British vessel burned off Rhode Island

British vessel burned off Rhode Island

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In an incident that some regard as the first naval engagement of the American Revolution, colonists board the Gaspee, a British vessel that ran aground off the coast of Rhode Island, and set it aflame.

The Gaspee was pursuing the Hanna, an American smuggling ship, when it ran aground off Namquit Point in Providence’s Narragansett Bay on June 9. That evening, John Brown, an American merchant angered by high British taxes on his goods, rowed out to the Gaspee with a number of other colonists and seized control of the ship. After leading away its crew, the Americans set the Gaspee afire.

When British officials attempted to prosecute the colonists involved in the so-called “Gaspee Affair,” they found no Americans willing to testify against their countrymen. This renewed the tension in British-American relations and inspired the Boston Patriots to found the “Committee of Correspondence,” a propaganda group that rallied Americans to their cause by publicizing all anti-British activity that occurred throughout the 13 colonies.

READ MORE: The Appalling Way the British Tried to Recruit Americans Away from Revolt

On This Day in History -June 9, 1772

On this day in history, June 9, 1772, the Gaspee Incident occurs near Providence, Rhode Island, when citizens burn the British revenue schooner HMS Gaspee and seize its crew. The Gaspee affair was one of a series of important events that lit the fuse to the American Revolution, but it is little known in comparison with other events such as the Boston Tea Party.

To understand the Gaspee Incident, one must understand Rhode Island's unique circumstances before the war. Rhode Island had always been a place of dissidents. It was founded by religious dissenters who were kicked out of Massachusetts for their religious beliefs. Rhode Island was later the first state to declare independence from Britain and the last of the original 13 colonies to accept the Constitution.

Because of its unique topography, Rhode Island developed an economy completely based on sea trade, illegal sea trade. Rhode Island is only 35 miles across and 49 miles long, but it has 420 miles of coastland. It has few natural resources, so an illicit trade in slaves, illegal rum and molasses developed. The taxes and trade restrictions of the previous years, including the Sugar Act, the Townshend Acts, and so forth hit Rhode Island's economy square in the face.

In 1772, the revenue schooner HMS Gaspee came under the command of Lieutenant William Dudingston. A revenue schooner was charged with boarding suspicious ships to look for smuggled goods and enforcing collection of customs taxes. Lt. Dudingston executed his duties zealously. Many merchants and sailors found their livelihoods threatened by Dudingston's activities. Ships were boarded, goods confiscated and livelihoods ruined.

In addition, there was conflict between Dudingston and the popularly elected Royal Governor, Joseph Wanton. Colonists typically viewed revenue officers as under civilian control, but Dudingston was a military officer. The Crown had authorized naval officers to act as customs enforcers, but the colonists didn't like this idea. A series of terse letters was exchanged between Wanton, Dudingston and Dudingston's superior officer, Admiral John Montagu about whether or not Dudingston had the authority to look for "pirates" within Rhode Island waters.

On June 9, 1772, Dudingston chased a small packet called the Hannah up Narragansett Bay. When the ships arrived near present day Warwick, the Gaspee became grounded in shallow water. The crew of the Hannah landed in Providence and told the citizens about the Gaspee. Word quickly spread and enterprising citizens realized their chance to exact vengeance on Dudingston had come. Picketers marched up and down Providence's streets telling people to meet at Sabin's Tavern.

Led by merchant John Brown, somewhere between 50 and 80 men sailed in longboats that evening, arriving at the Gaspee in the middle of the night. When sentries became aware of their arrival, Lt. Dudingston came out in his night-hat and demanded to know who was there. One of the attackers yelled it was the sheriff and he had come to arrest the crew of the ship for piracy. At that point, one of the attackers fired a single shot that hit Dudingston right in the crotch. The attackers then boarded the ship and took everyone captive. As they left the boat, they set it ablaze. After leaving their prisoners on the shore, the Providence men returned home, but the fire in the boat reached the powder magazine and the ship blew sky high. Not a trace of the ship has ever been found!

After the incident, Parliament was outraged and a Royal commission was set up to find the perpetrators and hang them. Even though everyone in Providence knew who was involved, the commission could not find one single person who would give them up! After months of investigating, the commission was forced to give up and the perpetrators never paid for their crime.

The Gaspee Incident, also called the Gaspee Affair, was significant because it actually helped promulgate communication between the colonies. Colonists everywhere wanted to know what was happening in Rhode Island because Parliament could do the same things to them no matter where they were. Correspondence flourished between the various Committees of Correspondence set up in different cities as a result of the Gaspee Affair. The same Committees of Correspondence would coordinate the activities of a full blown rebellion that was to begin less than three years away.

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The British government was not ignorant of the illicit activities of the Rhode Island merchants, and sent two Navy warships, the Gaspee (a single masted sloop-of-war) and the Beaver, to assist local revenue officers in collecting taxes and snuffing out illicit trade in early 1772. The commander of the Gaspee was Lieutenant William Dudingston, who by most accounts was an arrogant British elitist who wasted no time in making his name anathema in Rhode Island. He searched all ships that entered Narragansett Bay, harassed and manhandled the merchants onboard, and sent those ships found in possession of contraband to Boston to be sold, where he would take a share of the profit.

The harassment became so intense that the governor of Rhode Island, Joseph Wanton, wrote to Lieutenant Dudingston's superior, Admiral John Montagu, in protest. Admiral Montagu curtly responded by saying that anyone who impeded the duty of his officers would be hanged.

British vessel burned off Rhode Island - Jun 09, 1772 -

TSgt Joe C.

In an incident that some regard as the first naval engagement of the American Revolution, colonists board the Gaspee, a British vessel that ran aground off the coast of Rhode Island, and set it aflame.

