Destruction of the Gaspee and the Reasons Therefore
Webmaster's Note: The following piece was actually written by MRS. B. O. Wilbour, who was a founding member and first Regent (president) of the Gaspee Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is largely sourced from the accounts of Ephraim Bowen. Spelling and style has been standardized after scanning.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE GASPEEAND THE REASONS THEREFORE
B. O. Wilbour
Regent, D.A.R. of Rhode Island
Standard Printing Company, Providence
The Destruction of the Gaspee and the Reasons Therefore
The destruction of the Gaspee June 10, 1772, was an audacious act. At the time, although energetic protests were going to the British throne from our fathers against the tyrannical measures which the British ministry and parliament seemed bent on executing, almost everybody in the thirteen colonies professed loyalty to the king. Here and there a bold man might avow his purpose to resist by force unreasonable statutes. Here and there a far-sighted patriot might discern from the signs of the times the contest which finally sundered the union between the colonies and the parent government. The word Independence was never spoken save with bated breath. Our fathers were warmly attached to the fatherland, and dreamed not of separation, and yet, nearly three years before the battle of Lexington, more than three years before the conflict on Bunker Hill, the British schooner Gaspee was seized by an armed force of citizens of Providence and burnt.
If the waters of Providence river were not crimsoned with blood, it was no fault of the assailants. They came prepared to conquer or die. One of them shot the Commander of the vessel, and but for the timidity of the crew of the Gaspee, others would have been wounded or slain.
Technically the deed was treason. The brave band, led by John Brown and Abraham Whipple were liable to imprisonment or death. Unless they had strongly confided in the sympathy of their townsmen or neighbors, their deed was arrant quixotism. But their confidence in these neighbors was not misplaced. Though hundreds knew who were the ringleaders in the plot, everybody maintained secrecy, and no reward tendered by the Governor of Rhode Island or by the British ministry availed to bring the offenders to trial. These facts show that deep irritation stirred the hearts of the people in Providence plantations.
A recital of a few historic facts will answer the inquiry as to the causes that led to the seizure of the Gaspee. The war which ended in 1763 had revealed the mighty strength of the British colonies. Thousands of the people had become accustomed to the privation and restraint of the camp, and the peril of the battlefield. They had enjoyed the training of European officers, and had attained self reliance and skill. And, on the whole, save in the sacrifice of precious lives, the colonists had gained by the strife. They had taken many valuable prizes, which added to the material wealth of the people, and their gains had been swelled by the wages of service. But the parent government had had enormous expenses, and a large addition been made to the national debt. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that the British ministry conceived the plan of partly reimbursing the government by taxing the colonies. Selfish statesmen argued, we have made large outlays for the protection of the colonies, and they ought to pay a part of the interest at least of our national debt. But the proposal was unwelcome to our fathers.
In the first place, their ancestors had been at great pains to remove to this then, waste, howling wilderness. They had endured trial and privation, and with their own hands, hewn down the forests and carved out their farms. They had drawn riches from the seas, and sent their ships to foreign lands to carry on a gainful traffic. But they largely drew their supplies of manufactured goods from Great Britain. British merchants reaped a harvest from their trade. If they never paid a dollar to the English treasury directly, they yet helped the British merchant and artisan to pay their taxes by the profits of colonial trade. Farther than this, the colonists reminded the British ministry that they were unrepresented in Parliament. Taxation without representation was monstrous. It was simply legalized robbery. But the ministry were arrogant, and Parliament conceited, and taxes were imposed. The ministry tried first to enforce navigation laws, which had been a dead letter; and Parliament passed the stamp act, and imposed other duties. But the spirit of our fathers was aroused. If obnoxious duties were authorized,
they resolved that they would forego the use of the articles whereon they were imposed. They made compacts with one another not to import the objectionable goods. So resolutely did they keep their agreement that British merchants found their trade seriously curtailed, and besought Parliament to repeal the offensive statutes. It unwisely kept the irritation alive by claiming the right to impose on the colonies taxes at pleasure.
For nine years prior to the burning of the Gaspee, the British ministry and the colonists had been at strife over the matter of taxation. Up to 1772 the strife had been bloodless. In the spring of that year, the armed schooner Gaspee appeared in the waters of Narragansett Bay to aid in enforcing the revenue laws. She was commanded by Lieut. William Dudingston. He was evidently a somewhat conceited officer, but still energetic and alert. While failing to understand the temper of Rhode Islanders, he sought to win the approbation of his superiors by excessive vigilance. In a little time he made himself generally detested. Frequently annoying vessels peaceably navigating the bay, he allowed himself sometimes to detain them with scarce a pretext. He stopped occasionally even market boats, and more than once plundered the people on shore. He violated, indeed, the Charter of the colony by failing to show his commission, and though an act of Parliament ordained that trials on property seized be held in the colony where the seizure was made, he had the impudence to send captured property to Boston.
