The events immediately preceding Rhode Island’s most significant pre-Revolutionary episode, the burning of the British Revenue schooner, Gaspee, began on the eighth of June 1772. On that day, a Providence sloop, Hannah, owned by John Brown and captained by Benjamin Lindsey, left Newport Harbor for Providence. She was approached by the Gaspee, which attempted to overhaul her. The Hannah, according to Charles Carroll’s 1932 history of Rhode Island, was “built on the lines that had given Rhode Island vessels a reputation for speed, and Captain Lindsey had no intention of submitting to search while it was possible to outwit Dudingston and out sail the Gaspee.”
Lindsey quickly began to outrun the larger British vessel. Besides the advantage of speed, the Providence vessel was of a “lighter draft” and could sail in shallow water. Lindsey realized that the Gaspee was recklessly chasing him, depending upon his skill rather than that of its own pilot, and “at Namquit Point, since known as Gaspee Point. Captain Lindsey hove the Hannah, which had been pointing east, sharply to the west, seemingly to elude the Gaspee...Lindsey warily avoided shoal water and the latter [Gaspee] ran hard aground on the sand bar.…”
Lindsey quickly took advantage of the situation and proceeded to Providence where he informed John Brown, Providence’s leading merchant and outspoken foe of the British revenue schooner, that the Hannah had lured the Gaspee into shallow water. Brown quickly realized that the British ship was caught securely on the sand bar at Namquit Point and made plans to move against the despised Dudingston.
Carroll, in his Rhode Island, Three Centuries of Democracy, says, “It was the near dusk of the late June afternoon, and John Brown calculated that the Gaspee could not be moved earlier than midnight, perhaps three o’clock in the morning”. He tells us that, “John Brown...immediately became leader in an enterprise planning the destruction of the Gaspee...Drummers were sent through the principal streets of the town...calling for volunteers in an expedition against her [Gaspee], to meet at the tavern kept by James Sabin.…” Messengers were sent to obtain eight five-oared longboats, which were taken to Fenner’s Wharf.
Carroll continues to say, “At ten the party, including men who were described by Dudingston later as well-dressed gentlemen, with ruffled shirts and hair tied back and powdered in the prevailing fashion, embarked with sturdy sailors at the oars, and a sea captain at the steering oar of each of the longboats.”
Most historians believe that no disguises were worn and that John Brown was a member of the party. The boats were under the command of Captain Abraham Whipple, one of the senior captains for the Browns and a well-known privateer captain who had distinguished himself during the French and Indian War. Whipple carefully arranged his boats so that they met the Gaspee “bow on bow” to avoid a broadside from the batteries of four guns on each side of the British vessel. When Dudingston was summoned on deck by his sentries and asked “Who comes there?”, Whipple is said to have answered, “I want to come on board.” Dudingston said, “Stand off, you can’t come on board.” Whipple then is alleged to have said words to the effect, “I am the sheriff of the county of Kent, G-D-Y-!. I am come for the commander of this vessel, G-D-Y-, and have him I will, G-D-Y-, dead or alive men, spring to your oars!”
Carroll describes the action by saying: “Shots were fired from the Gaspee and answered from the boats. Dudingston, marked by his white shirt as he fought to repel boarders, fell to the deck with wounds in the groin and arm, from a musket fired by Joseph Bucklin. Thus was the first British blood shed in the Revolution...There was no formal surrender; the Gaspee had been taken by force...The Gaspee was then set on fire, and burned to the water’s edge...”
The crew of the Gaspee was taken to Stillhouse Wharf in Pawtuxet while Dudingston was taken to the home of Joseph Rhodes and treated for his wounds. Dudingston, probably because Whipple claimed to be “the sheriff of the county of Kent,” firmly believed that Nathanael Greene was in charge of the raiding party. Greene, in a letter to Samuel Ward Jr. dated January 25, 1773, makes it clear that he was not present at the Gaspee’s burning.
Rewards were offered by the King for information leading to the identification and arrest of those who were responsible for the attack on Dudingston and his ship. Despite the fact that the incident was openly talked about and that some members of the attacking party actually flaunted goods they had taken from the Gaspee, no Rhode Islanders gave testimony. All Rhode Islanders, including Governor Wanton, seemed united in the effort to protect the crew that burned the revenue schooner. The case was tried in the Rhode Island Superior Court with Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins presiding. Hopkins had clearly indicated his opposition to the British policies and was a close friend and business associate of John Brown, the man who instigated the attack.
The news of the burning spread from Rhode Island to the rest of the colonies. Many openly, applauded the act and made preparations to assist Rhode Island should the British react with force. Committees of Correspondence, the forerunner of the Continental Congress were organized as a result. In England the news was greeted with alarm and the burning was called treason.
The burning of the Gaspee by Rhode Islanders in 1772 was the first of many acts that brought that colony into open rebellion against Great Britain and helped establish an independent country.