Summary of the Gaspee Affair
The Gaspee Affair was a dispute between British officials and colonial officials over how to handle the Gaspee Incident. The incident took place from June 9–10, 1772, and included Rhode Islanders attacking the British schooner HMS Gaspee, shooting a British naval officer, and destroying the ship by setting it on fire. In the aftermath, British officials investigating the incident wanted to arrest the men responsible and take them to Britain to stand trial. Americans were outraged and believed the right to a fair trial would be violated.
This painting by Charles DeWolf Brownell depicts the burning of the HMS Gaspee. Image Source: Gaspee Virtual Archives.
The Gaspee Affair of 1772
The Gaspee Affair, like many events that led to the American Revolution and the War for Independence, was the result of oppressive, often short-sighted British policies. For decades, Britain had held on to an old, outdated economic theory known as Mercantilism. Under the Mercantile System, the colonies only existed for the benefit of the Mother Country. Although British officials believed they were treating the colonies fairly, it often led them to act in an arrogant manner toward colonists. It led to growing resentment in Colonial America that contributed to events like the Gaspee Incident.
Salutary Neglect Aids Success of Rhode Island Businesses
Prior to 1763, Britain had controlled the flow of commerce throughout its empire with a series of shipping laws known as the Navigation Acts. These laws dictated how merchants were allowed to ship goods and products, including the types of ships they could use, the routes they could sail, and the makeup of their crews. The entire process was regulated by fees and taxes that had to be paid, based on the cargo the ship was carrying.
For many years, American merchants simply ignored the laws. They smuggled goods by landing in ports where there were no British customs officials or paid bribes to the officials. Parliament also had an unwritten policy that encouraged customs officials to “neglect” forcing colonial merchants to pay shipping taxes. This policy eventually came to be known as Salutary Neglect.
In colonial Rhode Island, one of the largest industries was rum distilling, and molasses is a key ingredient. Due to Salutary Neglect, Rhode Island merchants were able to buy the best molasses they could, at the best price. This contributed to both the merchants and distillers being able to run successful businesses.
The Sugar Act of 1764 Ends Salutary Neglect
When Parliament passed the Sugar Act in 1764, it ended the policy of Salutary Neglect because it gave financial rewards to British customs officials and the Royal Navy for helping enforce the Navigation Acts. The Sugar Act also increased the taxes Rhode Island merchants had to pay on shipments of molasses and sugar. However, what concerned Americans the most was the Sugar Act was passed to raise money from the colonies for the benefit of Britain.
Americans protested the Sugar Act and started to develop the idea of “no taxation without representation.” They wrote pamphlets and newspaper articles that criticized Parliament for levying taxes on the colonies for the purpose of raising revenue. Some merchants also formed a trade boycott and refused to import products from British merchants.
In 1765, the Governor of Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins wrote a pamphlet titled “Rights of the Colonies Examined.” He criticized Parliament for passing a law that not only hurt colonial merchants, but also the British merchants. Hopkins asked why Parliament would pass a law, “to cramp the trade and ruin the interests of many of the colonies, and at the same time lessen in a prodigious manner the consumption of the British manufactures in them?”
This illustration of Stephen Hopkins was done by Henry Bryan Hall. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Parliament repealed the Sugar Act in 1766 but continued to pass laws that were intended to cut down on smuggling and bribery and force colonial merchants to pay shipping taxes. Parliament also passed laws like the Currency Act and Stamp Act, that increased taxes in other areas and increased its control over business and government in the colonies. All of this frustrated and shocked Americans. As Hopkins wrote in his pamphlet, “The colonies are at so great a distance from England that the members of Parliament can generally have but little knowledge of their business, connections, and interest…”
The Townshend Acts Brings More Taxes and Oversight
In 1767 and 1768, Parliament passed a series of laws that raised taxes and increased its oversight of shipping carried out by colonial merchants. These laws are known as the Townshend Acts because they were designed by Charles Townshend, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Once again, Americans protested the laws, especially in the New England Colonies. In Boston, merchants refused to allow customs officials to carry out their duties. In one incident, known as the Liberty Affair, Bostonians rioted and tore down the homes of British officials. This led Britain to send troops to occupy Boston, and that led directly to riots and fighting between citizens and soldiers that culminated in the Boston Massacre.
After the Massacre, most of the shipping taxes that were part of the Townshend Acts were repealed, but the enforcement of the Navigation Acts continued. The only tax that remained was the tax on tea, and that was for the purpose of helping the British East India Tea Company stay in business.
Royal Navy Increases its Presence in Rhode Island
In Rhode Island, merchants continued to smuggle goods and the Royal Navy responded by sending ships to patrol the waters of Narragansett Bay to help enforce the maritime shipping laws.
One of the British ships was a schooner, the HMS Gaspee. The Gaspee was a two-masted ship with eight cannons, under the command of Lieutenant William Dudingston. Dudingston had a crew of about 26 men. Dudingston, who made no secret of his disdain for American smugglers, used his position to harass colonial shipping and delay, often unjustly, ships that had properly passed custom inspection.
The Gaspee Incident
On June 9, 1772, the Gaspee attempted to stop and search the packet sloop Hannah as it left Newport, Rhode Island, bound for Providence. The Hannah was under the command of Captain Benjamin Lindsey, and his ship had been cleared by customs officials in Newport and given permission to set sail.
When the crew of the Gaspee saw the Hannah, they chased after it. Since he had cleared customs in Newport, Captain Lindsey refused to stop. Instead, he deliberately sailed into shallow waters off Namquid Point (now Gaspee Point). The Gaspee followed and ran aground. Dudingston and the crew of the Gaspee tried to free the ship, but it was no use. The water was too shallow, and they would have to wait until the tide came in the next day. Meanwhile, the Hannah continued on its journey to Newport without further incident.
