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The Gaspee Affair of 1772
The First Blow for Freedom
By Robert W. Martin

Shortly before midnight on June 9, 1772, approximately sixty armed men from Providence, Rhode Island set out in eight longboats for Namquid Point where His Majesty's Ship Gaspee had run aground. The majority of these men, who comprised the social elite of Providence, were disguised with black-smeared faces or Indian headdresses. Led by John Brown, a wealthy merchant and member of one of Rhode Island's most prestigious families, their intentions were nothing less than the deliberate destruction of the government ship on duty in Narragansett Bay.

The roots of this action are found in 1763 when, as a result of the French and Indian War, England had gained control of Canada, Florida, and the lands west to the Mississippi River. In order to protect these new territories, the British needed an occupying army along the frontier. This force would be rather costly, so the British Crown turned to the thirteen colonies to offer financial support. The colonists were outraged for two reasons. First, they questioned the funding of any frontier army when British policy forbade the colonists to settle in the newly acquired lands. Secondly, the British were now attempting to take more control over colonial trade after taking a rather liberal stance for over 100 years. In 1764, a series of taxes were passed which led to stronger resentment throughout the colonies. Rhode Island became particularly infuriated because these new taxes greatly affected commerce -- the life-blood of the tiny colony which had very limited resources with the exception of Narragansett Bay. Ports such as Newport and Providence had turned away from the required British system of mercantilism (to trade only with England) and brought a great deal of wealth and commerce from around the globe. Now, these illegal activities were to be stamped out. Couple this with the increased burden of taxes, and one can well imagine the anger and resentment felt by all Rhode Islanders.

In 1772, the two-masted schooner H.M.S. Gaspee, under the command of the stern Lieutenant William Dudingston, was transferred from Pennsylvania to New England in order to stem the tide of illegal trade. In fact, the Dudingston's efforts were so successful, the British government believed that riots might break out because he seized so many ships. Regardless, the smuggling activities continued and were particularly pronounced in Narragansett Bay, so the Crown ordered the Gaspee to patrol there permanently in early March. As the months progressed, Dudingston's aggressive tactics continued to incite the colonists. He pursued every ship from the large merchantmen to the small traders and fishermen. The Gaspee crew was even ordered to take supplies from area farmers without permission or compensation. When news of these actions reached Rhode Island governor Joseph Wanton, he called for a meeting with Lieutenant Dudingston to voice the residents concerns. Dudingston refused and continued his strategy of disrupting commerce throughout Narragansett Bay.

On June 9, the Gaspee attempted to stop and search the Hannah, a small trader from Newport bound for Providence. The captain of the Hannah, Benjamin Lindsey, refused to comply even after warning shots were fired from the Gaspee. Lindsey lured Dudingston into an area off Namquid point, an area which Lindsey knew to be very shallow at low tide. By two o'clock, the Gaspee had run aground and the Hannah raced away. Upon arrival in Providence, Lindsey informed John Brown of his experiences. Brown saw this as an opportunity for revenge and called upon his loyal sea captain, Abraham Whipple, to muster a crew. Within a few hours, the sixty men shoved off from Fenner's Warf to make the six mile journey to where the Gaspee was stranded.

The dark moonless evening kept the longboats out of sight until they were within 60 to 100 yards of the ship. This was important because each man knew that if they were detected, the eight large guns of the Gaspee would tear them to shreds. By the time the Gaspee's sentinel raised the alarm, the ship was surrounded. John Brown, describing himself as the Sheriff of Kent County, called for the surrender of the Gaspee and Lieutenant Dudingston. In response, Dudingston ordered the crew to fire upon anyone who attempted to board the ship. Shortly thereafter, the Rhode Islanders rushed the decks of the Gaspee and, in the melee, Dudingston was struck by a musket ball in the arm and fell to the deck. The remainder of the crew, most of whom were asleep below deck, were overcome by the raiding party and Dudingston was forced to surrender. The captured crew was bound, placed into the longboats, and placed on shore in the Pawtuxet area. The leaders then removed most of the documents aboard the Gaspee and ordered the ship to be burned. Little did they realize that the flames that reached into the night sky were, in reality, lighting the way to the forthcoming American Revolution.

The following day, the towns of Providence, Bristol, and Newport were abuzz with the events of the previous evening. Many people saw the flames and heard the explosions. Yet, when the investigation of the Gaspee affair was opened on June 10, 1772 until its closure a year later, not one individual claimed to know any detail surrounding those involved or the course of action. It was not until after the Americans had succeeded in obtaining their independence that the stories were told and written.

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