The Great Gaspee Affair


D.H.T.Shippey &  Michael Burns

The lean 28-year-old stood on the deck with the confidence of command and the invincibility of youth. Captain Benjamin Lindsey saw the smoke belch from the cannon’s mouth before the shot could be heard. The ball crossed to his port side ahead of his bow, as he knew it would. It was meant as a warning to drop anchor and be boarded or suffer the consequences. Now the chase had begun, and Lindsey barked orders to the sailors on the little packet ship Hannah.  His Majesty’s revenue schooner Gaspee was ready and eager to pursue. Lindsey knew the ship he was facing was the most detested vessel in the waters between Rhode Island and Boston, and commanding her was possibly the most detestable of men, Lieutenant William Dudingston.                      

       Dudingston had earned the enmity of most of Rhode Island in his four months on Narragansett Bay.  He stopped and searched ships without reason or warrant.  He insulted, harassed, humiliated, and even beat Americans who he felt had offended him. He confiscated any supplies or materials he wanted from both ships and local farmers. Worse yet, to the residents of this maritime based economy, Dudingston made a practice of seizing the ships of smugglers and honest merchants alike, and sending the seized ships to Boston. Sending them to Boston instead of local Rhode Island courts made it extremely expensive and difficult for the merchants to reclaim their seized goods and ships. By the time the property had been reclaimed, a merchant might be financially ruined. For the people of Rhode Island, Dudingston was the perfect example of government oppression in America.

          Lindsey kept his heading toward Providence, a move that was sure to make Dudingston smile. Since the bay quickly narrowed on approach to the town, Dudingston undoubtedly believed he had his quarry neatly trapped. Lindsey’s time was short, but he had a chance to make good his escape. He had years of experience sailing the waters of Narragansett; he knew every corner of the bay under every condition. The Gaspee was closing in as they headed north past Namquid Point. As the Hannah began to change heading to port, Gaspee was quick to counter, making sure the Hanna could not escape back to the South. With the shoreline coming up, Lindsey gave the orders to pull to starboard, with the Gaspee now breathing down their neck. Dudingston’s prey was almost in his grasp when the most horrific groan came from beneath the deck. Dudingston and most of the Gaspee’s crew was thrown forward. The small and currently empty Hanna had sailed lightly over Namquid Point - submerged only a few feet under the high tide.

     That was the scene in June of 1772. What happened next should be remembered along with the tales of the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party as part of our road to revolution. However, for 49 of the 50 states the Gaspee Affair is almost completely forgotten. Only in Rhode Island, where more than a week is set aside for the commemorative “Gaspee Days”, is the story told. There the event is known as, “The first blow for freedom.”

      The Hannah arrived in Providence in the early evening. Lindsey made a beeline to Merchant John Brown, notifying him that the Gaspee was stranded. Brown (a wealthy and politically powerful merchant) wasted no time getting word out about the predicament in which Dudingston and the Gaspee had found themselves. Drums were beat and cries announced the news through the streets. They had less than nine hours before the Hannah and her crew would be freed by the tide. Brown called his trusted captain Abraham Whipple and any other interested men to a meeting at Sabin’s Tavern, where they planned an expedition to attack the ship. Eight whaleboats filled with 65 volunteers rowed out that night near 10 o’clock. Many more citizens lined the docks and watched them go. It was the night of a new moon, with darkness wrapping the little boats as they employed muffled oars to hide their approach. By the time the Gaspee’s watch on deck detected the civilians’ boats, they were too close to aim the deck guns at.


It was now about a quarter of 1:00 AM. Dudingston ordered the small boats to turn away, but a voice from one boat claimed to be the sheriff of Kent County with a warrant for Dudingston’s arrest. This was very plausible at the time since many people had appealed to the law about Dudingston’s actions, to no avail. Dudingston shouted for his crew to take up their firelocks and shoot any who tried to come aboard. The Rhode Island men stormed the Gaspee and one, still on the whaleboat, fired at Dudingston. The bullet struck the Lieutenant in the arm and ricocheted off his shattered bone, out of his arm, and lodged in his groin. With their commander down the crew was quickly overwhelmed. Brown ordered Dudingston to surrender and promised that the crew would not be further harmed. The ship had been taken.

     The crew was rowed to the beach along with the wounded Dudingston. It was said that the Lieutenant, wearing only a shirt and a blanket, watched from shore as the Gaspee was set on fire. The ship was quickly consumed in flames, and people for miles around could see the explosions as the fire reached the powder stores on board. By morning nothing above the waterline was left but a pillar of smoke.

      Investigations were begun almost immediately. Lieutenant Governor Darius Sessions was sent to gather the testimony of Lt. Dudingston and the Gaspee’s sailors, but Dudingston refused on the grounds that he would have to testify at a court martial for losing his ship. King George soon offered the equal to five years’ salary to anyone who would reveal the persons responsible for the burning. It is doubtful that there was a person in Providence or any of the other towns on the bay who did not know what had happened and who was involved. A black indentured servant was identified as a raider by one of the Gaspee crew and was questioned, beaten and threatened with death by another British ship captain before naming John Brown and Joseph Brown as leaders that night. His master disputed the story and said he had been otherwise engaged during the event.  The next year, when the investigation was finally closed, no one in Rhode Island had come forward or would admit knowing anyone who had been involved. The official record showed that Rhode Island condemned the burning of the Gaspee, but privately the people largely felt that it was the regrettable result of the English Government’s tyrannical policies and behavior.

        It would be more than a year before the next act of violence. The destruction of the tea in Boston would again sound an alarm bell warning that Americans would not allow themselves to be the victims of arbitrary rule or tyrannical practices. The King created his own investigating committee outside of “colonial laws.” This committee declared the Gaspee affair an act of treason, but with little effect. Dudingston was acquitted of all responsibility  for the loss of the Gaspee, was given a pension for his “grievous wounds,” and eventually retired from the service as an Admiral. The class of ships to which the Gaspee belonged was declared unfit for the work they had been assigned and were withdrawn from service in the Colonies. The plucky Captain Benjamin Lindsey, who had first out-sailed and stranded the Gaspee, was married in 1776 and master of the Victory, a Providence-based Patriot privateersman, in 1777. Lindsey was killed at sea on board a privateer in the year 1782, still fighting almost 10 years after the Gaspee. 

      Today the Gaspee Days celebrations have become an annual event drawing 50,000 visitors. Festivities include an arts & crafts festival, a 5 k run, a colonial period encampment, a parade and a Burning of the HMS Gaspee fireworks show. The events for next year are already scheduled and can be found at along with links to in-depth historical articles and all things Gaspee.

For past articles go to