into Providence. It really did stop the rum trade.

So Rhode Island brought a bill to the Continental Congress. They called for a colonial navy of thirteen frigates. A frigate was a fast gun platform. These were to be like English frigates but a little bigger. They were to be armed with either 24 or 32 guns.

The Colonies built the ships used them against the English in the War. But our inexperience and disorganization took a toll -- both building the ships and using them. They weren't badly made. But we were fighting the greatest navy in the world. The two frigates built in Rhode Island surrendered in 1780. Like other captured ships, the one named Providence served out the War in English service. That was odd because the Royal Navy already had a frigate named Providence. The notorious Captain Bligh took it over, just a few years later.

Thus the American Navy was born. Our history books talk of of tea in Boston Harbor. But the Navy, and the Revolution it self, were just as much the spawn of an old Colonial industry -- the business of rum-running.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Millar, J.F., Building Early American Warships. Providence: Thirteen Colonies Press, 1988.