Of course, such acts kindled the indignation of our fathers; still they sought redress by legal means. Deputy Governor Sessions applied to Chief Justice Hopkins for information as to the legality of Dudingston's conduct, and received a reply from him to the effect that no commander of any vessel has a right to use any authority in the body of the colony, without previously applying to the Governor, and showing his warrant for so doing, and also being sworn to a due exercise of his office."
Correspondence followed between Gov. Wanton and Lieut. Dudingston. The latter showed a characteristic insolence, and finally enclosed the correspondence to Admiral Montague in Boston. He even addressed an exceedingly impertinent letter to Gov. Wanton, ridiculing his course, defending the action of Dudingston, and even threatening, in case the rescue of any prize was attempted, " to hang as pirates the parties concerned."
Flesh and blood could hardly endure such insolence. Gov. Wanton, loyalist though he afterward showed himself to be, quickly responded to the Admiral in these terms: "I do not receive instructions for the administration of my government from the king's Admiral stationed in America." Meanwhile the Governor laid both the Admiral's threatening letter and his reply before the Assembly, and that body directed copies of the correspondence to be sent to England, with an account of the incidents referred to therein. It may be mentioned that Lieut. Dudingston had, in writing to the Admiral, admitted that he had knowingly violated the law by sending a captured sloop with her cargo of rum to Boston; and averred that he expected the commissioners of customs there to sustain him, which he did not believe would be done in Newport.
Of course, all these matters were known and talked about in Rhode Island. Sober citizens asked themselves, Is the navigation of our noble Bay to be at the mercy of a conceited underling of the British government? Are our most honored officials to be grossly insulted by a petty officer of the British navy? Doubtless resentment was kindled which led many to feel that further subjection to Britain would be equivalent to slavery. And it was not long before an opportunity occurred to show how indignation at pertness and insolence were weakening the hands of loyalty.
The sloop Hannah from New York, reported at the Custom House at Newport, and the next day prowed up river. The Gaspee as usual, gave chase, and kept up the pursuit as far as Namquid Point. Here the water shallows, and the wary Captain of the sloop kept on his course, knowing that the Gaspee might run aground. He probably felt no sorrow when he saw her fastened, but kept on his way to Providence and reported to Mr. John Brown, one of the most respectable merchants of the place, the plight of the Gaspee.
Mr. Brown feels that now is a time for ridding the Bay of a nuisance. He therefore directs one of his most reliable shipmasters to collect eight of the largest longboats, with five oars each, to muffle the oars and rowlocks, and to place them at Fenner's wharf. Shortly after sunset, at the time when the shops were usually shut, a man passed along the Main Street, beating a drum and apprising the people that the Gaspee was aground on Namquid Point, and would not float off ‘til three o'clock the next morning. He further invited those who might be disposed to go and destroy that hurtful vessel, to go in the evening to Mr. James Sabin's.
The last survivor of the party died in 1841, but he testified two years before his death, that he repaired to the designated house about nine o'clock, taking with him his father's gun, and his own powder-horn and bullets. He found a room full of people, some casting bullets in the kitchen, and others arranging for their departure.
At ten o'clock the company received orders to embark. A sea captain acted as steersman for every boat. Resolutely the rowers urged their boats toward the fated vessel, and when within sixty yards, heard the sentinel's hail, "Who comes here?"
The party have no time for idle talk, and gave no answer. The sentinel hails again, and silence still prevails. Dudingston now appears clad only in his shirt, mounts the gunwale, and shouts again, "Who comes here?" Still no response, and he hails again.
Now the silence is broken by Capt. Whipple who answers Dudingston's inquiry, by indulging in vigorous imprecation. "I am the sheriff of Kent County . . . I have got a warrant to apprehend you . . . So surrender." . . . As soon as Lieut. Dudingston began to hail, Joseph Bucklin says to a companion, "Reach me your gun, I can kill that fellow." Ere Capt. Whipple has time to finish the answer, Bucklin fired and Lieut. Dudingston fell. Happily he was not killed, and a surgeon accompanying the party, was ordered to go to the cabin, and dress the wound of the lieutenant.
In less than a minute after Whipple's reply, the boats were alongside, and the Gaspee was conquered without opposition. The sailors retreated below, and the mischievous cruiser was a prize.
To prevent any troublesome controversy as to the ownership of the craft, her crew were ordered to take their effects and haste to the shore. Dudingston was landed at Pawtuxet, and meanwhile the leaders of the Providence company set the Gaspee in flames and burned her to the water's edge. Rhode Island is therefore entitled to the distinction of firing the first shot in the war of the Revolution.
As we said before, it was nearly three years before the conflict became general, but it was a party of Rhode Island volunteers, that first checked British arrogance. Of course Gov. Wanton offered a reward for the detection of the audacious band, and the British authorities offered a great sum for the conviction of the incendiaries, but nobody could be found who knew anything about the matter, more than if it had been a case of spontaneous combustion. The drama proved to be, however, the opening of the Revolution.