of the Gaspee
FORERUNNER OF THE REVOLUTION
BY LEWIS A. TAFT
Author of Profile of Old New England
Perhaps no other event in the colonial history of America gives such insight on the temper and independence of the colonists in the fateful days before the Revolution, as the attack on the British Navy's armed schooner Gaspee by citizens of Rhode Island. The men who led the assault on the King's ship were not small shopkeepers, apprentices, and unemployed sailors as was the case in the Stamp Act riots that took place several years before. These were the recognized leaders of the colony: merchants and sea" captains, lawyers, and doctors - many of them members of the General Assembly then convened in Providence.
Stiff-necked, arbitrary action by British naval officers was the spark that touched off the sudden explosion of violence that could have caused an invasion of the colony by British troops then stationed in Boston.
In 1772, the British Government sent the Gaspee and Beaver, 8 gun navy schooners, to Rhode Island with orders to assist the Revenue Officers of the colony in stamping out smuggling and illicit trade. Lieutenant Dudingston, Commander of the Gaspee, was an arrogant, energetic young officer who boasted that he would soon make honest Englishmen of the 'piratical scum' that piloted their ships on the sea ways of Rhode Island. Among the 'piratical scum' were some of America's great sea captains: Abraham Whipple, Samuel Dunn, John Hopkins, Joseph Tillinghast, and Simeon Potter.
Dudingston proceeded to make his name an anathema to the seafarers of the colony. He stopped and searched all ships that entered Narragansett Bay, cursing and insulting their officers and threatening the crews. The cargoes of two coastal ships were impounded, and, in violation of the law, he sent them to Boston for trial. Governor Wanton of Rhode Island sent a vigorous protest to Admiral Montagu, Commander of the British North American Fleet and Dudingston's superior, only to receive an insolent letter in reply threatening to hang anyone who might attempt to obstruct his officers in the performance of their duties. The Governor then sent a letter of complaint to the Earl of Hillsborough, one of England's Secretaries of State.
Meanwhile the unwarranted interference with trade continued and the bitterness and rage of the colonials mounted to the boiling point. Then fate, in the guise of Captain Benjamin Lindsey, gave the Rhode Islanders an opportunity to repay the pestiferous Lieutenant Dudingston for his arrogance.
About noon on June 9, the sloop Hannah - Benjamin Lindsey, Master- arrived at Newport from New York and after reporting her cargo at the Custom House, proceeded up the river toward Providence. She had hardly cleared the harbor when the Gaspee, like a self-important watchdog, hoisted sails and pursued her. Lieutenant Dudingston signaled the Hannah to hove to for boarding but Captain Lindsey was not in the mood to obey. The Hannah was one of the fastest packets in New England waters; let the Britishers pursue and be damned.
Pursue they did. The schooner-rigged Gaspee soon proved that in light winds off her quarters she was a swift, easily handled sailer. All afternoon the two ships tacked back and torch against a northwest breeze, and it took all of Captain Lindsey's skill as a seaman to keep the Hannah out of cannon range of her pursuer. As they neared Providence, the American skipper, who knew these waters like the back of his hand, tacked his ship sharply to westward, clearing a long shallow sand-bar by inches, then in apparent confusion allowed her to lose headway. Gleefully, Lieutenant Dudingston headed the Gaspee toward his quarry, confident that his masterly handling of the schooner had won the day. With all sails set, the Gaspee plowed into the shoals and was grounded. In chagrin, the British sailors watched the Hannah reverse her course and sail toward Providence. The sun was setting when the packet arrived at her destination..
Captain Lindsey immediately went ashore and reported the plight of the Gaspee to John Brown, a member of one of the richest and most influential merchant firms in colonial America.
"Is she hard aground?" Brown asked him.
"Aye and she will stay there until flood tide - about three o'clock tomorrow morning," the master of the Hannah replied.
Here was an opportunity to destroy the hated Gaspee. John Brown wasted no time. He hunted up one of his shipmasters and instructed him to collect eight of the largest long-boats in the harbor, with five oars to each, to have the oars and row-locks well muffled to prevent noise, and to place them at Fenner's Wharf directly opposite the Sabin Tavern. The town crier, Daniel Pierce, was told to beat his drum through the streets, to cry out the situation of the Gaspee and to invite anyone who had a mind to destroy the nuisance, to assemble in Sabin's Tavern.
By nine o'clock, the large southeast room in the tavern was filled with excited but resolute men, some of them with weapons but the majority without arms. Captain Whipple was selected to lead the expedition and the crowd repaired to the waiting boats, arming themselves on the way with barrel staves and paving stones. A sea captain acted as steersman on each boat as they shoved off for the long row to Namquid Point seven miles away, where the crew of the Gaspee was waiting for the rising tide to free their ship.
