The Webster dictionary defines a massacre as “ the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty”. So, historically, that is what happened on March 5, 1770, in Boston, thus triggering a chain of consequences that sparked the American Revolution. But, what really happened?
First of all, what happened was that there was a Government, a colonial one in this case but it could have been any kind of uncompromising Government, anxious to get a firm control of what it saw as a bunch of not specially law-abiding citizens…particularly in what was related to taxes. So it created the Townshend Acts to enforce its taxing powers over the Colonies, which in turn was seen as an act of utmost aggression by the politically aware citizens of those Thirteen Colonies which were to achieve eternal fame.
Then you have to put some soldiers in the equation. You cannot possibly enforce anything without some good ol’ redcoats. So from 1768 on, Boston was in fact an occupied city with a force mounting from two to four regiments and a fifty cannon vessel to control it and its apparently seditious population. As it has been happening, to no surprise except to those in power, throughout History, these measures lead to a constant growing of petty incidents, tension and animosity between civilians and the military. And the spark, eventually, started a fire somewhere…
Apparently, all was just a bad prank or joke, maybe just a cocky young man playing the braggart a bit too far. A wigmaker’s apprentice by the name of Edward Gerrish accused loudly and publicly some Captain Goldfinch of not being able to pay his bills, which, not being true, the officer let drop without a comment. It seems that, not getting the attention he was seeking, the young agitator kept complaining and insulting the officer in front of a sentry private, in the company of some sidekicks. A couple of hours later, patience gone, the sentry, Private White, gave the boy a wallop. This means war, man, or something of the kind was said, and with all the crying out, soon the street was crowded with angry Bostonians looking for a good brawl.
Finally, the Officer of the Day, Captain Preston, dispatched a relief column, an outstanding red coat tradition, to help White and Goldfinch control the demonstration, now numbering some three to four hundred people. This was the moment, so familiar now through CNN and BBCWORLD, for stones, snowballs, and some other debris launched against the soldiers. One of them was hit with a club by a tavern keeper in a very Scorsesian way, and that was it. He recovered, got on his feet and repelled the aggression firing his musket. No order was given by the officers, but surrounded, outnumbered and under pressure, some other soldiers opened fire, with the result of eleven hits. Three of the rioters were shot dead: Samuel Gray, James Caldwell and Crispus Attucks. Sam Maverick and Patrick Carr died in the aftermath. No soldier gave his life for king and country, though. Obviously, outrage ensued.
But now, let’s go back to the dictionary. According to it, a massacre involves the killing of unresisting or helpless people. Was that a massacre, then? Or an act of self-defense? Most probably the facts are that a somewhat, even rudimentary, armed mob surrounded, threatened and finally began to assault a much minor armed military force in the grounds of a lesser offence sparkled for what we can surely consider an act of provocation. The result of it, as the soldiers saw their lives at risk, was a non purposeful firing, aiming more to stop the assault than to exterminate an enemy.which, at the moment, looked wild and dangerous.
Then, as we are always told, History is always written by the victors. And this incident was turned into a Massacre of civilians by a bloodthirsty army. Which probably was not. Anyway, that is the way reality is made, and the way History is presented sometimes and struck definitely the imagination of people, and the hidden revolutionary forces had now their first martyrs and a just cause to fight their cruel oppressors. Even in the case, as it was, that the soldiers had to stand trial and were mostly acquitted, with the exception of two who were found guilty of manslaughter in the event of having shot directly at the crowd.
Interestingly enough, what today would be tantamount to a declaration of war, as we can see in the news while the Governments in Europe and EEUU cry for the breaking up of the Gadaffi Government after its armed forces killed a still unknown number of civilians amidst the fighting against the uprising forces, was then just another nail for the coffin. No International Community was in the position to ask for responsibilities to His Gratious Majesty’s Government; no oil supply was at risk, no cruel dictator was abusing his own people with the weapons we have sold…That was then, the Revolutionary elites were not comfortable with this behaviour, even if it was obviously beneficial for the cause; they were a bunch of educated leaders not willing to take the risk of being overwhelmed by the rabble. So that was it. A crying out, a provocation…and three more years of piling up resentment till Boston Tea Party. To those non familiar to historical affairs and their political treatment it could look as if American elites were far more worried about taxes than human lives, specially, if the mentioned human lives were, as John Adams, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second President of the United States, put it during the trial as defender of the English soldiers: “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs”.
But that is sometimes the problem with History: it is not always a black and white subject. The repercussions of a simple act could, on the long run, alter our perspective or notion of that same act till finally distorting it utterly. Hence the necessity of careful research, reading and the use of different points of view, lest we forget what happened…