The Gaspee Raiders: Pirates or Patriots


Eighteen months before colonists dumped tea into Boston Harbor in the infamous Boston Tea Party, a group of Rhode Islanders took a much more dramatic and violent action against the British Crown when they attacked the revenue schooner HMS Gaspee. Retaliating for months of illegal and unwarranted searches and seizures, the attackers destroyed Gaspee and seriously wounded her commanding officer. In Rhode Island, the event was hailed as a proud moment; in England, the attack was declared an act of treason.

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.

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 tensions 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.

A Proclamation

Whereas on Tuesday, the ninth Instant in the Night, a Num-
ber of People, unknown, boarded His Majesty's armed Schooner
the Gaspee, as she lay aground on a Point of Land, called
Nanquit, a little to the southward of Pawtuxet,…

"...there was ...a schooner cruising in the Narragansett river, that disturbed all the vessels ... that were passing therein, by chasing, firing at and searching them, and often treating the people aboard of them with the most abusive language..."

"...when the people from Bristol brought the said news of the Gaspee's being burnt she was then lying on the shore with her seams much opened..."

"...before sunset that evening I had heard that the said schooner was aground; but had not then the least suspicion that any mischief was intended to be done to said schooner..."

"...declares...that he a tavern where he spent the evening...and after supper he heard a drum beat in the had been training day and the people were breaking up their frolic..."