Eighteen months before colonists dumped tea into Boston Harbor in the infamous Boston Tea Party...

Rhode Islanders attacked and destroyed the English revenue schooner HMS Gaspee, burning it to the waterline and infuriating the King.

In Rhode Island, the event was hailed as a proud moment. In England, the attack was declared an act of treason.

The attack was a response to months of searches and seizures by the HMS Gaspee, commanded by Lieutenant William Dudingston. Rhode Island’s Governor Joseph Wanton challenged Dudingston’s authority, but the Gaspee continued to patrol Narragansett Bay harassing colonial merchants.

“A considerable number of the inhabitants of this Colony have complained to me of your having, in a most illegal and unwarrantable manner, interrupted their trade, by searching and detaining every little packet boat plying between the several towns.”

- Letter from Governor Wanton "To the commanding officer of a schooner near Brenton's Point,” March 22, 1772

But Dudingston had the backing of Admiral Montagu, commander of the Royal Navy.

“I am also informed, the people of Newport talk of fitting out an armed vessel to rescue any vessel the King’s schooner may take carrying on an illicit trade. Let them be cautious what they do, for as sure as they attempt it, and any of them are taken, I will hang them as Pirates.”

- Letter from Admiral Montagu to Governor Wanton, April 8, 1772

Starting at the bottom of the map, follow Hannah’s route up Narragansett Bay, and see what happened to the HMS Gaspee.

In the investigation that followed, Rhode Islanders from all walks of life gave their accounts of the evening’s events. They included prominent merchants, tavern owners, and indentured African and Native American servants. In spite of tremendous pressure from the British Crown, there were no indictments or charges brought against any colonists, as testimonies told conflicting stories of exactly what transpired the night of June 9, 1772.

Aaron Briggs deposition

Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant of African heritage living on Prudence Island, was about 16 years old when the Gaspee attack took place. In early July, Aaron ran away from his master and came aboard a British ship called the Beaver. There, under threat of hanging, he gave an account of the event that named several suspects, including prominent Rhode Islanders like John and Joseph Brown and Simeon Potter. His account was given to Governor Wanton who was encouraged to arrest the men Aaron identified.

Jack and Somerset Deposition

Aaron’s testimony was later refuted by the farmers to whom he was indentured, and by two additional servants in the household.

Raising questions about credibility, coercion, and individual motivations, the Gaspee affair is an intriguing episode in Rhode Island history. More importantly, it reveals the growing tension between the colonial government and the Crown. Who had authority over Narragansett Bay? Did Rhode Islanders have the right to be tried on their native soil, or could they be transported to London for trial? Where did the Crown’s authority end and the Governor’s authority begin?

These and other fundamental questions about sovereignty and civil rights fueled the frustrations that led the colonies into full-scale revolution in 1775.

Scroll down to learn more about Rhode Island’s maritime trade.

Maritime trade, whether conducted legally or by smugglers, was central to Rhode Island’s economy in the 18th century.

The colony’s 400 miles of coastline and many natural harbors made it a prime destination for ships from both sides of the Atlantic. Early ship manifests list everyday supplies including coffee, linen, leather goods, and window glass, which were imported from Europe and other New England colonies for sale in Rhode Island, or for transport elsewhere. The most common cargo was molasses, which in Rhode Island was used to make rum. Traders brought the rum to the west coast of Africa, using it to purchase men, women, and children who they sold into slavery in the Americas. Many of the captives were enslaved on plantations in the West Indies and southern colonies, but some were brought to Rhode Island where they worked in households and on farms throughout the colony.