The ‘Gaspee’ affair

A Rhode Island monument to the men who burned the Gaspee

The Gaspee affair of 1772 was a minor incident with concerning ramifications. The Gaspee was a British customs schooner, skippered by an eager lieutenant. It was notorious for apprehending smugglers, seizing their ships and cargo and bringing their crew to justice. The Gaspee’s zealous activities raised the hackles of colonial merchants and sailors alike. In June 1772 the Gaspee ran aground near Rhode Island while in hot pursuit of another smuggler. Locals took to longboats and boarded the schooner, manhandling the captain and crew before putting them ashore. The Gaspee was then burned to the waterline.

On February 17th 1772 the British schooner Gaspee encountered an American merchant sloop called Fortune in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Fortune, like many colonial merchant ships, was carrying undeclared sugar and rum – in other words, she was engaged in smuggling. As a consequence, she was seized

The passing of legislation like the Stamp Act and the Townshend acts were often as unpopular with those working for the Crown, since it meant more work and additional conflict with the colonists. Not so for Lieutenant William Dudingston, who commanded a small two-masted warship called HMS Gaspee. The Gaspee was one of many ships charged with enforcing the unpopular customs duties and Dudingston was zealous about his work. He looked down on the Americans as traitorous provincials and was not a man to be taken lightly, fond of dispensing corporal punishment. One log notes that the “general irritation” of the colonies was “aggravated by the supercilious behaviour of the king’s representatives and officers, military, naval, and civil … the captain of the royal armed schooner Gaspee was noted for his brutality.” Dudingston was responsible for detaining and mistreating at least two American seamen; his actions had earned him a public roasting in a Philadelphia newspaper. In 1772 the Gaspee was transferred from Pennsylvania to New England, where smuggling had been rife. Once there, Dudingston ruthlessly pursued and accosted all suspect craft, collected every penny of duty he could, and sent many mariners and merchants to the admiralty courts. He also aggravated local farmers by seizing food supplies from them to provide for his own crew (a right granted to all British sea captains, though few ever dared attempt it).

A historian’s view:
“The attack on a ship and a uniformed officer of His Majesty’s Navy shocked the British authorities, exciting even the personal attention of the monarch. The news travelled slowly but the incident seemed to grow in infamy as the weeks went by. In August, Alexander Wedderburn, the attorney-general for Great Britain, pronounced the Gaspee affair to be a crime of ‘five times the magnitude of the Stamp Act riots’. The Earl of Dartmouth termed it ‘an offense of much deeper dye than piracy… an act of high treason, levying war against the king.”
Charles Rappleye

In June 1772 the Gaspee was chasing a small merchant craft, Hannah, off the coast of Rhode Island when the British ship ran aground. News of this mishap quickly spread through Providence, where an eager band of Sons of Liberty members, meeting at a tavern, decided to row out and confront Dudingston and his crew. At some point in the night, blows were exchanged and a shot fired, Dudingston himself being wounded. The Gaspee was set alight and burned to the waterline. The captain and his crew were taken prisoner and removed ashore, where they were held under guard in a cellar, to be released a few days later. An angry Royal Navy established a commission of enquiry that did not include or consult colonial courts; this prompted more claims that the rights of the colonists were being overlooked or undermined. Whatever the case, the Navy was unable to learn the names of the culprits who boarded the Gaspee illegally and destroyed it. The crisis sparked by the incident roused pro-revolution colonials who had been significantly quiet between 1769-1772; the animosity stirred by the burning of Gaspee would gradually escalate until the outbreak of war in 1775.

On August 26th 1772, George III issued a royal proclamation promising the distribution of justice to those responsible for destroying the Gaspee. It read in part:

“For the discovering and apprehending the persons who plundered and burnt the Gaspee schooner, and barbarously wounded and ill-treated Lieutenant William Dudingston, commander of the said schooner… We [intend] that said outrageous and heinous offenders may be discovered and brought to condign punishment… If any person or persons shall discover any person or persons concerned in the said daring and heinous offences above mentioned… shall have and receive as a reward for such discovery the sum of 500 pounds.”

Citation information
Title: “The Gaspee affair”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: January 23, 2015
Date accessed: December 03, 2022
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