November 27, 2014
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A new attack on the Gaspee

While he is more widely known as a mentalist, “a performer who, using a variety of techniques, is able to produce results that would only seem possible by psychic or paranormal means,” Cranston resident Rory Raven has recently set his mind to writing history and, so far, it has been quite a neat trick.

A while back, he released a book about the Dorr Rebellion that read like a well-written adventure story without sacrificing the essential details of the historical record.

This time, Raven has gone a little further back in Rhode Island’s history for yet another telling of the Gaspee legend. Just about everybody who grew up in Rhode Island is absolutely sure they know all about the sinking of the British ship Gaspee but Raven admits to being surprised at a number of facts his research turned up.

“I was surprised, for instance, how much impact the event had beyond Rhode Island at the time,” said Raven. “Thomas Jefferson mentioned it, and Benjamin Franklin; they were aware of the significance of it.”

In case you grew up in Boston, (where comparisons with the Boston Tea Party a year later are discouraged if not actively forbidden) or some other place, the Gaspee affair was the first armed confrontation between colonial dissidents and agents of the Crown: Except that the men were not dressed up as Indians and were smart enough not to throw significant quantities of a valuable commodity into the bay.

“One of the things it did was to reawaken the ‘Committees of Correspondence,’” said Raven, “which was a network of rebels like Samuel Adams in Boston who would write letters to each other, keeping themselves apprised of what was going on in various parts of the country. That was a step toward uniting the colonies and it led to them all agreeing to meet in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was formed.”

But, at the time, it was a local affair and the reaction of the Crown and royal sympathizers was harsh. There had been attacks on British ships before but this was a direct affront to his majesty’s navy, which had been assigned to collecting customs taxes in the colonies. The Crown was no longer at war with the French after the Seven Years War, but it was broke after years of defending the colonists and seemed to think the colonists should pay for it and be happy for it.

Unfortunately, most of the people in the colonies had come to believe that a little smuggling and customs avoidance was a good thing, personally and civilly. In fact, there had been other customs ships that had been mauled by colonists with more or less impunity but the Gaspee was the last straw. It was a British Navy ship and its mugging could not go unpunished. Or could it?

“A handful of longboats glided across the water on a moonless night,” opens “The Burning of the Gaspee,” and Raven is riding a current of telling detail and delivering facts about what led up to the affair that never got the same attention, like the attack on the St. John at Newport in 1764. According to Raven, a “press gang” was a recruitment tool of the British Navy. They were sent ashore to find able-bodied seamen or anything resembling them and “pressing” them onto ships [whenever the British Navy’s traditions of wormy rations and regular floggings failed to entice enough recruits to join]. A fight between the St. John press gang and the citizens who arrested a gang member in Newport brought a cannonade down on the St. John as it sailed out of the harbor after refusing to give up the press gang for justice. It was damaged but got away. The next year, the frigate Maidstone pressed several Newport men and refused the governor’s request to free them. The captain refused, but one of his officers was captured by a mob that gave the officer a drubbing and then dragged his boat through the streets and burned it. In those instances, it could be argued that the Navy “started it” in the language of the schoolyard, but in the eyes of Loyalists, the Gaspee was different.

In early 1772, Lt. William Dudingston sailed the Gaspee into Narragansett Bay to aid customs collection and the inspection of cargo. The Gaspee was chasing a packet boat up the bay on June 9 and ran aground in the shallow water of low tide. She could have been freed by a high tide later that night, but the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty decided to carpe deum and carpe the Gaspee as well. They boarded the ship, shot and wounded Dudingston and burned the Gaspee to the waterline. A Royal Commission of Inquiry was formed that charged the Gaspee raiders with treason and tried in London. The Commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence and declared their inability to deal with the case.

“What was truly surprising was that so many people knew who did it but refused to talk,” said Raven. He said there was one person who, having been dragged into the affair in the first place, was willing to tell about it but was “dissuaded” on the way to court. Raven said his research made him some friends and taught him that little Rhode Island really is justified in its Revolutionary pride.

“Henry Brown was one of the people I spoke with about the book and he was immensely helpful,” said Raven. “He gave me a presentation box of [facsimile] old newspapers and other material he published about the Gaspee in the 1970s and some great advice. He told me to go down to the Point and just stand there, where it happened, and let it get into your being. I did it, and he was right.”

As the Crown moved to find and punish the Gaspee raiders, colonists became alarmed at the prospect of Americans being tried in England for trial. That was when the “Committee of Correspondence” was formed in Boston, as others formed in other colonies to consult with each other about the crisis provoked by the Gaspee and the issues it goaded into public debate. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was only a few more years away.

What Raven found to be almost an eerie occurrence, even for a man who regularly challenges claims of the paranormal, happened while Raven and Barnaby Evans were staging a special Gaspee-inspired Waterfire last month.

“We actually had to request that the Hurricane Barrier be used to make sure there was enough water to float Barnaby’s boats,” said Raven. “There was a low tide on June 9, the same date as the low tide that grounded the Gaspee.”

“Burning the Gaspee” is available at Amazon.com and select area bookstores. Visit roryraven.com for news of upcoming performances and events.


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