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.