Sunday, March 18, 2018

Episode 036: Sinking the HMS Gaspee

Last week, we looked at a few of the internal colonial disputes in the Carolinas.  Those issues involved fights between the people and the colonial government.  This week, Rhode Island takes on the British Navy directly by sinking the HMS Gaspee.

Trade Enforcement

Following the repeal of the Stamp Act and most of the Townshend Acts, Parliament focused its attempts to assert authority over the colonies through tougher trade enforcement.  Smuggling had always been common in the colonies, as historically London had not made much of an attempt to enforce trade laws.  Almost no colonists argued that Parliament lacked authority to create and enforce some trade laws, but strict enforcement of existing laws made profitable trade almost impossible.

After the end of the Seven Years War, the British began focusing more on enforcement.  It began as a way to raise revenue, but by 1770, enforcement seemed more about asserting authority than raising any money.  As we saw back in Episode 29, London had placed an American Board of Customs in Boston, responsible for enforcing trade laws and collecting tariffs.  It then sent in Regulars to back up the board, leading to the Boston Massacre (See, Episode 33) and pulling the soldiers out of the city.

The withdrawal of troops did not mean that officials had given up on trade enforcement.  The North Ministry, and Parliament, with the agreement of the King, all felt that colonists could no longer get away with ignoring the laws of the Empire.  Even if authorities had to watch their step on land, the British navy still controlled the seas.

British Dockyard at Woolwich,18th Century (from
Throughout the 1700s, Britain had been regularly at war with one country or another.  The down time between wars presented its own problems.  A peacetime military was expensive.  Yet keeping ships and crew active meant they would be ready for the next war. Otherwise, ships sat in dock, rotting away.  Sailors found other jobs, and officers sat at home on half-pay with little to do.  Putting a few naval vessels to work controlling smuggling seemed like a better alternative.  It kept the ships and men active, raised some revenue, and reminded the colonies who was in control.  Since the end of the Seven Years War, the Navy headquartered in Halifax, deployed dozens of ships patrolling around all the major North American ports.

Despite increased enforcement, many merchant ships still found smuggling profitable, either bringing in goods from foreign ports in violation of trade laws, or simply trying to avoid customs duties.  If caught, officials could seize a ship and its cargo.  If condemned by the Admiralty Court it would be sold at auction, along with additional fines for the ship’s owner.  Since the officers and crew of the naval vessel capturing such a prize received a share of the sales price, they had good incentive to pursue smugglers with zeal.

Rhode Island’s Radicals

Although Boston was the largest port in New England, the coast was dotted with many ports, large and small.  Merchant vessels could land at any of them, or even try to offload their ships via smaller boats at some remote beach.  Rhode Island had a busy port at Newport, and also had a fair share of merchants who made every effort to avoid paying tariffs, or who wanted to trade with foreign colonies in violation of British trade laws.

The people of Rhode Island had a history of challenging British authorities in their waters.  In 1764, following passage of the Sugar Act, a British Navy ship, the HMS St. John  patrolled the waters around Newport looking for smugglers.  While the ship was docked in Newport, some event happened, that is rather vague.  Different accounts say that some of the ship’s crew stole property.  Others say the crew came ashore either to impress local sailors or to capture deserters, resulting in a massive brawl with local sailors on the docks.

Fort George, Newport Harbor (from
As local authorities attempted to make arrests, the St. John attempted to leave port.  Locals occupied Fort George on an island in Newport Harbor.  From there they fired the fort’s cannon at the St. John.  No one was hit, and the locals fled the island before a larger navy ship came in range.  But the incident made clear that colonists in Rhode Island were not afraid to attack authorities if provoked.

The following year, in June 1765, shortly after passage of the Stamp Act, the HMS Maidstone landed a press gang in Newport harbor.  Locals fought with the press gang.  A mob of about 500 men seized the launch craft that had landed, dragged it to the commons, and burned it.

