The American Revolution began on the night of 10 June 1772 in the waters of coastal Rhode Island. In a violent waterborne assault a group of angry watermen and Sons of Liberty attacked the Royal Navy schooner Gaspee in Narragansett Bay, shot the captain and wounded some of his men, and burned the ship to the water. An attack on one of His Majesty’s ships, formally commissioned in America for the Royal Navy and sailed by officers of the naval service commissioned by the king, was clearly an act of war. It brought down the wrath of the Royal Navy on the southern coast of New England.
However, perhaps because the violent attack occurred out on the water, far from the sight of the general populace and with little impact on their day-to-day lives, the destruction of HMS Gaspee did not inspire the popular response that would later come from the Boston Tea Party. Even with the daring and violence of the action, the “Gaspee Affair” did not capture the imagination of Americans at the time and hasn’t since. Yet it was the first act of war perpetrated against the British Crown by the American revolutionaries.
Smugglers and Merchants in Narragansett
The southern coast of New England was a hotbed of smuggling and illicit maritime trade in the decades before the outbreak of the American Revolution. The rum trade and shipping played central roles in the economy of Rhode Island and of Newport in particular. Parliament’s new taxation schemes in the 1760s and 1770s had a dramatic impact on that economy. The New Englanders’ initial reaction, rather than to argue or fight with the government’s agents, was a practical one. They simply turned to the black market, smuggling, and illicit trade to avoid paying the taxes.
In 1769 the sloop Liberty sailed into Newport Harbor, armed with several cannon and a letter authorizing Captain William Reid to capture smugglers and tax dodgers in return for a bounty paid to him and his crew. The Liberty was a private vessel engaged to help the Commissioners of Customs; in essence, she was a privateer. Reid quickly developed a reputation for having “an extraordinary zeal in executing the orders he had received.”1 Not only did he earn the animosity of the watermen engaged in illicit trade but also the anger of the legitimate merchants whose vessels he often boarded, inspected, and delayed from their voyages.
On 17 July 1769 the Liberty took a Connecticut-owned brig into custody on Long Island Sound and brought her to Newport. But Reid could not prove the brig had violated any laws. Captain Packwood, the ship’s master, had declared his cargo at the customs house before sailing. Reid’s crew continued to hold the ship in the hopes something else would be discovered to justify their bounty for the capture. When Packwood visited the Liberty in an attempt to regain control of his vessel, shots were fired in his direction and the local populace became outraged. A mob gathered and tempers quickly boiled over as local officials refused to do anything. A group of men attacked the Liberty, cutting the sloop’s mooring lines and drifting her down toward Long Wharf, where they cut down her masts and threw her guns overboard. The hulk drifted out of the harbor on the tide and came to rest on Goat Island, where another mob set her ablaze.2
Almost nothing was done about the outbreak of lawlessness and violence. Packwood reclaimed his ship, and Reid was left to complain to the disinterested local officials. He was a privateer, not a government servant, and even the Commissioners of Customs in Philadelphia did little to respond to the attack. Rhode Island Governor John Wanton issued a proclamation declaiming the incident, and he offered a reward for the perpetrators but it was never claimed. The crewmen of the Liberty were seen as mercenaries, preying on their fellow citizens and colonists, and nobody much cared that their service had come to a violent end.
But the Crown still intended to collect its taxes. The Royal Navy began to assume some responsibilities for combating the smugglers of the colonial coasts. In March 1772 HMS Gaspee, commanded by Lieutenant William Dudingston, sailed into Narragansett Bay with orders to begin patrols. His mission was to enforce the maritime laws in Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound, including the collection of taxes and duties. Naval vessels enforcing the law and norms of the sea have a long history, from fighting piracy and smugglers to enforcing merchants’ freedom of navigation. Present-day naval officers and analysts would call Lieutenant Dudingston’s mission “maritime security operations.”3
‘Behaved Like an Officer’?
