Gaspee Affair

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Gaspee Affair
Part of the events in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War
Gaspee Affair.jpg
Burning of HMS Gaspee
Date June 9, 1772
Location Near Gaspee Point, Warwick, Rhode Island
Result American victory
Sons of Liberty Kingdom of Great Britain Kingdom of Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Abraham Whipple
John Brown
William Dudingston +
Casualties and losses
None HMS Gaspee captured and burned

The Gaspee Affair was a very significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. HMS Gaspee[1] was a British customs schooner that had been enforcing the Navigation Acts in and around Newport, Rhode Island in 1772. It ran aground in shallow water while chasing the packet ship Hannah on June 9 near what is now known as Gaspee Point in Warwick, Rhode Island.[2] A group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, and torched the ship.[3]

The event increased hostilities between the American colonists and British officials, following the Boston Massacre in 1770. The British had hoped to reduce tensions with the colonies by repealing some aspects of the Townshend Acts and working to end the American boycott of British goods.[4] British officials in Rhode Island wanted to increase their control over the trade that had defined the small colony—legitimate trade as well as smuggling—in order to increase their revenue from the colony.[5] But Colonists increasingly began to protest the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and other British impositions that had clashed with the colony’s history of rum manufacturing, maritime trade, and slave trading.

This event marked the first act of violent uprising against the authority of the British crown in America, preceding the Boston tea party by more than a year and moving the Colonies as a whole toward the war for independence.


The customs service had a violent history in Britain’s North American colonies in the eighteenth century. The Treasury in London did little to correct known problems, and Britain itself was at war during much of this period and was not in a strategic position to risk antagonizing its overseas colonies. Several successive ministries implemented new policies following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years' War in an attempt to achieve more effective control and to raise more tax revenue in the colonies.

The Admiralty purchased six Marblehead sloops and schooners and gave them Anglicized French names based on their recent acquisitions in Canada. St John, St Lawrence, Chaleur, Hope, Magdalen, and Gaspee had their French accents removed, and subsequent nineteenth and twentieth-century authors used the English spellings.[6] Parliament argued that the revenue was necessary in order to bolster military and naval defensive positions along the borders of their far-flung empire—but also to pay the crushing debt incurred in the war. These changes included deputizing the Royal Navy's Sea Officers to enforce customs laws in colonial ports.[7] These enforcements became increasingly intrusive and aggressive in Narragansett Bay; Rhode Islanders finally responded by attacking HMS St John in 1764, and they burned the customs ship HMS Liberty in 1768 on Goat Island in Newport harbor.[8]

In early 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HMS Gaspee into Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay to enforce customs collection and to force mandatory inspection of cargo. He arrived in Rhode Island in February and met with Governor Joseph Wanton.[9] Soon after he began patrolling Narragansett Bay, Gaspee stopped and inspected the sloop Fortune on February 17 and seized 12 hogsheads of undeclared rum.[10] Dudingston sent Fortune and the seized rum to Boston, believing that any seized items left in a Rhode Island port would be reclaimed by colonists.[11]

But this bold move of sending Fortune to Boston brought outrage within the Rhode Island colony. Dudingston had taken upon himself the authority to determine where trial should take place concerning this seizure, completely superseding the authority of Governor Wanton by doing so. Furthermore, it was a direct violation of the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663 to hold a trial outside of Rhode Island on an arrest that took place within the Colony.[12]

After this, Dudingston and his crew became increasingly aggressive in their searches, boardings, and seizures, even going so far as to stop merchants who were on shore and force searches of their wares. Public resentment and outrage continued to escalate against Gaspee in particular and against the British in general. On March 21, Rhode Island Deputy Governor Darius Sessions wrote to Governor Wanton regarding Lieutenant Dudingston, and he requested that the basis of Dudingston's authority be examined. In the letter, Sessions includes the opinion of Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, who argues that "no commander of any vessel has any right to use any authority in the Body of the Colony without previously applying to the Governor and showing his warrant for so doing."[13] Wanton wrote to Dudingston the next day, demanding that he "produce me your commission and instructions, if any you have, which was your duty to have done when you first came within the jurisdiction of this Colony."[14] Dudingston returned a rude reply to the Governor, refusing to leave his ship or to acknowledge Wanton's elected authority within Rhode Island.

