June 12, 2012

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 gave his yearly 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 made the case that the Gaspee Affair, which took place 16months 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 here.
Mr./Madame President, we are wise in this chamber to reflect, with reverence and gratitude, on those who risked their lives fighting to establish this great Republic.  Today, I would like to recognize and celebrate the 240th anniversary of one the earliest acts of defiance against the British Crown in our American struggle for independence.
Most Americans remember the Boston Tea Party as one of the major events building up to the American Revolution. We learned the story of spirited (literally!) Bostonians clambering onto the decks of the East India Company’s ships and dumping those teabags into Boston Harbor to protest British “taxation without representation.”
However, there is a milestone in the path to the Revolutionary War too often overlooked: the story of 60 brave Rhode Islanders who challenged British rule more than a year before the Tea Party in Boston.  Today, I rise to honor those little-known heroes who risked their lives in defiance of oppression on onedark night in Rhode Island, 240 years ago.
In the years before the Revolutionary War, as tensions with the American colonies grew, King George III stationed revenue cutters, armed customs patrol vessels, along the American coastline, to prevent smuggling,enforce the payment of taxes, and impose the authority of the Crown.  
One of the most notorious of these ships was stationed in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.  The HMS 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.  
Outraged by this egregious abuse of power, the merchants and shipmasters of Rhode Island flooded civil and military officials with complaints about the Gaspee, exhausting every diplomatic and legal means tostir the British Crown to regulate Dudingston’s conduct.
Not only did British officials ignore the Rhode Islanders’ concerns; they responded with open hostility.  Commander of the local British fleet Admiral John Montagu warned that anyone who dared attempt acts of resistance or retaliation against the Gaspee would be taken into custody and hanged as a pirate.
Which brings us to June 9, 1772, 240 years ago this week.  Rhode Island ship 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 Lindsay ignored the command and raced up Narragansett Bay—despite warning shots fired by the Gaspee. As the Gaspee gave chase, Captain Lindsay knew that his ship was lighter and drew less water, so he sped north toward Pawtuxet Cove, toward the shallow waters off Namquid Point.  The Hannah shot over theshallows, but the heavier Gaspee grounded 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 the hulking Gaspee.
Spotting an irresistible opportunity, Captain Lindsey proceeded on his course to Providence and enlisted the help of John Brown, a respected merchant from one of the most prominent families in the city.  The two men 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 put an end to the Gaspee’s reign over Rhode Island waters.
That night, the men, led by Captain Lindsey and Abraham Whipple, embarked in eight longboats quietly down Narragansett Bay.  They encircled the Gaspee and called on Lt. Dudingston to surrender the ship.  Dudingston refused and ordered his men to fire upon anyone who tried to board.
Refusing to yield to Dudingston’s threats, the Rhode Islanders forced their way onto the Gaspee’s deck, wounding Dudingston with a musket ball in the midst of the struggle. Right there in the waters of Warwick, Rhode Island, the very first blood, in the conflict that was to become the American Revolution, was drawn.
As the patriots commandeered the ship, Brown ordered one of his Rhode Islanders, a physician named John Mawney, to head immediately to the ship’s cabin to tend to Dudingston’s wound.  In their moment of victory, Brown and his men showed mercy on a man loathed for his cruelty; a man who had threatened to open fire on them onlymoments before.
Allowing the Gaspee’s crew time to collect their belongings, Brown and Whipple took the captive Englishmen back to shore before returning to the despised Gaspee to rid Narragansett Bay of her presence once and for all.  They set her afire.  The blaze spread to the ship’s powder magazine, setting off explosions like fireworks, the resulting blast echoing across the Bay as airborne fragments of the ship splashed down into the water.  
The site of this historic victory is now named Gaspee Point in honor of these audacious Rhode Islanders.  So I come again to share this story, and to commemorate the night ofJune 9, 1772, and the names of Benjamin Lindsey, John Brown, and Abraham Whipple, a man who went on to serve as a naval commander in the Revolutionary War.
I do know that these events, and the patriots whose efforts allowed for their success, are not forgotten in my home state.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed marching in the annual Gaspee Days Parade in Warwick, Rhode Island, as every year we recall the courage and zeal of these men who fired the first shots that drew the firstblood in that great contest for the freedoms we enjoy today.  They set a precedent for future patriots to follow—including those in Boston who more than a year later would have their Tea Party.
But don’t forget, Mr./Madam President, as my home state prepares once again to celebrate the anniversary of the Gaspee incident, that Massachusetts colonists threw tea bags off the deck of their British ship.  We blew ours up, and shot its captain, more than a year before.  We’re little in Rhode Island, Mr./Madam President, but as Lt. Dudingson discovered, we pack a punch.
I thank the chair and I yield the floor.

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