June 10, 2021

Gaspee Raid Speech

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, I am here for one of my favorite days of the year on the Senate floor because today is the 249th anniversary of the Gaspee raid. I can only imagine what I am going to do next year when it is the 250th anniversary of the Gaspee raid. I may bring pyrotechnics onto the Senate floor, in violation of every rule. The Gaspee raid is what Rhode Island abolitionist and writer Frances Whipple McDougall called the “first blood” drawn in America’s struggle for independence, and I come every year to mark this important but overlooked event in American history.

Our typical history textbook tells us that the Boston Tea Party sparked the American Revolution in December of 1773. Remember that date: 1773, December. Massachusetts folks in Boston protested English taxation by pushing tea into Boston Harbor. It was a memorable protest. We ought to remember it. But we Rhode Islanders contend that a different spark 16 months earlier out on Narragansett Bay ignited the Revolution. The date was June 9, 1772, and the central players in this saga were two ships, one a little sloop, the Hannah, embarking from Newport for Providence, and the other a British customs schooner, the HMS Gaspee; hence the Gaspee raid. The Gaspee was under the command of Lieutenant William Dudingston of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, patrolling Narragansett Bay.

The meeting of the Hannah and the Gaspee and the act of defiance that followed would be explosive.

Before I describe the encounter of the Hannah and the Gaspee, it is important to set the stage.

England’s King George had overextended his empire during the Seven Years War, especially in the war’s American theater known as the French and Indian War. The conflict was expensive to win, and by its end, Britain had taken on vast new territory and the cost of governing that territory, and the British national debt soon doubled.

Meanwhile, over the course of the 18th century, Rhode Island had become a prosperous, major distiller and distributor of rum and trader of goods. Now, the rum trade was a corrupt and immoral enterprise, a leg of which profited off the labor of enslaved Africans, but it was profitable, and the British were thirsty for customs duties. So the Crown tried to crack down on Rhode Island’s trade, including its rum- running, to collect more customs revenue to pay down the King’s debts.

King George’s zeal for tax collecting in Narragansett Bay got a little out of hand. British officers started seizing cargo without evidence, leaving the cargo’s owners with no recourse. They commandeered Rhode Islanders’ ships on flimsy grounds and then used those commandeered ships to collect more customs duties. British authorities even pressed Colonial sailors into service, essentially kidnapping them and forcing them to work on the ships of the Crown.

In one incident in July 1764, the customs ship HMS St. John seized cargo and a brig in Newport Harbor. Rhode Islanders deemed this outright theft. The Governor, Stephen Hopkins, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence, ordered the arming of a sloop to go out and take on the St. John in open battle on the bay.

The British got wind of it, and they reinforced the St. John with the powerfully armed, if meekly named, HMS Squirrel. So the Rhode Islanders scrapped their plans for a naval battle and settled for firing on the St. John from fortifications on Goat Island with 13-pounder canons.

When the HMS Maidstone impressed into servitude an entire crew of colonists, Rhode Islanders carried one of Maidstone’s boats that they were able to seize from Newport Harbor to the city commons and burned it, with hundreds of onlookers cheering.

The Royal Navy impounded prominent merchant John Hancock’s sloop, the Liberty, in 1768. Even after the charges of illegal wine importation that had justified the seizure supposedly were dropped, the British Navy kept his ship and used it for themselves for more customs enforcement. The next year, colonists in Newport reclaimed the Liberty by force.

These simmering maritime hostilities set the backdrop for the fateful meeting of the Hannah and the Gaspee in 1772. As the Hannah sailed north up the bay on June 9, the Gaspee intercepted her and ordered the crew to stop for a search. The Hannah’s captain, Benjamin Lindsey, was having none of it, and he did not comply. He held his course and continued sailing north toward Providence.

Warning shots were fired from the Gaspee. Despite them, Lindsey continued on. His smaller and more maneuverable vessel led the bigger Gaspee up north toward Namquid Point. Well, the waters off Namquid Point shoal, and there are shallows off Namquid Point. Lindsey, as an experienced navigator and sailor in Narragansett Bay, knew this, and he sailed his Hannah over the shallows and kept on up to Providence. Behind them, the angry Gaspee came surging in chase and ground into the sand and stuck.

Aground off Pawtuxet Cove, the Gaspee would need to wait for the next high tide before it could float free. Night closed in on the Gaspee. There was no Moon. Lieutenant Dudingston and his crew were left to wait in darkness and exposed.

Captain Lindsey sailed the Hannah on up to Providence, and up in Providence, he immediately arranged a meeting of local patriots in a tavern called Sabin’s Tavern, which still exists under another name today, in what is now the East Side of Providence, just below Brown University. Together, and no doubt after refreshments, the group decided to end the career of the Gaspee once and for all.

Several boatloads of Rhode Islanders, led by John Brown–later to have Brown University named for him–and Abraham Whipple–an ancestor, I believe, of Ms. Whipple McDougall–disguised themselves and boarded longboats in the night and rowed the 6 miles from Providence down the bay to the Gaspee. There, they surrounded the boat, and Brown called on Lieutenant Dudingston to surrender his ship.

The lieutenant refused and ordered his men to fire on anyone who tried to board and warned the Rhode Islanders of that threat. Well, the Rhode Islanders were having none of that. They stormed the Gaspee in the dark, and a melee ensued. Shots were fired. Swords clashed. In the struggle, Dudingston was shot and wounded by a musket ball–the first blood there of conflict between the Colonies and the Crown; the first blood, one could say, of the American Revolution drawn right there off Pawtuxet Cove.

The struggle ended with the Rhode Islanders in control of the vessel. Brown and Whipple’s men ferried the British crew safely to shore, sought medical treatment for Lieutenant Dudingston, and then returned to the abandoned Gaspee to make sure it never carried a Rhode Islander again. To get rid of it for good, they set it on fire and retreated from the boat to watch it burn and burn until the fire reached the powder magazines and, when the fire reached the powder magazines, explode into the Narragansett Bay night, blowing the remainder of the Gaspee to smithereens and leaving it all to burn to the waterline.

Today, we Rhode Islanders call the site of these events Gaspee Point. Every year in early June, we celebrate the spirit of Rhode Island defiance that blossomed that day in Narragansett Bay 249 years ago. We will walk a parade in honor of Gaspee Day this weekend, and we will always remember the Gaspee raid, how it preceded by over a year the Boston Tea Party, and how, while those noble Bostonians pushed tea bags off of British ships into Boston Harbor, we blew the boat up.

I yield the floor.