Heard Round the World: Burning
of the Schooner Gaspee
by Troop 1, Boy Scouts of America, Gaspee Plateau
The British revenue schooner Gaspee might never have run aground if her commander, Lt. William Dudingston, had not insisted on a salute from Capt. Thomas Lindsay of the sloop Hannah on June 9, 1772. Nor might the Gaspee have been seized and burned by angry men from Providence if Dudingston and his crew had not been surprised early next morning in their nightshirts, as he later claimed. But, the salute was demanded, the Gaspee's crew was caught napping, and so she comes down to us as the target of the first armed attack by American colonists on the British crown.
Rhode Islanders, used to governing their own affairs, had staged earlier demonstrations against British efforts to collect duties on imports and exports to defray the cost of running the colonies. In 1764, the people of Newport planned to destroy the revenue schooner St. John, but were dissuaded by the arrival of another British schooner. Later the same year, however, a mob seized the small boats of a British frigate, carried them-to the Common in front of the courthouse and burned them as a protest.
Five years later, another Newport mob sank the armed revenue sloop Liberty because of its ill treatment of the skipper of a locally-owned brig. These Incidents did not have the disciplined organization of the attack on the Gaspee, In fact it is possible that Capt. Lindsay purposely ignored the salute in order to decoy the Gaspee into chasing her and running aground off what was then called Namquid Point, now Gaspee Point, Warwick, Other Indications of prior planning are the quick response of some 200 men to assemble at Sabin's Tavern at what is now South Main and Planet Streets and the immediate availability of long boats to carry them down the Providence River to attack the Gaspee that night. The possibilities for speculation are endless, including why the subsequent attack, seizure of Dudingston and his crew and the destruction of the Gaspee never gained the fame of the Boston Tea Party, which happened a year later and was a tea party in comparison. Such are the stubborn elements of history, however.
Some light is thrown on these matters in the display arranged here by Troop 1 Gaspee Plateau, for the Wonderful World of Scouting Exhibition. Of particular interest is the photostatic copy of the minutes of Dudingston's court martial in October, 1772, aboard the Royal Navy ship Centurion at Portsmouth, England. It was obtained from the British Admiralty. The testimony indicates that there was considerable confusion as the attacking long boats swept down on the helpless Gaspee with muffled oars. The sentinel's musket would not fire, Dudingston had no matches to light the scene, and the arms chest was opened too late to be of any help to the already shorthanded crew, several of whom were taking a seized craft to Boston.
This was a serious offense in the eyes of the Royal Navy and one wonders how much value the court placed on Dudingston's claim that the Gaspee's crew, "would have done their duty had they had their clothes on."
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