06.08.22

Whitehouse Commemorates 250th Anniversary of the Burning of the Gaspee

Mr. President, this week marks the 250th anniversary of the first blow struck in the American Colonies’ struggle for independence from the British Crown.

I come to the Senate floor every year to commemorate this moment because it took place in Rhode Island at the hands of some brave and bold Rhode Islanders. Before recounting the tale of those bold Rhode Islanders, I would like to acknowledge a special guest with us in the Gallery today: Michael Tatham, Deputy Head of Mission for the British Embassy here in Washington. A lot has happened over the last 250 years, and Great Britain is now America’s closest ally and great, great friend. It is an honor to have the Deputy Ambassador here today.

So it was 1772, and the Royal Navy’s revenue cutter, the HMS Gaspee, patrolled Narragansett Bay in the wake of the Seven Years War, where Great Britain had emerged the victor. The Crown owed, by some estimates, between 74 and 133 million pounds. That was a colossal burden on the empire’s finances. The Gaspee’s mission was to collect taxes from the Colonies to help repay British debt.

I will concede that part of the Gaspee’s mission was righteous. Rhode Island’s rum distilleries formed a corner of the so-called triangle trade, with enslaved people from Africa and sugar from the Caribbean forming the other legs of this foul business. Rum-running to support the slave trade was repugnant and a worthy target of British authorities.

But Britain’s heavy hand reached far beyond that. British customs agents seized Colonial vessels and cargo at whim, leaving rightful owners with no recourse to reclaim their property. One such owner was John Hancock, whose signature would soon become famous. Authorities even pressed Colonial sailors into service on His Majesty’s vessels against their will.

The Gaspee and her captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston, drew particular ire. One of Dudingston’s first acts was to stop the merchant ship Fortune. Dudingston and his crew roughed up the Fortune’s commander, Rufus Greene, condemned the ship and her cargo, and sent the Fortune to Boston for the admiralty to sell. This did not please the Fortune’s owner, Rhode Island’s Nathanael Greene, who would go on to become General Washington’s aide-de-camp and wartime administrator and then command the southern campaign of the Revolutionary War, which he did so effectively that British General Cornwallis would write: That damned Greene is more dangerous than Washington.

Dudingston’s reputation only worsened from there. British law awarded revenue cutter commanders a share of the cargo they seized. Dudingston seized so much cargo that he was able to nearly double his salary, and he earned, along with that bounty, a welldeserved reputation for arrogance. Soon Rhode Islanders were protesting his conduct formally, but those protests yielded no accommodation.

On June 9, 1772, simmering anger at Dudingston and the Gaspee boiled over. Dudingston spotted a small trading ship, the Hannah, bound for Providence. The Gaspee gave chase, and Dudingston hailed the Hannah’s captain, Benjamin Lindsey, and ordered the Hannah to submit to a search. Captain Lindsey declined that invitation and ignored the Gaspee’s warning shots and sailed on toward Providence.

Now, the Hannah was smaller and lighter than the Gaspee, and Captain Lindsey was more familiar than Dudingston with the waters between Newport and Providence. Lindsey steered his Hannah across the shallow waters outside Namquid Point. The Hannah could sail over the shallows, but the heavier Gaspee could not. Dudingston and his crew ran aground on a sandbar off Pawtuxet Cove, stranded, as the Sun was setting in a falling tide. The Gaspee would need to wait for the next day’s high tides to lift it free.

When the Hannah arrived in Providence, Captain Lindsey summoned local patriots to Sabin’s Tavern for refreshments and for planning. The result of the plan was that under the leadership of John Brown, later to be famous for Brown University, and Abraham Whipple, a group of men boarded a half dozen longboats to row from Providence down to Pawtuxet. Through the dark night, with oars muffled, the Rhode Islanders descended on the Gaspee. Whipple reputedly called out to Dudingston—and I hope the young pages will forgive my language, but this is apparently the language used in that moment:

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.

atI believe I mentioned that the Rhode Islanders had fortified themselves at Sabin’s Tavern, which might explain some of the language. In any event, Lieutenant Dudingston refused that invitation so a brief, sharp battle ensued.

At this moment those 250 years ago, Rhode Islanders drew the first blood of what would become our revolutionary struggle when a musket ball struck Lieutenant Dudingston. The Rhode Island patriots boarded the Gaspee. In the melee, Dudingston cried out: Lord, have mercy upon me—I am done for.

But he was not. The British sailors soon gave up the fight. The Rhode Islanders took the crew prisoner and ferried the captives to shore. A marker still stands at the place where the captive crew was brought ashore. And there, Dudingston received the care of a doctor and, ultimately, recovered from his wounds. Indeed, Dudingston would not only heal, but go on to live a long life. He commanded other vessels. He moved back to his native Scotland and married and raised four children in a coastal town called Elie overlooking the Firth of Fife and the North Sea, but he never patrolled Narragansett Bay again.

A quick side story. A few years ago, a couple from Scotland, Angela and Roddy Innes, visited Pawtuxet during Gaspee Days, our annual celebration of the Gaspee raid, coming up this weekend. The Inneses are connected through marriage to the Dudingstons, and Angela wanted to see what the Dudingston-Gaspee was all about. In Pawtuxet, Rhode Islanders welcomed Angela and Roddy with open arms. Local historian Dr. John Concannon invited them to stay. ‘‘It was an amazing experience,’’ Angela said. ‘‘The people there are incredibly friendly.’’ The trip also helped them grasp the significance of the Gaspee raid on America’s road to revolution. And this year, Angela Innes will mark the 250th Gaspee anniversary with a Gaspee Day party of her own in Scotland.

Well, that left the dreaded Gaspee. With the prisoners ashore, the Gaspee raiders returned to the stranded ship and set her afire. When the fire reached her powder magazine, she blew apart, and her remains were lost to time and tides. Rhode Island was rid of the dreaded Gaspee.

New efforts are underway now to find the charred remains of the Gaspee using advanced sonar technology. Dr. Kathy Abbass of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project is on the case. Dr. Abbass is accomplished in her field. Indeed, she may have located Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavor, sunk in Newport Harbor. If anyone can find the Gaspee or what is left of her, it is Dr. Abbass. I should offer special thanks to Peter Abbott, the British Consul General in Boston who, along with representatives of the Royal Navy, came to Rhode Island last month for the announcement that funds had been raised to find the Gaspee. Abbott said: Being a British consul in New England means you must have broad shoulders. I get invited to events that celebrate the Boston Massacre and Evacuation Day. But what takes the biscuit is commemorating the burning of a British ship! The Deputy Ambassador should know that if, in fact, we do find the Gaspee, Rhode Island, a colony no more, intends to courteously seize the vessel for further research.

The Gaspee raid represents Rhode Island’s spirit of independence, which has lived in us since Rhode Island’s founding as a refuge of religious tolerance from the Massachusetts Colony’s harsh theocracy. Our celebration of the Gaspee Affair represents Rhode Islanders’ pride in that spirit, which we share willingly, even with a Dudingston descendant.

Oh, and by the way, this episode where Rhode Islanders rode down through the night to a British ship that had been stranded by Rhode Island wilds and sacked her and took her crew and set her afire and blew her up, that all took place more than a year before Massachusetts colonists boarded a British ship to push tea bales into Boston Harbor. They pushed tea bales off the ship; more than a year earlier, Rhode Islanders blew the ship up. I am just saying, Mr. President.

So here is to another 250 years of celebrating the Gaspee raiders and to more people learning about Rhode Island’s role as a spark of revolution.

I yield the floor.

Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (401) 453-5294