I’ve already mentioned the Liberty, the ship authorities seized from John Hancock in Boston.  The seizure had led to the Liberty riot of 1768 that I discussed back in Episode 29.  By 1769, the British navy was using the HMS Liberty to enforce trade laws.  The crew of the Liberty forced two small Connecticut boats to land at Newport for suspected smuggling violations.  The Captain of the boats accused the crew of the Liberty of abusing him and his men.  Witnesses from Providence had seen the Liberty fire on the unarmed boats after the captain apparently resisted allowing the navy to board his ships.  An outraged mob formed, forcing the crew of the Liberty off of the ship.  They took the ship out into the harbor and set it on fire.

In all of these cases, authorities attempted to bring criminal charges, but no one would identify any of those involved.  Like Boston, the local courts in Newport were stacked with people who would not indict or convict anyone for criminal acts against the hated authorities.  Further, if anyone attempted to cooperate with prosecutors, they might find themselves with a new suit of tar and feathers, or some other punishment.  As a result, locals felt comfortable using violence against the navy when provoked.

William Dudingston

Naval officers tended not to be the most politically sensitive individuals.  A ship’s captain ruled his crew by fear.  He kept his men in line by flogging or other painful punishments for infractions of the rules.  Officers tended to show the same authoritarian contempt for civilians as well.  British crews were not afraid to use violence against civilian crews that displayed any resistance to their orders.  Even for legitimate merchants, a stop at sea could delay a voyage for hours.  A decision to force the ship into docks could mean a delay of several days.  The level of harassment, or strict adherence to the rules, was a largely a matter of discretion for the ship’s captain.  Different officers handled their responsibilities in very different ways.

Lt. William Dudingston, commander of the Gaspee, quickly gained a reputation as being one of the worst, at least from the perspective of the colonists. Dudingston was in his early 30’s.  He came from minor Scottish aristocracy, that had fallen on hard times.  He took command of the Gaspee in 1768 and had been using Philadelphia as a base as he patrolled the waters up and down the east coast.

HMS Gaspee (from
It’s not clear why Dudingston acted especially aggressively in his enforcement of trade regulations. Perhaps he was bucking for promotion.  Perhaps he appreciated the prize money from seized vessels.  As a Lieutenant, he made only £100 per year.  In some years, he nearly doubled his annual income with prize money from seized ships and cargo.  Whatever the reason Dudingston went after everyone.  Even the most politically powerful families and operators of the smallest ships did not escape his strict enforcement of customs laws.

Dudingston also apparently had an attitude, treating all civilians with contempt.  On several boardings, his men beat up ship captains and crew, presumably for resisting in some way.  He quickly developed a reputation for harassing local ships, boarding even small packet boats moving around the bay, demanding papers and wasting everyone’s time.  A British board of inquiry later described it as “intemperate, if not reprehensible zeal to aid the customs service.”

While in the waters around Philadelphia, Dudingston apparently got into several fights.  There is one article about him beating up a fisherman, unprovoked, though the article is written by the fisherman, so we only have that side of the story.  Given that there are many such stories, though, it seems that Dudingston was quite comfortable beating up locals if he thought they did not give him the respect he deserved.

The Gaspee 

The HMS Gaspee itself was a rather small schooner with a crew of only around 20-25 men and six cannon, as well as a few swivel guns.  It was built as a small fast ship, designed to run down merchant vessels, not fight with other ships of war.  It was able to move at a good speed for the day, travel through relatively shallow water and was sufficiently armed to intimidate any merchant vessel it encountered.

The Admiralty had ordered the Gaspee and five similar ships built in the colonies in 1764 for the purpose of customs enforcement.  The Gaspee had been in continuous use since that time, patrolling waters from Nova Scotia to Philadelphia.  It only had one other commander before Dudingston took command in 1768.

Patrolling Rhode Island

In early 1772, Dudingston began to focus his attention on the waters around Newport.  In addition to treating merchants and captains with contempt, he liked to show his contempt for local government officials.  Naval vessels patrolling colonial waters typically presented their credentials to local authorities before searching and seizing merchant vessels.  Dudingston never bothered with this.

Nathanael Greene
(from Wikimedia)
Some who had encountered the Gaspee at sea claimed that there was nothing to identify it as a naval vessel.  Some merchants initially thought they were being attacked by pirates.

