NYC Maritime History Provides Lessons for Teachers
the beginning, New York City has been shaped by its proximity
to the sea. The National Maritime Historical Society believes
more of the city’s rich maritime history should be incorporated
into school curricula; to achieve this end, it is offering Teacher
Training Seminars that give fascinating in-depth looks at how
the sea and the city have interacted.
A recent session that focused on Revolutionary War relations with
the English in this port town addressed the question of riots.
Professor Thomas Wermuth of Marist College noted that the famous
New York (and Boston) Tea Party in which protesters threw tea
overboard in the harbor was simply a continuation of an ongoing
history of rioting in this country. Earlier, local gangs in impressment
riots challenged the British practice of getting crews for their
ships by “impressing,” or kidnapping, fisherman in the harbor.
Also, to combat food shortages, locals stormed food stores and
took grain and salt.; a gang burned down a smallpox hospital in
the 1740s because it was not welcome in their town. Vigilantes
regularly tackled all sorts of matters considered threats to their
communities since local authorities lacked the power and will
to protect them. People saw crowd actions as a right, and British
policy was simply something new to riot against.
actions continued after the Revolution, including the 1839 New
York grain riot and numerous attacks on shopkeepers who were sometimes
viewed suspiciously because they did not produce anything and
might deal in imported goods. A successful riot was more like
a demonstration and produced no destruction. A riot could last
half an hour, long enough to accomplish a goal such as taking
grain, or could go through the night if the crowd was very worked
The first police force in New York City was established for riot
control, and armories were built from 1840 to 1870 to store weapons
partly for containing riots. The growth of capitalism and respect
for private property as well as the exploitation of riots by some
criminal elements led to greater support for containment.
Riots, or crowd actions, continue in this country to this day.
Condoned by authorities who issue permits and by the media that
looks for a good story, riots can also get out of hand. But they
are all part of a tradition as old as the first settlements.
The National Maritime Society provides fascinating information
and practical lessons to bring to students in classrooms throughout
the country. #
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