The incident[edit]

From an old engraving

On June 9, Gaspee gave chase to the packet boat Hannah and ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay on what is now Gaspee Point. Her crew was unable to free her immediately, but the rising tide might have allowed the ship to free herself. A band of Providence members of the Sons of Liberty rowed out to confront the ship's crew before this could happen.[15] The group, led by John Brown, decided to act on the "opportunity offered of putting an end to the trouble and vexation she daily caused."[16] They boarded the ship at the break of dawn on June 10. The crew put up a feeble resistance; Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded, and the vessel was burned to the waterline. The man who fired the shot was Joseph Bucklin.[17]

Previous attacks by the colonists on British naval vessels had gone unpunished. In one case, a customs yacht was actually destroyed by fire with no administrative response.[citation needed] But in 1772, the Admiralty would not ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station. The American Department consulted the Solicitor and Attorneys General, who investigated and advised the Privy Council on the legal and constitutional options available. The Crown turned to a centuries-old institution of investigation, the Royal Commission of Inquiry. This commission would be made up of the chiefs of the supreme courts of Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, the judge of the vice-admiralty of Boston, and the Governor Joseph Wanton of Rhode Island. The Dockyard Act, passed three months earlier in April, allowed those suspected of burning His Majesty's vessels to be tried in England, but this was not the law that was used against the Gaspee raiders; they were charged with treason.[18] The task of the commission was to determine against which colonists there was sufficient evidence for their trial in England. The Commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence and declared their inability to deal with the case.

Colonial Whigs were alarmed at the prospect of Americans being sent to England for trial. A committee of correspondence was formed in Boston to consult on the crisis. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses was so alarmed that they also formed an inter-colonial committee of correspondence to consult in the crisis with other committees.

In Boston, Rhode Islander John Allen preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church that utilized the Gaspee affair to warn listeners about greedy monarchs, corrupt judges, and conspiracies at high levels in the London government. This sermon was printed seven different times in four colonial cities, becoming one of the most popular pamphlets of Colonial America.[19] This pamphlet and the incendiary rhetoric of numerous colonial newspaper editors awoke colonial Whigs from a lull of inactivity in 1772, thus inaugurating a series of conflicts that culminated in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Aftermath and legacy[edit]

The aftermath of the Gaspee burning brought British calls to investigate and apprehend the individuals responsible for shooting Dudingston and destroying the schooner. Governor Wanton and Deputy Governor Sessions echoed British sentiments despite not having the same enthusiasm for punishing their fellow Rhode Islanders.[20] Accounts by British midshipmen from Gaspee described the perpetrators as "merchants and masters of vessels, who were at my bureau reading and examining my papers."[21] Admiral Montagu wrote to Governor Wanton on July 8, nearly a month after the burning of the schooner, and utilized the account of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant claiming to have participated in the June 9 burning. Montagu identified five Rhode Islanders, in varying levels of detail, whom he wanted Governor Wanton to investigate and bring to justice: John Brown, Joseph Brown, Simeon Potter, Dr. Weeks, and Richmond.[22]

Governor Wanton responded to this demand by examining the claims made by Aaron Briggs. Samuel Tompkins and Samuel Thurston, the proprietors of the Prudence Island farm where Briggs worked, gave testimony challenging Briggs's account of June 9. Both men stated that Briggs had been present at work the evening of June 9 and early in the morning on June 10. Additionally, Wanton received further evidence from two other indentured servants working with Briggs, and both stated that Briggs had been present throughout the night in question. Thus, Wanton believed that Briggs was no more than an imposter. Dudingston and Montagu challenged Wanton’s assertions, Montagu saying that "it is clear to me from many corroborating circumstances, that he [Briggs] is no imposter."[23]

The city of Warwick, Rhode Island commemorates the Gaspee affair each year with Gaspee Days.[24] This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the Gaspee Days parade, which features burning the Gaspee in effigy and a Revolutionary War battle reenactment, among other entertainments.