In February, the Gaspee seized the Fortune a small sloop illegally carrying sugar and rum from the West Indies.  Dudingston determined this was illegal smuggling and ordered the ship and its cargo seized.  There was nothing particularly remarkable about this seizure other than the fact that the ship was owned by the Greene family, a wealthy and powerful merchant family in Rhode Island.  One of the owners was Nathanael Greene, a future General in the Continental Army.  Some point to this event as one that help set Greene on the path toward joining the patriot cause. The Gaspee spent the spring harassing ships, even small fishing vessels, often seizing ship and hauling the occupant to Boston for trial.

As merchants began reporting more seizures of ships, they looked to the colonial government for some relief.  Unlike most colonies, Rhode Island had an elected governor, who had to be responsive to the people, or suffer the consequences at the next election.

Adm. John Montegu
(from Royal Museum Greenwich)
Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton sent Dudingston several letters demanding he produce his commission to engage in Customs service.  As an elected Governor, Wanton was more inclined to back the popular will rather than dictates from London.  It also meant that British officers saw him as a colonial political hack rather than a representative of the crown.

Dudingston simply forwarded the Governor’s letters to Admiral Montegu, his commander in Halifax without responding directly.  Montegu backed him up, essentially telling the Governor that Dudingston was doing his duty, and that the Governor should do his duty by assisting the Navy, not annoying its officers.

Both the Governor and Admiral sent copies of all correspondence back to London trying to get support for their positions.  But before London could act, the colonists decided to put an end to the Gaspee’s activities.

The Attack

On June 9, 1772 a small packet sloop named the Hannah made a run from Newport to Providence.  The Gaspee attempted to approach and board her.  The Hannah’s Captain Benjamin Lindsey, knew the Bay much better than Dudingston.  He took the Hannah over a shallow area that his ship could clear but the larger Gaspee could not.  The Gaspee became stuck on the sandbar.  The Hannah escaped while the Gaspee waited for high tide.

Captain Lindsey arrived in Providence and informed others about what happened.  They sent out a town crier to call a meeting of locals.  A group of men assembled at a tavern to discuss how to deal with the Gaspee once and for all.

Burning of the Gaspee (from
Around 10:00 that night, a group of armed men in eight longboats rowed out to the Gaspee, using muffled oars to avoid detection.  A sentry aboard the still grounded Gaspee hailed the men, who did not respond.  However, the sentry’s actions alerted Lt. Dudingston who appeared on deck only half dressed to demand an answer from the approaching boats.  The response he got was a bullet in the gut.

Some accounts say the attackers announced that the Sheriff was in the party and that he had a warrant for Dudingston’s arrest.  They shot Dudingston only after he refused to allow the party to board and serve the warrant. They only shot Dudingston after he struck one of the attackers with his sword.

Whatever the initial encounter, the men then stormed the ship before the crew could mount any resistance.  They forced the crew below deck. At first, Dudingston remained on deck, bleeding to death.  But after a short time, they removed him below deck and treated his wounds.   They also removed some of the ship papers.  The attackers then collected Dudingston and his crew, and removed them from the ship.  They left them on the shore near Pawtuxet Village, the nearest settlement to the ship.

Later that night, shortly before dawn, the attackers set the Gaspee on fire.  The burned it to the water line.  The exploded powder magazine assured the ship’s complete destruction.

The Consequences

Now, burning a naval vessel and shooting a British officer were not things that authorities took lightly.  Such an attack was treason.  Earlier attacks on British naval property had not involved shooting an officer.  So the Gaspee incident created a whole new level of concern about law and order in the colonies.

Gov. Wanton, eager to stay in the good graces of those in London, but not overly concerned about bringing the criminals to justice, issued an reward offer of £100 to anyone with information leading to the arrest of anyone involved.  Later, King George issued a proclamation offering a reward of £500. Although many were well aware of those involved, no one came forward to implicate anyone. Even if someone objected to the attack, knew the perpetrators, and wanted the reward money, they knew that snitching would result in a mob attacking them and destroying their property, if not causing bodily harm.  No one seem willing to risk that for the possibility of even a rather generous reward.

