June 9, 1772 The Road to Revolution

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground. What followed was one of the earliest acts of rebellion, of the American Revolution.

The Seven Years’ War of 1756-’63 was in many ways a world war, experienced in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.  The cost to the British crown was staggering. Parliament wanted their colonies in America to pay for their share of it. The war had been fought for their benefit after all, had it not?

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In the 1760s, several measures were taken to collect these revenues. In one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

American colonists hated these measures.  For decades now, the colonies had been left to run their own affairs.  Many of them bristled at the heavy handed measures now being taken by revenue and customs agents. In Rhode Island, the Sugar Act of 1764 was particularly egregious as the distillation of rum from molasses, was a main industry. Rhode Islanders took control of Fort George on Goat Islands and fired several cannon shots at the HMS St. John.  The Royal Navy vessel managed to escape harm as did her aggressors, with the approach of the 21-gun HMS Squirrel.

Ten years later, the first distinctly American flag in history unfurled some 27 miles up the road in in Taunton, Massachusetts. Even now the “Liberty and Union” flag proclaimed the desire for autonomy…and union. Liberty and Union but that first open act of rebellion, was already ten years in the past.

Back in 1769, colonists burned the customs ship H.M.S. Liberty in Newport harbor.  In a few short months, the “Boston Massacre” would unfold before the Custom House, on King Street.

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The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. On June 9 she was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water when she ran aground near the modern-day Gaspée Point, near the town of Warwick.

Local Sons of Liberty met that afternoon at Sabin Tavern opposite Fenner’s Wharf, from which the daily packet ship sailed to Newport Harbor. There the co-conspirators concocted a plot. They would set fire to the Gaspée, and spent the evening hours casting bullets for the enterprise.

They rowed out to the ship at dawn the next morning. There was a brief scuffle in which Lieutenant William Dudingston was shot and wounded. The vessel was then looted, and burned to the waterline.

Earlier attacks on British shipping had been dealt with lightly, but the Crown was not going to ignore the destruction of its own military vessels. Treason charges were prepared. Planning commenced to try the perpetrators in England, but the crown was never able to make the case.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that nobody saw anything.

Lexington Reenactors

A few days later, a visiting minister in Boston, John Allen, used the Gaspée incident in a 2nd Baptist Church sermon. His sermon was printed seven times in four colonial cities, one of the most widely read pamphlets in Colonial British America.

The King’s “Tea Act” would lead to the Boston Tea Party the following year.  The blizzard of regulations that came down in 1774, the “Intolerable Acts”, would pave the way to the April Battles at  Lexington & Concord and the conflict at a place called Bunker Hill, that June.

One eighth of all the British officers to die of wounds in the American Revolution fell that day, on a nearby hill owned by Ephraim Breed. The fuse had been lit, to an American Revolution.  This flame was not to be put out, easily.