By JOHN HOWELL "You mean that all the artist depictions are based on nothing?" That question was raised Thursday morning as a group of volunteers, recruits in the hunt for whatever remains of the HMS Gaspee, gathered around a picnic table at Mensa Park
“You mean that all the artist depictions are based on nothing?”
That question was raised Thursday morning as a group of volunteers, recruits in the hunt for whatever remains of the HMS Gaspee, gathered around a picnic table at Mensa Park in Gaspee. Most have been trained by marine archeologist Dr. Kathy Abbass, who for the past six summers has been working to document and identify the remnants of a hull on what was Greene Island and a more complete one in the shallows of Occupasstuxet Cove.
As Abbass made clear from the start, neither of the vessels is the Gaspee, and a central objective of the effort – apart from identifying the vessels – is to prepare them for the hunt for the Gaspee. Abbass founded the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project in 1992.
Abbass said her band of marine archeology volunteers may return to Greene Island to document what’s left of the hull there as well as see if additions portions of the keel have been exposed to help in its identification. But the purpose of Thursday’s meeting following by a visit to Gaspee Point at a moon low tide was to focus on the hunt for the British ship Gaspee that was in pursuit of the Hannah, a colonial ship that was thought to be carrying money.
“When [Lt. William Dudingston] heard there was money aboard [the Hannah] he thought it was worth it [to give chase],” said Abbass. A local pilot was taken aboard to navigate the waters.
Dudingston, had been appointed to monitor Rhode Island trade and stop the import of smuggled goods.
The date of the bay chase was June 9, 1772. With less of a draft than the Gaspee, the Hannah cleared Namquid Point (later named Gaspee Point). When colonists learned the Gaspee was aground, a band led by John Brown under the cover of darkness rowed out to burn the Gaspee. The defiant act is locally celebrated as the “first blow for freedom.”
There are numerous artistic depictions of the burning showing billows of smoke rising into a dark night sky and a long boat of colonist silhouetted by a towering flaming ship, its sails ablaze. It’s dramatic and it’s easy to imagine those living on the shores of East Providence and Barrington to the east and those in Warwick, if awake during those early morning hours, were in awe. News of the burning surely traveled quickly.
But so far, there are no drawings from the time of the Gaspee or plans of the ship. Abbass said the Gaspee was not a British- made ship but most likely crafted by boat builders in Marblehead and acquired by the British. She was a type of schooner and nothing as dramatic as pictured in sea battles between tall ships with cannon firing from more than one deck.
Although drawings of the Gaspee are lacking, Abbass knows she was not a top-of-the-line British naval ship. Abbass puts her at 49 feet in the water line, perhaps extending another 20 feet over the water from bow to stern, with a crew of about 30. The boat was intended for costal patrol and did not have large amounts of stores. It therefore depended on picking up food from the locals, a situation that led to conflict over payment or in some cases the confiscation of food and other property.
In that context, it’s not difficult to understand why colonists were sufficiently angered to set the boat afire or that they kept their mouths shut when King George offered a handsome reward for information leading to the perpetrators. But Abbass ruled out all dreams of the colonists taking out a prize ship of the Royal Navy.
“I’m here to tell you that it’s a crappy old boat,” she said.
Abbass described the Gaspee as one of a class of vessels used for a variety of tasks.
“These vessels were like the Chevy trucks of today,” she said.
Tracking down a much despised “patrol boat” of the time that probably burned to the waterline in the shallows and picked over for valuables more than 249 years ago seems daunting. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be found.
Abbass looks to history to put her team on the trail. She emphasizes the importance of knowing what materials were used at the time; following up on reports such as an “old” anchor and chain being found in Passeonkqis Cove in the late 1960s; and claims of diver Jackson Jenks, who said he had found the Gaspee. According to an article in the Jan. 14, 1960, edition of the Newport Daily News, Jenks claimed to have found in 1958 about 40 feet underwater off Brenton Point in Newport a manmade structure rising about 60 feet above the seabed. Jenks’ claims were ridiculed, which raises questions over his claims about the Gaspee.
Abbass shared side scan sonar readings taken of the point and channel that revealed an anomaly that could be worth checking out.
Abbass’ point is that these stories and information can provide leads worth following.
On Thursday, Abbass and her volunteers did an initial survey of Gaspee Point. This was done by extending tape measures from a point on shore and recording the contour of the bottom, which in some cases no more than knee deep in the low tide, every 50 feet. Abbass explained this is similar to preparations at a land-based archeological dig where a site survey is conducted prior to any digging. In addition, she said, the information could be valuable in future years in understanding how the point may have shifted.
“It was good training,” she said.
“This is science. It’s not just seeing things on a video. You need to understand the scientific process,” she said.
On Friday the team returned to Greene Island to examine what they could find of the vessel that is being broken up storms and carried away. Abbass said that vessel was a double ender and about twice the size of the Gaspee. The boat’s identity remains a mystery.
Abbass is hopeful of holding a public meeting this fall to stoplight the work of the volunteer team on the “not the Gaspee Project” (the two boats they have been documenting) and talk about a search for the Gaspee.
“Our commitment is to involve the public,” she said.
She notes it would be fortuitous for a search to be conducted in 2022, the 250th anniversary of the burning. Mounting such a search including underwater excavation of suspected targets could cost in the range of $30,000 to $40,000 and require preparation for the preservation of any artifacts discovered.
She noted that it would also require approval of Great Britain, for the ship remains British owned and “you can’t go disturbing somebody else’s ship.”
Members of the volunteer team participating over the three days at Gaspee Point included: Roger Hudson, Chris Jasparro (Ph.D. professor from the Navy War College), Swede Johnson, Pegee Malcolm, Rep. Joe McNamara, Peter Nulton (Ph.D. professor from RISD), Diana Reisman and Ray Turbitt.