June 4, 2018

Whitehouse Delivers Eleventh Annual Speech on the Burning of the Gaspee

Rhode Island’s Gaspee Affair helped spark the American Revolution

Washington, DC – As Rhode Islanders ready for the annual Gaspee Days celebration in Pawtuxet Village this weekend, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse today delivered his eleventh annual speech on the floor of the Senate to recall the story of the bold colonists who stood up to British rule and burned the HMS Gaspee on Narragansett Bay in 1772.  The Gaspee Affair took place more than a year before the Boston Tea Party.

“The story of the Gaspee is just one part of a daring Rhode Island resistance, stretching across the years and months before the Gaspee incident, into that explosive night on Narragansett Bay, and on throughout the Revolution,” said Whitehouse.

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

Mr./Madam President, the night spanning June 9th and 10th marks the anniversary of a key chapter in American history—one whose first shots spurred our nation on toward independence from Britain; yet one which remains unfamiliar to most Americans today. 

That’s why I come here each year to tell the tale of the Gaspee Affair.

I encourage my colleagues—and all students of history—to explore this chapter in more depth in histories such as An Empire on the Edge by Nick Bunker or The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution by Steven Park.

Here’s the tale, in brief form. 

It’s 1772.  Tensions between England and the colonies have grown increasingly strained.  Rhode Island is a seafaring, trading colony, without much regard for His Majesty’s taxes.  King George III stations the revenue cutter, HMS Gaspee, under the command of Lt. William Dudingston, in Rhode Island waters.  The Gaspee’s mission:  to interdict smuggled goods and enforce the payment of the Crown’s taxes. 

Lt. Dudingston was an arrogant sort, who quickly became infamous for destroying fishing vessels, seizing cargo, and flagging down ships only to harass, humiliate, and interrogate the colonials.  According to Gabriel Weis in his 1916 Guide To Newport, Rhode Island, “This unprincipled ruffian had ruthlessly ravaged the Rhode Island coast for several months, destroying unoffending fishing vessels, and confiscating everything he could lay hands on.” 

Rhode Island seamen and traders chafed at the harsh tactics of Dudingston.  A number of them delivered a petition seeking relief against the Gaspee to Rhode Island Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  On this occasion, Hopkins provided a legal opinion saying that British officers were obliged to present their orders and commission to Rhode Island’s Governor before entering local waters, asserting a measure of colonial sovereignty. 

Dudingston of course refused such an impudent notion, and threatened to hang any man who tried to oppose the Gaspee.

His first mistake, in the winter of 1772, was to seize a sloop named the Fortune along with its cargo of rum and sugar, from Nathanael Greene, the wealthy son of a Quaker minister.  As Daniel Harrington wrote in the Providence Journal last year, “the patriotic fervor … sweeping the colonies [had] seemed to elude [Greene], until Dudingston snagged his Fortune and ignited the righteous spirit of resentment that now consumed him.”  After first suing Dudingston for the return of his ship—and winning—Nathanael Greene would join the Revolutionary cause, ultimately commanding Rhode Island’s army, and rising in General Washington’s ranks to become the commander of the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War.  During the War, General Cornwallis wrote to his wife, “That damned Greene is more dangerous than Washington.”

Thank you very much, Lt. Dudingston, for igniting General Nathanael Greene’s righteous spirit!

Dudingston’s various provocations would reach the breaking point on June 9, 1772, when he set his sights on the sailing vessel Hannah, traversing Narragansett Bay from Newport to Providence.  The Gaspee ordered the Hannah to stop and allow a search.  On board the Hannah, Captain Benjamin Lindsey refused, and continued on his course to Providence, ignoring warning shots fired by the Gaspee.  Knowing his Hannah was lighter and had a shallower draft than the Gaspee, Lindsey raced up Narragansett Bay and over the shoals off Pawtuxet Cove.  The heavier Gaspee kept up its chase of the Hannah, but ran aground in the shallow waters off Namquid Point.  The Gaspee was stuck fast on the shoal, in a falling tide.

Captain Lindsey sailed on to Providence and, with prominent merchant John Brown, later the founder of Brown University, rallied local patriots to a meeting at Sabin’s Tavern, in what is now Providence’s East Side.  The Rhode Islanders gathered there made a fateful decision. 

The British Navy was the most powerful military force on the planet.  The British Crown was the most powerful political force on the planet.  The Rhode Islanders had managed to strand one of His Majesty’s vessels, the symbol of their oppression, helpless in an outgoing tide.

They resolved to attack. 

In the early moonless hours of June 10, several dozen men (perhaps benefitting somewhat from the refreshments of the tavern), led by John Brown and Abraham Whipple, shoved off in longboats from Providence, with blackened faces and muffled oars, to row through six miles of dark waters for the Gaspee. 