Gaspee Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is also a plaque in the front of a parking lot on South Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island identifying the location of the Sabin Tavern, where the plot was planned to burn the Gaspee.

The documentary film Aaron Briggs and the HMS Gaspee was released on DVD in 2015, featuring Richard Lobban and Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban,.[25] University of Connecticut-Avery Point professor Steven Park released the book The Burning of His Majesty's Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution in November 2016.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bartlett: Destruction of the Gaspee – "His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee." Accessed June 9, 2009.
  2. ^ This version of the story is told by Ephraim Bowen and John Mawney in William R. Staples The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee (Providence, RI: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), pp. 14–16. These men made their statements in 1826, relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on January 5, 2009. Retrieved May 27, 2009.  The only other testimony from a colonial is that of Aaron Biggs (sometimes Briggs), an escaped slave who told a slightly different version of the story. His telling of the events was later discredited, however, when it was found that it had been given under duress. (Bartlett, John Russell. A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee, In Narragansett Bay, On the 10th of June 1772 (Providence, RI.: A. Crawford Greene, 1861), pp. 84–87). We also have the testimony of several mariners from the crew and officers of the Gaspee. They report a much larger number of attackers and many more boats.
  4. ^ Ferling, John (2015). Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It. Bloomsbury Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-1620401729. 
  5. ^ Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Providence: Knowles, Vose,, and Anthony. p. 3. 
  6. ^ See Barlett
  7. ^ See Barrow, Thomas C. Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America, 1660–1775 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967) especially page 177. See also Gipson, Lawrence Henry, The British Empire Before the American Revolution, Vol. XII The Triumphant Empire: Britain Sails into the Storm, 1770–1776. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965) especially page 26 footnote 79.
  8. ^ Warships of the world to 1900, Volume 799, Ships of the World Series:Warships of the World to 1900, Lincoln P. Paine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000) pg. 95 [1]
  9. ^ Lovejoy, David S. (1958). Rhode Island Politics and the American Revolution, 1760-1776. Providence: Brown University Press. pp. 157. Governor Wanton and Lieutenant Dudingston discussed the 1769 burning of the Liberty in their first meeting. In the burning, Rhode Islanders destroyed and set fire to the British vessel in Newport, allowing the ships to escape that had been seized by the Liberty. Wanton implied that Dudingston might find the same troubles years later, which prompted Dudingston to send the Fortune to Boston. 
  10. ^ Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Knowles, Vose, and Anthony. p. 7. 
  11. ^ Ibid. p. 6. 
  12. ^ Samuel Greene Arnold, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Vol. 2, New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1859.
  13. ^ Ibid. p. 3. 
  14. ^ Ibid. p. 4. 
  15. ^ This version of the story is told by Ephraim Bowen and John Mawney in Staples, William R., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, (Providence, R.I.: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), p. 14–16. These men made these statements in 1826 relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.
  16. ^ Ibid. p. 8. 
  17. ^ "Joseph Bucklin V Biography". Joseph Bucklin Society. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  18. ^ Edward Thurlow and Alexander Wedderburn (the Attorney and Solicitor General) wrote to the Earl of Hillsborough on August 10, 1772 dismissing the Dockyard Act and allowing high treason instead (levying war against the King). National Archives (Public Record Office, United Kingdom) CO (Colonial Office Records) 5 159 folder 26.
  19. ^ G. Jack Gravelee and James R. Irvine, eds. Pamphlets and the American Revolution: Rhetoric, Politics, Literature, and the Popular Press (Delmare, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976), viii.
  20. ^ Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Knowles, Vose, and Anthony. p. 16. 
  21. ^ Ibid. p. 14. 
  22. ^ Ibid. p. 17. 
  23. ^ Ibid. pp. 17–20. 
  24. ^ Retrieved 8 May 2016.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ Film webpage,
  26. ^ "The Burning of His Majesty's Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution". Amazon. Retrieved 8 May 2016. 

External links[edit]