In history books, the Gaspee affair is paid little attention. Sandwiched between the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the Boston Tea Party of 1773, its significance to the American Revolution is largely overlooked. Most Americans and even many Rhode Islanders are ignorant of that evening in 1772 when a group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked the British customs schooner, the HMS Gaspee.
But in the area of Warwick and Cranston, the incident is as significant as any in the story of America’s quest for independence.
“This goes back to getting Americans to think of the need for independence from the mother country because of the infringement of the British authorities on rights that were awarded all Englishmen,” said Dr. John Concannon, webmaster for and member of the Gaspee Days Committee. “That is one of the essential rights of being a citizen of any country – to be treated fairly when you’re accused of a crime.”
In the case of Gaspee, that crime was smuggling. The HMS Gaspee, under the command of Lt. William Dudingston, was sent to Rhode Island by King George III to enforce trade laws. In particular, Rhode Island was suspected of trading with enemy France to sustain the demands for rum, according to University of Connecticut Professor Dr. Steven Park, the Gaspee Days Committee’s guest historian who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the incident.
On June 9, 1771, the Hannah left Newport for Providence, but the HMS Gaspee stood in its way. When the Gaspee gave chase, Hannah’s Captain Lindsey lured the larger boat over a sandbar, trapping them, and reported the incident back to John Brown.
Brown and his fellow patriots met at Sabin’s Tavern to discuss a plan, and under Whipple’s direction, they rowed longboats out to the schooner, shot and wounded Lt. Dudingston and took the crew prisoner, killing no one. The ship was burned, and despite efforts by the crown, the culprits were never turned in.
Park believes the motives that night were simple.
“They claimed they were taking things from the Gaspee in retribution for the seizure of Jacob Greene’s rum. If you were able to talk to the men in Sabin’s Tavern that night … they were trying to settle local scores.”
While Rhode Islanders call the incident “the first blow for freedom,” Park says that might be overstating things. Still, he hopes that Gaspee someday gets the attention it deserves as a historical event.
“It is Rhode Island’s claim to fame,” he said. “When you look through a history textbook, whenever they say New England, they really mean Massachusetts and whenever they say Massachusetts, they really mean Boston. Maybe the Gaspee will still get its day.”