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Constraints on Projecting Imperial Power: The Ordeal of William Rice

Constraints on Projecting Imperial Power: The Ordeal of William Rice

Greg Rogers, Ph.D. Candidate

Many historians interested in the rise of Britain as a superpower in the eighteenth century have focused on the role of military might. John Brewer argues in the seminal work The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783, the successful exercise of power was linked to the state’s ability to tax, finance, and administer its growing military machine. Despite these European accomplishments, the ability to wage war, especially across the Atlantic, was still severely limited by environmental, biological, and social factors.

Image of an excerpt of William Rice's Journal

Image of an excerpt of William Rice’s Journal

The trials and tribulations of Captain William Rice, recorded in a 1746 wartime journal, provide a window into the obstacles of waging war in colonial America. Rice, born in 1708, was a captain of one of the three infantry companies that the colony of Rhode Island intended to send to Nova Scotia for a planned invasion of French Canada via the Saint Lawrence River during the War of the Austrian Succession (or King George’s War). He came from a prominent Providence County family that had a history of public service. Rice himself had been a justice of the peace for the town of Warwick, a legislator, and a member of the governor’s council. His only military experience before his appointment as a company captain in June of 1746 was a brief stint in the Light Horse militia cavalry unit.

Before the expedition even left Newport harbor, disease plagued the soldiers. Rice records that the “the heat of the season and great rain” of the summer was responsible for an outbreak of the “bloody flux,” today more commonly called dysentery. Months later in October a “putrid fever” appeared among the men. After several delays involving the movements of troops from Britain, the Rhode Island contingent set sail on November 4th. The fleet consisted of the brigs Leopard (containing Rice and his men), Africa, and Neptune, and the armed sloop Tartar, which served as an escort. After a pleasant first day at sea, the convoy was hit by a storm the night of November 5th. When Rice awoke the next morning he was greeted with “the most unwelcome news;” the Africa had run aground in shallow water off of Martha’s Vineyard during the storm. It was decided to shift troops from the beached vessel to the Tartar and continue to Nova Scotia. The officer’s plans were quickly protested by the soldiers as they “became very mutinous.” The disorder was quelled by Rice and his fellow officers but the troops were kept on Martha’s Vineyard due to poor weather.

Detail of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket in Carrington Bowles' 1776 "Map of the Seat of War in New England"

Detail of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Carrington Bowles’ 1776 “Map of the Seat of War in New England”

The next five days spent marooned on Martha’s Vineyard were marked by disease, desertions, and poor discipline. On Sunday November 9, a solider in Rice’s company, Michael Dooley, died of a fever. Also during this time Sargent Howes and two other soldiers deserted and disappeared somewhere on the island. However, trouble did not just come from the enlisted men. The day before the Rhode Island troops re-embarked, two unnamed officers were reprimanded for abandoning their posts in favor of “two fair damsels.” The local man that had brought them to the women turned out to be in cahoots with the ladies in a scheme where the men were lured away from their companies, jilted, and then turned over for a “very small reward.” Rice must have been relieved to leave Martha’s Vineyard behind on November 11.

His relief would be short-lived as the Leopard ran aground off of the island of Nantucket. This time the officers and men were kept aboard their vessels. This move did not prevent disorder. After returning from a dinner aboard the Neptune with other officers, Rice found that his soldiers were “very disorderly and generally drunk.” He discovered that one of his junior officers had sold the men a barrel of cider, an action the captain deemed a “prostitution” of his commission and “base, mean and injurious.” As the contrary winds and poor weather continued, so did the calamities. Rice discovered that his men were playing cards by the lights intended for the growing number of sick. In addition, it was found that an officer had sold more cider to the disorderly soldiers and had now extended his enterprises to include the sale of apples at an “exorbitant” price that were stored for the future campaign. On the morning of November 18th Rice confiscated four decks of cards and threw them overboard and the ships finally returned to the sea.

"A Naval Snow" by Charles Brooking, 1759.

“A Naval Snow” by Charles Brooking, 1759.

For the next couple days Rice noted that the “sea and wind were in a violent conflict.” As the elements precluded the progress of the fleet, microbiological factors continued to wreak havoc on the expedition. On November 20 Rice recorded “the measles broke out upon me and I became very sick.” Sickness seems to have prevented him from updating his journal for a week, during which time the ships remained at Cape Poge Bay at the east end of Nantucket. The next entry, dated November 28, finds the captain “very weak, low, and reduced.” It was soon decided to send an officer to Newport in hope that the expedition would be called off when its circumstances were known. Upon learning that the fleet was ordered to continue to Canada, twelve more men deserted Rice’s company in a single day on December 7th.  The last several days of the journal are a litany of deaths by the disease that continuously spread throughout the ships.

Although it was finally decided on December 21st to call off the campaign and return the men to Newport, Rice succumbed to illness and died at the age of 38, leaving behind a widow, Phebe Tripp and 6 children. His last entry, on Christmas Day of 1746, is a condemnation the social issues that had plagued the ill-fated convoy: “great trouble arises in adjusting our accounts from an excessive disposition in the people to extortion, knavery, and chicanery.” In addition to weather and disease, human factors such as desertions, profiteering, gambling, and insubordination also hampered the Rhode Islanders efforts to contribute to the imperial cause. The 1746 plan to invade French Canada eventually fizzled out due to manpower issues in both North America and Europe, with social, environmental, and biological factors playing a significant role in the British imperial military project.

Greg Rogers,”Constraints on Projecting Imperial Power: The Ordeal of William Rice,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), April 18, 2013,


Primary source:

Nine muster rolls of Rhode Island troops enlisted during the old French war to which is added the journal of Captain William Rice in the expedition of 1746. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1915.
Available at:

Image Credits:

Detail of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Carrington Bowles’ 1776 “Map of the Seat of War in New England”

Image of an excerpt of William Rice’s Journal

“A Naval Snow” by Charles Brooking, 1759. This snow rigged brig is similar to the three employed by Rhode Island for the 1746 convoy.

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