GaspeeVirtual Archives
Gaspee: Prelude to Revolution
by  Alex Gabbard
1629 Grubb Road
Lenoir City, TN 37771

Newport during the prerevolutionary period was the pearl of the colonies. The city grew into a rich center of commerce largely because of pirating, smuggling and handling of contraband, activities that the British sought to curtail with Acts that affected all the colonies. The town was composed of almost 1,000 homes, many of mansion quality, and drew the finest of European visitors along with growing inter-colonial and international trade. The city was cosmopolitan with a mix of religious faiths, including Jewish and Quaker, all accepted under decrees protecting individual freedom born from a sense of equality and justice, principles that would later become embodied in the Constitution of the United States.

Newport was a very active center of seagoing trade in the "slave triangle" with the West Indies and western Africa that fueled commerce in molasses, rum, manufactured goods, and many other commodities among a wide range of goods characteristic of the time. Its citizens were strongly of the work ethic and were craftsmen of all types who supplied the goods and services needed to support its commerce.

Newport's wealth had grown for the entire 1700s, with commerce the equal of New York and shipbuilding rivaling Boston, and precipitated increasingly stronger responses from the British. Several generations of citizens had built a culture not surpassed in the colonies, the same that established a strong sense of self-reliance and independence that shaped their political orientation as increasingly anti-British. Although Boston and Philadelphia are generally regarded as the wellsprings of liberty in the American spirit of independence that led to the Revolution, historians have generally overlooked the importance of Newport, its life, and the influence of events in its locale and actions following those events.

The years from 1765 to 1772 encompass several violent episodes that focused the attention of the British on Newport and shaped the outcome of the American political movement locally and regionally. With the Revolution came the British that were garrisoned in the city with such effect that Newport never recovered its previous commercial vitality. Anti-British sentiment was so strong that many citizens chose to leave everything rather than provide the slightest appearance of support. The naval blockade so reduced the city's activity that over half of its citizens left for the interior or for other coastal cities in New England or they moved to southern colonies such as Charlestown, or to the British West Indies islands. The British dealt harshly with Newport and reduced its once great vitality to austerity. Many of the homes left vacant were taken down and burned for fuel. Others were similarly burned as a matter of convenience.

In the high commerce years preceding the Revolution, the quest for improved standards of living commensurate with Europeans was achieved with purchase of manufactured goods largely in England. Surrounding agriculture maintained Newport, and as inter-colonial trade grew, much of its riches came from bootleg manufactured goods from European ports of call other than England in defiance of increasingly stricter tariffs on trade of non-British goods. The area grew in its seagoing capacity as the British sought to restrain all colonists to purchase only British goods. The conflicts that resulted were due to a shift from the original concepts of colonial rule in two main areas:
(1) Original land grants were offered colonists largely because the Crown thought the land worthless.
(2) The right to self-govern was established largely because the Crown thought the citizens could not survive without royal rule and trade with the mother country.

The colonists were seen as a means for providing raw materials for British made goods and for markets for those goods. Laws were structured to protect British home merchants and industries and to prevent colonies from achieving a surplus balance of trade so that the value of British imports into the colonies was greater than the value of colonial exports. Thus, colonists were forced to complete payment for their trade deficits with a flow of silver and gold into England. This created a chronic shortage of coinage metals in the colonies and enforced barter trade. Paper money was issued by colonies and worked reasonably well for exchange of goods and for paying taxes, but was never redeemable for coinage.

However, due to the forces of landownership, economic opportunity and personal freedom, the colonists became increasingly productive as their population doubled about every 25 years. The sense of independence previously engendered by such thinking became a liability to the Crown because colonial trade increasingly branched out to other markets and sources that reduced the market share of British goods. By virtue of their heritage and their abilities, the colonist became staunchly independent as exemplified by Newport. The British response was two-fold:
(1) Regulate trade such that British traders gained maximum benefit through low priced raw materials and high priced manufactured goods.
(2) Invoke increasingly heavy-handed military action to enforce taxation to the benefit of the Crown to offset its trade deficit.

These events led to revocation of self-rule given originally and to repeated attempts to force private companies and proprietors to conform to British law. Colonial government was abolished and was vested in the Crown, and the ensuing 80 years saw Newport become self-sufficient and prosperous largely as a result of its pirates and smugglers in defiance of British law. These pirates and smugglers were the respected and leading citizens of the city. Whenever British law pursued them, rarely did the citizens provide convicting evidence or testimony.

Historical events:
The Molasses Act of 1733; high tariffs were placed on sugar, molasses and rum imported into New England in a effort to prevent colonial trade with the French West Indies sugar islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. British sugar merchants on the islands of Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica had complained to Parliament, whereupon the law was enacted to restrict non-British trade and to further enforce the concept that trade was to be done only on British owned ships. The colonists ignored the law, and Newport thrived on smuggling. Similar acts had been passed to reduce colonial trade with the passage of the Woolen Act of 1699, the Hat Act of 1732, the Iron Act of 1750, all in an attempt to force the colonies to supply raw materials to England for manufacture into goods to be sold at high profit to the colonies. These Acts stifled much more efficient colonial enterprise to support British industry with guaranteed markets controlled by the government. The Currency Act of 1751 decreed that paper money was no longer lawful money and could be regarded as no more than promissory notes.

By 1760, virtually all British laws interfered with some activity in the colonies that was profitable to England. All citizens of New England were citizens of England, but rights were restricted at every quarter of commerce. Citizens charged with enforcement of British law in the colonies increasingly came under harsh treatment and an inability to exercise their authority. Royal Governors were appointed by the Crown, while colonial assemblies maintained an adversarial role of growing strength that challenged the Governors, often forcing changes in policy.

