||This article provides insufficient context for those unfamiliar with the subject. Learn how and when to remove this template message) (March 2016) (|
|Part of the events in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War|
Burning of HMS Gaspee
|Sons of Liberty||Kingdom of Great Britain|
|Commanders and leaders|
|William Dudingston +|
|Casualties and losses|
|None||HMS Gaspee captured and burned|
The Gaspee Affair was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. HMS Gaspee, a British customs schooner that had been engaged in anti-smuggling operations, 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 event renewed hostilities between the American colonists and British officials. Following the Boston Massacre in 1770, British officials had worked to reduce tensions with the colonies by repealing some aspects of the Townshend Acts and working to end the American boycott of British goods. In Rhode Island, British officials wanted to eliminate some of the illicit trade that had defined the small colony and consequently increase revenue from the colony.
British officials wanted to reduce hostilities between the Crown and the colonies while the Rhode Island merchants did not. Colonists protested the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and other British impositions that had clashed with the colony’s history of rum smuggling and slave trading.
In the aftermath of the burning of the Gaspee, British officers clashed with Rhode Island officials over the events that had taken place. Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton challenged the narrative of the events as explained by Lieutenant William Dudingston, the commander of the Gaspee, and of Admiral John Montagu, the head of British forces in North America. Wanton also challenged the claims of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant claiming to have participated in the burning. The Gaspee Affair and aftermath further deepened the divide between British and colonial officials in North America.
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 Admiralty purchased six Marblehead sloops and schooners and Anglicized French names for these vessels from their recent acquisitions in Canada. The St. John, St. Lawrence, Chaleur, Hope, Magdalen, and Gaspee had their French accents removed and subsequent nineteenth and twentieth-century authors used the English spellings. 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 Gaspee 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. When Dudingston arrived to Rhode Island in February, he met with Governor Joseph Wanton. Dudingston did not find the Governor to be overly helpful. Soon after he began patrolling Narragansett Bay, on February 17 the Gaspee stopped and inspected the sloop Fortune, and seized twelve hogsheads of undeclared rum. Believing any seized items left in a Rhode Island port would be reclaimed by colonists, Dudingston sent the Fortune and seized rum to Boston.
Dudingston’s decision to move the Fortune to Boston brought outrage within the Rhode Island colony. The colonists most affected by Dudingston, the merchants, sought to bring an end to the Gaspee’s control over Narragansett Bay. On March 21, Rhode Island Deputy Governor Darius Sessions wrote to Governor Wanton addressing the Lieutenant Dudingston, and requested that the basis of Dudingston’s authority be examined. In the letter, Sessions includes the opinion of Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, who argues that “no commander of any vessel has any right to use any authority in the Body of the Colony without previously applying to the Governor and showing his warrant for so doing…” Despite their encounter when Dudingston arrived in Rhode Island, Wanton wrote to Dudingston the next day demanding that he “produce me your commission and instructions, if any you have, which was your duty to have done when you first came within the jurisdiction of this Colony.”
Despite the problems facing Dudingston in the Rhode Island colony, he maintained the Gaspee’s operations without returning to shore. Dudingston continued making inspections without making formal seizures, infuriating Rhode Island’s merchants further. Additionally, Dudingston reached out to Admiral Montagu seeking clarification of the position taken by Governor Wanton. During the exchange between officials, Dudingston’s newly made enemies in the colony pursued methods to ending Dudingston’s inspections.
On June 9, the Gaspee gave chase to the packet boat Hannah, and ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay, on what is now Gaspee Point. 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. The group, led by John Brown, decided to act on the "opportunity offered of putting an end to the trouble and vexation she daily caused."
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 colonists 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 Gaspee 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, a Rhode Islander, preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church that utilized the Gaspee 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.
New scholarship by Gerald Horne, has argued that the taxation efforts by the British also were directly linked to contemporary efforts to abolish slavery in the wider British Empire. In his book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Horne shows that the British abolitionist efforts included taxation on ships that trafficked in rum, molasses, and textiles, items that John Brown trafficked in regularly.
