June 8, 2022

Whitehouse Commemorates 250th Anniversary of the Burning of the Gaspee

Rhode Island’s Gaspee Affair helped spark the American Revolution

Washington, D.C. – As Rhode Islanders make big preparations to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Gaspee Affair and with a new search underway to find the charred remains of the HMS Gaspee, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse today delivered his annual speech on the floor of the Senate recalling the story of the bold Rhode Island colonists who stood up to British rule.  The Gaspee raid unfolded on Narragansett Bay near Warwick, Rhode Island on June 9, 1772 – more than a year before the Boston Tea Party.

“The Gaspee Raid represents Rhode Island’s spirit of independence, which has lived in us since Rhode Island’s founding as a refuge of religious tolerance from the Massachusetts Colony’s harsh theocracy,” Whitehouse said in his remarks.

Michael Tatham, Deputy Head of Mission for the British Embassy, was present in the Senate Gallery to mark the semiquincentennial anniversary.

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


Mr./Mdm. President, this week marks the 250th anniversary of the first blow struck in the American colonies’ struggle for independence from the British Crown.  

Before recounting the tale of those bold Rhode Islanders, I would like to acknowledge a special guest with us in the gallery today:  Michael Tatham, Deputy Head of Mission for the British Embassy here in Washington.  A lot has happened over the last 250 years, and Great Britain is now America’s closest ally and great friend.  It is an honor to have the Deputy Ambassador here today.

It was 1772 and the Royal Navy’s revenue cutter the H.M.S. Gaspee patrolled Narragansett Bay.  In the wake of the Seven Years War, where Great Britain had emerged the victor, the Crown owed by some estimates between 74 and 133 million pounds — a colossal burden on the empire’s finances.  The Gaspee’s mission was to collect taxes from the colonies to help repay British debt.

Part of the Gaspee’s mission was righteous.  Rhode Island’s rum distilleries formed a corner of the so-called triangle trade, with enslaved people from Africa and sugar from the Caribbean forming the other legs of this foul business.  Rum-running to support the slave trade was repugnant, and a worthy target of British authorities.

But Britain’s heavy hand reached farther than that. British customs agents seized colonial vessels and cargo at whim, leaving rightful owners with no recourse to reclaim their property.  One such owner was John Hancock, whose signature would soon become famous. Authorities even pressed colonial sailors into service of the Crown to serve in His Majesty’s ships against their will.

The Gaspee and her captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston, drew particular ire.  One of Dudingston’s first acts was to stop the merchant ship Fortune.  Dudingston and his crew roughed up the Fortune’s commander, Rufus Greene; condemned the ship and her payload; and sent her to Boston for the Admiralty to sell.  This did not please the Fortune’s owner, Rhode Island’s Nathanael Greene, who would go on to become General Washington’s aide de camp and wartime administrator, and then command the southern campaign of the Revolutionary War — which he did so effectively that British General Cornwallis would write, “That damned Greene is more dangerous than Washington.”

Dudingston’s reputation only worsened from there.  British law awarded revenue cutter commanders a share of the cargo they seized.  Dudingston seized enough property to nearly double his salary, while earning along with his bounty a well-deserved reputation for arrogance.  Soon, Rhode Islanders were protesting his conduct formally, but those protests yielded no accommodation.

On June 9th, 1772, simmering anger at Dudingston and the Gaspee boiled over.  Dudingston spotted a small trading ship, the Hannah, bound for Providence.  The Gaspee gave chase and Dudingston hailed the Captain, Benjamin Lindsey, and ordered the Hannah to submit to a search.  Lindsey declined that invitation, and ignored the Gaspee’s warning shots, and sailed on toward Providence. 

The Hannah was smaller and lighter than the Gaspee, and Lindsey more familiar than Dudingston with the waters between Newport and Providence.  Lindsey steered the Hannah across the shallow waters outside Namquid Point.  The Hannah could sail over the shallows, but the heavier Gaspee could not.  Dudingston and his crew ran aground on a sand bar off Pawtuxet Cove, stranded, as the sun was setting, in a falling tide.  The Gaspee would need to wait for the next day’s high tides to lift it free.

