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The Burning Of The Gaspee

Updated on August 31, 2012

The year was 1772, and the tensions between the British and the New England colonists were strained to say the least, especially in Rhode Island. Pawtuxet village, one of the oldest and first villages in New England was the scene of one of the first acts of violence that led up to the Revolutionary war. This act is the burning of the Gaspee.

The French and Indian war was over in 1763, but during this war many coastal Rhode Island seaports including Pawtuxet became prosperous with free trade with the West Indies, and French and Spanish colonies. According to England this was illegal, because there was an embargo against the West Indies, but many Rhode Island seaport communities ignored this and continued trading with them anyways during the war, which England turned a blind eye to because it was also profitable for them.

The war was over, and England needed to find a way to help pay for the costly war. Parliament began to station ships in Newport, to enforce tax and revenue laws that had been on the books for years, but were ignoring all this time. This seriously hurt the colonist’s livelihood, because the prosperity they had enjoyed with trade, was now being seriously threatened by England. During this time they began to tax many goods coming into Rhode Island seaports, including molasses which Rhode Islanders relied on so heavily.

Many of these ships had ruthless commanders that would on a routine basis, harass, seize all their goods, and impound many ships coming into Narragansett Bay. One of the worst was Lieutenant Dudingston who commanded the HMS Gaspee. His sole purpose in life was to terrorize and harass ships both small and large that sailed into Rhode Island waters. Dudingston would fire a warning shot against a ships bow if it did not stop when it was being pursued. He would frequently bring up trumped up charges against boat owners, whether they were doing anything wrong or not.

It got so bad that the governor of Rhode Island sent him letters directly, complaining against all these wrongful acts, which he brazenly ignored. This only seemed to ad fuel to the fire, and Rhode Island residents and ship merchants became more infuriated every day with this man.

On June 9th, 1772 a small boat, whose captain was Thomas Lindsay, set off from Newport, and was headed to Providence, with the intention of engaging the HMS Gaspee. He knew his boat would be stopped and searched for illegal goods. Sure enough shortly after departing the Gaspee began its pursuit of his vessel, and he refused to stop. His boat, being smaller and faster, began to quickly pull ahead of the Gaspee. When they approached, what is now called Gaspee point in Pawtuxet, Thomas Lindsay realized they were chasing him without any thought or planning and he led them to the shallow waters off Gaspee point. The Gaspee decided to take a shortcut through the shallow waters at Gaspee point to try to overtake the fleeing vessel. Not realizing these waters were shallower than they thought, the Gaspee ran aground. This was a grave mistake, because with the tide going out, the Gaspee would be stuck there until high tide at 3 am the next morning.

Thomas Lindsay continued on towards his destination Providence. When he arrived, after sunset about 5 pm, he immediately went to John Browns house, who was a respected merchant at this time, and the owner of the boat, Thomas Lindsay was commanding. He explained to him the day’s events, and that the Gaspee has run aground. Quickly realizing the opportunity to get rid of this nuisance, John Brown spread the word to local citizens that the Gaspee had run aground and would not be able to move until 3 am the next day. A man with a drum was sent through the streets to announce that the gaspee had run aground, and that they were meeting at James Sabin's house which was a local inn that catered to the gentlemen at the time. By nine o’clock that evening a large group had gathered

At ten pm, after many plans and discussion, the large group of men set out in 8 longboats, from Fenner’s Wharf. They muffled the oars, so they could make a quiet approach. As they approached the Schooner, the night watchmen sounded the alarm, and Dudingston and his crew woke from a sound sleep to confront these men. The men in the longboats requested to come aboard, when the captain refused, the men boarded anyways. A quick struggle took place, but the men overtook the crew fairly easy, and Dudingston was shot in the groin. The men made the crew prisoners, and brought them quickly to shore, where they were held prisoner.

The men rowed back to the Gaspee, and set the boat on fire. The boat soon exploded because it was filled with gunpowder, therefore destroying the Gaspee, and reducing her to a former shell of what she once was. These men rowed back to Providence, and went back to their respective homes.

The authorities quickly went to work to find the perpetrators who did this. But when they started questioning the local town’s people, no one seemed to know anything. Even the governor put up a 500 dollar reward, for any information on to who these men were. The king of England offered a 5000 dollar reward. Think about this, 5000 dollars was a lot of money in 1772, but still none came forward to turn these men in, even though everyone knew who they were. These men were never caught, or punished for this.

Many say America’s eventual independence from England began this day. That the mere fact was that they couldn’t find one witness to stand against these men was a testimony in itself. This event pre dated the start of the Revolutionary by two years, and was of the first blows for American freedom, and independence. Anther cool thing is the fact that I live blocks from where this happened. I could walk there in minute if I wanted to. I see the waters that this happened in every day. It’s one thing to know history, but when it happened right in your own backyard, it’s something special.


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