The ''Gaspee'' Affair was a significant event in the lead-up to the
American Revolution The American Revolution was an ideological and political revolution which occurred in colonial North America between 1765 and 1783. The Americans in the Thirteen Colonies The Thirteen Colonies, also known as the Thirteen British Colo ...
. HMS ''Gaspee'' was a British customs
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that enforced the
Navigation Acts The Navigation Acts, or more broadly the Acts of Trade and Navigation, was a long series of English laws that developed, promoted, and regulated English ships, shipping, trade, and commerce between other countries and with its own colonies. The l ...
in and around
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in 1772. It ran aground in shallow water while chasing the Packet boat, packet ship ''Hannah'' on June 9 near Gaspee Point in Warwick, Rhode Island, Warwick, Rhode Island. A group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown (Rhode Island politician), John Brown attacked, boarded, and torched the ship. The event increased tensions between the American colonists and British officials, following the Boston Massacre in 1770. British officials in Rhode Island wanted to increase their control over trade—legitimate trade as well as smuggling—in order to increase their revenue from the small colony. But Rhode Islanders increasingly protested the Stamp Act 1765, Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and other British impositions that had clashed with the colony's history of rum manufacturing, maritime trade, and Atlantic slave trade, slave trading. This event and others in Narragansett Bay marked the first acts of violent uprising against the British crown's authority in America, preceding the Boston Tea Party by more than a year and moving the Thirteen Colonies as a whole toward the war for independence.


The customs service had a history of strong resistance in the Thirteen Colonies in the eighteenth century. Britain was at war during much of this period and was not in a strategic position to risk antagonizing its overseas colonies. Several successive ministries implemented new policies following Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War in an attempt to increase control within the colonies and to recoup the cost of the war from them. To that end, the Admiralty purchased six Marblehead sloops and schooners and gave them Anglicized French names based on their recent acquisitions in Canada, removing the French accents from ''St John'', ''St Lawrence'', ''Chaleur'', ''Hope'', ''Magdalen,'' and ''Gaspee''. Parliament argued that the revenue was necessary in order to bolster military and naval defensive positions along the borders of their distant colonies—but also to pay the debt which England had incurred in pursuing the war against France. These changes included deputizing the Royal Navy's sea officers to enforce customs laws in American ports. The enforcements became increasingly intrusive and aggressive in Narragansett Bay; Rhode Islanders finally responded by attacking in 1764, and they burned the customs ship in 1768 on Goat Island (Rhode Island), Goat Island in Newport harbor. In early 1772, Lieutenant William Duddingston, William Dudingston sailed HMS ''Gaspee'' into Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay to force customs collection and mandatory inspection of cargo. He arrived in Rhode Island in February and met with Governor Joseph Wanton. Soon after he began patrolling Narragansett Bay, ''Gaspee'' stopped and inspected the sloop ''Fortune'' on February 17 and seized 12 hogsheads of undeclared rum. Dudingston sent ''Fortune'' and the seized rum to Boston, believing that any seized items left in a Rhode Island port would be reclaimed by the colonists. This overbold move of sending ''Fortune'' to Boston brought outrage within the Rhode Island colony, because Dudingston had taken upon himself the authority to determine where trial should take place concerning this seizure, completely superseding the authority of Governor Wanton by doing so. Furthermore, it was a direct violation of the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663 to hold a trial outside of Rhode Island on an arrest that took place within the Colony. After this, Dudingston and his crew became increasingly aggressive in their searches, boardings, and seizures, even going so far as to stop merchants who were on shore and force searches of their wares. Public resentment and outrage continued to escalate against ''Gaspee'' in particular and against the British in general. When a local sheriff threatened Dudingston with arrest, his commanding officer, John Montagu (Royal Navy officer), Admiral Montagu, responded with a letter threatening to hang as pirates anyone who made effort to rescue ships taken by Dudingston during his operations. On March 21, Rhode Island Deputy Governor Darius Sessions wrote to Governor Wanton regarding Lieutenant Dudingston, and he requested that the basis of Dudingston's authority be examined. In the letter, Sessions includes the opinion of Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins (politician), 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." 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." Dudingston returned a rude reply to the Governor, refusing to leave his ship or to acknowledge Wanton's elected authority within Rhode Island.

