John Currier casts the image of authority from a bygone era, with his high boots, tailed coat with epaulets, braid and brass buttons and his sword swaying from his belt. And it’s not all show. Currier is a lieutenant colonel in the militia and couldn’t have been a better choice to play the role of the judge of the British Admiralty of Rhode Island in a skit staged Thursday at the State House to open the 48th annual celebration of the burning of the British ship Gaspee.
But there was a problem.
Capitol Police wouldn’t let Currier enter the State House carrying weapons.
Currier knows his history and insisted under the state charter the militia is recognized. Police weren’t about to take the time to check. It looked like a standoff, with Currier on the outside and members of the Gaspee Days Committee gathering in the House lounge with elected officials.
Fortunately, Capitol Police know the governor. Lincoln Chafee arrived at the appropriate time, vouched for his long-time friend Currier and later joined him for the ceremony.
Calling the incident of June 9, 1772 the state’s “first ‘waterfire,’” Rep. Joseph McNamara told of how the colonial ship Hannah, being pursued by the Gaspee, lured the British ship onto Namquid Point where she ran aground.
“You really have to know these waters, or they can be treacherous,” McNamara said. He knows from experience; McNamara said he ran aground in close to the same spot in a 30-foot sailboat.
It’s what happened when colonists learned the Gaspee was aground that has earned the incident the reputation as America’s “first blow for freedom.” The colonists rowed out and, after taking the crew ashore, set the Gaspee afire. Despite the king’s efforts to track down those responsible and a fortune offered in reward, no one spoke; only Abel Esterbrooks was arrested, but was never convicted.
“I’m always very proud of Gaspee Days,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said. “Virtually everybody has heard about the Boston Tea Party,” Whitehouse said, describing a group of drunkards who climbed up on a boat and threw tea into Boston harbor. “I think that counts for something, but what’s the big deal about throwing tea bags into the harbor?”
McNamara called the Boston Tea Party nothing more than an act of vandalism and attributed its lasting renown to the fact that more books of that time were printed in Boston.
Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis also touched upon the historic significance of the Gaspee. Mayor Scott Avedisian and Allan Fung praised the work of the Gaspee Days Committee and how the events, including a crafts festival and parade, bring the community together.
Senator William Walaska called parade day “a fun day” and a great day for a beer.
Ward 1 Councilman Steve Colantuono said Gaspee Days “revitalizes us as a neighborhood.” He cited how the village walking tour run by Wyman School students “gets children involved in our history.”
Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon called the 48th celebration a historic event in itself.
The historic walking tour of Pawtuxet is May 18; the Arts and Crafts Festival is from May 25 to 27; the colonial encampment is June 7; the parade on the 8th; and the symbolic burning of the Gaspee the following day.
Currier, parade chairman Eric Peloso and Dr. John Concannon brought a bit of Gaspee history alive with the a sampling of the legal inquiries that followed the burning. Peloso played Easterbrooks and Currier played the despised oppressive Brit and didn’t have to brandish his sword to establish his power. His authoritative voice was enough to convince of his command and give the audience an idea of what it may have been like to live in those times.