The Gaspee had been one of six ships purchased in America by the Royal Navy to patrol the coastal shallows and bays of the colonies. The ship was about 70 feet long and 100 tons, armed with 8 small guns and built for a crew of 30 sailors. After formal commissioning in the Royal Navy in June 1764, the ship cruised the northern colonies from the North American Squadron’s base at Halifax, Nova Scotia.4 Dudingston took command in 1768 and had already earned a reputation as an aggressive officer in his interactions with the shadier side of the American maritime community. His appearance in Newport caused an almost immediate case of ill will. His arrival instigated an angry exchange between Governor Wanton and Vice Admiral John Montagu, who commanded the Royal Navy’s North America Squadron, over the fact Dudingston would only report to the Navy and the Admiralty and not to colonial officials. Montagu insisted Dudingston was doing his duty and “behaved like an officer” and threatened to report Wanton to London for his “insolent letters.”5
With bad blood established between the Navy and Rhode Island officials, Dudingston’s pursuit of his responsibilities established a reputation for aggressive enforcement. American smugglers were smart and realized that losing a smuggled cargo in the hold of an oceangoing ship meant losing both a large cargo and a valuable vessel. Over time they adapted their methods to use smaller vessels, offloading the smuggled cargo from the larger ship at sea and dividing it up between smaller boats for the trip to shore. Dudingston realized exactly what the smugglers were doing, and he began stopping every vessel he saw regardless of size. The result of his new enforcement tactics, however, meant everything from whaleboats and tenders to coastal packet ships drew his attention. Merchants who were carrying trade within the colonies—cargoes generally free of the contentious duties and taxes—found themselves stopped and boarded by the Gaspee for inspection since Dudingston suspected everyone.6
The methods used by the Gaspee in the intercepts and boardings were just one of the issues between Dudingston and the merchants and watermen of Rhode Island. Any captures or seizures made by the Gaspee had to be sent to Vice-Admiralty Court for disposition. Rhode Island had established its own court in Newport, but after capturing an illicit cargo of rum in the middle of May 1772, Dudingston began sending his captures to the court in Boston instead. The take had been large: twelve hogsheads, or large wooden casks, which held approximately three liquid tons of illicit rum. It was clear anything he seized was unsafe in Newport. This wasn’t only because of the Liberty incident a few years earlier, but also due to rumors that the colonists were considering arming their own ship to contest his freedom on Narragansett Bay. The lieutenant would need to leave the rum under guard if he left it in Newport and, with the Gaspee’s small crew, he didn’t have the manpower for it.
The Rhode Islanders were incensed that their cargoes would be sent to Boston if captured, where the Navy base could protect them. The ship carrying the captured rum cargo was owned by the Greene family, the noted Rhode Island merchants whose members included general assembly member and future Continental Army Major General Nathaniel Greene. The family filed charges against Dudingston, and a warrant was drawn up for the lieutenant’s arrest by the colonial authorities.7
A Dark and Dangerous Night
On 9 June 1772 Thomas Lindsey cast off his moorings in Newport Harbor on board his packet sloop Hanah. A small, fast sailer that carried cargo and passengers through Long Island Sound between New York and Providence, the Hanah set course up Narragansett Bay for Providence. With the wind blowing out of the north, the sloop had to beat up the bay, tacking from shoreline to shoreline. Immediately after the Hanah departed the harbor, Dudingston ordered the Gaspee into the bay and began following the packet sloop. Whether the Royal Navy schooner was chasing the sloop to delay and board her, as Lindsey believed, or just happened to also be headed to Providence (as some of the British sailors would later claim), the packet skipper decided to lead the schooner on a chase into shoal waters. Sailing up the bay for most of the day, around 1500 the channel began to narrow and the water shallowed as the two ships approached the Providence River. Using his long experience on the bay and knowledge of its hazards, Lindsey led the Gaspee toward a sandbar off Namquid Point (known today as Gaspee Point). The packet tacked away at the last minute, and Dudingston, who was taking the Gaspee on her first trip into Providence and was unaware of the shoal waters, waited too long to order his turn. The Gaspee ran up on the sandbar, hard aground and unmoving. Lindsey laughed to himself as he tacked again and raced off toward Providence.8
Stuck in the sand roughly five miles from Providence, Dudingston and his crew began attempting to pull themselves free. But the tide was falling and there was no way to get the ship off the bar. The tide had only been ebbing from its high for an hour or two, and there are nearly 12 hours between high tides in Narragansett Bay, so Dudingston and his crew knew they would have to wait until the early morning hours before the ship could be worked free. Lindsey arrived in Providence and made fast in the harbor as sunset approached. He immediately went to find John Brown, one of the leading merchants in the colony’s capital, and told him of the Gaspee’s situation. Realizing the schooner could not move until after midnight, Brown set a plan in motion to capture and arrest the offending naval officer. He ordered one of his shipmasters to begin collecting boats in the harbor at Fenner’s Wharf and to muffle their oars so they would be able to sneak up on the Gaspee in the dark of night.9
In the course of the evening eight boats were gathered and manned by an increasingly rowdy group of Rhode Islanders who were ready to strike out at the oppressive work of the Royal Navy. After the sun went down the men, who had gathered their muskets and knives as well as combustibles to set fire to the ship, set off down the Providence River and into the bay toward Namsquid Point. The boats were full of about 20 men each, and they rowed through the darkness toward the schooner. The expedition was led by John Brown and Abraham Whipple, a merchant captain who had served as a privateer in the French and Indian War and who would go on to command a Continental Navy squadron in the Revolution. The boats were full of a who’s-who of merchants and watermen from Providence and future revolutionaries.10