When the Hannah arrived in Providence, Captain Lindsey summoned local patriots to Sabin’s Tavern for refreshments and planning.  Under the leadership of John Brown and Abraham Whipple, men boarded a half-dozen longboats to row from Providence down to Pawtuxet.  Through the dark night, with oars muffled, the Rhode Islanders descended upon the Gaspee.  Whipple reputedly called out Dudingston,

I am the sheriff of the county of Kent, God damn you. I have got a warrant to apprehend you, God damn you; so surrender, God damn you.

(As I said, the Rhode Islanders had fortified themselves at Sabin’s Tavern.)  Dudingston refused that invitation.  A brief battle ensued.

At this moment, 250 years ago, Rhode Islanders drew the first blood of what would become our Revolutionary struggle when a musket ball struck Lt. Dudingston.  The patriots boarded the Gaspee.  In the melee, Dudingston cried out, “Lord, have mercy upon me – I am done for!”  

But he was not.  The British sailors soon gave up the fight.  The Rhode Islanders took the crew prisoner, and ferried the captives to shore, where Dudingston received the care of a doctor, and ultimately recovered from his wounds.  Dudingston would heal and go on to live a long life.  He commanded other vessels.  He moved back to his native Scotland, married, and raised four children in a coastal town called Elie overlooking the Firth of Fife and the North Sea.  But he never patrolled Narragansett Bay again.

A side story:  A few years ago, a couple from Scotland, Angela and Roddy Innes, visited Pawtuxet during Gaspee Days, our annual celebration of the Gaspee Raid.  The Inneses are connected through marriage to the Dudingstons, and Angela wanted to see what the Dudingston/Gaspee saga was all about. 

In Pawtuxet, Rhode Islanders welcomed Angela and Roddy with open arms.  Local historian Dr. John Concannon invited them to stay.  “It was an amazing experience,” Angela said, “the people out there are incredibly friendly.”  The trip also helped them grasp the significance of the Gaspee Raid on America’s road to revolution.  This year, Angela will mark the 250th Gaspee anniversary with a Gaspee Day party of her own in Scotland.

That left the dreaded Gaspee.  With the prisoners ashore, the Gaspee raiders returned to the stranded ship and set her afire.  When the fire reached her powder magazine, she blew apart, and her remains were lost, to time and tides.  Rhode Island was rid of the Gaspee.

New efforts are underway to find the charred remains of the Gaspee using advanced sonar.  Dr. Kathy Abbass of the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project is on the case.  Dr. Abbass is accomplished in her field.  She may have located Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, sunk in Newport Harbor.  If anyone can find the Gaspee, it’s her.

I offer special thanks to Peter Abbott, the British Consul General in Boston, who along with representatives of the Royal Navy came to Rhode Island last month for the announcement that funds had been raised to find the Gaspee.  Abbott said: “Being a British consul in New England means you must have broad shoulders.  I get invited to events that celebrate the Boston Massacre and Evacuation Day.  But what takes the biscuit is commemorating the burning of a British ship!”  The Deputy Ambassador should know that if we do find the Gaspee, Rhode Island – a colony no more – intends to courteously seize the vessel for further research. 

Mr./Mdm. President, the Gaspee Raid represents Rhode Island’s spirit of independence, which has lived in us since Rhode Island’s founding as a refuge of religious tolerance from the Massachusetts Colony’s harsh theocracy.  Our celebration of the Gaspee Affair represents Rhode Islanders’ pride in that spirit, which we share willingly – even with a Dudingston. 

Oh, by the way, this all took place more than a year before Massachusetts colonists pushed tea bales off a British ship into Boston Harbor.  They pushed tea bales off; we blew up the ship.  I’m just sayin’.

Here’s to another 250 years of celebrating the Gaspee Raiders.

I yield the floor.

Meaghan McCabe, (401) 453-5294

Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921