Sheldon Commemorates Gaspee Days on Senate Floor

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, the Boston Tea Party is one of the celebrated events in American history. From a young age, Americans learn the story of the men who crept onto British ships moored in Boston harbor on December 16, 1773, to toss overboard shipments of tea that the English sought to tax. These Massachusetts patriots yearned for liberty, opposed ``taxation without representation,'' and stepped into history books with this simple act of defiance.

But conspicuously absent from too many of those same history books is a group of Rhode Island men who took on the British Crown in a bold, insubordinate gesture matching the temper of their bold and insubordinate colony more than a year earlier than the Boston Tea Party. This evening, I would like to share the story of the H.M.S. Gaspee, a daring group of Rhode Islanders, and the real beginning of the fight for American independence.

In the early 1770s, as tensions between England and her American colonies grew increasingly strained, King George III stationed the H.M.S. Gaspee, under the command of Lieutenant William Dudingston, in the waters of Rhode Island. Its mission was to search incoming ships for smuggled goods and contraband and to enforce the payment of taxes.

On June 9, 1772, 237 years ago tonight, the sailing vessel Hannah was traveling from Newport to Providence, when it was intercepted by the Gaspee and ordered to stop to allow a search. On board the Hannah, CAPT Benjamin Lindsey refused and continued on his course, despite warning shots fired by the Gaspee. Under full sail and into a falling tide, the Hannah pressed north up Narragansett Bay with the Gaspee in hot pursuit. Overmatched in size, Captain Lindsey found advantage in guile and in his greater knowledge of Rhode Island waters. He led the Gaspee to the shallow water of Pawtuxet Cove. There, the lighter Hannah sped over the shallows, but the heavier Gaspee ran aground in the shallow waters off Namquid Point. The Gaspee was stuck, until the higher tides of the following day would lift her from the mud.

Captain Lindsey proceeded on his course to Providence, where he met with a group of Rhode Islanders, including John Brown, a community leader whose family helped found Brown University. The two men arranged for a meeting of local patriots at Sabin's Tavern, on what is now Providence's east side, later that evening. At the meeting, the assembled Rhode Islanders decided to act. The HMS Gaspee was a symbol of their oppression and she was helplessly stranded in Pawtuxet Cove. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

That night, there was no moonlight on the waters of Pawtuxet Cove. The Gaspee lay silent on the sandbar. Down the bay from Providence came 60 men in longboats, led by John Brown and Abraham Whipple, armed and headed through those dark waters for the Gaspee.

When the men reached the Gaspee and surrounded it, Brown called out and demanded that Lieutenant Dudingston surrender his vessel. Dudingston refused and instead ordered his men to fire upon anyone who attempted to board the Gaspee.

That was all these Rhode Islanders needed to hear, and they rushed the Gaspee and forced their way aboard her. In the violent melee, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot in the arm by a musket ball. Rhode Islanders had drawn the first blood of the conflict that would lead to American independence, right there in Pawtuxet Cove, 16 months before the ``Tea Party'' in Boston.

Brown and Whipple's men seized control of the Gaspee from its British crew and transported the captive Englishman safely to shore. They then returned to the abandoned Gaspee to set her afire and watched as the powder magazine exploded, blowing the ship apart and leaving her remains to burn to the water line. That historic location is now called Gaspee Point.

Since that night in June, 237 years ago tonight when the Gaspee burned, Rhode Islanders have marked the event with celebration. This year, as I do every year, I will march in the annual Gaspee Days Parade in Warwick, RI. Every year, I think about what it must have been like to be among those 60 men: muffled oars on dark waters; comrades pulling with voices hushed; a shouted demand, the indignant response, and then a pell-mell rush to clamber aboard; the oaths and shouts of struggle, gun shots and powder smoke, the clash of sword and cutlass; and when it was over, the bright fire of the ship in the night, the explosion turning night to day and reverberating across the bay and the hiss and splash as the pieces fell and the water claimed the flames.

I hope that one day the tale of the brave Rhode Islanders who stormed the HMS Gaspee will be remembered among the other stories of the Revolution and that they will be given their due place in our Nation's history beside the tea partiers of Boston.

I hope, frankly, on an annual basis, to come back to this floor and relate that story over and over and over again. It is a proud part of Rhode Island's heritage.