Dudingston had sent his men to bed. There was nothing they could do until the tide rose back to its flood stage. That wasn’t going to happen until around 0200, and there was no reason to expect anything but a peaceful night. As midnight came and went, Seaman Bartholomew Cheever stood the watch on the deck of the ship as the rest of the crew slept below. At about 1245, Cheever spotted something in the darkness. At first he thought it was just the light playing off some rocks. However, a minute or two later he noticed them moving and identified the boats. He shouted a hail, but did not receive a response. Hailing a second time, he again heard nothing. Cheever ducked into the cabin and woke up Dudingston and his second in command, Midshipman William Dickinson. The lieutenant grabbed his sword and rushed up on deck in his nightshirt while Dickinson pulled on some clothes.11
On deck Dudingston called to the boats that were rapidly closing on the schooner and demanded to know who they were. Abraham Whipple responded, shouting that he was the sheriff of Kent County and he was there to arrest Dudingston. The lieutenant replied that they certainly were not going to arrest him at such an inappropriate hour, and ordered them to depart or they would be fired upon. He turned to Midshipman Dickinson, who had arrived on deck, and sent him to unlock the small-arms locker. Whipple responded, shouting: “God damn you, I have a warrant to apprehend you, God damn you. So surrender!”12
Dudingston ordered Cheever to fire on the boats with his musket, but after several attempts (the flint was either wet or failing) the weapon continued to snap without firing. Whipple commanded his boat crews to board and the men pulled hard at their oars, rushing the last few yards to the schooner. Dudingston shouted down the hatch, calling for his crew to hurry on deck whether they had clothes on or not, and then ran to the starboard bow, where the first of the raiding boats were coming alongside the ship. He swung at the attackers with his sword, pushing the first attempted boarder back into the boat. Then a musket shot rang out. The ball tore through the lieutenant’s left arm, breaking it, and into his groin. He fell back on the deck as the raiders swarmed over the sides of the ship. Swinging axe handles and wooden staves, the raiders beat the British seamen back down the hatchway and kept them belowdecks. Dudingston struggled aft and collapsed in his own blood at the companionway to his cabin at the stern of the ship.13
From the time the British officers first saw the approaching boats until the Americans had seized control of their ship from them, no more than three minutes had passed. The raiders thronged around Dudingston at the quarterdeck, knocking him back down to the deck when he tried to get up and taunting him to beg for his life. Dickinson pushed his way to the side of his skipper, but could do little more than point out the wounds that the raiders hadn’t seen in their excitement and the darkness. The lieutenant told Whipple and Brown he would order his men to surrender if they didn’t injure anyone else. The ringleaders agreed and asked Dudingston about his surgeon, but the Gaspee was far too small a ship to have a medical officer. The Americans summoned John Mawney, who had been studying with a local doctor, and carried the lieutenant into his cabin. With Dickinson’s assistance Mawney did his best to stop the bleeding and bound up Dudingston’s wounds.14
The 19 members of the Gaspee’s crew were brought up from belowdecks one sailor at a time. At the top of the ladder their hands were bound behind their backs and then, one by one, they were put in the boats. Once Dudingston’s wounds were bound, Dickinson retrieved the Gaspee’s logbook and papers for his captain, and the two officers were put in the boats with their men. Whipple and Brown ordered some of the raiders to take the sailors ashore and to find a doctor for the lieutenant. As the boats cast off and began rowing for the shoreline near Pawtucket, the rest of the raiders began setting combustibles on the ship. The boats reached the beach, and the sailors looked back toward their ship as the flames began to rise up the rigging. The British sailors were abandoned on the shoreline and the boats rowed away. The rest of the raiders pulled away from the schooner as the Gaspee was engulfed in flame. She burned through the early morning hours, destroyed all the way to the waterline with nothing to salvage.
‘A Very Disagreeable Affair’
When news of the attack reached Admiral Montagu in Boston, he was enraged. He also didn’t expect to get much assistance from the colonial government in Rhode Island in bringing the perpetrators to justice. He was right. King George III ordered an investigation into what had happened to the Gaspee and to Lieutenant Dudingston, demanding those who had “proceeded in warlike manner, with armed boats to attack our said schooner, and having traitoriously [sic] wounded the said Lieutenant” be brought to justice. But the king included Rhode Island officials and others from the colonies on the investigating committee that managed to delay, slow, and muddle the course of the proceedings. A reward was offered for those who had attacked the ship, but it was never claimed. The investigating committee was never able to reach a consensus on who the raiders were, even though the responsible men were all named in the collected testimony. It was just, as one Rhode Island official called it, “a very disagreeable affair.”15
Admiral Montagu and Charles Dudley, the customs collector in Rhode Island, told the Admiralty that unless the Navy conducted an investigation by itself they would never bring the perpetrators to justice.16 The results of the Gaspee Committee proved them right. No one was ever even arrested, never mind tried and convicted. But Montagu still had plenty of power. He ordered his ships from Boston into Long Island Sound, and the Royal Navy took the tactics and methods Dudingston had used and multiplied them tenfold on the local merchants and watermen. As historian Neil Stout wrote: “Rhode Island’s waters swarmed with navy ships during the rest of 1772 and 1773. Nearly all the navy seizures made in the colony after 1767 came in those two years.”17 The antagonism between the colonists and the British military only increased. Dudingston recovered from his wounds after returning to England and, as was standard procedure in the Royal Navy, was court-martialed for the loss of his ship. He was acquitted and continued to move up through the ranks as he served in European waters. He commanded the frigate HMS Boston during the Revolution and was eventually promoted to rear admiral.
