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The Gaspée Incident: 10 June 1772

The burning of the British naval cutter, the Gaspée by the citizens of Rhode Island was an outstanding example of colonial opposition to the enforcement of the Trade and Navigation Acts in the events that led up to the American War of Independence. The Rhode Islanders had already destroyed two naval vessels and the Gaspée, commanded by Lieutenant Dudingston, was one of the two sent to replace them. Dudingston arrived off Rhode Island on 22 March 1772 and immediately found himself in difficulties, being threatened with arrest by local sheriffs for the seizure of merchant vessels.

On the night of 9 June 1772, the Gaspée ran aground a few miles from Providence. Early the next morning the ship was boarded, Dudingston was wounded, he and his crew were put ashore and the ship was burned. Dudingston was arrested by a local sheriff for 'illegal' seizure of casks of rum and sugar: he stood three trials and lost them all. Eventually the Royal Navy held a court-martial against Dudingston for the loss of his ship.

The following document is Dudingston's account of the incident, written to Admiral Montagu who was in Boston.

Pawtuxet, 12 June, 1772


On Wednesday morning about one o'clock, as his Majesty's schooner was lying upon a spit of sand called Namcutt, the sentinels discovered a number of boats coming down the river towards us.

As soon as I was acquainted with it I came upon deck and hailed the boats, for bidding them to come near the schooner or I should order them to be fired upon.

They made answer they had the sheriff with them and must come on board.

I told them the sheriff could not be admitted on board at that time of night, on which they set up a halloa and rowed as fast as they could towards the vessel's bows. I was then using every means in my power to get the guns to bear upon them, which I could not effect, as they came right ahead of the vessel, she being aground. I then ordered the men to come forward with their small arms and prevent them from boarding.

As I was standing myself to oppose them, and making a stroke with my sword at the man who was attempting to come up, at that instant I found myself disabled in my left arm, and shot through the groin. I then stepped from the gunwale, with an intention to order them retire to close quarters, but soon saw that most of them were knocked down, and myself twice (after telling them I was mortally wounded).

They damned me and said I was not wounded; if I was, my own people had done it. As loss of blood made me drop down upon deck, they ordered me to beg my life, and commanded the people to surrender. As I saw there was no possibility of defending the vessel against such numbers, who were in every respect armed, and commanded with regularity by one who personated the sheriff, I thought it best for the people's preservation to propose to them that I would order them to surrender if they assured me they should not be hurt, which they did. I then called out, which was immediately echoed by the people round me, that I had given them orders to surrender. They hurried all the people below and ordered them up, one by one, and tied their hands behind their backs, then ordered them into different boats.

I then begged they would either dispatch me or suffer my wounds to be dressed; upon that they allowed my servant to be unbound to get me things for dressing, and carried me below. But what was my surprise when I came down in the cabin, two surgeons were ordered down from the deck to dress me, who were furnished with drops, and began to scrape lint for that purpose.

During this time I had an opportunity of observing the persons of about a dozen who were in the cabin. They appeared to me to be merchants and masters of vessels, who were at my bureau, reading and examining my papers. They promised to let me have the schooner's books and my clothes; instead of which, as they were handing me up to go into the boat, they threw them overboard, or into some of the boats. I was soon afterwards thrust into a boat, almost naked.

During the time they were rowing me on shore I had an opportunity of observing the boat, which appeared to me to be a very large longboat. I saw by the man who steered her a cutlass lying by him, and directing the men to have their arms ready. As soon as they put off, the sheriff gave them orders to land me on some neck, and the boat to come off immediately, and told me if I did not consent to pay the value of the rum I must not expect to have anything belonging to me saved.

I made answer, whatever reparation the law would give, I was ready and willing; as. to my things, they might do with them as they pleased. They were accordingly going to land me on this neck when I told them they had better throw me overboard. One man who had a little more humanity than any of the rest said they had better land me at the Point of Pawtuxet. As I was unable to stand, they unbound five of the men and gave them a blanket to carry me up. When I was halfway on shore I heard some of the schooner's guns go off and heard the people say she was on fire.

I had not been carried far when the people exclaimed I was on an island and they saw no house; on which they laid me down and went in quest of one. Soon after they came to acquaint me they saw one, which I was carried to; a man was immediately dispatched to Providence for a surgeon. A little after, the people joined me, with the midshipman, all of whom that I could persuade are sent on board his Majesty's sloop Beaver.

The schooner is utterly destroyed, and everything appertaining to her, me and the schooner's company. If I live, I am not without hope of being able to convict some of the principal people that were with them. The pain, with the loss of blood, rendered me incapable of informing you before of the particulars. There are none of the people anyways wounded, but bruised with handspikes.

This link will take you to a very thorough American viewpoint of the Gaspée incident.
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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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