Gov. Joseph Wanton
(from Wikimedia)
Lt. Dudingston refused to speak with any local officials about the attack.  He probably did not trust them to do anything anyway. Since he had lost a ship, he faced an automatic court martial.  He knew any statements he made could be used against him.  Dudingston’s court martial took place a England a few months later.  The Court completely acquitted him and Dudingston received a promotion to Captain shortly thereafter.  Dudingston did apply for a pension that year. His wound required time for rest and recuperation.

A month after the attack, one of sailors on the Gaspee got a job on another ship and recognized Aaron Briggs as one of the men who had seized the Gaspee.  The ship’s captain got Briggs to confess and to implicate two other leading merchants.  Gov. Wanton attempted to arrest Briggs, but the captain refused to allow the Sheriff to board his ship.  I suspect the Captain feared that once in the hands of the colonists, Briggs would recant or suddenly disappear.

The King ordered a Royal Commission in Rhode Island to resolve this matter.  The Commission was supposed to find out who was involved and ship them back to London for a treason trial.  After six months investigating the matter it came up relatively empty.  It even dropped charges against Briggs.  It turned out the Captain had extracted a confession from Briggs by threatening to hang him if he did not confess.  Under such circumstances, the Commission deemed the confession invalid.  Further, the Commission could not identify a single person involved in the incident.

One of the big problems for the Commission is that Gov. Wanton served as one of the commissioners.  He attacked every witness and seemed to shut down every line of investigation as best he could.  As an elected Governor, he knew his political future meant trying to keep prominent citizens from getting caught up in a legal mess over this incident.  He wanted the matter to go away as quickly as possible.

In the end, the Commission reprimanded virtually everyone involved.  The Governor for not pursuing the criminal investigation with enough zeal (prior to his sitting on the commission), the Captain who extracted Brigg’s confession and then refused to turn him over to lawful authorities, and Dudingston for exercising too much zeal in enforcing customs laws.  The Navy, however, did not seem to blame Dudingston for anything.  After a mandatory court martial for losing his ship, the Navy acquitted Dudingston and soon promoted him to Captain.  He would return to active duty in 1776 and go on to become an Admiral years later.

While very little came from the incident directly, the Gaspee affair created even more divisions between England and the colonies.  London saw the incident as yet another egregious example of colonists’ refusal to accept lawful authority, instead engaging mob rule.  The incident increased colonial fears that England was willing to remove accused criminals to London for trial, denying them the right to a local jury trial.  The sinking of the Gaspee itself turned out to be a relatively isolated incident in 1772.  It did not inspire any copycat attacks on the Navy, nor did London overreact by implementing punitive measures against the colony.  This allowed the relative calm to continue for another year and a half.

Next Week: We take a look at the Committees of Correspondence, and the Colony of Vandalia.

Next Episode 37: Committees of Correspondence & the Colony of Vandalia

Previous Episode 35: Carolina Regulators and the Battle of Alamance

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:
Web Sites

For anyone interested in learning more about the Gaspee, this is the most thorough and authoritative website on the topic:

The Story of the Gaspee Attack:

The Gaspee Affair:

Armstrong, Benjamin F. “An Act of War on the Eve of Revolution” Naval History Magazine, 2016:

Watch Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse discuss the Gaspee Affair on the floor of the Senate (June 9, 2015):

William Dudingston:

Admiral John Montagu (1719-1795):

Bryant, Samuel W. “HMS Gaspee - The Court Martial” Rhode Island History, 1966:

Park, Steven “Revising the Gaspee Legacy” Journal of the American Revolution, 2015:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bartlett, John A history of the destruction of His Britannic Majesty's schooner Gaspee, in Narragansett Bay, on the 10th June, 1772, Providence: A. Crawford Greene, 1861.

Staples, William R. The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, Providence: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony,1845.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2015.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Nelson, James George Washington’s Secret Navy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Park, Steven The Burning of His Majesty's Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution, Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2016.

Raven, Rory Burning the Gaspee: Revolution in Rhode Island, Charleston: History Press, 2012.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links). 

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I had not known any of that before. A fascinating backstory. Good digging, Mike!