The British government had a crushing debt incurred in winning the French and Indian War. It needed money, and collecting customs duties was one way of getting it.
In 1764, the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act, a tax on sugar, and the British Admiralty bought six ships ‘of Marblehead design’ to enforce it.
Among the first of these vessels was the schooner St. John, commanded by Lieutenant Hill. She arrived in 1764 and was immediately regarded as an enemy to the commerce of the Colony and her every movement watched.
Other war-ships became more or less embroiled with the Rhode Islanders, and the trouble increased as they persisted sending officers to board American ships, inspect the crew, and seize sailors from Rhode Island merchantmen.
A brig, just arrived at home after a long voyage, expected eagerly by those who had relatives and friends among her crew was stopped when in sight of land by the English war vessel Maidstone, and her entire crew seized.
In retaliation about five hundred men of Newport seized one of the Maidstone’s boats, dragged it through the streets of the town and burned it on the common in front of the court house, while a crowd, composed of the major part of the inhabitants of Newport, witnessed and applauded the deed. The St. John and Liberty were burned.
The Gaspee, a schooner of eight guns, with Lieutenant Dudingston in command, arrived in Narragansett Bay in the spring of 1772 to carry on the work for which the St. John and the Liberty had proved ineffectual.
By 1772 the Gaspee had become a daily nuisance in Narragansett Bay because her crew had an incentive to collect as much customs duty as possible: They shared in it.
A letter exchange began between Rhode Island’s elected Governor, Joseph Wanton, and the captain of HMS Gaspee, Lieutenant Dudingston. The earliest exchange of letters (April 6, 1772) reveals the colonists’ frustrations with Dudingston’s actions, as well as a dispute regarding whether he has the authority to operate in Narragansett Bay.
Rhode Island was fed up with the Gaspee; so much so that on May 20, 1772, Gov. Joseph Wanton wrote a letter to the British secretary of state complaining about her. He argued the Gaspee’s crew didn’t have the right to seize a quantity of rum and try the owner outside of the colony of Rhode Island. On top of that, they insulted the colonists with ‘the most abusive and contumelious language.’
Lieutenant Dudingston continued his harassment, infuriating merchants and threatening to cripple the economy. Eventually Governor Wanton appealed to the Earl of Hillsborough, England’s Secretary of State for the colonies, for assistance. However Dudingston had pushed Rhode Islanders too far.
Her captain’s persistent harassment of Rhode Island merchants led to a group of Rhode Islanders to retaliate. The attack is the first major armed act of rebellion against the British crown, and the subsequent investigation prompted the colonies to consider united action against England.
On the morning of June 9, 1772, Hannah, a medium-sized packet boat captained by Benjamin Lindsey, began sailing north from Newport to Providence.
As expected, Lieutenant Dudingston aboard Gaspee gave chase and the two ships worked their way up Narragansett Bay. About six miles from Providence, Hannah tacked across shallow water, and Gaspee, a much larger ship, followed and ran aground. Hannah continued on to Providence, leaving Gaspee stranded on Namquit Point.
They concluded the Gaspee would be grounded until well after midnight when the rising tide could free her and now saw a way to rid Rhode Island’s merchants of the ship commanded by the much-hated William Dudingston.
Brown ordered eight longboats delivered to Fenner’s Wharf, their oars and oarlocks muffled. He sent a drummer around town to announce the grounding of the Gaspee. Anyone interested in destroying that troublesome vessel should go to James Sabin’s house, right next to Fenner’s Wharf.
Ephraim Bowen, about 19 years old, answered the call. He grabbed his father’s gun, powder and shot and found a crowd at Sabin’s. His friend, 18-year-old Joseph Bucklin, a tavern-keeper’s son, had arrived, too. Later that evening, men gather at Sabin’s Tavern in Providence and plan an assault.
On that moonless night, more than 100 Sons of Liberty silently rowed out in a line of longboats to the Gaspee;
Dudingston leaned over the starboard gunwale in his white shirt and demanded, “Who goes there?”
Capt. Abraham Whipple replied, ‘I want to come on board.’
The return was, ‘Stand off, you can’t come on board.’
On which Capt. Whipple roared out, ‘I am the sheriff of the County of Kent; I am come for the commander of this vessel, and have him I will, dead or alive. Men, spring to your oars!’
Joseph Bucklin, standing on the main seat of the longboat, realized he had a shot at Dudingston.
“Ephe, reach me your gun and I can kill that fellow,’ he said to Ephraim Bowen. Bucklin then fired at Lt. William Dudingston, hitting him in the arm and lower abdomen. He exclaimed, “I have killed the rascal.” (Dudingston fell back, but was only wounded.)
Today, Rhode Islanders celebrate that shot as the ‘First Shot of the Revolutionary War.’
Soon after all the party were ordered to depart, leaving one boat for the leaders of the expedition, who soon set the vessel on fire and consumed her to the water’s edge.
The following morning, Sessions learned of the attack and began an investigation, taking testimony from two of the Gaspee crew.
On June 12, 1772, Governor Wanton issued a proclamation offering a reward to anyone who can offer information regarding the Gaspee burning.
In August 1772, with the investigation making little progress, King George III issued a proclamation offering rewards of up to £1000 to anyone who can supply the names of those responsible for the destruction of the ship and the injury to its commanding officer.
He names five officials from different colonies to carry out his orders. They are known as the Gaspee Commission.
With his proclamation, King George III also sends instructions for the Gaspee Commissioners. They include a command to send any accused attackers to England for trial.
From September 1772 to June 22, 1773, the Commission conducts its investigation, issuing warrants and taking testimony from Gaspee crew and people believed to have knowledge of the attack.
After ten months, the Commissioners end their investigation. In their final report to King George III, they explain that due to contradictory evidence and coerced testimony, they are unable to name any of the perpetrators of the crime.
The burning of the Gaspee is celebrated in Rhode Island as an important early strike against the tyranny of the crown. However it was the King’s threat to try the accused in England, rather than on native soil by a jury of their peers, that had the most lasting effect.
Soon after, understanding that the colonies’ many grievances are best addressed with a “unity of action,” a meeting of deputies from every colony is proposed. These deputies become the First Continental Congress.
Click the following link to a general summary about the Gaspee Affair: