TAXES!: Conflicts That Led Up To the Burning of the Gaspee
By Susan Danforth
Curator of Maps & Prints/Assistant Librarian for Library Operations
The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Webmaster Note: The following article appeared in The Bridge, Newspaper of the Pawtuxet Village Association, Spring, 2003, p3-5, and is re-presented here with permission of the author.
|The burning of the British customs
schooner, Gaspee, on the dark
night of June 9/10, 1772, has been celebrated as America's "first blow
for freedom," pre-dating the outbreak of the American Revolution by
four years. But this event can also be seen as the culmination of
a series of violent maritime encounters between Rhode Islanders and
British law enforcement officials that had roiled the waters of
Narragansett Bay for almost a decade. The primary cause of this
conflict was British determination to collect duties on merchandise
imported into the colony, and to enforce old trade laws that Rhode
Islanders had effectively ignored for decades. At the same time,
Parliament's attempt to levy new taxes enraged the populace even
further. Rhode Islanders perceived these actions as an affront to the
rights granted them by their charter and as a threat to their
traditional trading patterns that, if unchecked, would cause sharp
financial pain to every merchant and consumer in the colony.
The Rhode Island Charter of 1663
The Rhode Island charter of 1663 granted the inhabitants permission "to hold forth a livelie experiment," to prove that a civil state allowing liberty of conscience -- the right to practice whatever religion one chose -- could flourish, and it guaranteed. Rhode Islanders the same rights as if they had been born in England. The charter also established a design for colonial self-government that by 1763 had been in effect for a hundred years with little interference from the mother country.
The Rhode Island government was led by a General Assembly, and according to the charter the only check to its power was that its laws could not go counter to the laws of England. As the colony matured politically it developed into a virtually independent state that acknowledged, only when necessary, an allegiance to the King -- and only the King. Members of the British Parliament were empowered to represent and tax their constituents, to be sure, but Rhode Islanders were not their constituents and they refused to acknowledge Parliament's right to tax them.
Molasses and Trade
The bulk of Rhode Island's commerce was with the West Indies and Surinam, a Dutch colony on the coast of South America. Rhode Island ships carried small quantities of local cheese, fish, lumber, and horses (the celebrated "Narragansett pacers"), and larger freights of lumber, beef, fish and flour from neighboring colonies. At the British and foreign islands in the Caribbean, the ships took on cargoes of molasses, which was the cornerstone of the colony's economy. Rhode Islanders focused on the French islands, taking advantage of lower sugar and molasses prices and good markets for New England produce. But the planters in the English West Indies complained bitterly about being undercut, and in 1733, Parliament enacted the Molasses Act, which placed high duties on sugar and molasses imported into the colonies from non-British islands. However, enforcement was lax and haphazard, and colonial merchants found the law fairly easy to circumvent.
Molasses was traded in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia for British manufactures, food supplies, and return cargoes for the West Indies trade and England. It was distilled into rum used to barter for African slaves and to supply the fishing and fur trade in North America. And of course, considerable amounts were consumed at home. In 1764 there were more than thirty distilleries in Rhode Island and several hundred people were directly dependent on its production for their livelihood. Rhode Island's business of making a living, then, depended to a large extent, directly and indirectly, upon coastal and foreign trade. Molasses was king.
Aftermath of the French and Indian War (1755-1763)
The French and Indian war saw an epic struggle between the European powers. Great Britain and France, for control of resources and territory in North America and the West Indies. With Britain's victory in 1763 came the acquisition of vast American territories that necessitated increased revenues for defense and administration. To this end it was decided to enforce the navigation laws already on the books (such as the Molasses Act of 1733), to tax the colonies directly, and to use this revenue to maintain an army to protect British interests in America. The war had been expensive, and maintaining the peace was going to be expensive as well. The feeling in London was that those who were being protected by British troops should contribute toward their upkeep. But the close of the French and Indian War found Rhode Islanders in the middle of a serious depression, although Rhode Island had in fact reaped commercial benefits from the 18th-century conflicts between France and England. Privateering and illicit trade with the French, the Dutch, and the buccaneers in the West Indies was often lucrative, though not without hazard. But, like Great Britain, the colony had expended its own funds on the long and costly war as well and many people had been adversely affected. Providence alone lost 65 vessels between 1756 to 1764, and the struggle with the French put a damper on trade, particularly in the West Indies. In addition, New England had suffered long droughts in the summers of 1761 and 1762, with a severe winter in between. Vigorous enforcement of the old Molasses Act of 1733 threatened to undercut what little trade had been salvaged from the havoc of war, and merchants, customs officials, and naval officers were at each other's throats from the very first attempt to force Rhode Islanders to obey customs regulations on imports from foreign islands.