The French were the primary challengers of British power at that time, and the Caribbean had become the cross-roads of world trade. The country having control of the Caribbean would have control of world trade, and the American colonies were becoming powerful producers of world market goods. The islands supplied sugar to the rest of the world and were simultaneously the depots of slavery, the primary trade from West Africa to the colonies. By 1760, the British fortunes of war with France had turned for the better and Britain acquired much of French controlled territory and lands west of the colonies to the Mississippi in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris. Because of Britain's commitment to war with France, colonial assemblies grew in political power, in relation to the British Governors, such that their demands were increasingly met. Thus, the spirit of independence and freedom grew in defiance of British ruling intentions.

The Molasses Act and the Currency Act, in particular, were ignored. After the end of hostilities with France in 1763, Britain no longer needed colonial wartime support and returned to curtailing the power of the colonies to the benefit of British home commerce. However, the colonies were now prosperous and economically independent. With the gain of Canada and lands to America's great river, the colonial frontier was secure geographically. The colonies were well populated, prosperous and imbued with the spirit of self-reliance that led increasingly to talk of independence.

By attempting to reassert its authority in an effort to siphon off wealth from colonial trade to pay its enormous war debt, the Crown entered into a sequence of events that led to its undoing. By Imperial decree in 1763, white settlers were barred from beyond the Appalachians, the purpose being to check the westward movement. The Molasses Act of that year imposed heavy taxes on imports from the West Indies, and the Paper Money Act of 1764 prohibited the colonies from printing their own money, yet coinage metal was rare for having been siphoned off in the balance of trade policy set by the Crown. The Molasses Act was not enforced, but with the Sugar Act of 1764, although lower than the duties levied by the Molasses Act, enforcement was severe and carried out by the British customs service with considerable power at its disposal.

Then came the Stamp Act of 1765 that levied taxes on all newspapers and legal documents. By attacking the Americans who were best able to voice their opposition, public outcry was enormous. The colonists refused to buy the stamps and boycotted British-made goods. The Crown relented the next year, then passed the Townshend Act that levied duties on a range of imports including tea and paper. Boycotts and opposition raged throughout the colonies, and troops were sent to quell the foment. British troops garrisoned in Boston were goaded until they fired on civilians, thus creating the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. The Crown relented again, except for duties imposed on tea.

Tea was the most important beverage of the colonies, and the Tea Act of 1773 precipitated the Boston Tea Party of December 16 of that year. Prior to this famous event in American history came an event some 18 months prior that was a direct act of war by the colonists against the British. This action has been lost in historical footnotes, although it should be recognized as the first armed action of the American Revolution.

The event centers on the British revenue ship, the Gaspee, an armed schooner under the command of Lt. William Dudingston. The ship took up position at the entrance of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in March, 1772, and was charged with boarding all trading vessels of any flag and sending contraband to Boston contrary to Rhode Island law; resolution of trade disputes were to be conducted within the colony, not Boston. This action enraged the citizens of Newport and Rhode Island colony and threatened their very existence.

On June 9, 1772 the commercial packet named the Hannah left Newport sailing up Narragansett Bay for Providence. Dudingston gave chase and ran the Gaspee aground at Namquit Point (now Gaspee Point) several miles before reaching Providence. Under the cover of darkness that evening, about 65 leading citizens shoved off from shore in eight rowboats and captured the Gaspee and wounded Dudingston with a near-fatal gunshot. A surgeon among the raiders tended to his wounds, saving Dudingston's life. The entire crew was confined ashore, then the raiders set the ship afire. The Gaspee burned to the waterline amid exploding powder magazines that ripped the ship apart. No cover of Indians was used, such as latter in the Boston Tea Party, and although the perpetrators were well known, no one provided evidence against the raiders, even with a rich reward offered by the subsequent King's Proclamation that promised the gallows to all the raiders.

Providence merchant and ardent patriot John Brown, later to found Brown University, was one of the leaders of the raid. Others among them were equally prominent and cultured anti-British sentiment so strongly that the challenge of breaking with England for independence was deeply committed. Brown helped finance and provision America's Revolutionary armies. The Greene family of Rhode Island, Nathaniel being another leading merchant, was also a victim of Lt. Dudingston's heavy handed actions. Although he was not among the raiders, he later rose to become the second highest commander under Gen. George Washington. He was victor over the British in the southern campaigns that attempted to split the colonies. Abraham Whipple was an able Providence sea captain and Gaspee raider who rose to become the most celebrated captain of the Revolution. He boldly commanded a privateer to capture several British ships for the American cause.

Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton, though not a Gaspee raider, presided over the prosecution of the King's Proclamation that came to no convictions. He was later deposed for refusing to place Parliament's decree into effect for raising and training an army in support of the British effort to subdue the colony. Lt. William Dudingston was court-martialed, then absolved of all responsibility associated with the Gaspee incident. Joseph Bucklin, who fired the near-fatal shot that wounded Dudingston, was never identified during ensuing investigations. John Mawney, surgeon, who attended to Dudingston, was also never identified.

The major result of the Gaspee incident among the colonists was the formation of the Committees of Correspondence in each of the colonies to expedite the flow of information between them concerning events of mutual interest. The colonies came together with a common cause for the first time, the initial, formative step of a new nation.

Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 1998    Last Revised 6/2009    Gabbard.html