When the Hannah reached Providence, Captain Lindsey reported the incident to John Brown, Joseph Bucklin, and other Providence leaders. Some of them were members of the Providence Sons of Liberty and Brown, who was a merchant, had a track record of being an outspoken critic of the British patrols in the Rhode Island waters.
Brown and Bucklin sent out a town crier inviting all interested parties to meet at Sabin’s Tavern where they were going to come up with a plan to destroy the Gaspee before it could be freed.
Burning of the Gaspee
Early the next day, while it was still dark, a group of men boarded eight longboats and sailed out to the Gaspee. There were about eight men in each boat — so around 64 total — and the expedition was led by Abraham Whipple, who would go on to be a commander in the Continental Navy.
The crew of the Gaspee saw the men coming and ordered them to stop. Whipple and his men refused the order. Whipple told the British he was a sheriff and announced they were there to arrest Dudingston. Whipple ordered the British to abandon the Gaspee. Dudingston did not comply and shots were fired between the crew of the Gaspee and the Whipple’s men. Dudingston was shot twice and badly wounded.
Whipple and his men pulled up alongside the Gaspee, boarded the ship, and overpowered the crew. The crew was forced to leave the ship and the Rhode Islanders set it on fire. The Gaspee burned to the waterline when the powder magazine exploded, blowing the remainder of the ship to bits.
The Gaspee Commission
When news of the Gaspee Incident reached London, British officials were outraged. Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton, who was sympathetic to the men, went through the motions of trying to identify the participants in the raid. Wanton offered a reward of 100 pounds for information that would lead to the arrests of the men responsible for the attack. However, no one came forward with information because news of the investigation into the incident was leaked in the newspapers.
Former Governor Stephen Hopkins was the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court at the time. He advised Deputy Governor Darius Sessions that the actions taken by Lt. Dudingston were illegal.
Sessions wrote, “I have consulted with the Chief Justice thereon, who is of opinion, that no commander of any vessel has any right to use any authority in the Body of the Colony without previously applying to the Governor and showing his warrant for so doing and also being sworn to a due exercise of his office—and this he informs me has been the common custom in this Colony.”
Governor Wanton submitted an inconclusive report to British officials in London. Not satisfied with the Governor’s efforts, King George III appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the incident.
The commissioners met on January 5, 1773, at Newport. Wanton and Hopkins were present, along with Chief Justice Frederick Smythe of New Jersey and Commissioner Daniel Horsemanden of New York. They proceeded to ask the British naval officers why they were in Narragansett Bay in the first place.
On January 12, Admiral John Montagu arrived from Boston. He was a judge in the Admiralty court. He insisted the commissioners needed to find out who was responsible and extradite them to Britain for trial.
The names of the participants were well known among Providence residents, but the commission was unable to identify any of the men responsible for the incident. Although witnesses were called, none of them provided any tangible evidence that either Brown or Whipple was involved. Some of the witnesses even failed to show up for the proceedings.
On June 23, 1773, the commission closed its investigation. The final report to the king stated that the Gaspee was destroyed by persons unknown. No arrests were ever made.
Colonial Reaction to the Gaspee Affair
The investigation into the Gaspee Indecent concerned people throughout the colonies. The reason was that if anyone had been identified for being involved in the burning of the Gaspee, they would have been sent to Britain for trial.
An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty
In Boston, Revered John Allen delivered a sermon called “An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty.” Allen used the Gaspee Incident to warn his congregation about the danger of tyrants and pointed to the King. He said:
“…an arbitrary dispotic power in a prince, is the ruin of a nation, of the King, of the crown, and of the subjects; therefore it is to be feared, abhorred, detested and destroyed, because the happiness of the King, and the prosperity of the people are thereby, not only in danger, but upon the brink of destruction. Every age and every history, furnishes us with proofs, as clear as the light of the morning of the truth of this.”
Allen also criticized Parliament for passing laws to govern the colonies, because it did not represent the colonies. He said:
“The Parliament of England cannot justly make any laws to oppress, or defend the Americans, for they are not the representatives of America and there|fore they have no legislative power either for them, or against them.
The house of Lords cannot do it, for they are Peers of England, not of America; and, if neither king, lords, nor commons, have any right to oppress, or destroy, the liberties of the Americans, why is it then, that the americans do not stand upon their own strength, and shew their power, and importance, when the life of life, and every liberty that is dear to them and their children is in danger.”
Thomas Jefferson Recalls the Gaspee Affair
In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson remembered that as being the issue that concerned him. He wrote, “…a court of inquiry held in Rhode Island in 1772, with a power to send persons to England to be tried for offences committed here was considered at our session of the spring of 1773 as demanding attention…”
Significance of the Gaspee Affair
The outcome of the Gaspee Affair was significant because it showed Americans were willing to take violent action against the British. It was similar to the resistance demonstrated at the Boston Tea Party two years later. However, the Gaspee Affair was much more serious because it involved destroying a British naval vessel and wounding a British naval officer. Further, it made it clear to Americans the British government was willing to violate their rights as Englishmen in order to impose its will on the colonies.
Gaspee Affair — Quick Facts
Date and Location
- Date Started: June 9, 1772
- Date Ended: June 23, 1773
- Location: Rhode Island Colony, in Narragansett Bay.
Key Participants in the Gaspee Incident
- British Lieutenant William Dudingston
- Rhode Island Merchant John Brown
- Abraham Whipple
- Joseph Bucklin