May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
On June 9 the British revenue schooner Gaspée ran aground in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay while chasing a suspected smuggler. Word quickly spread among the merchants, sailors, and smugglers of nearby Providence, who, like all Rhode Islanders, hated anything to do with duties and tariffs. The colony’s residents had been attacking customs officers and ships ever since a 1764 sugar tax imperiled local rum distillers, whose product was used to buy slaves in Africa. But they especially resented the Gaspée because of the zeal and high-handedness of its captain, Lt. William Dudingston.
He had started out poorly upon his arrival in February, when he contemptuously refused to show the governor his commission to enforce the customs laws. Since then he had searched even the smallest boats on the flimsiest of pretexts, seized goods illegally, fired on vessels, stolen cattle and lumber from local farmers, and been generally arrogant and haughty. So when news arrived that the Gaspée was sitting helpless on Namquit Point, Providence’s always enterprising citizens seized their opportunity.
That evening John Brown, a wealthy merchant, rounded up about a hundred men—close to 5 percent of Providence’s adult male population—by having someone beat a drum in the street. Shortly after midnight they piled into longboats and rowed out to the Gaspée . When a hastily awakened Dudingston appeared on deck to ask who they were, Abraham Whipple, who captained one of Brown’s slave ships, shouted that he was the sheriff of Kent County, come to arrest him. One of the men in Whipple’s boat shot Dudingston, who fell badly wounded. The Providence men boarded the ship, bound and evacuated the crew (making sure to dress Dudingston’s wound), and set the Gaspée on fire.
Authorities launched an investigation, but though all of Providence knew about the attack, they found no witnesses willing to name names, not even for a whopping thousand-pound reward. One frustrated naval captain beat a confession out of an indentured servant by threatening to whip and then hang him. (This punishment was slightly less severe than what the rioters faced for their treason: being partially hanged, then disemboweled while still alive, then beheaded, then cut in quarters, after which the remains would “be at the king’s disposal.”) A royal commission ruled the servant’s coerced confession worthless. After considering the meager evidence, and in view of Rhode Island’s independent spirit (one dismayed commissioner called the colony “a downright democracy”), it recommended letting the matter drop, which the British government reluctantly did.
Before doing so, the government managed to extract the maximum amount of resentment from the situation. The king had decreed that anyone implicated in the attack would be taken to Britain for trial, and rage over this violation of the right to a trial by one’s peers spread through all the colonies. In the Providence Gazette a letter-writer signing himself “Americanus” vigorously protested the “open violation of Magna Charta” and roused his fellow citizens with these words: “To live a life of slaves, is to die by inches. Ten thousand deaths by the halter, or the axe, are infinitely preferable to a miserable life of slavery in chains.” And in March 1773 Virginia’s House of Burgesses, angered at the “flagrant attack upon American liberty,” established a Committee of Correspondence—the first such body to be officially sanctioned by a colonial legislature. Similar committees sprang up in the other colonies to circulate information and coordinate responses, bringing America another step closer to open revolt.