On This Day: The Burning of the Gaspee

Fri, 06/02/2017 - 11:33am -- mfarias

The struggle for colonial independence in Rhode Island has one of its anniversaries this weekend, which marks 245 years since the burning of the Gaspee. An armed schooner in the King’s army, the Gaspee first appeared in the waters of Narragansett Bay in March 1772. By June 9, 1772 it had been destroyed by an anonymous group of Rhode Islanders who were never punished.


Destruction of the Schooner Gaspee in the Waters of Rhode Island 1772, Eng. by J. Rogers
From the Collection of the Redwood Library
The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee by Hon. William R. Staples, 1845

When the Gaspee made its appearance in Narragansett Bay, Deputy Governor Darius Sessions, then residing in Providence, wrote a letter to Governor Joseph Wanton of Newport. It began, “The inhabitants of this town have, of late, been much disquieted in their minds, by repeated advices being brought of a schooner which for some time past hath cruised in the Narragansett Bay and much disturbed our Navigation.” The Gaspee was imposing itself on all vessels that attempted to pass through the waters, stopping every ship for a thorough investigation before allowing it to pass. It was a customs vessel, regulating colonial trade, much to the displeasure of the people in the colonies and the Governor of Rhode Island himself who, corresponded with the officer on the ship, William Duddingston, and his superiors regularly between March and June of that year.


Governor Joseph Wanton, undated
From the Collection of the Redwood Library
(Wanton was the last colonial Governor of R.I. and 
one of the original members of the Company of the Redwood Library.)

In a letter to the Secretary of State, written May 20, 1772, Wanton wrote: “Let it then suffice that since the Gaspee and Beaver [another vessel] have been stationed in this colony, the inhabitants have been insulted without any just cause, with the most abusive and contumelious language, and I am sorry that I have reason to say, that the principal officers belonging to said vessels have exercised that power with which they are vested, in a wanton and arbitrary matter, to the very great injury and disturbance of the colony.” One instance of an abuse of power, which angered the Governor, was when Duddingston violated a provision of an act of Parliament relating to seizures made for illicit trade. While the act required that goods thus seized should be adjudicated by the court in the colony in which they were seized, he sent the rum he had confiscated to Boston for trial instead. He was threatened with a suit and feared that he would be arrested if he went on shore. The relationship between the ship and the colony only continued to worsen.


Gaspee Point (Source: USHistory.org)

While some accounts at the time listed the fateful day as June 10, it was actually on Tuesday, June 9, 1772 that the Gaspee was destroyed, as proclaimed by Governor Wanton. According to the Providence Gazette of June 13, Captain Lindsey’s sloop, called the Hannah, arrived at Newport on Monday, from New York. After reporting her cargo at Newport, she made her way up the Bay on Tuesday, with the Gaspee in pursuit. At Namquid Point (now called Gaspee Point), the Gaspee ran on the Point, near its end, and was grounded. Lindsey continued along to Providence where he informed John Brown, a merchant, of the position and predicament of the Gaspee. “Mr. Brown immediately resolved on her destruction, and he forthwith directed one of his trusty shipmasters to collect eight of the largest long-boats in the harbor, with five oars to each, to have the oars and row-locks well muffled, to prevent noise, and to place them at Fenner’s wharf, directly opposite to the dwelling of Mr. James Sabin.” A man passed through the streets of Warwick, Rhode Island, near the location of the Gaspee, beating a drum and sharing the news of the ship’s situation, inviting those who would like to help end the annoyance of the ship to meet at the home of Mr. Sabin. As the men approached the ship, Duddingston was shot and removed for treatment along with the rest of the men aboard the ship. Only one of the small boats remained alongside the Gaspee, whose job it was to set the vessel on fire, “which consumed her to the water’s edge.” This account was made by Col. Ephraim Bowen August 29, 1839, at the age of 86, who was the last remaining of the most “conspicuous actors” in the party.

The Burning of the Gaspee (Source: Wikipedia)

His silence for so long is significant because, try as they did, the British were not able to identify the perpetrators of the attack. When they began their inquisition, they found no one willing to identify any of the actors and it had to close without being resolved. This did not appease the British officers or other colonists, who feared further attacks on the liberties of the colonies. Just a few years before the start of the War of Independence, this early act of defiance in Rhode Island helped set the tone for colonial resistance to British interference.