Gaspee film brings darker side of history to light
Andrew Stewart set out to make a documentary about Gaspee Days, but he ended up creating a film he hopes will open people’s eyes to Colonial Rhode Island’s involvement in the slave trade.
The 27-year-old Rhode Island College (RIC) graduate has made a documentary entitled “Aaron Briggs and the H.M.S. Gaspee,” a film that tells the story of a young slave forced to take part in the Gaspee Incident by John Brown and his master Captain Samuel Tompkins. The 22-minute documentary claims the burning of the Gaspee was not a blow for freedom but “a blow to white slaver freedom.”
Stewart certainly did not set out to uncover what he calls the darker side of a celebrated historical event. In fact, the idea for the documentary came from where all great ideas come, Stewart’s mother. Living near the end of the parade route on Anderson Street, the story of the Gaspee is literally at his doorstep and his mother suggested the parade be the subject of his first post-graduation film.
“It’s right at the end of the driveway,” said Stewart, recalling watching the parade every year growing up.
So after he graduated from RIC with a film studies degree in 2009, Stewart began researching Gaspee Days to put together his first independent documentary film with the help of his friend Cait Armitage, who served as cinematographer.
While researching, he crossed paths with RIC Anthropology Professor Richard Lobban, a fellow Pawtuxet Village resident. The two began to talk about Stewart’s project when Lobban brought up the fact that John Brown, who is credited with organizing the Gaspee incident, was a trader of rum and slaves.
According to a RIC press release about the documentary, Lobban believes the Gaspee incident was not motivated by patriotic freedom, but commercial freedom.
“The issue of the day was taxation without representation, which meant taxation of the slave trade and rum business,” said Lobban.
Lobban and his wife Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, another anthropology professor at RIC, have studied John Brown, the slave trade and the relationship to Briggs and the Gaspee burning.
In the film, Lobban says, “We always wanted this story to be told; not just the truth, but all parts of the truth.”
According to the film, Briggs was enslaved by Tompkins and pressed into service on the night of June 9, 1772. The film also says Briggs is rumored to have either shot Gaspee’s Captain William Dudingston himself, or handed the rifle to whoever did.
The Lobbans claim that Briggs bore witness against the conspirators in an attempt to earn his freedom; had his masters been convicted of treason, he would have been freed.
City Historian Henry Brown has knowledge of Briggs but says his involvement is slightly different from the Lobbans’ story. Brown says Briggs was a slave who lived on Prudence Island and was simply picked up by the group from Bristol who participated in the events that night.
“He did testify, but it was overruled and not put on record,” said Brown, regarding Briggs’ involvement in the January 1773 trial in Newport.
Brown also says it was 16-year-old Ephraim Bowen who fired the rifle, not Briggs.
Col. Ron Barnes of the Pawtuxet Rangers has viewed the documentary and said it was interesting, but he would want more proof of Briggs’ involvement.
“I would think, if he was a slave, he wouldn’t have had any credibility [at that time],” said Barnes.
Brown says had Briggs’ testimony been used, it would have likely been damaging to the Gaspee raiders.
“We are very proud of the fact that [the Gaspee burning] happened here, before the Boston Tea Party. It was actually a much more militant act,” says Fluehr-Lobban in the documentary. “But the person of African descent who was enslaved is really on the horns of a dilemma of being faithful to his master but also wanting freedom.”
Fluehr-Lobban says Briggs’ story is very compelling and should be told. In the documentary, she says she wonders each year if a teenager of African descent will portray Briggs in the parade.
Stewart says as anthropologists and not historians, the Lobbans provide a “deeper but much darker outlook” on the celebrated incident.
“It’s something completely foreign to people,” said Stewart about the idea of a slave trade existing in Rhode Island.
While he admits slave trade and the cruel treatment of people of African descent is often a difficult topic to “throw in people’s faces,” Stewart believes these stories need to be included not just in the parade celebration but in school curriculums.
Stewart knows that his education about Gaspee began in Warwick schools. He attended St. Peter’s Catholic School, Wyman Elementary, Aldrich Junior High and eventually Bishop Hendricken High School. But he explains that the books he read in school about the Gaspee were different from the books he has read as an adult. He now has learned the darker side of history, and believes children should be taught that from the beginning.
“There is a healthy place for anger to say we need to fix this because we risk repeating history,” said Stewart, adding that he feels a moral obligation to tell this side of the story in his documentary.
Stewart is adamant, however, that he is not attacking the Gaspee Days celebration or the committee that puts on the event.
“I know it’s a carnival. I know it’s a party,” he said, adding that he believes the story should be told with pride for Rhode Island’s role in the fight for independence. However, he believes there is a “covering up” regarding the treatment of this young slave during the celebration.
It took Stewart three years to complete the documentary, which also features Ray Rickman, a Providence-based rare book collector with insight in the Brown family’s slave trade business. The young filmmaker, who was inspired to get into filmmaking during his Hendricken Senior Experience internship with the Rhode Island International Film Festival, had a showing of his documentary at O’Rourke’s Pub in Pawtuxet Village earlier this summer. There was an audience of about 40 people, and Stewart says the reaction from those who view the film, including members of the Gaspee Days Committee, has been very positive.
Stewart’s hope is that his documentary, which features archived footage of 1940s news reels, images from the Lobbans’ research and footage from “Birth of A Nation,” can be used in schools to introduce young students to slavery in Rhode Island.
“I think it’s very possible for school-aged children to understand,” says Stewart. “There is enough of a skeleton in Warwick’s curriculum to stick it right in.”
Stewart feels this material can be taught to students at the same point as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and the Civil War, which covers similar material. Stewart believes students at the junior high and high school levels would be able to understand.
Brown agrees with Stewart on this.
“They should be taught the whole picture,” said Brown, including the fact that in colonial times, slavery wasn’t seen as it is today. “It was a business; it wasn’t considered evil.”
Barnes also sees Stewart’s documentary as an overall positive thing.
“I think it’s great,” said Barnes. “Anything that shows another viewpoint and sheds more light is great.”
Stewart’s documentary and additional educational resources he used to make the film can be found on his HASC Films website, http://tinyurl.com/HASCBriggsWeb.