Warwick's Gaspee Days celebration recalls one of the most significant events in Rhode Island history. The burning of the Gaspee was the first act of violence in the Revolutionary War. The event occurred off Namquid Point (renamed Gaspee Point) on June 9, 1712. In addition to being of utmost importance to Warwick and Rhode Island, the act assumed great significance in American history, as it was to carry consequences far beyond the actual act of violence.
The series of events that led to the act itself clearly shows the serious problems that eventually led to a war that, as Jefferson said, was "necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another." The problems that arose between the mother country, Great Britain, and the American Colonies centered on trade restriction, loss of rights and personality conflicts. Rhode Island, like the other New England colonies, based a great deal of her prosperity upon the "triangular trade" with the West Indies. Goods from Rhode Island were exchanged in the islands for sugar and molasses. The molasses was distilled into rum, which in turn could be used to buy a variety of commodities, including slaves from Africa.
Great Britain, anxious to capitalize on this trade, instituted the Sugar and Molasses Act in 1732. The colonies, feeling this ruinous, resorted to smuggling. For 30 years, the mother country had neither the ships nor other resources to stop the action. In 1768, this changed. Great Britain had emerged victorious in the French and Indian War. Because of this conflict, she had troops and ships readily available in North America. Seeking a method of paying for the war, she decided the time had come to collect more taxes and to end the smuggling.
The revenue schooner, Gaspee, was one of the ships sent to Narragansett Bay. It was placed under the command of Lt. William Dudingston, an arrogant, overbearing man. By this time, the excellent relationship of the colonies and England had deteriorated. Jealously guarding their rights as "Englishmen," Rhode Islanders protested the stopping and searching of ships. They especially disliked Dudingston's behavior and tried to get him to the Kent County Court to answer charges.
On June 9, 1772, Capt. Thomas B. Lindsey of the small packet, Hannah, upon leaving Newport for Providence, was sighted by the Gaspee and ordered to stop. Lindsey, fearing an illegal search and delay, decided to try to outrun the revenue schooner. The small Hannah was able to clear the shallows at Namquid Point and knew the larger revenue schooner couldn't. Dudingston, hoping to catch the vessel before it reached Pawtuxet, fell into the trap and ordered full sail. The Gaspee, as a result, ran aground and was forced to remain at Namquid Point until high tide, which would not take place until 3 a.m.
Upon reaching Providence, Lindsey reported the incident to the Hannah owner, John Brown, one of Rhode Island's wealthy merchants and a leader against British encroachment upon colonists' rights. Brown sent out a "town crier" inviting all interested citizens to meet to plan the Gaspee's destruction. In a relatively short time, the word spread, and by 8 p.m. a crowd gathered at Sabin's Tavern in Providence. Some of the most prominent merchants of Providence, Bristol and Warwick were present and the decision was made to burn the Gaspee.
Eight longboats rowed to Namquid Point where the Gaspee remained trapped and arrived there at midnight. When Dudingston asked, "Who's approaching my ship," Abraham Whipple, who was in command of the Rhode Islanders, replied, "I am the sheriff of the County of Kent...I have a warrant to apprehend you...so surrender..." Shortly thereafter, one of the rebels, Joseph Bucklin, turned to Ephrain Bowen of Warwick and said, "Eph, reach me your gun, I can kill that fellow." Bucklin's shot hit Dudingston, and the Rhode Islanders boarded the Gaspee and overcame the crew. Dudingston later wrote, "I...found myself disabled in my left arm, and shot through the groin..."
The crew was taken to Stillhouse wharf in Pawtuxet and Dudingston to the home of Joseph Rhodes. The rebels set fire to the Gaspee, which burned to the water and, when the flames hit the powder magazine, exploded.
The news of the burning spread from Rhode Island to the rest of the colonies. Many openly applauded the act and made preparations for assistance should the British react with force. Committees of Correspondence, the forerunner of the Continental Congress, were organized as a result. In England, the news was greeted with alarm and the burning was called treason. Governor Joseph Wanton was ordered to offer a large reward for any information leading to the arrest of those guilty of the offence and a committee was organized to investigate.
The large rewards produced nothing, as no one offered information. It was a case of everyone knowing and no one telling. Whipple, Hopkins, Brown and the others were heroes, as many applauded the act that humiliated Dudingston. The Gaspee captain's prized gold-laced hat was worn openly in the streets of Providence and various articles from the Gaspee were shown in Warwick. Sam Aborn of Pawtuxet was paid by the General Assembly to store the anchors and heavy equipment from the British ship.
The burning of the Gaspee in 1772 was the first of the many acts that brought us to the Revolution and saw the establishment of the United States. In Warwick, we proudly celebrate the act with the Gaspee Days.