The American Revolution, fueled by a portuguese wine.3 min read
In summer 1775, while General George Washington outfitted his first mobile headquarters for the Continental Army, he seems to have intuited the importance of his people comforts. His personal expense accounts between 1775 and 1776 described lot of purchases for a privileged man like himself, to remain comfortable as he superintended a volunteer army: trunks, table linen, other things, and most important of all, copious liters of wine.
For everybody, the life in an 18th-century war camp was not easy, and there were lot of moments of incredible boredom, in fact, to help to survive in this hard existence, he and his officers required alcohol. To this end, Washington ordered an incredible volume of what had long ago become colonial-America’s favorite adult drink: Madeira, a wine produced on a small Portuguese island.
The reason for he chose madeira was because colonists had drinked Madeiran wine since the 1640s, and, by the mid-18th century, North America represented a quarter of the island’s exports. Colonists preferred the taste of madeira that had aged and cooked in the belly of merchant ships, and it was one of the few wines to benefit from the length and difficulties of transatlantic travel.
On 8th August 1775, so two months after taking his army, Washington procured a large cask of the wine, with also empty bottles, corks, and other utilities. During the next six months, he purchased hundreds of additional bottles and an entire “pipe” (from the Portuguese word for barrel, “pipa”). A pipe of madeira had enough wine to fill over 700 bottles, like a cask. Washington, then, in preparation for war, ordered at least 1,900 bottles of wine to be shared among his closest collaborators and friends. Throughout the American Revolution, these wine became immensely popular in British North America, and in 1766, John Hancock celebrated the Stamp Act by setting two pipes of madeira out in front of his house for public consumption. Two years later, he protested for the new established import taxes, intentionally underreporting the number of pipes he had imported, and in response, custom officials seized Hancock’s ship, an event that encouraged a mob to gather around the port of Boston. The mob, reportedly 3,000 strong, destroyed a ship owned by the port’s chief customs collector, and months later, British officials used the incident to justify an increased troop presence in the city, a decision that at the end led to the Boston Massacre.
As the war progressed, Washington used his relationships with madeira importers to maintain a steady stream into his headquarters, even after Portugal, an ally to Great Britain, closed its ports to American merchant ships.
Exists documents from the third and fourth years of Washington’s presidency (1793 and 1794), which detail orders for six pipes of madeira destinated for his house in Philadelphia, and he drinked Madeira literally until he lay on his deathbed.
On December 13, 1799, the day before he died to a throat infection, someone in his household wrote an urgent letter to a Madeiran wine importer.
“I lately received a letter from J.M Pintard, Esqr. in which he mentioned that he had some Madeira Wine of a very superior quality. If you should think proper to send the General one pipe of the wine mentioned your draft for the amount, at ninety days sight, will be duly honored.”
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