The First Sea Fight Of The Revolution


DOES it not seem an odd fact that little Rhode Island, the smallest of

all our states, should have two capital cities, while all the others,

some of which would make more than a thousand Rhode Islands, have only

one apiece? It is like the old story of the dwarf beating the giants.

The tale we have to tell has to do with these two cities, Provi
ence and

Newport, whose story goes back far into the days when Rhode Island and

all the others were British colonies. They were capitals then and they

are capitals still. That is, they were places where the legislature met

and the laws were made.

I need not tell you anything about the British Stamp Act, the Boston

Tea-party, the fight at Lexington, and the other things that led to the

American Revolution and brought freedom to the colonies. All this you

have learned at school. But I am sure you will be interested in what we

may call the "salt-water Lexington," the first fight between the British

and the bold sons of the colonies.

There was at that time a heavy tax on all goods brought into the

country, and even on goods taken from one American town to another. It

was what we now call a revenue duty, or tariff. This tax the Americans

did not like to pay. They were so angry at the way they had been treated

by England that they did not want that country to have a penny of their

money. Nor did they intend to pay any tax.

Do you ask how they could help paying the tax? They had one way of doing

so. Vessels laden with goods were brought to the coast at night, or to

places where there was no officer of the revenue. Then in all haste they

unloaded their cargoes and were away again like flitting birds. The

British did not see half the goods that came ashore, and lost much in

the way of taxes.

We call this kind of secret trade "smuggling." Providence and Newport

were great smuggling places. Over the green waters of Narragansett Bay

small craft sped to and fro, coming to shore by night or in secret

places and landing their goods. It was against the law, but the bold

mariners cared little for laws made in England. They said that they were

quite able to govern themselves, and that no people across the seas

should make laws for them.

The British did their best to stop this kind of trade. They sent armed

vessels to the Bay, whose business it was to chase and search every

craft that might have smuggled goods in its hold, and to punish in some

way every smuggler they found.

Some of these vessels made themselves very busy, and sailors and

shoremen alike were bitter against them. They would bring in prizes to

Newport, and their sailors would swagger about the streets, bragging of

what they had done, and making sport of the Yankees. They would kidnap

sailors and carry them off to serve in the King's ships. One vessel came

ashore at Newport, whose crew had been months at sea, trading on the

African coast. Before a man of them could set foot on land, or see any

of the loved ones at home, from whom they had been parted so long, a

press-gang from a British ship-of-war seized and carried off the whole

crew, leaving the captain alone on his deck.

We may be sure that all this made the people very indignant. While the

rest of the country was quiet, the Newporters were at the point of war.

More than once they were ready to take arms against the British.

In July, 1769, a British armed sloop, the Liberty, brought in two

prizes as smugglers. They had no smuggled goods on board, but the

officers of the Liberty did not care for that. And their captains and

crews were treated as if they were prisoners of war.

That night something new took place. The lookout on the Liberty saw

two boats, crowded with men, gliding swiftly toward the sloop.

"Boat ahoy!" he shouted.

Not a word came in reply.

"Boat ahoy! Answer, or I'll fire!"

No answer still. The lookout fired. The watch came rushing up on deck.

But at the same time the men in the boats climbed over the bulwarks and

the sailors of the Liberty found themselves looking into the muzzles

of guns. They were taken by surprise and had to yield. The Americans had

captured their first prize.

Proud of their victory, the Newporters cut the cables of the sloop and

let her drift ashore. Her captives were set free, her mast was cut down,

and her boats were dragged through the streets to the common, where they

were set on fire. A jolly bonfire they made, too, and as the flames went

up the people cheered lustily.

That was not all. With the high tide the sloop floated off. But it went

ashore again on Goat Island, and the next night some of the people set

it on fire and it was burned to the water's edge. That was the first

American reply to British tyranny. The story of it spread far and wide.

The King's officers did all they could to find and punish the men who

had captured the sloop, but not a man of them could be discovered.

Everybody in the town knew, but no one would tell.

This was only the beginning. The great event was that of the Gaspee.

This was a British schooner carrying six cannon, which cruised about

the Bay between Providence and Newport, and made itself so active and so

offensive that the people hated it more than all those that had gone

before. Captain Duddingstone treated every vessel as if it had been a

pirate, and the people were eager to give it the same dose they had

given the Liberty.

