|The steamboat Caroline was a hostile vessel engaged in piratical war against her Majesty’s people…it was under such circumstances, which it is to be hoped will never recur, that the vessel was attacked by a party of her Majesty’s people, captured and destroyed.||”|
|Minister H. S. Fox, in a letter to John Forsyth, 1841. Hartford Times, “Mr Fox to Mr. Forsyth”, January 9, 1841
The Caroline affair (also known as the Caroline case) was a series of events beginning in 1837 that strained relations between the United States and Britain.
A group of Canadian rebels, led by William Lyon Mackenzie, seeking a Canadian republic, fled to the United States after leading the failed Upper Canada Rebellion in Upper Canada (now Ontario). They took refuge on Navy Island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, which separates the two countries (between Ontario and New York) and declared themselves the Republic of Canada under Mackenzie’s “general” Rensselaer Van Rensselaer (nephew of General Stephen Van Rensselaer). American sympathizers supplied them with money, provisions, and arms via the steamboat SS Caroline.
On December 29, 1837, Canadian loyalist Colonel Sir Allan MacNab and Captain Andrew Drew of the Royal Navy commanding a party of militia, acting on information and guidance from Alexander McLeod that the vessel belonged to Mackenzie, crossed the international boundary and seized the Caroline, chased off the crew, towed her into the current, set her afire, and cast her adrift over Niagara Falls, after killing one black American named Amos Durfee in the process. His body was later exhibited in front of a recruiting tavern in Buffalo, New York.
US newspapers falsely reported “the death of twenty-two of her crew” when in fact, only Durfee was killed. Public opinion across the United States was outraged against the British. President Martin Van Buren protested strongly to London, but was ignored.
On May 29, 1838, 13 raiders, mostly Canadian and American refugees from the 1837 rebellion, led by American William “Pirate Bill” Johnston, retaliated by capturing, looting, and burning the British steamer Sir Robert Peel while she was in U.S. waters. President Martin Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to prevent further incursions into Canada. However, there were several other attacks, the biggest being the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838.
Later that year, Irish-Canadian rebel Benjamin Lett murdered a loyalist, Captain Edgeworth Ussher, who had been involved in the incident.
The case was finally disposed of by U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster and Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton, in the course of their negotiations leading to the Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Secretary Webster admitted that the employment of force might have been justified by the necessity of self-defense, but denied that such necessity existed, while Lord Ashburton, although he maintained that the circumstances afforded excuse for what was done, apologized for the invasion of United States territory.
Picture Credit::The Destruction of the Caroline by George Tattersall