The burning of the British revenue schooner on June 9, 1772 by a group of Rhode Islanders is one of the most significant events leading to the American colonists’ break with Great Britain. It has been often called the first violent action of the revolution and an act that led to the formation of the First Continental Congress. What makes the Gaspee incident so important lies not only in the act of defiance itself, but in the events that led to that burning. Once this is considered, the episode helps explain why Rhode Island and her sister colonies eventually separated from the mother country. It is also an excellent example of the manner in which human shortcomings and personalities can affect the course of history.
The leading participants in this drama, Lt. William Dudingston, Abraham Whipple, John Brown and Nathanael Greene, were propelled by both selfish and altruistic motives.
All sensed a necessity for duty and justice, but because of their personalities this led to injustice, violence and rebellion. The action that led to the burning began with an affront to the powerful Greene family of Rhode Island. The Greenes operated numerous business enterprises in the colony during the 18th century. One of these profitable businesses was their participation in the sea trade of rum and sugar, two very important commodities in colonial Rhode Island. The Greene brothers owned a small sloop, the Fortune, which was apprehended by Lieutenant Dudingston, captain of the British revenue schooner Gaspee, on Feb. 17, 1772.
The incident involving Dudingston and the Greenes developed into what was to become the colony’s most celebrated event, the burning of the Gaspee. While the boarding of the Fortune by the crew of the Gaspee would seem to be a minor incident, it was played out against a background of ever increasing tension and discontent among Rhode Islanders. They had come to regard the trade with the West Indies for molasses and sugar, which was distilled into rum, as a most significant and necessary part of the colony’s economy. The British government had passed the Sugar Act of 1733, a duty on sugar, rum and molasses, which most colonists considered to be outrageous and unfair.
At that time, the British could not effectively patrol the Rhode Island coastline and the colonists chose to resort to smuggling their cargoes in rather than pay the duties.
With the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British, totally victorious over the French in North America, found themselves in a situation where it might be possible to stop the smuggling and gain additional revenue for the mother country. With a large army and navy at their disposal on this continent, now free from any French threat, Parliament gave Admiral Montague the task of stopping all illegal trade in Rhode Island waters.
Rhode Islanders, as well as the other New England colonists, were unwilling to submit to what they regarded as “tyranny” on the part of the British government. After 30 years of successful smuggling, they began to regard it as a right and, as Oliver M. Dickerson, in his The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution, points out, “From 1768 to 1772 almost open warfare existed between the agents of the Commissioners and the trading fraternity of New England and some of the other major Ports.”
When Admiral Montague selected Lieutenant Dudingston to stop the smuggling in Narragansett Bay, it was almost inevitable that a major confrontation and violence would be the result. The British officer had a well-earned reputation for being extraordinarily severe, petty and mean. Even supporters of the British Crown later admitted there was “too much reason to believe that in some instances Lieutenant Dudingston, from an in-temperate, if not a reprehensible, zeal to aid the revenue services, exceeded the bounds of his duty.” They reluctantly concluded that Dudingston on occasion “might probably have treated the boatmen with severity, roughness and scurrilous language.”
To add further to Rhode Island’s dislike for the Gaspee’s captain was the news that he had been sued earlier for beating a Pennsylvania fisherman while a male held the man. Even had Dudingston entered the bay with a good reputation, he soon made himself extremely unpopular by his supercilious manner and unreasonable demands and searches. The incident involving the Fortune and the Greene family heightened the dislike for Dudingston that was constantly growing.
The story of the growing hostility between the British government and the American colonists, the incident regarding the Fortune and the burning of the Gaspee will be continued.