Their time came in June, 1772. The Hannah, a vessel trading between

New York and Providence, came in sight of the Gaspee and was ordered

to stop. But Captain Linzee had a fine breeze and did not care to lose

it. He kept on at full speed, and the Gaspee set out in chase.

It was a very pretty race that was seen that day over the ruffled waters

of the Bay. For twenty-five miles it kept up and the Hannah was still

ahead. Then the two vessels came near to Providence bar.

The Yankee captain now played the British sailors a cute trick. He

slipped on over the bar as if there had been a mile of water under his

keel. The Gaspee, not knowing that the Hannah had almost touched

bottom, followed, and in a minute more came bump upon the ground. The

proud war-vessel stuck fast in the mud, while the light-footed Yankee

slid swiftly on to Providence, where the story of the chase and escape

was told to eager ears.

Here was a splendid chance. The Gaspee was aground. Now was the time

to repay Captain Duddingstone for his pride and insolence. That night,

while the people after their day's work were standing and talking about

the news, a man passed down the streets, beating a drum and calling out:

"The Gaspee is aground. Who will join in to put an end to her?"

There was no lack of volunteers. Eight large boats had been collected

from the ships in the harbor, and there were soon enough to crowd them

all. Sixty-four men were selected, and Abraham Whipple, who was

afterward one of the first captains in the American navy, took command.

Some of the men had guns, but their principal weapons were paving stones

and clubs.

It was about two o'clock in the morning when this small fleet came

within hail of the Gaspee. She was fast enough yet, though she was

beginning to lift with the rising tide. An hour or two more might have

set her afloat.

A sentinel who was pacing the deck hailed the boats when they came near.

"Who comes there?" he cried.

A shower of paving stones that rattled on the deck of the Gaspee was

the only answer. Up came the captain and crew, like bees from a hive

that has been disturbed.

"I want to come on board," said Captain Whipple.

"Stand off. You can't come aboard," answered Captain Duddingstone.

He fired a pistol. A shot from one of the guns on the boats replied. The

British captain fell with a bullet in his side.

"I am sheriff of the County of Kent," cried one of the leaders in the

boats. "I am come for the captain of this vessel. Have him I will, dead

or alive. Men, to your oars!"

On came the boats, up the sides of the vessel clambered the men, over

the rails they passed. The sailors showed fight, but they were soon

knocked down and secured. The proud Gaspee was in the hands of the

despised Yankees.

As the captors were tying the crew, a surgeon who was in the boats was

called on deck.

"What do you want, Mr. Brown?" he asked.

"Don't call names, man," cried Brown. "Go into the cabin. There is a

wounded man there who may bleed to death."

The surgeon was needed, for Captain Duddingstone was bleeding freely.

The surgeon, finding no cloth for bandages, tore his own shirt into

strips for this purpose, and soon had the bleeding stopped. The captain

was gently lowered into one of the boats and rowed up to Providence.

The wounded man away, the captors began their work. Rushing through the

vessel, they made havoc of furniture and trappings. There were some

bottles of liquor in the captain's cabin, and some of the men made a

rush for these; but the surgeon smashed them with the heels of his

boots. That was not the time or place for drunken men.

This done, the Gaspee was set on fire, and was soon wrapped in flames.

The men rowed their boats some distance out, and there rested on their

oars, watching the flames as they shot up masts and rigging. Not until

the loaded guns went off, one after another, and in the end the magazine

was reached and the ship blew up, did they turn their prows towards

home. Never again would the Gaspee trouble American ships.

When word of what had been done reached England, there was fury from the

King down. Great rewards were offered for any one who would betray any

of the party, but not a name was told. For six long months a court of

inquiry sat, but it could not get evidence enough to convict a single

man. The Americans were staunch and firm and stood for each other like

brothers tried and true.

Not until the colonies threw off the royal yoke and were battling for

freedom was the secret told. Then the men of the long-boats did not

hesitate to boast of what they had done. It was the first stroke of

America in the cause of liberty, and the work of the men of Providence

gave new heart to the patriots from Maine to Georgia.