Forty-eight years ago, the history behind the burning of the HMS Gaspee ignited a flame that roared into the incomparable part of Warwick history known as the Gaspee Days. There’s the parade, the fireworks, a 5k foot race and a re-enactment of the burning itself. That flame has since spread up the bay to Providence, making Waterfire burn brighter than it has before.
Although last year was the first year that the Gaspee Days Committee allowed Waterfire to bring the event into Providence, this was the first year it received much wider attention. Carol Deming, president of the Gaspee Days Committee, attended the event wearing a traditional revolutionary period dress, pleased to share the history with all of Rhode Island, not just Warwick.
“Its fantastic,” she said, “this is much bigger than our small community. We’re attracting more attention.”
Deming believes that the burning of the Gaspee is something that Rhode Islanders should be proud of.
“The burning of the Gaspee is a Rhode Island thing and a national thing. Anyone we can get that message out to is important. Rhode Island should be proud of this, that we started the revolution, not Boston. It’s not Warwick against Providence, it’s Rhode Island.”
Barnaby Evans, founder of Waterfire, feels the same way. While Waterfire’s Gaspee celebration is separate from the Gaspee Committee’s, the committee supports Evans and how he his helping get the message out. Evans was the one who approached the committee about bringing the event into Providence last year.
“We love what’s happening in Pawtuxet,” he explained, “but the story started here, in Providence at Sabin’s Tavern.”
The tavern was host to a lively debate the night before the Gaspee was burned, and hosted the rebels before their eight-mile trip up the river to Warwick, to what is now known as Gaspee Point.
Evans was pleased about bringing the history back to where it started, and letting it all come full circle with the annual symbolic burning in Pawtuxet Park Cove and that the event should be celebrated throughout the state, not just in Pawtuxet.
“We’re trying to make Rhode Island history more available to others,” he said.
The Waterfire organization held several events throughout the day to commemorate Gaspee Day.
The first, and most modern, began at noon, with a Twitter feed relating the accounts of what happened according to each historical character’s point of view.
John Brown, Lieutenant Dudingston, James Sabin and others joined the social media for a day as they tweeted their grievances. At the end of the night, @JohnBrownProv tweeted: “Aye, I think this land has a future in it. One that we started here tonight. Let us see what dawn brings. Let us pray this is so. #WFGaspee”
The debate at Sabin’s Tavern was re-enacted later at the Wild Colonial Tavern at 250 South Water Street. Local historians John McNiff, John Concannon and David Ely discussed the events leading up to the burning of the Gaspee from the perspective of those under the tyranny who hoped for a new country with liberty for all.
At 9:15, it was time for the most anticipated ceremony of the evening, when three long boats were launched into Providence harbor with a tribute to the 70 men that made their way to the Gaspee that fateful night. As the boats were oared through the harbor, each one carrying torch holders, the Pawtuxet Rangers Fife and Drum Corps and the Warren Federal Blues marched through the streets, walking with the boats, as they played revolutionary tunes to keep in step with one another. Parading with the re-enactors were Waterfire staff members, each carrying a torch.
They ended their journey with one more skit after the burning of the Gaspee as each character debated who should be held accountable for the crime against their king and country.
Deming is glad about the successful turnout for the Waterfire celebration, knowing that more people heard the message that the Gaspee Days Committee promotes.
“Many, many more people paid attention to what we are doing,” said Deming. “The more people who know about the Gaspee and the history, that’s what we do this for. We did have a big part in our country’s history that everyone forgets about. Everyone knows about the Boston Tea Party; well we think everyone should know about the Gaspee Incident.”
Providence was filled with those who wanted to learn more about the Gaspee incident, and those who already did know were happy to bring the history to others, wanting to share the state pride that Rhode Island did indeed begin the revolution. Just as Rhode Island gave the spark for the American Revolution, those who attended this Waterfire may ignite the whole state with the same fervor for the Gaspee Incident that Warwick has shown the past 48 years. And the nation may follow.