Ornamental Separator

An Ill Wind

The Gaspée Affair and its ominous aftermath contributed to a breaking point with Britain

On June 9, 1772, the British schooner HMS Gaspée was a sitting duck. Under orders to patrol the waters of the Eastern Seaboard to deter smuggling, the Gaspée ran aground while pursuing a packet ship in the Providence River near the Rhode Island coastal city of Warwick.

It was low tide, and the ship’s commander, Lt. William Dudingston of the Royal Navy, decided to wait until morning for the tide to rise and lift the ship. He and his crew settled in to spend the night stuck in the river.

But before the tide came in, a handful of small boats appeared out of the darkness just before dawn carrying dozens of men with no plans to help the stranded schooner. Instead, they forced the crew from the vessel and set the Gaspée on fire.

The perpetrators of the assault on the Gaspée were British subjects — Rhode Islanders who had reached a breaking point with British law.

And to make their point, they broke British law by attacking a British naval vessel and wounding its commander in the process.

As the Rhode Islanders rowed toward shore, they watched the schooner drift from view. All that remained of Gaspée were the roaring flames that danced on the surface of the water and illuminated the moonless sky.

The Gaspée Affair — as the incident came to be known — may have happened hundreds of miles from Williamsburg, but it raised the stakes for issues that weighed on the minds of Virginians: freedom, justice and the rights of colonists living an ocean away from the beating heart of the British Empire.

Rule, Britannia

The Gaspée Affair was a dramatic moment of colonial resistance — but it was also the product of growing tensions between Great Britain and its American colonies.

Great Britain tried to defray the costs of the French and Indian War, which ended some nine years before the Gaspée Affair, by passing them on to American colonists. After all, Great Britain had defended the colonies during the conflict. Why should it not tax them for the maintenance of their world?

Parliament levied a variety of new taxes on the colonists, including the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts. Though many of these acts were ultimately repealed, they provoked outrage among colonists, who declared that they had not consented to new taxes.

Britain also raised revenue by clamping down on illicit trading. Aware that many American merchants smuggled goods and circumvented customs, Royal Navy ships trolled the Eastern Seaboard. Royal Navy sailors boarded ships, checked cargo and confiscated it when necessary.

Naval officers charged with enforcing these laws were not popular in the colonies — and Lt. William Dudingston of HMS Gaspée was especially reviled. Known for enforcing the laws with an iron fist, he had developed an unsavory reputation for accosting and verbally assaulting colonists and overzealously seizing goods. On July 27, 1769, three years before the incident in Rhode Island, the Virginia Gazette published a complaint about Dudingston and his “cruel treatment” of Davis Bevan, a Quaker merchant and tavern keeper from Pennsylvania, who said he endured a beating at the hands of Dudingston and some fellow officers. Dudingston’s conduct seemed to embody the tyranny of laws that colonists loathed.

Some colonists refused to stand by and watch Dudingston’s tyranny. Merchant John Brown — who served as Brown University’s treasurer for 21 years — was one of many Rhode Islanders who made official complaints about the Gaspée’s commander, but they had little effect.

Brown took matters into his own hands. When news of the Gaspée’s grounding reached Providence, Rhode Island, Brown and his accomplice, Abraham Whipple, assembled men to launch an assault on the British vessel.

Law and Order

King George III and his ministers had a word for what the perpetrators had done: treason. The Gaspée was a Royal Navy ship, and William Dudingston was a Royal Navy officer — so an attack on the Gaspée and Dudingston was an attack on the Royal Navy.

Indeed, the British establishment considered attacks on Royal Navy ships a serious crime. The Dockyards Protection Act, which passed just two months before the incident on the Providence River, defined acts of arson or violent attacks targeting Royal Navy property as treasonous crimes worthy of capital punishment.

The Crown opened an official inquiry into the incident, but it went nowhere. Neither Brown nor any of the other per-petrators were tried. Instead, Rhode Islanders quietly fell in line to guard the men’s identities and shield them from prosecution. Even the promise of a reward was not enough to soften the colonists’ resolve.

Growing Apprehension

Though the inquiry came up empty-handed, another aspect of the investigation sent a chill through the colonies: Officials were instructed to send the accused to England to stand trial.

For centuries, English law had protected an individual’s right to trial by peers. If the accused faced trial in England, colonists argued, they would not be judged by their peers — they would be judged by men loyal to the Crown who would be quick to convict them.

Boston minister John Allen, for one, denounced the directive. In his pamphlet An Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty, he expressed his outrage that the accused would be “fetter’d with irons, and drag’d three thousand miles, in a hell upon earth.” The directive was “contrary to the spirit of the law, and the rights of an Englishman.”

In Virginia, colonists watched the British reaction to the Gaspée Affair with growing alarm. Virginia may have been hundreds of miles from Rhode Island, but the same empire governed the two colonies. If this was the British reaction to an incident in Rhode Island, how would they react to a similar scenario in Virginia? Would royal commissions bypass Virginia’s legal authority and overstep its bounds to prosecute Virginians if they broke the law?

On March 18, 1773, Purdie and -Dixon’s Virginia Gazette published an extract of a letter that broadcast these sentiments to Virginia readers:

The very extraordinary Stretch of Power, in erecting a Court of Inquisition at Rhode Island, arbitrarily to apprehend, and most cruelly and unconstitutionally to carry beyond Sea for Trial, those Persons concerned in burning the Gaspée, is justly alarming to every Lover of his Country, and our once happy Constitution. We ought to consider the Measures as levelled not at Rhode Island merely, but as a flagrant Attack upon American Liberty in general.

The Gaspée Affair was another chapter in the growing conflict between American colonists and British rulers as colonists demanded access to English rights and criticized the British for acting in contravention of them.

Members of the House of Burgesses in Virginia resigned themselves to action. What could they do before the long-simmering conflict boiled over into open war?

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