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Morton: Gaspee Affair pitted merchants against collectors

On this day (June 10) in 1772, in an act of blatant civil defiance of British authority, eight boatloads of armed Rhode Islanders, organized and led by prominent merchant John Brown, boarded and burned to the water line the British revenue carrier Gaspee, which had run aground on what has ever been referred to as Gaspee Point – located about 7 miles south of Providence, R.I.

Assigned in late March 1772 to patrol the Narragansett Bay and intercept colonial ships that were engaged in what was increasingly the lucrative business of smuggling cargoes in open defiance of British maritime and tax laws, the Gaspee initially was successful in capturing several colonial ships suspected of engaging in illegal trade.

However, instead of stopping or curbing further hostile colonial acts against customs collectors, the Gaspee’s early successes in thwarting colonial smuggling seemed to embolden the colonists (especially aggrieved merchants) to more aggressive acts of resistance and defiance.

The Gaspee Affair of 1772 was only the culmination of a series of confrontations, some of which were violent and bloody, between smuggling colonial merchants and British customs collectors.

For example, in the fall of 1770, a New Jersey customs collector was savagely beaten when he attempted to intercept the off-loading of smuggled cargoes in the Delaware Bay.

The following year, a British customs schooner, which had captured a colonial ship accused of smuggling, was in turn captured by an angry crowd, composed, in part, of several prominent Philadelphia merchants. The captain and the crew of the British schooner were severely beaten and locked up in the hold of the vessel until such time as the colonial prize ship could sail away and the colonial rioters could safely disperse.

With the April 12, 1770, repeal of all the Townshend Duties – except those on tea – colonial trade with the Mother Country actually picked up considerably. For example, in the 1771, colonial imports from Britain totaled more than 9 million pounds sterling in value, which was 4 million pounds in value more than was imported for the entire three-year period from 1768 to 1771.

Although most of this increase in trade was legal, there also was a notable increase in colonial smuggling, primarily because Britain, up to early 1772, was not aggressively enforcing its maritime and tax laws. However, the dispatching of the armed revenue cutter Gaspee to Rhode Island was the beginning of a policy of more actively enforcing existing laws. It also was designed to serve as a graphic reminder to the increasingly obstreperous colonists that the Lord North Ministry and British Parliament had not abandoned, when most of the Townshend Duties were repealed in 1770, what they considered their constitutional right to impose revenue-producing taxes.

The actual and now famous (infamous) Gaspee Affair took place in the late evening of June 9 and early morning of June 10, when some 64 well-armed men, many of whom were prominent Rhode Island merchants, attacked the Gaspee. In the ensuing fracas, the ship’s captain, Lt. William Dudingston, was wounded and the crew was bodily set on shore. The attackers then set fire to the vessel.

A few days later, Dudingston was arrested by a local sheriff. The captain was quickly rescued by his commanding officer, Admiral John Montagu, who paid the stiff fine imposed by the local Rhode Island court. The hapless Dudingston was thereupon sent back to England to explain to a court martial the embarrassing loss, to a mob of “unruly” colonial civilians, of an armed ship of His Majesty’s Royal Navy.

Master propagandist and colonial radical Samuel Adams quickly seized upon the Gaspee Affair as a prime example of British brutality that would justify the colonists to work for complete autonomy within the British Empire, or even separation from and possible independence.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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