June 6, 2018

Gaspee Days 2018

Madam President, the night spanning June 9 and 10 marks the anniversary of a key chapter in American history—one whose first shots spurred our Nation on toward independence from Britain, yet one that remains unfamiliar to most Americans today, which is why I come here each year to tell the tale of the Gaspee Raiders.

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 Her Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution’’ by Steven Park.

Here is the tale in brief form.

It is 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 Lieutenant William Dudingston, in Rhode Island waters. The Gaspee’s mission: to interdict smuggled goods and enforce the payment of the Crown’s taxes.

Lieutenant 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 colonial sailors. 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 ‘‘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 [Nathanael 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 then 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, Lieutenant Dudingston, for igniting Nathanael Greene’s righteous spirit.

Dudingston’s various provocations continued until they reached 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 that 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 the 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, a 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 benefiting somewhat from the refreshments of Sabin’s Tavern—led by John Brown and Abraham Whipple, shoved off in longboats from Providence, with blackened faces and muffled oars, to row through 6 miles of dark waters for the Gaspee.

As the boats surrounded the Gaspee, Whipple called out and demanded Lieutenant Dudingston surrender his ship. One witness later recounted his demand in this form—forgive me for the language involved, but it is historically correct.

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 any men who attempted to board. The determined Rhode Islanders then forced their way aboard the Gaspee, and a struggle ensued. In the melee, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot in the groin and arm by musket balls. Gabriel Weis wrote: ‘‘The attack on the ‘Gaspee’ 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. He survived. 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 the Gaspee afire.

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 raiders. The royal threats broke vainly against the silent solidarity of the Rhode Islanders. The royal nooses hung empty. 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 HMS Rose. The captain of the British ship sent a menacing and accusatory note to Captain 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 acerbic 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 obtained a starring role in the movie ‘‘Master and Commander’’ as Captain Aubrey’s warship, the Surprise.

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.’’ King George was pretty clear about which, but we are pretty clear also about which. There, 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 tea bales off the deck of a British vessel. That is not bad—I guess it ruined the tea—but, personally, I think it is more impressive more than a year earlier to have blown up the British ship and shot its captain, but, for whatever reason, the Boston Tea Party is the better known historical event.

In fact, many of my colleagues, having heard me give this speech, tell me they never even heard this story. Maybe it is because Massachusetts had two of our first Presidents, the Adams’ father and son, and they talked it up. Maybe after the war, Rhode Islanders just went home to their farms and boats and businesses while Massachusetts wrote the early history books. Whatever the reason, the seizing and burning and blowing up the Gaspee deserves a more prominent place in Revolutionary history.

We are 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 is part of a robust and early resistance by a proud colony, now a proud State.

I thank the Presiding Officer.

I yield the floor.