Parliament's imposition of new taxes, the appointment of more determined customs officials, and the increase in British naval presence in Narragansett Bay were perceived as challenges to the colony's charter and its independent spirit. Commissioners of customs tried to put a stop to smuggling by placing armed vessels in Narragansett Bay and at other places along the North American coast, from Casco Bay to Cape Henlopen. But the Bay proved ideal for smuggling and Rhode Islanders displayed unusual ingenuity, regularly managing to outwit or bribe British revenue officials at Newport. During one period, Newport distilleries consumed 12,000 hogsheads of molasses (a hogshead varies, but is probably the equivalent of about 54 U.S. gallons), only 2,500 of which had arrived legitimately from British West India islands.
Real trouble began in January, of 1764, when John Temple, the official responsible for the enforcement of the trade acts, blustered into Rhode Island from his headquarters in Boston declaring that he intended to enforce the Molasses Act of 1733 with the utmost vigor. This was a surprise, since two months earlier he had implied he would turn the usual blind eye. The British vessel assigned to Narragansett Bay in 1764 was the schooner St. John, who made her presence felt shortly after her arrival by the seizure of the sloop, Rhoda, from Surinam, with her cargo of molasses. This incident so enraged Newporters that they proceeded to fit out an armed sloop with the intention of destroying the St. John. Although several rounds were actually fired at the ship, the presence in the Bay of the British man of war, Squirrel, caused cooler heads to prevail. Two days later, after sundown, the Rhoda was "got under Sail and carried off by Persons unknown." A reward was posted for the capture of the offenders, but there were no takers.
That same year, the Maidstone, a British navy vessel, aroused the populace by its aggressive impressment tactics (capturing and forcing Rhode Island seamen into the British navy). The last straw occurred when a brig entered Newport harbor and had her entire crew pressed into naval service. That night a mob of about five hundred seized one of the Maidstone's boats, paraded it through the town, and set it on fire in front of the court house.
More Taxes and a Shaky Non-Importation Agreement
In 1765 the British Parliament tightened the screws again with the Stamp Act. This was a tax on commercial and legal documents, pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, playing cards, and dice. After a huge outcry by the colonists and their supporters inside and outside the British government, the tax was repealed in March of 1766. In that same year, Parliament reduced taxes on molasses to a penny a gallon, but charged this tax on all molasses coming into the colonies, whether it's origin was the British Caribbean or foreign islands. Rhode Island merchants, with their dependence on molasses, were very unhappy. In 1767, Parliament struck again by enacting the Townshend Acts, which imposed duties on glass, lead, painters' colors, tea and paper. That this produced an outcry comes as no surprise.
In Rhode Island, colonial theorists, waving the charter of 1663, produced petitions, protests, constitutional arguments and debates. Newspapers printed patriotic letters. An article in the Newport Mercury (January 11, 1768), claimed that the act undercut the "natural equality" of men and, interestingly enough at this early date, compared the status of the colonists to "negro slavery." Colonial pragmatists, on the other hand, supported "non-importation," an agreement between all the colonies to refuse to buy British goods.
