Gaspee Affair

"Gaspee" redirects here. For the British Royal Navy shipname, see HMS Gaspee. For the Rhode Island peninsula, see Gaspee Point. For similar names, see Gaspé (disambiguation).
Gaspee Affair
Part of the events in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War

Burning of HMS Gaspee
DateJune 9, 1772
LocationNear Gaspee Point, Warwick, Rhode Island
Result American victory
Sons of Liberty Kingdom of Great Britain Kingdom of Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Abraham Whipple
John Brown
William Dudingston +
Casualties and losses
None HMS Gaspee captured and burned

The Gaspee Affair was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. HMS Gaspee[1] was a British customs schooner that had been engaged in anti-smuggling operations. It ran aground in shallow water on June 9, 1772, near what is now known as Gaspee Point in the city of Warwick, Rhode Island, while chasing the packet boat Hannah.[2] A group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, looted, and torched the ship.[3]

The event renewed hostilities between the American colonists and British officials. Following the Boston Massacre in 1770, British officials had worked to reduce tensions with the colonies by repealing some aspects of the Townshend Acts and working to end the American boycott of British goods.[4] British officials in Rhode Island wanted to eliminate some of the illicit trade that had defined the small colony in order to increase revenue from the colony.[5]

British officials wanted to reduce hostilities between the Crown and the colonies, while the Rhode Island merchants did not. Colonists protested the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and other British impositions that had clashed with the colony’s history of rum smuggling and slave trading.

British officers clashed with Rhode Island officials concerning the events that had taken place in the burning of the Gaspee. Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton challenged the narrative of the events as explained by Lieutenant William Dudingston, the commander of the Gaspee, and of Admiral John Montagu, the head of British forces in North America. Wanton also challenged the claims of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant claiming to have participated in the burning. The Gaspee Affair and aftermath further deepened the divide between British and colonial officials in North America.


The customs service had a violent history in Britain’s North American colonies in the eighteenth century. The Treasury in London did little to correct known problems, and Britain itself was at war during much of this period and was not in a strategic position to risk antagonizing its overseas colonies. Several successive ministries implemented reforms following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years' War, in an attempt to achieve more effective administrative control and to raise more revenue in the colonies.

The Admiralty purchased six Marblehead sloops and schooners and gave them Anglicized French names based on their recent acquisitions in Canada. The St. John, St. Lawrence, Chaleur, Hope, Magdalen, and Gaspee had their French accents removed, and subsequent nineteenth and twentieth-century authors used the English spellings.[6] The revenue was necessary, Parliament believed, to bolster military and naval defensive positions along the borders of their far-flung empire, and to pay the crushing debt incurred in winning the war on behalf of those colonies. Among these reforms was the deputizing of the Royal Navy's Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.[7] In 1764, Rhode Islanders attacked HMS St. John, and they burned the customs ship HMS Liberty in 1769 on Goat Island in Newport harbor.[8]

In early 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HMS Gaspee into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay to aid in the enforcement of customs collection and inspection of cargo. Rhode Island had a reputation for smuggling and trading with the enemy during wartime. Dudingston arrived on Rhode Island in February and met with Governor Joseph Wanton. Dudingston did not find the Governor to be overly helpful.[9] Soon after he began patrolling Narragansett Bay, the Gaspee stopped and inspected the sloop Fortune on February 17 and seized twelve hogsheads of undeclared rum.[10] Dudingston sent the Fortune and seized rum to Boston, believing that any seized items left in a Rhode Island port would be reclaimed by colonists.[11]

Dudingston’s decision to move the Fortune to Boston brought outrage within the Rhode Island colony. The merchants were the most affected by Dudingston, and they sought to bring an end to the Gaspee’s control over Narragansett Bay. On March 21, Rhode Island Deputy Governor Darius Sessions wrote to Governor Wanton regarding Lieutenant Dudingston, and he requested that the basis of Dudingston’s authority be examined. In the letter, Sessions includes the opinion of Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, who argues 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."[12] Wanton wrote to Dudingston the next day, despite their encounter when Dudingston arrived in Rhode Island, demanding that he "produce me your commission and instructions, if any you have, which was your duty to have done when you first came within the jurisdiction of this Colony."[13]

Dudingston maintained the Gaspee’s operations without returning to shore, despite the problems that he faced in the Rhode Island colony. He continued making inspections without making formal seizures, infuriating Rhode Island’s merchants further.[14] Additionally, he reached out to Admiral Montagu, seeking clarification of the position taken by Governor Wanton. During the exchange between officials, Dudingston’s newly made enemies in the colony pursued methods of ending Dudingston’s inspections.

