J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

New Study of the Gaspée Incident

The Boston Tea Party of December 1773 produced a forceful response from London: the Boston Port Bill, a new royal governor, army regiments back in town, the Massachusetts Government Act, and other supporting legislation.

To be sure, Bostonians had destroyed more than £9,000 of property belonging to the well-connected British East India Company.

On the other hand, compare that damage to what people in Rhode Island had done over the preceding decade:
  • In June 1765, Newporters upset by naval impressment had seized the boat belonging to the Royal Navy warship Maidstone, dragged it to the town common, and set it on fire.
  • In July 1769, another Newport crowd saw the unpopular Customs patrol ship Liberty, confiscated the previous year from John Hancock, run aground, so they set it on fire.
  • In June 1772, men from Providence and surrounding towns attacked the Royal Navy’s patrol ship Gaspée from rowboats, shooting its commanding officer in the chest. And then, of course, they set it on fire.
According to Rif Winfield’s British Warships in the Age of Sail series, H.M.S. Victory cost £63,176 to build and equip in 1765. So, even though the Victory was a much larger ship than these three, Rhode Islanders did serious damage to the royal government with each ship they destroyed.

But was Newport harbor shut down? Was the colony’s constitution changed? Was anyone brought to trial? No. I suspect the imperial government in London recognized that Rhode Island was a lawless place.

Of course, one might argue that the royal government’s alarm about those mounting attacks, especially the one on the Gaspée, made Parliament more determined to ensure Boston wouldn’t get away with anything of the sort.

The latest title in the Journal of the American Revolution book series is Steven Park’s The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution, published this month. It explores that story in depth:
Between the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773—a period historians refer to as “the lull”—a group of prominent Rhode Islanders rowed out to His Majesty’s schooner Gaspee, which had run aground six miles south of Providence while on an anti-smuggling patrol. After threatening and shooting its commanding officer, the raiders looted the vessel and burned it to the waterline.

Despite colony-wide sympathy for the June 1772 raid, neither the government in Providence nor authorities in London could let this pass without a response. As a result, a Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Rhode Island governor Joseph Wanton zealously investigated the incident. In The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution, historian Steven Park reveals that what started out as a customs battle over the seizure of a prominent citizen’s rum was soon transformed into the spark that re-ignited Patriot fervor.
Steven Park, Ph.D., teaches and is the Director of Academic Services at the University of Connecticut’s maritime campus at Avery Point. My copy of his book is on its way to me from Amazon—presuming, of course, that the delivery vehicle doesn’t go through Rhode Island and get set on fire.

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