The Gaspée Affair was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. HMS Gaspée, a British customs schooner that had been enforcing unpopular trade regulations, ran aground in shallow water on June 9, 1772, near what is now known as Gaspee Point in the city of Warwick, Rhode Island, while chasing the packet boat Hannah. A group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, looted, and torched the ship.
The customs service in Britain’s North American colonies in the eighteenth century had a violent history. The Treasury in London did little to correct known problems and Britain itself was at war during much of this period and was not in a strategic position to risk antagonizing its overseas colonies. At the end of the Seven Years' War, following Britain’s decisive victory, several successive ministries implemented reforms in an attempt to achieve more effective administrative control and raise more revenue in the colonies. The revenue was necessary, Parliament believed, to bolster military and naval defensive positions along the borders of their far-flung empire, and to pay the crushing debt incurred in winning the war on behalf of those colonies. Among these reforms was the deputizing of the Royal Navy's Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports. In 1764 Rhode Islanders attacked HMS St. John and in 1769 they burned a customs ship, HMS Liberty, on Goat Island in Newport harbor.
In early 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HMS Gaspée into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay to aid in the enforcement of customs collection and inspection of cargo. Rhode Island had a reputation for smuggling and trading with the enemy during wartime. Dudingston and his officers quickly antagonized powerful merchant interests in the small colony. On June 9, the Gaspée gave chase to the packet boat Hannah, and ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay. Her crew was unable to free her immediately, but the rising tide might have allowed the ship to free herself. A band of Providence members of the Sons of Liberty rowed out to confront the ship's crew before this could happen.
At the break of dawn on June 10, they boarded the ship. The crew put up a feeble resistance, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded, and the vessel burned to the waterline. The man who fired the shot was Joseph Bucklin:
JOSEPH BUCKLIN, was well known in Providence and kept a prominent restaurant, or place of resort, in South Main Street, where gentlemen resorted for their suppers. Here, too, they assembled, to discuss politics, and where, possibly, the expedition which destroyed the Gaspee, was discussed, as well as at Mr. Sabin's house, which was near it.
Previous attacks by the colonials on British naval vessels had gone unpunished. In one case, a customs yacht was actually destroyed (also by fire) with no administrative response. But in 1772, the Admiralty would not ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station.
The American Department consulted the Solicitor and Attorneys General, who investigated and advised the Privy Council on the legal and constitutional options available. The Crown turned to a centuries-old institution of investigation, the Royal Commission of Inquiry. This commission would be made up of the chiefs of the supreme courts of Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, the judge of the vice-admiralty of Boston, and the governor of Rhode Island, Joseph Wanton. The Dockyard Act, passed three months earlier in April, allowed those suspected of burning His Majesty's vessels to be tried in England. But this was not the law that would be used against the Gaspée raiders; they would be charged with treason. The task of the commission was to determine against which colonists there was sufficient evidence for their trial in England. The Commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence and declared their inability to deal with the case.
Colonial Whigs were alarmed at the prospect of Americans being sent to England for trial. A committee of correspondence was formed in Boston to consult on the crisis. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses was so alarmed that they also formed an inter-colonial committee of correspondence to consult in the crisis with other committees.
In Boston, a little-known visiting minister, John Allen, preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church that utilized the Gaspée affair to warn listeners about greedy monarchs, corrupt judges and conspiracies at high levels in the London government. This sermon was printed seven different times in four colonial cities, becoming one of the most popular pamphlets of Colonial British America. This pamphlet, along with the incendiary rhetoric of numerous colonial newspaper editors, awoke colonial Whigs from a lull of inactivity in 1772, thus inaugurating a series of conflicts that would culminate in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
The city of Warwick, Rhode Island commemorates the Gaspée Affair with Gaspée Days. This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the Gaspée Days parade. The parade features burning the Gaspée in effigy, a Revolutionary War battle reenactment, Revolutionary War-era fife-and-drum bands, a marching band dressed as period sailors, local marching bands, and others.
- Historiography of the Gaspée Affair
- HMS Diana
- Gaspee Days Committee
- HMS Liberty
- HMS St John
- Caroline affair
- Bartlett: Destruction of the Gaspee – "His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee." Accessed June 9, 2009.
- This version of the story is told by Ephraim Bowen and John Mawney in Staples, William R., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, (Providence, RI: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), p. 14–16. These men made these statements in 1826 relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.
-  The only other testimony, from a colonial, is Aaron Biggs (sometimes Briggs). He told a slightly different version of the story. Governor Wanton took pains to discredit his telling of the events. Bartlett, John Russell. A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee, In Narragansett Bay, On the 10th of June 1772 (Providence, RI.: A. Crawford Greene, 1861), p. 84-87. We also have the testimony of several mariners from the crew and officers of the Gaspée. They report a much larger number of attackers and many more boats.
- See Barrow, Thomas C. Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America, 1660–1775 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967) especially page 177. See also Gipson, Lawrence Henry, The British Empire Before the American Revolution, Vol. XII The Triumphant Empire: Britain Sails into the Storm, 1770–1776. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965) especially page 26 footnote 79.
- Warships of the world to 1900, Volume 799, Ships of the World Series:Warships of the World to 1900, Lincoln P. Paine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000) pg. 95 
- This version of the story is told by Ephraim Bowen and John Mawney in Staples, William R., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, (Providence, R.I.: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), p. 14–16. These men made these statements in 1826 relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.
- A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee by John Russell Bartlett, p. 20, note 6.
- Edward Thurlow and Alexander Wedderburn (the Attorney and Solicitor Generals) wrote to the Earl of Hillsborough on August 10, 1772 dismissing the Dockyard Act and allowing for high treason (levying war against the King) instead. National Archives (Public Record Office, United Kingdom) CO (Colonial Office Records) 5 159 folder 26.
- G. Jack Gravelee and James R. Irvine, eds. Pamphlets and the American Revolution: Rhetoric, Politics, Literature, and the Popular Press (Delmare, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976), viii.
- For more information about the Gaspee Days and the celebration in Pawtuxet Village, RI, as well as a missile shot on British territory, please see the Gaspee Days website.
- gaspee.info, a national history center for the Gaspee Attack of 1772
- The Gaspee Virtual Archives
- A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee by John Russell Bartlett, at The Gaspee Virtual Archives
- Doing Research on the Gaspee Affair: Primary and Secondary Bibliographic Sources
- "Gaspee, The". Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.