June 9, 2015

Sen. Whitehouse: Gaspee Incident Deserves Proper Recognition

Washington, DC – As Rhode Island prepares for the annual Gaspee Days parade in Warwick this weekend, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse today gave his eighth annual speech on the floor of the Senate remembering the brave Rhode Islanders who stood up to the British and burned the HMS Gaspee in 1772.  Whitehouse argues that the burning of the Gaspee, which took place 16 months before the Boston Tea Party, deserves more recognition for its role in sparking the American Revolution.

“I come to the floor to speak about the burning of the Gaspee every year because, as proud as I am of what those brave Rhode Islanders did in 1772, I’m also disappointed that their story has largely been lost to history outside our little state,” Whitehouse said.  “I hope my speeches will help a new generation to learn about this important event.  In Rhode Island, of course, we will never forget.”

The text of Whitehouse’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, is below.  Video is available here.


Mr./Madam President, every student of American history knows the story of the Boston Tea Party and its role in the Revolution. We all learned the story of Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty dumping chests of tea into Boston Harbor to protest British “taxation without representation.”

Just south of Boston and more than a year earlier, however, a group of Rhode Island patriots also challenged the British Empire on a dark night in June of 1772. I am here to tell their story.

The episode began when amid growing tensions with colonists, King George III moved the HMS Gaspee, an armed British customs vessel, into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

The Gaspee and its captain, Lt. William Dudingston were known for destroying fishing vessels, seizing cargo, and flagging down ships only to harass, humiliate, and interrogate the colonials.  As Nick Bunker, author of the book An Empire on the Edge, wrote, this harassment did not sit well with Rhode Islanders, who had grown accustomed to a level of personal freedom unique in that time.  “Even by American standards [Rhode Island] was an extreme case of popular government,” he wrote in a chapter entitled “‘This Dark Affair’: The Gaspee Incident.”  And “out of all the colonies, Rhode Island was the one where the ocean entered most deeply into the lives of the people.”

In July of 1663—over 100 years before the Gaspee incident—King Charles II had granted a Royal Charter establishing the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England “to hold forth a lively experiment.” It declared, “That a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religions concernments.”

This “lively experiment” in Rhode Island blazed the path for American freedom of religion, a fundamental right of our great nation. In Rhode Island, what was then considered radical ideologies of freedom ran very deep.

A century later, William Dudingston would learn just how deep, as he continued harassing American vessels and confiscating their cargo. “The British armed forces had come to regard almost every local merchant as a smuggler and a cheat,” Bunker wrote. Something was bound to give.

In March of 1772 local seamen and traders led by John Brown signed a petition against the Gaspee and showed it to Rhode Island Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, a political leader in Providence and a relentless advocate for freedom. “For Brown and Hopkins the only law they recognized was theirs, laid down by their assembly and their local courts. They saw no role in Rhode Island for the English laws that gave the navy its authority,” Bunker wrote. Hopkins then provided a legal opinion saying that British officers needed to present their orders and commission to Rhode Island’s Governor before entering local waters. Dudingston refused and threatened to hang “any man who tried to oppose the Gaspee.”

It all came to a head on June 9, 1772.  On this day, Rhode Island Captain Benjamin Lindsey was en route to Providence from Newport, in his ship the Hannah, when he was accosted and ordered to yield for inspection by the Gaspee. Captain Lindsey refused to drop anchor and raced up Narragansett Bay—despite warning shots fired at the Hannah. The Gaspee gave chase, and Captain Lindsey, who knew the waters far better than Dudingston, steered his ship north toward Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick, right over the shallow waters off Namquid Point.  The lighter Hannah shot over the shallows, but the heavier Gaspee ran aground and stuck firm. The British ship and her crew were caught stranded in a falling tide, and would need to wait many hours for a rising tide to free them. According to Bunker, as night fell, the Gaspee crew “turned in, leaving only one seaman on deck.”

Spotting an irresistible opportunity, Captain Lindsey proceeded to Providence and enlisted the help of John Brown, the respected merchant and statesman who had led the petition against the Gaspee in March. Brown was from one of the most prominent families in the city, which ultimately helped found what we know today as Brown University.  Brown and Lindsey rallied a group of Rhode Island patriots at Sabin’s Tavern, in what is now the East Side of Providence. Together, the group resolved to end the Gaspee’s menace in Rhode Island waters.

That night, the raiders, led by the “maritime elite of Providence,” set out with blackened faces in longboats, and paddled down the bay with muffled oars to avoid detection. They made their way towards the vessel and surrounded it. As Daniel Harrington recounted in a recent op-ed in the Providence Journal, “Capt. Abraham Whipple spoke first for the Rhode Islanders, summoning Dudingston: ‘I am sheriff of Kent county, [expletive]. I have a warrant to apprehend you, [expletive]; so surrender, [expletive].’ It was a classic Rhode Island greeting!”

Mr./Madam President I ask unanimous consent that Mr. Harrington’s article be added to the Record?

Dudingston refused Whipple’s demand, and instead ordered his men to fire upon anyone who attempted to board the Gaspee. 

The Rhode Islanders, outnumbering the British three to one swarmed onto the deck, shots rang out in the dark. Dudingston fell wounded in the arm and the thigh. That night in the waters of Warwick, Rhode Island, the very first blood in the conflict that was to become the American Revolution, was drawn by American arms.

As the patriots commandeered the ship, Brown ordered one of his Rhode Islanders, a physician named John Mawney, to tend to Dudingston’s wound. Mawney was an able doctor, and saved the lieutenant.

Brown and Whipple took the captive English crew  ashore, and then returned to the despised Gaspee to rid Narragansett Bay of her presence once and for all.  They set her afire. The blaze spread, making the ship’s charges of gun powder in the cannons, setting off explosions like fireworks. Ultimately, the flames reached the gun powder chest, and the resulting blast echoed across the Bay as airborne fragments of the ship splashed into the water, beneath a moonless sky.

“The British had never seen anything quite like the Gaspee affair,” Bunker wrote. And “like the Boston Tea Party, their attack on the ship amounted to a gesture of absolute denial: a complete rejection of the empire’s right to rule.”

The next day, there was talk of what would happen next. According to the Harrington op-ed, “King George III was furious and offered huge rewards for the capture of the rebels. Inquiries were made and nooses fashioned, but in the end, not one name was produced, as thousands of Rhode Islanders remained true to silence.”

The site of this historic victory is now named Gaspee Point in honor of these audacious Rhode Islanders. According to Bunker, the Rhode Island patriots successfully organized “a military operation three years ahead of its time, that arose not merely from a private quarrel but also a matrix of ideas.”   The ideas of liberty.

Rhode Islanders have made a tradition of celebrating the Gaspee Incident, and this year marks the 50th annual Gaspee Days celebration in Warwick. Over the years, we celebrate by marching in the annual parade as we recall the courage of the men who fired the first shots and drew the first blood in the quest for American independence. I would like to thank the Gaspee Days Committee for continuing to host the annual celebration, and my friend, state Representative Joe McNamara, for his work each year in making this event so special.

I come to the floor to speak about the burning of the Gaspee every year because, as proud as I am of what those brave Rhode Islanders did in 1772, I’m also disappointed that their story has largely been lost to history outside our little state.  I hope my speeches will help a new generation to learn about this important event.  In Rhode Island, of course, we will never forget.  As Mr. Harrington recently wrote in the Journal, “Through the ages, noble Rhode Islanders have named their daughters Hannah in honor of the ship that long ago led a fledgling young country toward independence and helped create the finest nation ever born of man.”

I thank the chair and I yield the floor.


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