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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Gaspee Affair

Updated: May 15, 2022

"They took the Gaspee's people, tied their hands, and put them into the boat and carried them ashore, this deponent going with them; by the time they got halfway ashore, the schooner was on fire"

The Deposition of Aaron Briggs regarding the burning of the HMS Gaspee, 14 January 1773

In 1764, Great Britain had just concluded the costly Seven Years War (or the French and Indian War in North America). In April of that year, Parliament passed the Sugar Act. The act's explicit purpose was to generate revenue to defray the cost of the war and support colonial defenses and the now permanent British garrisons stationed in North America. The Sugar Act replaced the older Molasses Act of 1733 by placing a tax on sugar and providing greater enforcement. The act was part of the broader set of regulations known as the Navigation Acts, which Parliament began issuing in the middle of the 17th century. Collectively, these acts were meant to protect English economic interests both in Europe and in the colonies. Under these acts, only British or American ships could carry cargo for import to Great Britain. Certain goods, such as sugar and tobacco, had to be sold in England and not directly imported to a foreign country, and there was a duty on imported colonial commodities. And the acts limited what items the colonies could manufacture to protect those industries in the home country.

Sugar Act of 1764

By this time, sugar had become an integral part of the transatlantic trading system. A triangular trade had developed between British North America, the West Indies, and Africa. Much of the imported sugar was used in the colonies to produce rum, especially in New England. Rum distilling made up a significant part of the economy of the small colony of Rhode Island. Rum was used to purchase slaves along the West African coast. These slaves were then sold to the West Indies plantations in exchange for sugar and molasses. The original Molasses Act meant to restrict trade between the British American colonies and the British West Indies. For much of the early half of the 18th century, colonists evaded these restrictions through smuggling or openly trading with French and Spanish suppliers in the Caribbean. Many New England families grew wealthy through some connection to this trade network, and many were involved directly with what the Crown viewed as illegal activities. But the Crown had been preoccupied elsewhere to enforce the terms of the Navigation Acts. With the conclusion of the Seven Years War, all that would change.

Upon the passage of the Sugar Act in 1764, Great Britain sought to shore up the enforcement of the law. England increased its naval presence off the shores of New England in order to police shipping to and from the colonies. American boats were stopped and searched for contraband. Illegal goods were confiscated and consigned. Many prominent merchants in the colonies were not happy with this turn of affairs. Rhode Island merchant and former governor Stephen Hopkins, who had made his fortune in the West Indies trade, wrote a broadside that foreshadows those on the eve of American independence. He argues that restricting the foreign molasses trade would be detrimental to the rum distilleries in the colony and thereby would be disastrous for the local colonial economy. Furthermore, Hopkins lays out an early foundation for the idea of taxation without representation. This broadside represented the emerging tensions between the colony and the mother country. Hopkins would later be one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Plan of the schooner Halifax (a sister ship to Gaspee)

In 1772, the British schooner HMS Gaspee was given the assignment to patrol Narragansett Bay as part of the ongoing effort to enforce the Navigation Acts. Lt. William Dudingston was given command of the ship and had orders to counter the smuggling activity that was well known to be occurring in Rhode Island. British authorities realized that Rhode Island was producing more rum than should have been possible. The colony's merchants were already viewed with suspicion as they often traded with the enemy French during the war years. In pursuing this goal, Dudingston garnered the reputation of overstepping his legal authority. According to colonial complaints, he stopped ships without cause, looted cargo, and caused injury to sailors. The Rhode Island merchants resented this perceived maltreatment. In a month of his arrival, Dudingston seized a cargo of smuggled rum from a local merchant. He was unable to condemn the cargo in the Admiralty Court of Rhode Island. The Boston Court refused the case as it was not their jurisdiction whereby Dudingston found himself with a ship loaded with illegally seized cargo. He was charged and found guilty despite not having set foot ashore.