Outside the harbor, the ringleaders of the expedition held a consultation and decided to proceed in a line so as to minimize the possibility of passing the Gaspee in the dark, also to keep their fleet of longboats from straggling. Like an ungainly sea serpent, the line of boats crept cautiously toward Namquid Point, the oarsmen pulling hard to combat the incoming tide. About midnight, the black bulk of the Gaspee was discovered by the lockout in one of the boats. As the oarsmen backed water, undecided what course to take, an alert sentinel on the navy ship saw them.
"Who comes there?” he cried.
"Pull for her lads!" Captain Whipple whispered. The Providence boats began to close in.
"Who comes there?" the sentinel challenged again. He was joined by Lieutenant Dudingston who mounted the starboard gunwale in his nightshirt.
"Sheer off!" the English commander shouted in alarm as he saw the dim silhouettes of the advancing parties.
"I'm the sheriff of the County of Kent," Captain Whipple shouted. "I have a warrant to apprehend you - so surrender."
"All hands on deck to repel boarders!" Dudingston ordered shrilly.
At that moment Joseph Bucklin, one of the men in Whipple's boat, reached for a musket, took careful aim and fired. Dudingston fell. "I have killed the rascal," Bucklin exclaimed.
Seconds later the attackers swarmed aboard the schooner and with fists and staves drove the crew below. Once on the deck, John Brown assumed .command. The commander of the Gaspee was found to be seriously wounded and was carried to his cabin where he was attended by Dr. John Mawney, a member of the expedition. Dudingston had been shot in the groin, a painful but not necessarily fatal wound.
The Gaspee was ransacked and all letters, papers and records were collected and given to John Brown. The first rays of the morning sun were flushing the sky when orders were given to leave the schooner. The crew of the Gaspee was transported to Namquid Point and from there taken to Pawtuxet. The wounded Lieutenant was lowered into a longboat manned by Pawtuxet sailors and taken to Stillhouse Cove where they landed. Dudingston was carried to the home of Joseph Rhodes where he was lodged.
Meanwhile, the Gaspee had been set on fire and the other contingents of the expedition rowed toward Providence. The men in the boats saw the flames envelope the hull of the schooner and climb up the tall masts. A series of explosions sent burning debris high in the air. The flames had reached the powder magazines.
The Rhode Islanders had struck a blow against despotism but the affair would not end there. Morning brought to the ringleaders the sobering realization that they had been guilty of an act of piracy - it could be labeled as treason. They had in anger arrayed themselves against the might of a great nation and they could only expect the leaders of that nation to make every effort to punish them. The Gaspee was still smoldering when the leaders of the colony took swift steps to protect the guilty.
A member of the expedition who had imbibed too freely and was strutting back and forth on Weybosset bridge, wearing Lieutenant Dudingston's cocked hat and bragging about his part in the affair was quickly and firmly escorted to his home with a stern admonition to hold his tongue.
Darius Sessions, Deputy Governor of Rhode Island, a sea captain formerly employed by the Browns, called on the wounded commander of the Gaspee and offered him every assistance. Sessions tried to get a statement about the attack from the Lieutenant but was told that the affair must first be reported to his superior, Admiral Montagu. The Deputy Governor, however, was successful in obtaining affidavits from three members of the Gaspee 's crew in which they disclaimed any knowledge of the identities of their assailants. Although the names of some of the participants of the expedition must have been known to him, Sessions sent a dispatch to Governor Wanton at Newport, telling of the grave incident and asserting that the names of the perpetrators were unknown. He also suggested that a proclamation be issued offering a large sum of money for the apprehension of the culprits.
That fear actuated every official action taken in the few weeks following the destruction of the Gaspee, is unquestionably true. There was real fear that an angry English Government might declare martial law in the colony and send .either troops or a naval force to occupy Newport and Providence. There was also the possibility that the King might revoke the charter.
The proclamation asked for by Darius Sessions was quickly enacted by the Assembly and Governor Wanton sent a copy of the Act to Admiral Montagu with a conciliatory letter. However, he also sent a dispatch to London with a report condemning the revenue ships of the British Navy for arbitrary actions, while glossing over the Gaspee incident. It is possible that the English agents serving the Browns of Providence used whatever influence they possessed at court to soothe the Government's wrath over the loss of a navy ship and the open defiance of some of their subjects.
Whatever the reason, instead of the drastic actions feared by the Rhode Islanders, King George the Third and his ministers appointed a commission to investigate and arrest any suspected inhabitants of the colony who might have been involved in the destruction of the Gaspee. Any suspect was to be committed to the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in North America for transportation to England for trial. The commission was to be headed by Governor Wanton. This was good news for the guilty. Governor Wanton was a Rhode Islander, a wealthy merchant of Newport and a good friend of the Browns of Providence.
While these important decisions were being made in London, a man named Aaron Briggs, the indentured servant of Samuel Tompkins of Prudence Island, ran away from his master and sought refuge on the revenue schooner Beaver. A former seaman of the Gaspee remembered seeing him aboard on the night she was burned and notified the commander. Captain Linzee. On being questioned, Briggs admitted that he had taken part in the attack and implicated Captain Potter of Bristol, John Brown and his brother Joseph of Providence, Dr. Weeks of Warwick and Richmond of Providence, all very influential men in the colony.
