The Gaspée Affair

On June 9, 1772, a period of relative calm between Great Britain and her British American colonies abruptly ended when, in what became known as the "Gaspée Affair," a group of Rhode Islanders forced the Royal Navy schooner Gaspée aground, captured the crew, and proceeded to burn the ship. But what ran aground—and what the people of Providence burned to the shoreline—that night in 1772 was much more than a boat, for the Gaspée carried with it a powerful metaphor for British policy toward the colonies, and burning with it was all hope of reconciliation between them. The British government's reaction to the destruction of the Gaspée touched off fears in Virginia where the House of Burgesses created the intercolonial committees of correspondence in March 1773.

Lieutenant William Dudingston was master and commander of the Gaspée with responsibility for enforcing the administrative provisions of Charles Townshend's Revenue Act of 1767 by patrolling for smugglers off Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay attempting to avoid paying duties on imported goods. Admiral John Montagu, Dudingston's superior in Boston, saw him as an assiduous, conscientious officer, but the people of Rhode Island found him overzealous and overbearing (which was perhaps no small testament to the young officer's effectiveness).

On June 9, 1772, the captain of a Rhode Island vessel, the Hannah, decided to have some fun with the Gaspée and her crew. When the Gaspée spotted the Hannah, bound from Newport to Providence, and gave chase, Lindsey headed for the shallower reaches of Narragansett Bay. To the great surprise of everyone on board the Gaspée (and probably no one on the Hannah), His Britannic Majesty's schooner ran aground while the Hannah sailed unmolested into Providence harbor.

That night "leading citizens" from Providence rowed longboats out to the Gaspée, boarded her, wounded Dudingston, then, in the words of a contemporary broadside, "set the men upon the land, And burnt her up, we understand." Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and other British officials were not amused by this "flagrant insult" to the crown. Hutchinson thought that this latest act of disrespect by the colonists should "certainly arouse the British lion which has been asleep these four or five years."

The British lion was indeed aroused. On August 10, 1772, the British attorney general and the solicitor general ruled the attack on the Gaspée an act of high treason and held that the culprits could be brought to England for indictment and trial. After a £500 reward for the discovery of the offenders failed to produce a single suspect, King George appointed a royal commission of colonial crown officials on September 2, 1772, specifically empowered to send anyone involved in the crime to England for trial.

Now it was the turn of the colonies to howl. The right of a suspect to be tried by men of his own community was held by many colonists as a fundamental, seemingly inviolable British liberty. Even the suggestion of sending accused colonials to England for trial had earned the opprobrium of the Virginia House of Burgesses and other colonial assemblies as far back as 1769. The Providence Gazette declared that the Commission's power to turn evidence and suspects over the Admiral Montague for shipment to England was "shocking to humanity, repugnant to every dictate of reasons, liberty, and justice, and in which Americans and Freemen ought never to acquiesce" and made the Commission no less than "a Court of Inquisition, more horrid than that of Spain." The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser wrote that the Gaspée commission made the position of Americans "infinitely worse than that of a subject of France, Spain, Portugal or any other the most despotic power on earth." The commissioners were decried as "a pack of Egyptian tyrants" their mere existence was "the most insulting violation of the rights of Americans that could be devised."

The British ministry should have seen in the rhetorical support given Rhode Island a sign of growing colonial unity.

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