Gaspee Affair

Gaspee Affair
Part of the events in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War
Gaspee Affair.jpg
Burning of HMS Gaspee
DateJune 9, 1772
ResultAmerican victory
Sons of LibertyKingdom of Great Britain Kingdom of Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Abraham Whipple
John Brown
William Dudingston, wounded in action
Casualties and losses
NoneHMS Gaspee captured and burned

The Gaspee Affair was a significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. HMS Gaspee[1] was a British customs schooner that had been enforcing the Navigation Acts in and around Newport, Rhode Island in 1772. It ran aground in shallow water while chasing the packet ship Hannah on June 9 near Gaspee Point in Warwick, Rhode Island. A group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, and torched the ship.[2]

The event increased tensions between the American colonists and British officials, following the Boston Massacre in 1770. British officials in Rhode Island wanted to increase their control over trade—legitimate trade as well as smuggling—in order to increase their revenue from the small colony.[3] But Rhode Islanders increasingly protested the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and other British impositions that had clashed with the colony's history of rum manufacturing, maritime trade, and slave trading.

This event and others in Narragansett Bay marked the first acts of violent uprising against the British crown's authority in America, preceding the Boston Tea Party by more than a year and moving the Thirteen Colonies as a whole toward the war for independence.


The customs service had a history of strong resistance in the Thirteen Colonies in the eighteenth century. Britain was at war during much of this period and was not in a strategic position to risk antagonizing its overseas colonies. Several successive ministries implemented new policies following Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War in an attempt to increase control within the colonies and to recoup the cost of the war from them. To that end, the Admiralty purchased six Marblehead sloops and schooners and gave them Anglicized French names based on their recent acquisitions in Canada, removing the French accents from St John, St Lawrence, Chaleur, Hope, Magdalen, and Gaspee.[4][page needed]

Parliament argued that the revenue was necessary in order to bolster military and naval defensive positions along the borders of their far-flung empire—but also to pay the debt which England had incurred in pursuing the war against France. These changes included deputizing the Royal Navy's sea officers to enforce customs laws in American ports.[5] The enforcements became increasingly intrusive and aggressive in Narragansett Bay; Rhode Islanders finally responded by attacking HMS St John in 1764, and they burned the customs ship HMS Liberty in 1768 on Goat Island in Newport harbor.[6]

In early 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HMS Gaspee into Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay to force customs collection and mandatory inspection of cargo. He arrived in Rhode Island in February and met with Governor Joseph Wanton.[7] Soon after he began patrolling Narragansett Bay, Gaspee stopped and inspected the sloop Fortune on February 17 and seized 12 hogsheads of undeclared rum.[8] Dudingston sent Fortune and the seized rum to Boston, believing that any seized items left in a Rhode Island port would be reclaimed by the colonists.[9]

But this overbold move of sending Fortune to Boston brought outrage within the Rhode Island colony, because Dudingston had taken upon himself the authority to determine where trial should take place concerning this seizure, completely superseding the authority of Governor Wanton by doing so. Furthermore, it was a direct violation of the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663 to hold a trial outside of Rhode Island on an arrest that took place within the Colony.[10]

After this, Dudingston and his crew became increasingly aggressive in their searches, boardings, and seizures, even going so far as to stop merchants who were on shore and force searches of their wares. Public resentment and outrage continued to escalate against Gaspee in particular and against the British in general. On March 21, Rhode Island Deputy Governor Darius Sessions wrote to Governor Wanton regarding Lieutenant Dudingston, and he requested that the basis of Dudingston's authority be examined. In the letter, Sessions includes the opinion of Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, who argues that "no commander of any vessel has any right to use any authority in the Body of the Colony without previously applying to the Governor and showing his warrant for so doing."[11] Wanton wrote to Dudingston the next day, demanding that he "produce me your commission and instructions, if any you have, which was your duty to have done when you first came within the jurisdiction of this Colony."[12] Dudingston returned a rude reply to the Governor, refusing to leave his ship or to acknowledge Wanton's elected authority within Rhode Island.