Add your shouts to the clamor for revolution in Colonial Williamsburg’s evening program, “The Gunpowder Plot.” Author Gina DeAngelis explains.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I'm asking Gina DeAngelis, who is author of Colonial Williamsburg's interactive evening program, "The Gunpowder Plot."
What is the gunpowder plot?
Gina DeAngelis: The script that I wrote is about what's more commonly called the gunpowder incident. I think they chose to use the word "plot" because it was shorter and easier to understand and to fit in the program. The gunpowder incident occurred in the spring of 1775 in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was when the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, decided that the situation among the colonists in the capital was a little too explosive, and that he would prefer if the gunpowder stored in the Magazine – which is a building, not a periodical, in this case – should be removed somewhere, so that if the colonists decided to get upset, they couldn't use it to cause any damage to the king's property.
Lloyd: Or shoot him.
Gina: Or shoot him. He was well within his rights to move it, but the situation kind of backfired, and there was a giant uproar. The general view of the colonists was that that was their powder, and it was there for them to defend themselves from tyranny, or Indian attacks, which of course didn't happen very often in Williamsburg in that time period anymore. So, there was a big uproar and riots in the streets and so forth.
Lloyd: I have heard that it was British sailors or British marines who came, and I've never bothered to find out which. Does it make any difference?
Gina: Well, there's a great deal of controversy among historians over who, exactly, came and took the powder. The historians that were advising us and reviewing the script didn't really seem to agree. So, what we ended up doing in the script is having a marine sergeant and the rest were sailors, because the ship that we know they came from, that ship did not carry royal marines.
Lloyd: So of necessity, it would be …
Gina: Sailors, probably.
Lloyd: So you could work it out that way.
Gina: This was well before there was any concept of declaring the colonies independent. The colonists in Williamsburg still considered themselves very much British citizens, or Englishmen.
Lloyd: As people are watching the presentation of "The Gunpowder Plot," for which you wrote the script, afterward, what are they curious about?
Gina: A lot of things. They're not just watching a presentation, and that's one of the things that's different about this program. Well, all of Colonial Williamsburg's programs, actually. In this one, they particularly wanted to continue the interactive nature of Revolutionary City, which is the morning and afternoon program. They call this "Revolutionary City After Dark."
Lloyd: Sun's down.
Gina: Yeah, so it's an interactive program where the audience participates from the very beginning. Whichever set of interpreters or actors in front of the audience, that's the role the audience takes on. So when the program begins, and you're being ordered by Governor Dunmore's lieutenant to go to the Magazine and remove the powder, you are considered to be British sailors – the audience is. They participate by pulling the wagon and helping to load the barrels and what have you. When they get to the Magazine and they run into some American patriots who were guarding the Magazine, because they anticipated that Dunmore may want to remove the powder, then you become American colonists, and so forth. So they're not really watching the presentation so much as participating in it, either as a group or as individuals.
But your question was, "What are they curious about at the end of the program?" Mostly they want to know, "Were the characters that we saw real, and if they were, what happened to them after this night?" I don't want to give too much away, but there's a gunshot towards the end of the program. So they want to know what happened, and did that person die. Did the powder ever get returned? They ask a lot of questions, because of the way that the script was structured, we tried to get the voices of as many Americans as we could. So they do ask a lot of questions about African American involvement, and what did this mean to the enslaved population of Williamsburg, which is about half the population of the town at the time.
Lloyd: I remember the taking, I remember the paying to get everybody calmed down. I don't know whether the powder ever got back to the Magazine or not.
Gina: I don't think it did. Governor Dunmore eventually left the Palace later that year and never returned. I know that they did break in and get several hundred muskets and some other arms and equipage out of there at the start of the Revolution.
Lloyd: I should think – guess – that he would have put it on a ship, if he had sailors or marines or whomever come and steal it.
Gina: They did. They brought it to the ship, I don't know if they kept it there. That ship was anchored in the James River for some time. It was there basically as backup if he needed to call troops in. There were only about 10 or 15 troops, I mean, he did not have access, and that's one of the reasons he eventually fled Williamsburg and lived on a war ship. He just didn't have the protection available to him if the populace decided to rise up, which they did.
Lloyd: Yes, they did. Paying for the gunpowder might have made the colonists feel morally superior, but it wouldn't have done anything for arming them, because the only gunpowder for sale was in Britain.
Gina: Well, it wasn't that the residents were seeking the gunpowder to use it. It was a moral issue. It was an issue of, "You don't have the right to take this powder, it belongs to us. It doesn't belong to the crown." Which was not true, and he was within his rights to remove it. But, that's not the way the residents saw it.
Lloyd: Money doesn't do you any good when you're trying to load a musket.
Gina: It's true. I don't think they were really anticipating needing it just yet. This was spring of '75. They were forming independent companies because the laws had been allowed to lapse that controlled militia units. People felt that if they couldn't continue, those laws weren't in place, they'd form independent companies, meaning independent of a government. That's what they started doing in the fall of '75, and that's when Dunmore started to get really worried, because they could get their hands on gunpowder.
There was stuff going on in other colonies at the same time. For example, at the time of the powder being removed from the magazine in Williamsburg, Lexington and Concord had already happened, but news had not reached Williamsburg yet. That's one of the issues that inflamed the situation. They were up in arms over the powder being removed, and then two days later, several days later, they learned what had happened in Massachusetts. Which was, incidentally, the exact same thing that Dunmore was doing here. Only, General Gage, who was the governor of Massachusetts, was a little more heavy-handed about it, and he had more troops. When he went around trying to take the powder from the colonists, they were ready for him. So, if we'd been ready for him here in Williamsburg, Lexington and Concord may be called Williamsburg, instead. It may have happened here.
Lloyd: Gage didn't have, like, 15 guys.
Gina: He had several hundred, yes.
Lloyd: He marched a big group off to get the gunpowder. Actually, there were gunpowder plots, to use your title, up and down the coast. There were a lot of places where the royal governor really didn't want the colonists to have their hands on a lot of gunpowder.
Gina: Well, it was partly due to I think what they call a "governor's circular," which came from London via the West Indies. The royal governors of the colonies in North America were supposed to prevent new gunpowder shipments from falling into the hands of the colonists. They were not told to go and take the powder that was already here. So that's when Gage went to get it, and the people were waiting for him, because there were rumors flying for weeks that he was going to do it, as there were in Virginia. Dunmore, here, managed to achieve some sense of surprise, so that there was nobody there when he went to get the powder. So people were up in arms later, but they couldn't really do anything about it by that point, because it was gone.
Lloyd: Too late at that point.
Gina: So the whole purpose of the script was to get at the mob action, the community action that happened on the eve of the Revolution.
Lloyd: So, all of it is meant to get you involved, one way or another.
Gina: Oh yeah, and they do get riled up.
Lloyd: Do they?
Gina: They do get riled up, and plus, they've seen Revolutionary City programs, most of them, during the day. So they kind of know it's going to end up with a big shouting match at the end.
Lloyd: I've seen several portions of Revolutionary City, and the guests here really do get into it. When it comes time to yell and scream, they're all up for yelling and screaming.
Gina: Yes, they do. It's kind of remarkable when you think about it. I think that's the big advantage of having face-to-face living history. The whole point is to participate, which is the whole point of the American Revolution.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more about evening programs. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.