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
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.
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.