The First Sea Fight Of The Revolution
THE BURNING OF THE "GASPEE" IN NARRAGANSETT BAY
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
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
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
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.