Map of Narragansett Bay

On June 9, 1772, the HMS Gaspee encountered the Hannah. The captain of the Hannah was a local seaman Benjamin Lindsey. Snubbing Dudingston's authority, Lindsey refused to lower his flag. According to local tradition, this provoked the Gaspee to chase the Hannah up Narragansett Bay. Lindsey counted on Dudingston not being familiar with the waters off the shore of the town of Warwick. The Gaspee, for some reason without her experienced pilot, followed the Hannah up towards Namquid Point (now called Gaspee Point). Here the waters were shallow, and the Gaspee ran aground on a sandbar. Dudingston would later deny having chased the smugglers up the bay and was heading into Providence to pick up sailors waiting there. Regardless, the stranded ship would have to wait until the tide came in to float her off the bar.

News of the Gaspee's predicament spread through Providence, Rhode Island. Under the leadership of respected merchant John Brown, a group of men gathered at a tavern to devise a plan of action. Brown, like Hopkins, had made a fortune in rum distilling and other aspects of the transatlantic trade. A party of eighty men rowed out under cover of darkness towards where the Gaspee lay stranded. Based on later testimony, the intent was to arrest Dudingston. What exactly happened when the party reached the Gaspee is not clear. From one of the rowboats, a shot was fired that struck Dudingston standing on the deck. At this point, the Providence men boarded the schooner. They held the crew captive, treated Dudingston's gunshot wound, and seized the cargo aboard the ship, apparently as recompense for Dudingston's seizure of goods earlier in the year. After the crew was ferried across to the safety of the shore, the raiding party set the Gaspee afire. When the flames ignited the gunpowder in the hold, the ship exploded.

News from the Virginia Gazette, 1772

The incident did not sit well with the authorities in London. No one claimed responsibility. King George III offered up rewards to anyone with information, but nothing came of it. In an unusual move, the Crown created a commission to investigate what it perceived as an act of terrorism against the king. Heading up the commission was Governor Joseph Wanton, another Rhode Islander who made his mark in the West Indies trade. He had little motivation to find the truth of what happened. No witnesses came forth. No one was charged with any crimes. The king expressed his desire to see the culprits tried in England rather than in colonial courts. This had the effect of strengthening the solidarity already growing among colonial agitators. Samuel Adams, in Boston, used this to help motivate leaders in the colonies to begin forming committees of correspondence.

King George III reward proclaimation

The only witness to testify was an escaped slave, Aaron Briggs. Briggs was of mixed Indigenous and African descent. He provided names of the ringleaders of the raiding party, but colonists rallied against him. They discredited him by saying he was using the British to buy his freedom, or the British had coerced him into speaking against the Providence merchants. The smear campaign against Briggs was so successful that his testimony became worthless and would not lead to any convictions. In the broader context, Briggs was another example of the colonies fearing that the Crown would use Native and slave populations against them.

The Gaspee Affair helped stoke the growing anti-British sentiments that worsened in the years before 1776. Many have argued that this was the starting point for the American Revolution and not the more famous Boston Tea Party. Much of the Revolutionary period has been romanticized. Early in the 19th century, New England historians made a concerted effort to portray the region as being the birthplace of the revolution. They turned the revolution into a just and noble cause while glossing over unflattering details. This became more important in the years before the Civil War when New Englanders were defining their moral superiority over the South as slavery widened the divide in the country. Over the last fifty years, historians have sought to develop a more nuanced narrative of the American Revolution. The Gaspee Affair has been re-examined in light of the economic interests of those involved. Those who had fortunes tied up in the West Indies trade had strong motivations to oppose increased British authority in the area. Colonial elites, like Samual Adams, also knew how to utilize a mob to help advance a particular agenda. It would not be the last time. Their motivations might not have been quite so noble, but it also makes them very human.


Further Reading:

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution: Bernard Bailyn (A classic and one I highly recommend reading.)

The Gaspee Affair Was About the Business of Slavery: Joey LaNeve DeFrancesco (link to the fully sourced version of original article)

The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee: William Read Staples (This was written in 1845 by the Chief Justice of Rhode Island. It lay the groundwork for the traditional narrative concerning the Gaspee incident.)

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