The assault on the Gaspee was not the first example of violence against British government interests in the American colonies; that honor appears to belong to the Liberty incident. However, the destruction of a naval ship and the wounding of a naval officer was more than a criminal act against a private vessel; it was an act of war. Even George III recognized it as such. The Royal Navy began to see pirate havens in New England. But Admiral Montagu and others were beginning to realize there was something more dangerous out on the water and in American harbors. Alongside the salt air and the smell of wet canvas was the scent of treason. A revolution began on the sandbar of Namsquid Point—in the spot that bears the name Gaspee on today’s charts of the Narragansett.
The research for this article was generously supported by the Library and Archive of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C.
1. John Russell Bartlett, ed., A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee, in Narragansett Bay, on the 10th June, 1772: Accompanied by the Correspondence Connected Therewith (Providence, RI: State of Rhode Island, 1861), 7.
2. The Boston Chronicle, 24 July 1769, vol. 2, no. 30, 236, www.readex.com/content/americas-historical-newspapers.
3. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, March 2015), 26, www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf.
4. Howard Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: W.W. Norton, 1935), 33. “Ship: Gaspee,” Navy Board: Navy Pay Office,” U.K. National Archives, ADM 33/645.
5. Davis Bevan, Philadelphia Journal, 29 June 1769, in John Concannon, “The HMS Gaspee Prior to 1772—‘Better Here Than in Philadelphia…’” Gaspee Virtual Archives, www.gaspee.org/GaspeePriorTo1772.htm. J. Mantagu to J. Wanton, 6 April 1772, in William R. Staples, ed., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee: Compiled for the Providence Journal (Providence, RI: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), 4–5.
6. Darrius Sessions to J. Wanton, 21 March 1772, W. Dudingston to J. Wanton, 23 March 1772, in Staples, Documentary History, 1, 4.
7. W. Dudingston to J. Montagu, 22 May 1772, J. Montagu to J. Wanton, 6 April 1772, in Documentary History, 4–6.
8. Statement of Ephraim Bowen, 29 August 1839, Statement of Bartholomew Cheever, 10 June 1772, Deposition of Midshipman William Dickinson: Questions by Admiral Montagu, 11 June 1772, in Staples, Documentary History, 8–9, 11, 13.
9. Statement of Ephraim Bowen, 29 August 1839, in Staples, Documentary History, 8–9.
10. Statement of John Mawney, 1826, Statement of Ephraim Bowen, 29 August 1839, J. Montagu to J. Wanton, 8 July 1772, in Staples, Documentary History, 8–10, 16–17.
11. Testimony of Bartholomew Cheever, Minutes of a Court Martial Assembled on board His Majesty’s Ship Centaur in Portsmouth Harbor, 14 October 1772, in Appendix B of Richard Deasy, ed., William R. Staples’ The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee (Providence, RI: Rhode Island Publications Society, 1990), 135. Statement of Bartholomew Cheever, 10 June 1772, in Staples, Documentary History, 11.
12. Exhibit A, Statement of W. Dudingston, Minutes of a Court Martial, 14 October 1772, in Deasy, William R. Staples, 137. Statement of Ephraim Bowen, 29 August 1839, in Staples, Documentary History, 8–9.
13. Testimony of William Dickinson, Minutes of a Court Martial, 14 October 1772, Testimony of Cheever, Minutes of a Court Martial, 14 October 1772, in Deasy, William R. Staples, 135. Statement of John Johnson and William Caple, 10 June 1772, in Staples, Documentary History, 11.
14. Statement of John Mawney, 1826, in Staples, Documentary History, 9–10. Exhibit A, Statement of W. Dudingston, Minutes of a Court Martial, 14 October 1772, in Deasy, William R. Staples, 138.
15. Proclamation of King George, 26 August 1772, D. Sessions to J. Wanton, 11 June 1772, in Staples, Documentary History, 21, 10.
16. Charles Dudley to Secretary of the Admiralty, 23 July 1772, in Appendix A, in Deasy, William R. Staples, 132.
17. Neil R. Stout, The Royal Navy in America, 1760–1775: A Study of Enforcement of British Colonial Policy in the Era of the American Revolution (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1973), 143.