A Q&A with with Serena Zabin, author of ‘The Boston Massacre: A Family History’

Why does  Serena Zabin consider the Boston Massacre a “family history”? She answers this and more about the Revolutionary War.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Sara Rubinstein
Carleton College historian Serena Zabin appears with her book, “The Boston Massacre: A Family History.”

The fatal shooting of five Massachusetts colonists by British soldiers in 1770 helped kindle the Revolutionary War. But it wasn’t just a clash among men. As Carleton College historian Serena Zabin writes in “The Boston Massacre: A Family History,” the rift split the town. British soldiers had blended into the community by marrying local women. “This wasn’t just brother versus brother,” she tells Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga. “It was sister versus sister too.”

Q: What do you mean when you say the massacre is a “family history”?

First, this was a conflict between people who knew each other, largely through neighbor and family relationships. Second, the Boston Massacre marks the end of a familial relationship between the British colonies and England. In that way, it’s not so much the beginning of the Revolution, but the end of a family.

Q: Why was there tension between England and the Boston colonists in the first place?

At the end of the Seven Years’ War [in 1763], the British Empire ends up with a much more enormous space to administer than they’ve ever had. They need more money to do this, so they come up with new taxes. There are a lot of protests in the colonies, and the taxes are essentially repealed. But the need for money hasn’t gone away, so they come up with taxes on imports. This leads to riots and smuggling. 

Troops are brought to Boston to try to support the government, and the Quartering Act says they’re supposed to be put up there. The army ends up renting people’s extra houses, spare rooms, sheds, and basements, putting soldiers all over the town of Boston. 

Q: The massacre happens during a standoff. How do eyewitness accounts diverge? 

People see, and say they see, different things. It’s not surprising for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s 9 o’clock at night in March. There are no streetlights, and it’s dark. 

But part of the reason there’s so many contradictory accounts is because people had such particular reasons for seeing what they saw and for telling the stories that they did. Everyone was shaping their story to talk about blame. 

Q: Who was responsible?

It doesn’t really matter. The importance of this shooting is less about whose fault it was than what people did once the smoke cleared. With all the spin and propaganda and politics, this turns into “the Boston Massacre.” That’s what’s really significant.

Q: Were these protesters revolutionaries?

Nobody’s a revolutionary in 1770. But Boston has the Sons of Liberty, a politically organized and committed group of men who think their relationship with the British Empire needs fixing. They see this as potential fodder for making their argument that Boston needs a different kind of relationship to the British Empire. 

Q: Was the Revolution a kind of divorce?

Yes. We think of it as a political event, but it’s a lot more like a bad divorce in which we forget all the good things that brought people together in the first place.

Q: What can we learn about how the bloodshed could have been avoided?

We don’t have to be defined by the political stories that are told about our relationships – the tales that erase the complicated bonds that people in our communities have with each other. We can step back and embrace the messiness of our relationships. We don’t have to divide the world into us and them.

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