In that context, June 1772 proved to be a watershed, clarifying—in the eyes of many settlers—that London was moving toward abolition, which could jeopardize fortunes, if not lives, as Africans seeking retribution were unleashed. This was the import of…[the] Gaspee Affair, which took place days before this important ruling was made in London. There had long been an illicit trade carried on in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Taking note of the trade carried on by some settlers during the war with the French and as part of the postwar dispensation, London placed armed vessels there in 1764, which was not accepted with equanimity by settlers, particularly when the Crown’s military began stopping vessels and seizing some as complaints increased. As London saw things, this was all about piracy and illicit dealings—the settlers saw an attack upon commerce. A climax was reached on 10 June 1772 in the wee hours of the morning, when a brig arriving from Africa, the Gaspee, entered Newport and was boarded by officers of the Crown. In response, a mob of about five hundred male settlers rioted, burning the British ship. Yet what seemed to inflame the settlers was not only that the miscreants were to be tried in London but that the chief witness against them was a Negro, raising unsettling questions about the presumed equality of this mudsill group. The rioters had conscripted Aaron Briggs for their escapade, oblivious to the growing idea that he might have more in common with the Crown than with the settlers. He was to serve as a witness against one of the colony’s elite and a prominent pro-slavery advocate—John Brown— whose surname was bestowed upon a university in Providence. “I saw John Brown fire a musket,” said Briggs, and “the captain of the schooner immediately fell from the place he was standing.” The proclamation of King George III said that members of the crew of the vessel were “dangerously wounded and barbarously treated.” The Earl of Hillsborough apparently did not grasp the graveness of what his comrade on the scene told him about the Browns, the “principal people of that place,” the “ringleaders in this piratical proceeding”—that is, should they “arrest the parties charged by the Negro Aaron?” Briggs, described variously as a “mulatto lad of about sixteen years of age”—he may have been eighteen—was at the heart of a dispute that deepened the schism between the Crown and the mainland.
Aftermath and Legacy
The aftermath of the Gaspee burning brought British calls to investigate and apprehend the individuals responsible for shooting Dudingston and destroying the schooner. Governor Wanton and Deputy Governor Sessions echoed British sentiments despite not having the same enthusiasm for punishing their fellow Rhode Islanders. Accounts by British midshipmen from the Gaspee described the perpetrators as “merchants and masters of vessels, who were at my bureau reading and examining my papers.” On July 8, nearly a month after the burning of the schooner, Admiral Montagu wrote to Governor Wanton and utilized the account of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant claiming to have participated in the June 9 burning. Montagu identified to varying levels of detail five Rhode Islanders he wanted Governor Wanton to investigate and bring to justice: John Brown, Joseph Brown, Simeon Potter, Dr. Weeks, and Richmond.
In response to Admiral Montagu’s call to investigate Brown and others further about their involvement in the Gaspee burning, Governor Wanton examined the claims made by Aaron Briggs. Samuel Tompkins and Samuel Thurston, the proprietors of the Prudence Island farm where Briggs worked, gave testimony to Governor Wanton challenging Briggs’s account of June 9. In each testimony, both men stated that Briggs had been present at work the evening of June 9 and early in the morning on June 10. Additionally, Wanton received further evidence from two other indentured servants working with Briggs, who both stated Briggs had been present throughout the night in question. Dudingston and Montagu challenged Wanton’s assertions, with Dudingston writing about his expectations of such a move and Montagu responded to Wanton’s decision not to pursue Briggs’s claims, “…it is clear to me from many corroborating circumstances, that he [Briggs] is no imposter.”
The city of Warwick, Rhode Island commemorates the Gaspee Affair with Gaspee Days. This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the Gaspee Days parade. The parade features burning the Gaspee 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.
Gaspee Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In November 2016, Steven Park, a professor at the University of Connecticut-Avery Point, will be releasing a book titled The Gaspee Affair.
- Historiography of the Gaspee 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 Gaspee. They report a much larger number of attackers and many more boats.
- Ferling, John (2015). Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It. Bloomsbury Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-1620401729.
- Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Providence: Knowles, Vose,, and Anthony. p. 3.
- See Barlett https://books.google.com/books?id=Xr80AQAAMAAJ&dq=Gaspee%20Affair&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=Gaspee%20Affair&f=false
- 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 
- Lovejoy, David S. (1958). Rhode Island Politics and the American Revolution, 1760-1776. Providence: Brown University Press. pp. 157. In the first meeting between Governor Wanton and Lieutenant Dudingston, the two discussed the 1769 burning of the Liberty. In the burning, Rhode Islanders destroyed and set fire to the British vessel in Newport, allowing the ships seized by the Liberty to escape. Wanton implied that Dudingston might find the same troubles years later, which prompted Dudingston to send the Fortune to Boston.
- Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Knowles, Vose, and Anthony. p. 7.
- Ibid. p. 6.
- Ibid. p. 3.
- Ibid. p. 4.
- Ibid. p. 8.
- 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.
- Ibid. p. 8.
- 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 General) 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.
- Horne, Gerald. The Counter-revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. New York: New York UP, 2014. Print.
- Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Knowles, Vose, and Anthony. p. 16.
- Ibid. p. 14.
- Ibid. p. 17.
- Ibid. pp. 17–20.
- http://www.gaspee.com/arts/. Retrieved 8 May 2016. Missing or empty
- 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.
- Film webpage, http://sites.google.com/site/aaronbriggsgaspee/home
- Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Gaspee-Affair-Steven-Park/dp/1594162670/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461265629&sr=8-1&keywords=park+gaspee. Retrieved 8 May 2016. Missing or empty
- 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.
- The Quest for the Gaspee 2003 - NOAA