The incident

On June 9, ''Gaspee'' gave chase to the Packet boat, packet ship ''Hannah'', but ''Gaspee'' ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay on what is now Gaspee Point. Her crew were unable to free her and Dudingston decided to wait for high tide, which would possibly set the vessel afloat. Before that could happen, however, a band of Providence men led by John Brown (Rhode Island politician), John Brown decided to act on the "opportunity offered of putting an end to the trouble and vexation she daily caused." They rowed out to the ship and boarded her at the break of dawn on June 10. The crew put up a feeble resistance in which they were attacked with Handspike, handspikes and Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded in the groin. The boarding party casually read through the ships papers, before forcing the crew off the ship and lighting it aflame. A few days after being forced off of the ship, Dudingston was arrested by a sheriff for an earlier seizure of colonial cargo. His commanding officer, Admiral Montagu, freed him by paying his fine and promptly sending him back to England to face a court-martial on the incident. Joseph Bucklin was the man who shot Lt. Dudingston; other men who participated included Brown's brother Joseph of Providence, Simeon Potter of Bristol, and Robert Wickes of Warwick. Most of the men involved were also members of the Sons of Liberty. Previous attacks by the colonists on British naval vessels had gone unpunished. In one case, a customs yacht was actually destroyed 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, Royal Commission of Inquiry, 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 Governor Joseph Wanton of Rhode Island. The Dockyard Act passed in April demanded that anyone suspected of burning British ships should be extradited and tried in England; however, the ''Gaspee'' raiders were charged with treason. The task of the commission was to determine which colonists had sufficient evidence against them to warrant shipping them to England for trial. The Commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence and declared their inability to deal with the case. Nonetheless, colonial Patriot (American Revolution), Whigs were alarmed at the prospect of Americans being sent to England for trial, and a Committees of correspondence, 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 with similar committees throughout the Thirteen Colonies. The Rev. John Allen (minister), John Allen preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church in Boston which utilized the ''Gaspee'' affair to warn listeners about greedy monarchs, corrupt judges, and conspiracies in the London government. This sermon was printed seven different times in four colonial cities, becoming one of the most popular pamphlets of Colonial America. This pamphlet and editorials by numerous colonial newspaper editors awoke colonial Whigs from a lull of inactivity in 1772, thus inaugurating a series of conflicts that culminated in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Aftermath and legacy

The British called for the apprehension and trial of the people responsible for shooting Dudingston and destroying the ''Gaspee''. Rhode Island Governor Wanton and Deputy Governor Sessions echoed those British sentiments, though they lacked enthusiasm for punishing their fellow Rhode Islanders. A British midshipman from ''Gaspee'' described the attackers as "merchants and masters of vessels, who were at my bureau reading and examining my papers." Admiral Montagu wrote to Governor Wanton on July 8, nearly a month after the burning of the schooner, and utilized the account of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant claiming to have participated in the June 9 burning. Montagu identified five Rhode Islanders, in varying levels of detail, whom he wanted Governor Wanton to investigate and bring to justice: John Brown (Rhode Island politician), John Brown, Joseph Brown (astronomer), Joseph Brown, Simeon Potter, Dr. Weeks, and Richmond. Governor Wanton responded to this demand by examining the claims made by Aaron Briggs. Samuel Tompkins and Samuel Thurston, the proprietors of the Prudence Island farm where Briggs worked, gave testimony challenging his account of June 9. 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, and both stated that Briggs had been present throughout the night in question. Thus, Wanton believed that Briggs was no more than an imposter. Dudingston and Montagu challenged Wanton's assertions, Montagu saying that "it is clear to me from many corroborating circumstances, that he is no imposter." Pawtuxet Village commemorates the ''Gaspee'' affair each year with Gaspee Days. This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the Gaspee Days parade, which features burning the ''Gaspee'' in effigy and a Revolutionary War battle reenactment, among other entertainments. Gaspee Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is also a plaque in the front of a parking lot on South Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island, identifying the location of the Sabin Tavern, where the burning of the ''Gaspee'' was plotted.

See also

* Historiography of the Gaspee affair, Historiography of the ''Gaspee'' Affair * HMS Diana (1775), HMS ''Diana'' * Caroline affair, ''Caroline'' affair


Further reading


External links

The ''Gaspee'' Virtual Archives

by John Russell Bartlett, at The ''Gaspee'' Virtual Archives

* * [http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/03gaspee/welcome.html The Quest for the ''Gaspee'' 2003 – NOAA]
website of the Joseph Bucklin Society.
Podcast description of the Gaspee AffairGaspee Commission Documents
from the Rhode Island State Archives
Gaspee Commission records finding aid
from the Rhode Island State Archives {{DEFAULTSORT:Gaspee Affair 1772 in Rhode Island 1772 in the Thirteen Colonies Maritime incidents in 1772 Naval battles involving the United Kingdom Naval battles involving the United States Rhode Island in the American Revolution Schooners of the Royal Navy Ship fires Warwick, Rhode Island