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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
DateJune 9, 1772
LocationNear 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 significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. HMS Gaspee,[1] a British customs schooner that had been engaged in anti-smuggling operations, ran aground in shallow water on June 9, 1772, near what is now known as Gaspee Point in the city of Warwick, Rhode Island, while chasing the packet boat Hannah.[2] A group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, looted, and torched the ship.[3]


The customs service in Britain’s North American colonies in the eighteenth century had a violent history. 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. At the end of the Seven Years' War, following Britain’s decisive victory, several successive ministries implemented reforms in an attempt to achieve more effective administrative control and raise more revenue in the colonies. New scholarship by Gerald Horne, the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, has argued that the taxation efforts by the British also were directly linked to contemporary efforts to abolish slavery in the wider British Empire. In his book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Horne shows that the British abolitionist efforts included taxation on ships that trafficked in rum, molasses, and textiles, items that John Brown trafficked in regularly.

In that context, June 1772 proved to be a watershed, clarifying—in the eyes of many settlers—that London was moving toward abolition, which could jeopardize fortunes, if not lives, as Africans seeking retribution were unleashed. This was the import of…[the] Gaspee Affair, which took place days before this important ruling was made in London. There had long been an illicit trade carried on in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Taking note of the trade carried on by some settlers during the war with the French and as part of the postwar dispensation, London placed armed vessels there in 1764, which was not accepted with equanimity by settlers, particularly when the Crown’s military began stopping vessels and seizing some as complaints increased. As London saw things, this was all about piracy and illicit dealings—the settlers saw an attack upon commerce. A climax was reached on 10 June 1772 in the wee hours of the morning, when a brig arriving from Africa, the Gaspee, entered Newport and was boarded by officers of the Crown. In response, a mob of about five hundred male settlers rioted, burning the British ship. Yet what seemed to inflame the settlers was not only that the miscreants were to be tried in London but that the chief witness against them was a Negro, raising unsettling questions about the presumed equality of this mudsill group. The rioters had conscripted Aaron Briggs for their escapade, oblivious to the growing idea that he might have more in common with the Crown than with the settlers. He was to serve as a witness against one of the colony’s elite and a prominent pro-slavery advocate—John Brown— whose surname was bestowed upon a university in Providence. “I saw John Brown fire a musket,” said Briggs, and “the captain of the schooner immediately fell from the place he was standing.” The proclamation of King George III said that members of the crew of the vessel were “dangerously wounded and barbarously treated.” The Earl of Hillsborough apparently did not grasp the graveness of what his comrade on the scene told him about the Browns, the “principal people of that place,” the “ringleaders in this piratical proceeding”—that is, should they “arrest the parties charged by the Negro Aaron?” Briggs, described variously as a “mulatto lad of about sixteen years of age”—he may have been eighteen—was at the heart of a dispute that deepened the schism between the Crown and the mainland.[4]

The Admiralty purchased six Marblehead sloops and schooners and Anglicized French names for these vessels from their recent acquisitions in Canada. The 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.[5] The revenue was necessary, Parliament believed, to bolster military and naval defensive positions along the borders of their far-flung empire, and to pay the crushing debt incurred in winning the war on behalf of those colonies. Among these reforms was the deputizing of the Royal Navy's Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.[6] In 1764 Rhode Islanders attacked HMS St. John and in 1769 they burned a customs ship, HMS Liberty, on Goat Island in Newport harbor.[7]

The incident

From an old engraving

In early 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HMS Gaspee into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay to aid in the enforcement of customs collection and inspection of cargo. Rhode Island had a reputation for smuggling and trading with the enemy during wartime. Dudingston and his officers quickly antagonized powerful merchant interests in the small colony. On June 9, the Gaspee gave chase to the packet boat Hannah, and ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay. 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.[8]

At the break of dawn on June 10, they boarded the ship. The crew put up a feeble resistance, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded, and the vessel burned to the waterline. The man who fired the shot was Joseph Bucklin:

JOSEPH BUCKLIN, was well known in Providence and kept a prominent restaurant, or place of resort, in South Main Street, where gentlemen resorted for their suppers. Here, too, they assembled, to discuss politics, and where, possibly, the expedition which destroyed the Gaspee, was discussed, as well as at Mr. Sabin's house, which was near it.[9]


Previous attacks by the colonists on British naval vessels had gone unpunished. In one case, a customs yacht was actually destroyed (also by fire) with no administrative response. 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 of Rhode Island, Joseph Wanton. 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 would be used against the Gaspee raiders; they would be charged with treason.[10] 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, a little-known visiting minister, 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 British America.[11] This pamphlet, along with 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 would culminate in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.


The city of Warwick, Rhode Island commemorates the Gaspee Affair with Gaspee Days. This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the Gaspee Days parade. The parade features burning the Gaspee in effigy, a Revolutionary War battle reenactment, Revolutionary War-era fife-and-drum bands, a marching band dressed as period sailors, local marching bands, and others. 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 to burn the Gaspee was planned.[12]

See also


  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 Staples, William R., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, (Providence, RI: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), p. 14–16. These men made these statements in 1826 relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.
  3. [1] The only other testimony, from a colonial, is Aaron Biggs (sometimes Briggs). He told a slightly different version of the story. Governor Wanton took pains to discredit his telling of the events. 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), p. 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. Horne, Gerald. The Counter-revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. New York: New York UP, 2014. Print.
  5. See Barlett
  6. 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.
  7. 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 [2]
  8. 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.
  9. A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee by John Russell Bartlett, p. 20, note 6.
  10. 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 for high treason (levying war against the King) instead. National Archives (Public Record Office, United Kingdom) CO (Colonial Office Records) 5 159 folder 26.
  11. 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.
  12. For more information about the Gaspee Days and the celebration in Pawtuxet Village, RI, as well as a missile shot on British territory, please see the Gaspee Days website.

External links

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