Captain Linzee immediately communicated this information to Admiral Montagu. The Admiral sent air express to Governor Wanton urging him to arrest at once the men named in Aaron's deposition. Instead of obeying, the Governor obtained affidavits from Briggs' master and two of his fellow servants to the effect that the servant had been on Prudence Island on the ninth and tenth of June and could not have been within miles of the grounded Gaspee.
Fear of the King's wrath must have cast a pall of gloom over many households in Rhode Island when it was learned that an informer was in the hands of the British Navy. Aaron Briggs was a threat to the anonymity of the guilty raiders and Montagu would like nothing better than an opportunity to send a large group of Americans to England' s hangman. Governor Wanton, of course, knew this and took desperate steps to wrest the informer from the custody of Captain Linzee. At his instigation, a judge of the Superior Court of Rhode Island issued a warrant to seize Briggs as a material witness in the destruction of the Gaspee. Wanton also sent a note to the commander of the Beaver urging him to respect the civil laws of the colony and turn his prisoner over to the Sheriff of Portsmouth. Linzee refused the request and would not allow that official to serve the warrant.
About this time. Admiral Montagu received a letter from the wounded Dudingston expressing fear that he would be in mortal danger if he divulged the identity of any of the raiders who stormed his ship. Dudingston was removed from Pawtuxet and carried in a litter to Boston while the Admiral expressed anger over the delay of the King's commissioners in "meeting to investigate the piratical act."
After many delays, the commission finally met for the first time in Newport on January 5, 1773 • almost seven months after the Gaspee was burned. Five of the six members appointed by the King were present. Montagu, perhaps nervous over the reception he might expect to receive in a Rhode Island town, sent a Captain Keeler to represent him. Governor Wanton refused to accept the Captain as a substitute commissioner and insisted that the admiral attend the meeting in Newport. This occasioned another delay. Montagu finally arrived In Newport complaining of the inconveniences.
Subpoenas were sent to many Rhode Island officials and to all of the men accused by Briggs of participating in the attack on the Gaspee. The officials quickly traveled to Newport, protesting their horror at the lawless acts of the "Unknown" miscreants while declaring their utmost devotion to the "good King George" and the laws of England. The accused men also condemned the dastardly acts of the "Unknown and rebellious attackers, expressing their undying love for law and order - however, they all found good and sufficient excuses to be unable to appear in person before the commissioners.
A witness, one Stephen Gulley who implicated by hearsay a Providence shoemaker named Ramsdale, told the commissioners that while on his way from Providence to testify, he had been approached by a certain gentleman at a tavern near the Newport ferry. The gentleman asked him his business and warned him not to proceed to Newport. "There are twenty armed men covering the roads," the man told him, "and they will take you back to Providence either dead or alive." Gulley, in fear of his life, stole a row-boat and escaped to the British man-o-war Lizzard.
On January 19, Montagu informed his fellow members of the commission that he must leave at once for Boston and asked them to recess until spring. The commission, however, held daily sessions until the twenty-ninth when they adjourned until the twenty-sixth of May.
When they again met, the beautiful spring weather was not conducive to an energetic investigation. The destruction of the Gaspee was now history. Other events were claiming the attention of the English Ministers. Stephen Hopkins, Chief Justice of Rhode Island was asked by the commission to give a summary of the evidence that had been presented. He pointed out that the testimony of Aaron Briggs was questionable in view of the evidence presented by his master, and that the crew of the Gaspee had not implicated any Rhode Islanders in their appearances before the commissioners.
On the twenty-third of June 1773, the commission closed its investigation. Their final report to the King stated that the Gaspee was destroyed by persons unknown. They accused Captain Linzee of obtaining Aaron Briggs confession by illegal threats of hanging. The one member of the commission who might have objected to the finding was absent. Admiral Montagu was in Halifax, Canada.
So ended the Gaspee incident. The "Gaspee affair" interested all the Colonies. An act of the smallest colony was a lesson and an inspiration for all. Hutchinson proposed to annul the Royal Charter of Rhode Island. A letter was sent to Sam Adams for advice. He counseled union, "since an attack on the liberties of one Colony was an attack on the liberties of all.'' Governor Wanton of Rhode Island received orders to send Gaspee offenders to England for trial, when apprehended. Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins said:, "Then, for the purpose of 'transportation for trial, I will neither apprehend any person by my own order, nor suffer any executive officer in the Colony to do it." Here was patriotic courage, pure and simple.
It was in this year, 1773, that Inter-Colonial Committees of correspondence suggested by Virginia, were formed and organized as the first step toward Colonial union. This was the initial step towards a Colonial Congress.
Thus the "Gaspee affair" was instrumental in the formation of a Colonial organization capable of united action. Less than two years later, the rebellion against the English rule burst into flame at Lexington and Concord.