June 9, 2011

Whitehouse Commemorates Gaspee Days in Senate Speech

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

The text of Whitehouse’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, is below.  Video is available at www.youtube.com/SenatorWhitehouse.


Speech Text:

Standing in this chamber often gives me cause to reflect with gratitude on those who went before us, many of whom risked their lives to create this great Republic.  Today, I would like to talk about a group of men who 239 years ago engaged in a daring act of defiance against the British Crown.

For many, the Boston Tea Party is one of the first events on the road to our Revolution.  Growing up, we were taught the story of painted-up Bostonians dumping shipments of tea into Boston Harbor, to defend the principle: “no taxation without representation.” 

Conspicuously missing from history books is the story of the brave Rhode Islanders who challenged the British Crown far more aggressively more than a year before Bostonians dumped those teabags into Boston harbor. Today, I would like to take us back to an earlier milestone in America’s fight for independence, to share with you the story of a British vessel, the HMS Gaspee, and to introduce you to some little-known heroes now lost in the footnotes of history.

In 1772, amidst growing tensions with American colonies, King George III stationed his revenue cutter, the HMS Gaspee, in Rhode Island.  The Gaspee’s task was to prevent smuggling and enforce the payment of taxes.  But to Rhode Islanders, the vessel was a symbol of oppression.

The offensive  presence of the Gaspee was matched by the offensive manner of its captain, Lt. William Dudingston.  Lt. Dudingston was known for destroying fishing vessels and confiscating their contents, and flagging down ships only to harass, humiliate, and interrogate sailors.  But on June 9, 1772, an audacious Rhode Islander, Captain Benjamin Lindsey, took a stand.

Aboard his ship, the Hannah, Captain Lindsey set sail from Newport to Providence.  On his way, he was hailed by the Gaspee to stop for a search. The defiant Captain ignored the command and continued on his course.  Recently, Dr. Kathy Abbas, director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, has suggested a motivating factor for Dudingston to have sought to seize the Hannah: she may have been carrying 250 pounds sterling onboard.  As Dr. Abbas told the Providence Journal, that was “an enormous sum” in those days.

In any event, Captain Lindsey and his Hannah sought to evade the Gaspee.  Gunshots were fired, and the Hannah sped north up Narragansett Bay with the Gaspee chasing behind in pursuit.

Outsized and outgunned, Captain Lindsey drew courage and confidence from his keen familiarity with Rhode Island waters. He led the Gaspee into the shallow waters off Namquid Point, where the smaller Hannah cruised over the sand banks. The heavier Gaspee ran aground, and stuck.  The Gaspee was stranded in a falling tide, and it would be many hours before high tide would lift her free.

Arriving triumphantly in Providence, Captain Lindsey visited John Brown, whose family helped found Brown University.  The two men rallied a group of patriots at Sabin’s Tavern, in what is now the East Side of Providence.  The Gaspee was despised by Rhode Islanders, who had been too often bullied in their own waters by this ship, and the stranding of this once-powerful vessel presented an irresistible chance.

On that dark night, 60 men in longboats led by Captain Lindsey and Abraham Whipple moved quietly down Narragansett Bay.  They encircled the Gaspee, and demanded that Lt. Dudingston  surrender the ship.  Dudingston refused, and instead ordered his men to fire upon anyone who tried to board.

The determined Rhode Islanders took this as a cue to force their way onto the Gaspee, and they boarded her in a raging uproar of shouted oaths, gunshots, powder smoke, and clashing swords.  Amidst this violent struggle Lt. Dudingston was shot by a musket ball.  Right there in the waters of Warwick, Rhode Island, the very first blood of what was to become the American Revolution was drawn.  Victory was soon in the hands of the Rhode Islanders.

Brown and Whipple took the captive Englishmen back to shore.  You can go today down behind O’Rourke’s Tavern in Pawtuxet Village, down Peck Lane toward the water, and see the bronze plaque commemorating the spot where the captured crew was brought ashore.

The Rhode Island patriots then returned to set the abandoned ship on fire, and rid Narragansett Bay of this nuisance for once and for all.  As the Gaspee burned, the fire reached her powder magazine and she exploded like fireworks.  The boom echoed across the Bay, as the remains of the ship splashed down into the water.  The Gaspee was gone: captured, burned, and blown to bits.  The site of this historic victory is now named Gaspee Point.

The wounding of Lt. Dudingston and the capture and destruction of the Gaspee occurred 16 months before the so-called Boston Tea Party.  Perhaps this bold undertaking will one day show up in our history books, alongside pictures of the blazing Gaspee lighting up Narragansett Bay. Perhaps American children will memorize the dates of June 9 and 10, 1772, and the names of Benjamin Lindsey, Abraham Whipple, and John Brown.

I do know that these events will never be forgotten in my home state.  Over the years, I’ve often marched in the annual Gaspee Days Parade in Warwick, Rhode Island, as every year we recall the courage and zeal of these men who risked it all for the freedoms we enjoy today, and drew the first blood in what became the Revolutionary Conflict.  I thank the chair and I yield the floor.


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