The incident

From an old engraving

On June 9, the Gaspee gave chase to the packet boat Hannah, and ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay, on what is now Gaspee Point. Her crew was unable to free her immediately, but the rising tide might have allowed the ship to free herself. A band of Providence members of the Sons of Liberty rowed out to confront the ship's crew before this could happen.[15] The group, led by John Brown, decided to act on the "opportunity offered of putting an end to the trouble and vexation she daily caused."[16]

At the break of dawn on June 10, they boarded the ship. The crew put up a feeble resistance, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded, and the vessel burned to the waterline. The man who fired the shot was Joseph Bucklin:

JOSEPH BUCKLIN, was well known in Providence and kept a prominent restaurant, or place of resort, in South Main Street, where gentlemen resorted for their suppers. Here, too, they assembled, to discuss politics, and where, possibly, the expedition which destroyed the Gaspee, was discussed, as well as at Mr. Sabin's house, which was near it.[17]

The Joseph Bucklin that was a prominent resident of Providence is Joseph Bucklin IV, the father of Joseph Bucklin V.[18] Joseph Bucklin V was the person that fired the shot. He was only 18 at the time.

Previous attacks by the colonists on British naval vessels had gone unpunished. In one case, a customs yacht was actually destroyed (also by fire) with no administrative response. But in 1772, the Admiralty would not ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station.

The American Department consulted the Solicitor and Attorneys General, who investigated and advised the Privy Council on the legal and constitutional options available. The Crown turned to a centuries-old institution of investigation, the Royal Commission of Inquiry. This commission would be made up of the chiefs of the supreme courts of Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, the judge of the vice-admiralty of Boston, and the governor of Rhode Island, Joseph Wanton. The Dockyard Act, passed three months earlier in April, allowed those suspected of burning His Majesty's vessels to be tried in England. But this was not the law that would be used against the Gaspee raiders; they would be charged with treason.[19] The task of the commission was to determine against which colonists there was sufficient evidence for their trial in England. The Commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence and declared their inability to deal with the case.

Colonial Whigs were alarmed at the prospect of Americans being sent to England for trial. A committee of correspondence was formed in Boston to consult on the crisis. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses was so alarmed that they also formed an inter-colonial committee of correspondence to consult in the crisis with other committees.

In Boston, a little-known visiting minister, John Allen, a Rhode Islander, preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church that utilized the Gaspee affair to warn listeners about greedy monarchs, corrupt judges and conspiracies at high levels in the London government. This sermon was printed seven different times in four colonial cities, becoming one of the most popular pamphlets of Colonial British America.[20] This pamphlet, along with the incendiary rhetoric of numerous colonial newspaper editors, awoke colonial Whigs from a lull of inactivity in 1772, thus inaugurating a series of conflicts that would culminate in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Aftermath and legacy

The aftermath of the Gaspee burning brought British calls to investigate and apprehend the individuals responsible for shooting Dudingston and destroying the schooner. Governor Wanton and Deputy Governor Sessions echoed British sentiments despite not having the same enthusiasm for punishing their fellow Rhode Islanders.[21] Accounts by British midshipmen from the Gaspee described the perpetrators as “merchants and masters of vessels, who were at my bureau reading and examining my papers.”[22] On July 8, nearly a month after the burning of the schooner, Admiral Montagu wrote to Governor Wanton and utilized the account of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant claiming to have participated in the June 9 burning. Montagu identified to varying levels of detail five Rhode Islanders he wanted Governor Wanton to investigate and bring to justice: John Brown, Joseph Brown, Simeon Potter, Dr. Weeks, and Richmond.[23]

In response to Admiral Montagu’s call to investigate Brown and others further about their involvement in the Gaspee burning, Governor Wanton examined the claims made by Aaron Briggs. Samuel Tompkins and Samuel Thurston, the proprietors of the Prudence Island farm where Briggs worked, gave testimony to Governor Wanton challenging Briggs’s account of June 9. In each testimony, both men stated that Briggs had been present at work the evening of June 9 and early in the morning on June 10. Additionally, Wanton received further evidence from two other indentured servants working with Briggs, who both stated Briggs had been present throughout the night in question. Dudingston and Montagu challenged Wanton’s assertions, with Dudingston writing about his expectations of such a move and Montagu responded to Wanton’s decision not to pursue Briggs’s claims, “…it is clear to me from many corroborating circumstances, that he [Briggs] is no imposter.”[24]

The city of Warwick, Rhode Island commemorates the Gaspee Affair with Gaspee Days.[25] This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the Gaspee Days parade. The parade features burning the Gaspee in effigy, a Revolutionary War battle reenactment, Revolutionary War-era fife-and-drum bands, a marching band dressed as period sailors, local marching bands, and others.

