June 9, 2016

Gaspee Days

I rise as I do every year in the Senate to commemorate the anniversary of a brave blow Rhode Island struck for liberty and justice: The Gaspee Affair of 1772. On the night of  June 9, into the morning of June 10, 1772, in the waters off Rhode Island, a band of American patriots pushed back against their British overlords—and drew the first blood of the struggle that would become the American Revolution.

American school children learn in the history books of the Boston revelers who painted their faces and pushed tea into the harbor.  The history books often omit the tale of the Gaspee, which occurred more than a year earlier.

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 the HMS Gaspee, stationed in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.  The Gaspee and its captain, Lt. William Dudingston were known for destroying fishing vessels, unjustly seizing cargo, and flagging down ships that had properly passed custom inspection in Newport only to interrogate and humiliate the colonials. 

“The British armed forces had come to regard almost every local merchant as a smuggler and a cheat,” wrote author Nick Bunker about the era.  Rhode Islanders chafed at this egregious disruption of their liberty at sea, for “out of all the colonies, Rhode Island was the one where the ocean entered most deeply into the lives of the people.”  Something was bound to give.

The spark was lit on June 9, 1772, when the Gaspee attempted to stop the Hannah, a swift Rhode Island trading sloop that ran routes to New York through Long Island Sound, bound that afternoon for Providence from Newport. When the Gaspee sought to hail and board the Hannah, the Hannah’s captain, Benjamin Lindsey, ignored Dudingston’s commands. As the Gaspee gave chase, Captain Lindsey veered north toward Pawtuxet Cove toward the shallows off Namquid Point—known today as Gaspee Point—knowing that the tide was low and that the Hannah drew less water than the Gaspee.  The Hannah shot over the shallows, but the larger ship ran dead into a sandbar and stuck fast in a falling tide.

Lindsey wasted no time in reporting the Gaspee’s predicament to his fellow Rhode Islanders, who rallied at the sound of a beating drum to Sabin’s Tavern. They resolved to end once and for all the Gaspee’s menace in Rhode Island waters.

That night, the men shoved off from Fenner’s Wharf, paddling eight longboats quietly down Narragansett Bay, under a moonless sky, toward the still-stranded Gaspee.  As told by Commander Benjamin F. Armstrong in Naval History Magazine[1], they were led by Captain Lindsey and Abraham Whipple, a merchant captain who had served as a privateer in the French and Indian War and who would go on to command a Continental Navy squadron in the Revolution.  Armstrong describes the excursion as “an increasingly rowdy group of Rhode Islanders who were ready to strike out at the oppressive work of the Royal Navy.”

Beware increasingly rowdy groups of Rhode Islanders, will be our lesson.

The boats silently surrounded the Gaspee, then shouted for Lt. Dudingston to surrender the ship.  Surprised and enraged, Dudingston refused.  Armstrong recounts the fierce, if brief, fight that ensued:

Dudingston shouted down the hatch, calling for his crew to hurry on deck whether they had clothes on or not, and then ran to the starboard bow, where the first of the raiding boats were coming alongside the ship.  He swung at the attackers with his sword, pushing the first attempted boarder back into the boat.  Then a musket shot rang out.  The ball tore through the lieutenant’s left arm, breaking it, and into his groin.  He fell back on the deck as the raiders swarmed over the sides of the ship.  Swinging axe handles and wooden staves, the raiders beat the British seamen back down the hatchway and kept them belowdecks.  Dudingston struggled aft and collapsed in his own blood at the companionway to his cabin at the stern of the ship.

The struggle was over in a matter of minutes.  One of the Rhode Islanders, a physician named John Mawney, tended to Dudingston’s wounds.  The patriots commandeered the ship, loaded the British crew onto the longboats, and set combustibles along the length of the Gaspee.  They set her ablaze, and watched from a hillside on shore as the ship burned to the water line.

When the fire reached the ship’s waterline, this is what ensued. The Gaspee was no more.

You can be sure, Mr./Madam President, that the British authorities immediately called for the heads of the American saboteurs.  An inquiry was launched and a lavish reward posted.  But even though virtually all of Rhode Island knew about the attack, investigators found no witnesses willing to name names.  The entire colony seemed to be suddenly stricken with a terrible case of amnesia!

William Staples’s “Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee” describes the distinct cloudiness of the Rhode Islanders’ memories:

  • James Sabin: “I could give no information relative to the assembling, arming, training or leading on the people concerned in destroying the schooner Gaspee.”
  • Stephen Gulley:  “As to my own knowledge I know nothing about it.”
  • John Cole: “Saw several people collected together, but did not know any of them.”
  • William Thayer: [“Do you know anything?”] “No.”
  • D. Hitchcock: “We met at Mr. Sabin’s, by ourselves, and about 8 o’clock I went to the door, or, finally, kitchen, and saw a number of people in the street, but paid no attention to them.”
  • Arthur Fenner: “I am a man of seventy-four years of age, and very infirm, and at the time said schooner was taken and plundered, I was in my bed.”

Completely frustrated by the Rhode Islanders’ stonewalling, the British commissioners dropped the inquiry, finding it “totally impossible at present to make a report, not having all the evidence we have reason to expect.”

“The British had never seen anything quite like the Gaspee affair,” wrote Nick Bunker.  And “like the Boston Tea Party, their attack on the ship amounted to a gesture of absolute denial: a complete rejection of the empire’s right to rule.”

Rhode Islanders had grown accustomed to—and fiercely protective of—a level of personal freedom unique in that time.  “Even by American standards,” says Bunker, Rhode Island “was an extreme case of popular government.”

As Federic D. Schwarz noted in American Heritage magazine[2], one of the exasperated British investigators even scorned the colony as “a downright democracy.”

This Rhode Island independence streak was well known to the British imperialists.  But the burning of the Gaspee foretold greater struggles to come.  In the words of Commander Armstrong: 

[British officers] were beginning to realize there was something more dangerous out on the water and in American harbors.  Alongside the salt air and the smell of wet canvas was the scent of treason.  A revolution began on the sandbar of Namquid Point—in the spot that bears the name Gaspee on today’s charts of the Narragansett.

Oh, Boston?  Nice job with the tea bags.

I yield the floor.