Gaspée Affair, The

"The Gaspée Affair" - Artist: Kipp Soldwedel (1913 - 1999)

“The Gaspée Affair” – Artist: Kipp Soldwedel (1913 – 1999)

My connection to the “Gaspée Affair” is through Samuel Dunn, the nephew of my 8th g-grandfather, Richard Dunn (Jr.) (1669-1745).  Samuel is the son of Richard’s brother, Nathaniel, making him my 1st cousin 9x removed.  Samuel was born about 1710, and according to some accounts he commanded one of the three boats that captured and destroyed HMS (or HBMS) Gaspée on 9 Jun 1772, in what became known as the “Gaspée Affair”.  The Gaspée Affair was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution.  On 9 Jun 1772, HMS Gaspée, a British customs schooner that had been enforcing unpopular trade regulations, ran aground in shallow water near what is now known as Gaspee Point in the city of Warwick, Rhode Island, while chasing the packet boat Hannah.  In a notorious act of defiance, a group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, looted and torched the ship.  Some sources report that Capt. Samuel Dunn was the man who shot and wounded Lieut. William Dudingston, the commander of the Gaspée.  Although Samuel Dunn’s identity has not been established with certainty, this “Samuel Dunn” should not be confused with a different Samuel Dunn (my 7th g-grandfather), son of Richard Dunn (Jr.), discussed under the heading of Richard Dunn (Sr.) (1652-1690).

“Gaspee Days” Committee logo (click to visit website)

 

The following information is adapted from Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Americana (1920):

The Gaspée Affair was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution.  HMS Gaspée, a British customs schooner that had been enforcing unpopular trade regulations, ran aground in shallow water on 9 Jun 1772, near what is now known as Gaspee Point in the city of Warwick, Rhode Island, while chasing the packet boat Hannah.  In a notorious act of defiance, a group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, looted and torched the ship.

Many details of the story is told by Ephraim Bowen and John Mawney in Staples, William R., The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspée, (Providence, Rhode Island: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony) 1845, p. 14–16.  These men made these statements in 1826 relying on their memories from 67 years earlier.

 

Background:

The customs service in Britain’s North American colonies in the 18th century had a violent history.  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.  At the end of the Seven Years’ War, following Britain’s decisive victory, several successive ministries implemented reforms in an attempt to achieve more effective administrative control and raise more revenue in the colonies.  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.  In 1764, Rhode Islanders attacked HMS St. John, and in 1769 they burned a customs ship, HMS Liberty, on Goat Island in Newport harbor.

 

The Sabin Tavern, formerly on South Main Street, where plans to destroy the Gaspee were conceived (based on a photo from “The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island”, Volume IV by John Williams Haley, 1944).

The Sabin Tavern, formerly on South Main Street, where plans to destroy the Gaspee were conceived (based on a photo from “The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island”, Volume IV by John Williams Haley, 1944).

The incident:

In early 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HMS Gaspée 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 and his officers quickly antagonized powerful merchant interests in the small colony.  On 9 Jun 1772, the Gaspée gave chase to the packet boat Hannah and ran aground in shallow water on the northwestern side of the bay.  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.  At the break of dawn on 10 Jun 1772, they boarded the ship.  The crew put up a feeble resistance, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and wounded, and the vessel burned to the waterline.

 

Aftermath:

Previous attacks by the colonials on British naval vessels had gone unpunished.  In one case, a customs yacht was actually destroyed (also by fire) with no administrative response.  However 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.  However, this was not the law that would be used against the Gaspée raiders: they would be charged with treason.  The task of the commission was to determine against which colonists there was sufficient evidence for their trial in England, and the Commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence and declared their inability to deal with the case.  The governor and the chief justice applied to the assembly for instructions, which body referred it to the discretion of the chief justice, who refused to allow any arrests for transportation to be made.

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, preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church that utilized the Gaspée 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.  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.

 

Sabin Tavern memorial granite marker in parking lot of Partridge, Snow, & Hahn law firm at 180 South Main Street

Sabin Tavern memorial granite marker in parking lot of Partridge, Snow, & Hahn law firm at 180 South Main Street

Legacy:

The city of Warwick, Rhode Island commemorates the Gaspée Affair with “Gaspée Days”.  This festival includes arts and crafts and races, but the highlight is the “Gaspée Days” parade.  The parade features burning the Gaspée 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.  There is also a plaque in the front of a parking lot on North Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island, identifying the location of the Sabin Tavern where the plot to burn the Gaspée was planned.  The marker bears the following inscription:

SONS OF LIBERTY
————————
UPON THIS CORNER
STOOD THE SABIN TAVERN
IN WHICH ON THE EVENING OF
JUNE 9TH 1772
THE PARTY MET AND
ORGANIZED TO DESTROY
H.R.M SCHOONER GASPEE
IN THE DESTRUCTION OF
WHICH WAS SHED THE
FIRST BLOOD
IN THE
AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Located at the river’s edge in Warwick, the Peck Lane marker commemorates the site where the crew members of the Gaspee were set ashore after the ‘capture’ of their ship on the night of June 9/10th, 1772. Plaque crafted by Chris Kane.  Pawtuxet Cove and Pawtuxet Point are in the background.

Text:

THIS MONUMENT COMMEMORATES
THE POINT WHERE THE BRITISH PRISONERS FROM
THE SCHOONER GASPEE WERE TAKEN ASHORE
in 1772
THE LONDON CHRONICLE, England, July 23, 1772  Inside has a somewhat inconspicuous yet significant item concerning the Gaspee Affair, a British ship cruising off the coast of Rhode Island which was so successful in catching ships involved in illegal trade that wealthy Rhode Island merchants destroyed it when it had run aground. It is referred to by some as "The First Blow for Freedom" from the Revolutionary War era.

THE LONDON CHRONICLE, England, 23 Jul 1772: Inside has a somewhat inconspicuous yet significant item concerning the Gaspee Affair, a British ship cruising off the coast of Rhode Island which was so successful in catching ships involved in illegal trade that wealthy Rhode Island merchants destroyed it when it had run aground. It is referred to by some as “The First Blow for Freedom” from the Revolutionary War era.

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