As the boats surrounded the Gaspee, Whipple called out and demanded that Lt. Dudingston surrender his ship.  One witness later recounted his demand in this form:  “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.” 

Dudingston refused this polite offer, and instead ordered his men to fire upon anyone who attempted to board.  The determined Rhode Islanders then forced their way aboard the Gaspee, and a struggle ensued.  In the melee, Lt. Dudingston was shot in the groin and arm by musket balls.  Gabriel Weis wrote, “The attack on the ‘Gaspé’ caused the first bloodshed in the struggle for American independence, and was the first resistance to the British Navy.”

Brown and Whipple’s men soon overpowered the British crew and took control of the ship.  Brown ordered one of his Rhode Islanders, a physician named John Mawney, to tend to Dudingston’s wounds.  They transported the captive Englishmen safely to shore, and then returned to the abandoned Gaspee for one final act of defiance to the Crown and riddance to the ship:  the Rhode Islanders set fire to the Gaspee.

Now, the Gaspee was a gunship, and gunships store gunpowder, and the gunpowder is kept below decks in a powder magazine.  The Gaspee burned until WHAM! its powder magazine exploded, blasting into the Rhode Island night what remained of His Majesty’s meddlesome ship, her debris flying across the blast-lit waters of Narragansett Bay. 

Word quickly spread of the Rhode Islanders’ daring raid.  The news was spread through pulpits and pamphlets up and down the colonies, stoking the flames of revolution.  The furious King George offered huge rewards for the capture of the insolent rebels.  A trial in England was announced.  But in characteristic, impressive solidarity, not one Rhode Islander would step forward to identify a single one of the perpetrators.  The royal threats broke vainly against the silent solidarity of the Rhode Islanders.

The story of the Gaspee is just one part of a daring Rhode Island resistance, stretching across the years and months before the Gaspee incident, into that explosive night on Narragansett Bay, and on throughout the Revolution.

His Majesty’s Navy had not heard the last of Abraham Whipple, for instance.  In 1775, Abraham Whipple was in command of a small fleet facing off against the British frigate, the Rose.  The captain of the British ship sent a menacing and accusatory note to Whipple:

From Captain Sir James Wallace of the Rose:

You, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th of June, 1772, burned His Majesty’s vessel, the Gaspee, and I will hang you at the yard-arm. –James Wallace

To which note, Whipple replied with equal brevity:

To Sir James Wallace, Sir:

Always catch a man before you hang him. –Abraham Whipple

(By the way, Rhode Islander John Millar two centuries later built a replica of the HMS Rose, which later had a starring role in the movie “Master and Commander” as Captain Aubrey’s warship, the Surprise.)

Mr./Madam President, Rhode Island is proud of our role in sparking our revolution.  We have made a tradition of celebrating the Gaspee incident with our annual Gaspee Days celebration and parade in Warwick, just ashore of where the Gaspee was led aground. 

This year the Rhode Island State Archives is staging a new exhibit called “Gaspee Raiders: Pirates or Patriots,” where visitors can learn about the events of June 1772 and even experience the entire Gaspee Affair in virtual reality.

Much of the world does not remember the burning of the Gaspee, but we do not forget.  Beyond our state borders, most Americans think of other events as catalysts of the Revolutionary War.  More than a year after the Gaspee incident, up in Massachusetts, some Boston worthies fortified their courage with strong drink and pushed teabags off the deck of a British vessel.  That’s not bad.  I guess it ruined the tea. 

Personally, I think it’s more impressive, more than a year earlier, to have blown up a British ship and shot its captain.  But for whatever reason, the Boston Tea Party is the better known historical event. 

Many of my colleagues, having heard me give this speech, tell me they had never heard this story.  Maybe it’s because Massachusetts had two of our first presidents — the Adamses, father and son — and they talked it up.  Maybe after the war Rhode Islanders went home to their farms and boats and businesses, while Massachusetts wrote the history books.  Whatever the reason, seizing and burning the Gaspee deserves a more prominent place in Revolutionary history.  It’s a tall order to correct 240 years of the Massachusetts Tea Party megaphone. But it’s important for me to stick up for the daring deeds done by Rhode Islanders. 

We’re the state that first enshrined separation of church and state in the New World.  Samuel Slater sparked America’s industrial revolution with his mill in Pawtucket.  And we drew first blood in the fight for American independence that night on Narragansett Bay.  The Gaspee Affair is not a peculiar drunken anomaly; it’s part of a robust and early resistance by a proud colony, now a proud State. 

I yield the floor.


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