Remembering the Gaspee Affair of 1772 – America’s “first blow to freedom”
A TRIM graveyard in Elie, Fife is the final resting place of William Dudingston, a retired Rear Admiral who, 45 years before his death in October 1817, inadvertently played a key role in shaping the American Revolution .
His ship, HMS Gaspee, a two-masted Royal Navy revenue cutter, was attacked and sunk by angry colonists in Rhode Island in June 1772. This happened long before the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 , the event which is widely believed to have sparked the Great Colonial Rebellion against the British Crown.
As Sheldon Whitehouse, a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, observed, “We Rhode Islanders maintain that a different spark 16 months earlier in Narragansett Bay sparked the revolution.” Like many others, he believes the Gaspee Raid was an “important but overlooked event in American history.” He quotes the words of Frances Whipple McDougall, an abolitionist from Rhode Island: the raid was “first blood” drawn in America’s fight for independence.
In 1922, the New York Times, on the 150th anniversary of the incident, wrote: “Perhaps not one person in twenty-five knows what the Gaspé was, why it was burned or by whom. . School stories, when they mention the Gaspé, pass it by so quickly that they leave no definitive or lasting impression.
Dudingston, born in Fife, was a 32-year-old naval lieutenant in command of Gaspee when he arrived off Newport in March 1772. His orders were to patrol Narragansett Bay, enforcing maritime trade laws against anyone wishing to evade taxation on imported or smuggled goods. smuggling.
He became despised, as Whitehouse observes, for “destroying fishing vessels, seizing cargoes, and flagging ships only to harass, humiliate, and interrogate settlers.”
Rhode Island Deputy Governor Darius Sessions complained to Governor Joseph Wanton that the Scot had “no legal authority to justify his conduct, and his commission… [was] more a fiction than anything else”. In short, Dudingston was extremely unpopular, especially with influential merchants, whose trade he disrupted.
“Those who lived in the towns and villages along Narragansett Bay and made their living on the water resented the surveillance of their business,” notes Rhode Island journalist and author Kelly Sullivan. “Irritation over the interruptions in their efforts quickly became personal. Commander Dudingston’s hatred became a popular topic of discussion.
Things came to a head on June 9. Around noon, Gaspee was heading from Newport, bound for Providence, in pursuit of an ocean liner sloop, Hannah. But the sloop’s captain, Lindsey, lured Gaspee into the shallows off Namquid Point (since called Gaspee Point), just south of the village of Pawtuxet in Warwick.
Realizing they were stranded on a sandbar, Gaspee’s crew tried their best to free the schooner, but to no avail. Darkness set in and Dudingston left three guardians on board. Meanwhile, the Hannah arrived in Providence and Lindsey informed John Brown, a prominent merchant, of Gaspee’s fate. A plan was quickly hatched to exact revenge on the ship and its hated commander.
Later that afternoon, residents of the shipyard area of Providence overheard a drummer inviting men interested in destroying the Gaspé Peninsula to meet that evening at Sabin’s Tavern along the docks. Finally, eight rowboats containing 50 men, under the command of Captain Abraham Whipple, left for Gaspee.
Firearms and clubs were on board, and the oars and oarlocks of the boats had been muffled, in order to preserve the element of surprise. The little armada rowed six miles south to Gaspee. When the moon set just after midnight, they approached stealthily.
Alerted by a watchman, Dudingston appears and threatens to fire his pistol if the boats do not retreat. He fired but was quickly shot in the groin by one of the intruders. “Lord, have mercy on me. I’m screwed ! he shouted.
He ordered his crew to resist the attackers, but Providence’s men rushed out of their longboats, forced the crew to abandon Gaspee, and escorted them aside.
Dudingston’s wound was dressed by one of the boarding party, medical student John Mawney, and he was helped into a small boat and sent ashore with his crew, arriving on shore by Pawtuxet. Behind him, Gaspee was burned to the waterline. The looters have successfully escaped.
The Crown was infuriated by the assault on one of Her Majesty’s ships. Substantial rewards, including one from King George III himself, were offered for information on the identity of those involved.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry was formed, with the power to detain the raiders and send them to England for trial. Stephen Hopkins, Chief Justice of Rhode Island, refused to recognize such an arrest as valid if made in the colony. In the end, the Commission remained empty. No one has ever been brought to justice for what happened in Gaspee.
“This circumvention of the established Continental American legal system greatly alarmed public leaders who perceived it as a direct threat to their rights as British subjects, and created much disaffection with the Crown,” Dr John Concannon, a pediatrician retired who is the historian of the Gaspee Days Committee at Warwick, wrote.
To assess other threats, he added, committees of correspondence were reestablished among the colonial legislatures: “This simple act of unification was one of the first steps leading up to the First Continental Congress and ultimately to the Declaration of Independence”. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, who drafted the Declaration in 1776, included in the Declaration at least three grievances against George III that were directly attributable to the Gaspee affair, adds Dr. Concannon.
Dudingston himself wrote to Admiral Montagu, his Commander-in-Chief, shortly after the incident: “The schooner is utterly wrecked, together with all that pertains to her, me and the schooner company.” If I live, I am not without hope of being able to condemn some of the main characters who were with them”.
Dudingston received an annual pension of £91 in recognition of his combat injuries. He seemed to marry money; one of his homes was in Edinburgh’s wealthy Heriot Row. He then commanded other ships and retired around 1805.
The Gaspee incident has never been forgotten in Rhode Island. There is an unshakable belief that the assault on the Gaspé deserves more credit from historians of the Revolution, that Rhode Island was really where America’s “first blow for freedom” was heard . “If the people of Rhode Island wrote the history books, it would be the shot heard ‘around the world,'” a local resident said in 2003, watching the annual Gaspé-related celebrations in Warwick. Since 1965, the village of Pawtuxet has commemorated “the burning of the British schooner hated…by Rhode Island patriots” through an annual Gaspee Days celebration. The fire is re-enacted each year, when a scale model of Gaspee is torched.
This year’s events, marking the 250th anniversary, also include a walking tour, an arts and crafts festival, fireworks and a colorful parade. Limited edition garden flags, t-shirts, hats and caps are on sale.
A comprehensive website, gaspee.org, explores the incident in detail.
Three years ago Angela Innes of Elgin and her husband Roddy attended the Gaspee Days event in Pawtuxet. She was subjected to a good-natured mock trial, formally indicted for Dudingston’s crimes against America.
The Americans were delighted to see her. Although she is in no way related to Dudingston, she is the direct descendant of a woman, Jean Douglas, of Crail, who married a Michael Oliphant in 1744. Their many children included Spence, who later married a woman named Fotheringham Dudingston. , William’s sister.
She encountered William and the history of Gaspee, as she dug deeper and deeper into his family tree and the Dudingston name. Intrigued, she flew to Rhode Island. She had no intention of participating in the parade but found herself at the center of the good-natured attraction and invited to stay with Dr. Concannon and his wife. “It was an amazing experience and the people there are incredibly friendly.”
Like many, Angela is fascinated that an unknown Scottish sailor played a role in preparing for the American Revolutionary War. She now plans to mark Gaspee’s 250th anniversary by hosting a Gaspee Day party in her back garden.
*With thanks to: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s website; Kelly Sullivan/Beacon Communications (John Howell, publisher); gaspee.org; Dr. John Concannon; Gordon Ritchie, Glasgow; allthingsliberty.com.