June 9, 2017

Gaspee Days 2017

Madam President, I come to the Senate floor every year around this time to discuss an important incident in the history of Rhode Island largely overlooked in the history books, certainly overlooked in consequence to its importance.

We have to understand that we Rhode Islanders have always had a pretty fierce independent streak. The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was founded by Roger Williams and others fleeing the harsh ideological conformity of the Massachusetts theocracy. Our 1663 charter, describing the colony as a “lively experiment,” is the first formal document in all of history granting to a political entity the separation of church and state, along with unprecedented freedoms of speech.

Rhode Island was the first colony to declare its independence from Britain, on the Fourth of May, 1776–2 months before the rest of you did on the Fourth of July–and we were the last colony to join the Union, waiting for an independent Bill of Rights. Like I said, an independent streak.

Colonial Rhode Islanders chafed at the inequities of British rule, especially the disruption of our liberty at sea. We are the Ocean State. Living and working on the water has always been a Rhode Island way of life. As tensions with the American Colonies grew, however, King George III stationed revenue cutters, armed Customs patrol vessels, in the waters of Narragansett Bay to prevent smuggling, enforce the payment of taxes, and impose British sovereignty.

In 1764, after a British ship called the HMS St. John stole goods from Newport merchants, a group of Rhode Islanders seized control of Fort George on Goat Island in Newport Harbor and fired cannons on the vessel.

In 1769, the HMS Liberty, a sloop confiscated by the British from none other than John Hancock and repurposed as a Customs vessel, was boarded, scuttled, and burned by a mob of angry Rhode Islanders.

In 1772, on a dark night, a band of Rhode Islanders destroyed the HMS Gaspee, one of the most hated imperial ships, drawing what the Rhode Island abolitionist Frances Whipple McDougall called, in 1884, “The first blood in the Revolution.”

The Gaspee and its captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston, were known for destroying Rhode Islanders’ vessels, seizing their cargo, and flagging down ships to harass, humiliate, and interrogate the Colonials. As historian Steven Park describes in his new book, “The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution,” the Gaspee was an unwelcome, even hated, presence in Narragansett Bay. Rhode Island Deputy Gov. Darius Sessions complained to Gov. Joseph Wanton, in March 1772, that Lieutenant Dudingston had “no legal authority to justify his conduct, and his commission ….. [was] more of a fiction than anything else.”

When British authorities assured Governor Wanton that Dudingston was there to protect the Rhode Island colony from pirates, the Governor replied that he didn’t know whether Dudingston was protecting them from pirates or was the pirate himself.

On June 9, 1772, all this tension came to a head. On this day, Rhode Island Captain Benjamin Lindsey was en route to Providence from Newport in his ship the Hannah. He was ordered by the hated Gaspee to halt for inspection. Captain Lindsey refused, and he raced up Narragansett Bay–despite warning shots fired at the Hannah. The Gaspee gave chase to the Hannah, and Captain Lindsey, who knew the waters of Narragansett Bay far better than Dudingston did, steered his ship north toward Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick, right over the shallows off of Namquid Point–known today as Gaspee Point. The lighter Hannah was able to shoot over those shallows, but the heavier Gaspee ran aground and stuck firm in a sandbar in a falling tide. The British ship and her crew were stranded and would need to wait many hours before a rising tide could free them.

Wasting no time, Captain Lindsey sailed up to Providence, and with the help of the respected merchant and statesman John Brown, rallied a group of Rhode Island patriots at Sabin’s Tavern, in what is now the East Side of Providence. Together, after suitable refreshment, the group resolved to end the Gaspee’s menace in Rhode Island waters.

That night, 80 or so men shoved off from the wharf under a moonless sky, with their faces blackened and their oarlocks muffled, paddling eight longboats down Narragansett Bay toward the stranded Gaspee. The longboats silently surrounded the Gaspee, and the Rhode Islanders shouted for Lieutenant Dudingston to surrender his ship. As Daniel Harrington recounted in the Providence Journal, “Captain 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!”

Surprised and enraged, Dudingston refused and ordered his men to fire upon anyone who attempted to board the Gaspee. Gunshots struck out in the night, and musket balls hit Lieutenant Dudingston in his groin and his arm. The Rhode Islanders, outnumbering the British, swarmed onto the deck and commandeered the ship. Brown ordered one of his Rhode Islanders, a physician named John Mawney, to tend to Lieutenant Dudingston’s wounds.

After properly plundering the lieutenant’s quarters, the patriots removed the British crew to land and returned to torch the Gaspee. Ultimately, the flames reached the powder magazine, and the resulting blast echoed across the bay as the dreaded Gaspee blew to smithereens.

When word got back to the King, he was furious, and he offered huge royal rewards for the capture of the rebels who had done this deed, but, strangely enough, no Rhode Islander would step forward to finger the perpetrators. You have to admire, under that kind of pressure, that with 80 people who had gone down in those longboats, not one Rhode Islander would spill the beans.

Word spread throughout the Colonies of this incident and of the Crown’s brand of justice. Samuel Adams wrote a letter in the Providence Gazette on December 26, 1772, that read, in part:

A court of inquisition, more horrid than that of Spain or Portugal, is established within this colony, to inquire into the circumstances of destroying the Gaspee schooner; and the persons who are the commissioners of this new-fangled court, are vested with most exorbitant and unconstitutional power. They are directed to summon witnesses, apprehend persons not only impeached, but even suspected! And ….. to deliver them to Admiral Montagu, who is ordered to have a ship in readiness to carry them to England, where they are to be tried.

The Reverend John Allen delivered at the Second Baptist Church in Boston a Thanksgiving sermon on the Gaspee Affair that was distributed in pamphlet form throughout the Colonies. His words helped rouse the spirit of independence of this fledgling Nation. He said:

Supposing ….. that the Rhode Islanders, for the sake of the blood-bought liberties of their forefathers, for the sake of the birthrights of their children, should show a spirit of resentment against a tyrannical arbitrary power that attempts to destroy their lives, liberties and property, would it not be insufferably cruel (for this which the law of nature and nations teaches them to do) to be butchered, assassinated and slaughtered in their own streets by their own King?

Well, schoolchildren’s history books tell a tale of Bostonians who dressed up in funny outfits and climbed onto a British boat and pushed bales of tea into the harbor, but not enough schoolchildren know of the bravery of the Rhode Islanders who, more than a year earlier, fired the first shots and drew the first blood in the quest for American independence. It is a fine thing, I am sure, to push tea bales off a boat. We blew the boat up, and we did it more than a year earlier.

Rhode Islanders are justifiably proud of our role in our rebellion. We have made a tradition of celebrating the Gaspee incident with the annual Gaspee Days celebration and parade through Warwick. An independent study group at Brown University is adapting the tale of the Gaspee into a virtual reality educational experience so you can put on the goggles and reenact the experience of the Gaspee, marrying Rhode Island history with cutting-edge technology to engage middle and high school students in this history.

Someday soon, children across the country may be able to join Captain Whipple and John Brown and step into a virtual longboat, coast down a virtual Narragansett Bay, and watch the sky over a virtual Rhode Island, alight with the fire of revolution.

I thank the Presiding Officer.

I yield the floor.