For as long as possible, Rhode Island merchants put off joining the non-importation agreement because it would cut so deeply into one of the colony's few means of support -- trade with the West Indies. In the fall of 1767, however, they caved in to pressure, but left as many loop-holes as they could. But by 1769, British goods were still coming into Rhode Island, although they were turned away at other colonial ports. Boston and New York threatened to stop doing business with the colony, and New York eventually instituted a general boycott of Rhode Island trade. Reluctantly, the merchants were forced to cooperate when they suffered the loss of coasting trade with the other colonies, and when the general population began to demand it, as happened in Providence. Early in 1770, Parliament repealed all the taxes included in the Townshend Acts, except for that on tea. While the other colonies were determined to maintain non-importation until all taxes were removed, Rhode Island merchants were desperate to resume trade, and they did.
Charles Dudley, British Collector of Customs, arrived in Newport in the spring of 1768. Rhode Islanders lost no time in asserting themselves; they stole molasses from under his nose and spirited away several seized vessels. In May of 1769, His Majesty's sloop, Liberty, Captain Reid commanding, was sent to Newport to aid customs officers in enforcing trade and customs acts, and he immediately seized a Providence vessel arriving from the West Indies with an undeclared cargo of molasses. In mid-July he seized a brig and sloop from Connecticut, which he insisted had illegal cargo as well. The outraged captain of one of the seized vessels argued the matter, and the Liberty opened fire as the Connecticut captain sought to escape in an open boat. Unfortunately for Reid, this action took place in front of the townspeople of Newport who lined the wharves. That evening a mob of "persons unknown, chiefly from Connecticut," removed the Liberty's crew, cut her loose, drove her ashore, cut her masts, and scuttled her. The tide took her to Goat Island, where she was set on fire. No arrests were made in spite of "inquiries" into the matter made by Governor Wanton. Then, in April of 1771, Collector of Customs, Charles Dudley, was attacked. The colonists' version of the story stated that he had boarded a vessel in Newport, alone and at night, and was attacked and severely beaten by "drunken sailors and lawless seamen," not, of course, by law-abiding Rhode Islanders.
The Burning of the Gaspee
So, when H. M. Schooner, Gaspee, Lieutenant Dudingston commander, arrived in Narragansett Bay in March of 1772, there had already been considerable "history" in the contest between Rhode Island merchants and smugglers and British would-be tax enforcers. And Dudingston proved to be every bit as problematic as Captain Reid of the Liberty had been. His harassment of general commerce in the Bay caused public outcry, and his seizure and disposition of cargoes was often outside the law. At noon on June 9, 1772, Benjamin Lindsey left Newport in his sloop, Hannah, bound for Providence, and the Gaspee took up pursuit as far as Namquit Point, when Lindsey feinted and the Gaspee ran aground in low water. Lindsey continued to Providence, arriving about sunset, and spread the alarm. In the words of Ephraim Bowen, one of the participants in the affair, "a man passed along the main street, beating a drum, and informing the inhabitants of the fact that the Gaspee was aground on Namquit Point, and would not float off until three o'clock the next morning; and inviting those persons who felt a disposition to go and destroy the troublesome vessell." The invitation was accepted. From here (at least) the story is most likely familiar to our readers. The boats from Providence were rowed with muffled oars until they reached the stranded ship. Dudingston was hailed and told to surrender. Impatient shots were fired and Dudingston went down with bullet wounds to his arm and groin. The schooner was boarded and, while a medic was found to dress the captain's wounds, the Rhode Islanders went through his papers and sacked the ship. The crew and Dudingston were brought ashore at the Still-House Cove in Pawtuxet and the schooner was burned to the waterline.
Governor Wanton again offered a reward ₤100 for information leading to the conviction of the perpetrators of this latest blow to British naval power, but no arrests were made. A commission was called to look into the affair but it had difficulty getting subpoenaed witnesses to appear before them. The one weak link in the episode, an indentured servant named Aaron Briggs, who confessed under duress to being a part of the action, was "proved" a liar by several "reputable" witnesses. The commission gradually faded away. In fact, from the time Newporters had fired on His Majesty's vessel St. John, in 1764 to the burning of the Gaspee in 1772, Rhode Islanders had never been made accountable for their violent attacks upon the King's officers and vessels. The colony's government had never punished or even apprehended anyone connected with these offenses, but had achieved great success by playing "dumb," and doing all in its power to exhaust the opposition with delay.
This article is based on the following publications:
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