Gaspee Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is also a plaque in the front of a parking lot on South Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island, identifying the location of the Sabin Tavern where the plot to burn the Gaspee was planned.[26]

In 2015, a documentary film titled Aaron Briggs and the HMS Gaspee, featuring Richard Lobban and Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, was released on DVD.[27]

In November 2016, Steven Park, a professor at the University of Connecticut-Avery Point, will be releasing a book titled The Burning of His Majesty's Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution.[28]

See also


  1. Bartlett: Destruction of the Gaspee – "His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee." Accessed June 9, 2009.
  2. This version of the story is told by Ephraim Bowen and John Mawney in Staples, William R., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, (Providence, RI: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), p. 14–16. These men made these statements in 1826, relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.
  3. The only other testimony from a colonial is Aaron Biggs (sometimes Briggs). He told a slightly different version of the story. Governor Wanton took pains to discredit his telling of the events. Bartlett, John Russell. A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee, In Narragansett Bay, On the 10th of June 1772 (Providence, RI.: A. Crawford Greene, 1861), pp. 84–87. We also have the testimony of several mariners from the crew and officers of the Gaspee. They report a much larger number of attackers and many more boats.
  4. Ferling, John (2015). Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It. Bloomsbury Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-1620401729.
  5. Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Providence: Knowles, Vose,, and Anthony. p. 3.
  6. See Barlett
  7. See Barrow, Thomas C. Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America, 1660–1775 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967) especially page 177. See also Gipson, Lawrence Henry, The British Empire Before the American Revolution, Vol. XII The Triumphant Empire: Britain Sails into the Storm, 1770–1776. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965) especially page 26 footnote 79.
  8. Warships of the world to 1900, Volume 799, Ships of the World Series:Warships of the World to 1900, Lincoln P. Paine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000) pg. 95
  9. Lovejoy, David S. (1958). Rhode Island Politics and the American Revolution, 1760-1776. Providence: Brown University Press. pp. 157. In the first meeting between Governor Wanton and Lieutenant Dudingston, the two discussed the 1769 burning of the Liberty. In the burning, Rhode Islanders destroyed and set fire to the British vessel in Newport, allowing the ships to escape that had been seized by the Liberty. Wanton implied that Dudingston might find the same troubles years later, which prompted Dudingston to send the Fortune to Boston.
  10. Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Knowles, Vose, and Anthony. p. 7.
  11. Ibid. p. 6.
  12. Ibid. p. 3.
  13. Ibid. p. 4.
  14. Ibid. p. 8.
  15. This version of the story is told by Ephraim Bowen and John Mawney in Staples, William R., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, (Providence, R.I.: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony, 1845), p. 14–16. These men made these statements in 1826 relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.
  16. Ibid. p. 8.
  17. A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty's Schooner Gaspee by John Russell Bartlett, p. 20, note 6.
  18. "Joseph Bucklin V Biography". Joseph Bucklin Society. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  19. Edward Thurlow and Alexander Wedderburn (the Attorney and Solicitor General) wrote to the Earl of Hillsborough on August 10, 1772 dismissing the Dockyard Act and allowing for high treason (levying war against the King) instead. National Archives (Public Record Office, United Kingdom) CO (Colonial Office Records) 5 159 folder 26.
  20. G. Jack Gravelee and James R. Irvine, eds. Pamphlets and the American Revolution: Rhetoric, Politics, Literature, and the Popular Press (Delmare, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976), viii.
  21. Staples, William (1845). The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Knowles, Vose, and Anthony. p. 16.
  22. Ibid. p. 14.
  23. Ibid. p. 17.
  24. Ibid. pp. 17–20.
  25. Retrieved 8 May 2016. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. For more information about the Gaspee Days and the celebration in Pawtuxet Village, RI, as well as a missile shot on British territory, please see the Gaspee Days website.
  27. Film webpage,
  28. "The Burning of His Majesty's Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution". Amazon. Retrieved 8 May 2016.

External links

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