The Gaspee was pursuing the Hanna, an American smuggling ship, when it ran aground off Namquit Point in Providence’s Narragansett Bay on June 9. That evening, John Brown, an American merchant angered by high British taxes on his goods, rowed out to the Gaspee with a number of other colonists and seized control of the ship. After leading away its crew, the Americans set the Gaspee afire.

When British officials attempted to prosecute the colonists involved in the so-called “Gaspee Affair,” they found no Americans willing to testify against their countrymen. This renewed the tension in British-American relations and inspired the Boston Patriots to found the “Committee of Correspondence,” a propaganda group that rallied Americans to their cause by publicizing all anti-British activity that occurred throughout the 13 colonies.


Corner, however, had requirements of his own. His ship needed men, and he began pressing (essentially kidnapping) sailors on in-bound ships into service. As word spread, even honest vessels, let alone smugglers, stayed away from the port of Boston, fearful of losing seamen.

Now the British angered honest merchants as well as the smugglers. On June 9, matters came to a head. Thomas Kirk, the customs officer who boarded the Liberty, changed his story.

While on the Liberty, he said, he had been offered a bribe. He could have several casks of wine if he would support the story that the ship contained only 25 casks. He insisted that he took no bribe, but that John Marshall, Hancock’s captain, had him locked in a hold. Kirk said he listened as a great portion of the ship’s cargo was offloaded. When Hancock’s men released him, he said, they threatened him if he told the truth.

Historians have tended to credit Kirk’s revised story, supposing that it was the British military presence, as well as the unexpected death of the ship’s captain, John Marshall, that emboldened him to talk.

This Day in RI History: June 10, 1772 – The burning of the HMS Gaspee

One of the most celebrated events in Rhode Island history happened on June 10th, 1772. The Gaspee Affair, which is still celebrated annually with festivals, a parade and a re-enactment, was a pivital moment in the lead-up to the American Revolution.

The story is widely known. In the weeks preceding the burning of the Gaspee, British patrols were harassing Rhode Island merchants in and around Narragansett Bay. (In fairness, some of those merchants, were violating British navigation laws, but we’ll let that one go for now.)

On the evening of June 9th, the British customs ship the HMS Gaspee ran aground near Warwick while pursuing the packet ship Hannah. A group of Providence merchants led by John Brown and Abraham Whipple led an attack on the ship and later burned it on the water.

Although British authorities investigated the incident, no one ever served prison time for the attack. These days, the event is fondly remembered as an expression of colonial rebellion, with the Gaspee Days Festival, a parade, and the annual re-enactment of the burning.

Edward Low

English pirate Edward Low and his sidekick Charles Harris were raiding ships along trade routes from the Caribbean to New England in the spring of 1723. They left a bloody wake, having massacred an entire crew, sunk ships, cut off prisoners’ ears and burned their flesh to the bone so they would reveal where they had hidden gold and silver.

Low was one of the most infamous pirates of the Caribbean, notorious for his cruelty to prisoners. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called him ‘a man of amazing and grotesque brutality.’

Low once cut off a ship captain’s lips, roasted them and forced him to eat them while hot. Then he murdered his victim.

He forced another ship’s officer to eat the heart of another.

Low captured at least 100 ships during his three-year pirate career. How he met his end is unclear. Some say he died peacefully in Brazil, others claim he was hanged in Martinique and still others believe he died in a shipwreck.

That spring Low and Harris in two vessels sailed north from the Caribbean. On June 10, 1723, they spotted a ship sailing to leeward off Long Island. They gave chase, only to find the vessel was a 20-gun warship HMS Greyhound.

Low’s ship had about 70 men and 10 cannon, while Harris had about 50 men and eight big guns. The pirates chased the Greyhound and ordered her to surrender. The captain of the British warship refused and the battle was underway. After a day of fighting, the Greyhound captured Harris’ ship, while Low managed to escape.

The Burning of the Gaspee

RHiX3119. The Burning of the Gaspee.

When the Gaspee, an armed British Navy ship, became grounded in the waters near Providence, John Brown called everyone to action. His plan? To attack and destroy. Many hated the ship, and after meeting in Sabin’s Tavern at nine o’clock on June 9, 1772, the group headed out to the long boats. As they set off, sailing silently into the waters, all held weapons and a hatred for the British. It was at midnight that the British noticed the long boats, and from there the attack begun. The 1856 painting above commemorates the event, which is considered one of the first acts of war in the American Revolution.

From there, two things happened. First, Joseph Wanton, Governor the Colony of Rhode Island at the time, released this proclamation on June 12, informing citizens of the burning while also putting out a one hundred pound reward for those involved with the act.

RHiX17563. A Proclamation.

Second, also appearing in 1772, was this “New Song Called the Gaspee,” a rhyme that details what happened that night on June 9. One of the verses reads:

Then set the men upon the land,

And burnt her up we understand,

Which thing prokes the king so high,

He said those men shall surely die.

The purpose of the song might have been to spread the word so more men involved in the incident would be caught, due to the four verses at the end which detail the rewards set by the Proclamation.

RHiX17320. New Song Called the Gaspee.

These, along with many other items, are a part of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s collections, and serve as a reminder of this momentous event that occurred 242 years ago this June 9.

The official tall ship of Rhode Island is moving south, and not just for the winter

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island’s official tall ship is set to become a tourist attraction in Virginia.

A foundation in the waterfront city of Alexandria has purchased the 110-foot sloop-of-war Providence, a full-scale replica of the first warship in America’s Continental Navy, and is busy making repairs so it can be used for maritime educational programs.

“People love tall ships. They love the history. I think there will be so much exuberance about this,” said Serge Sarandinaki, vice president and co-founder of the Tall Ship Providence Foundation.

The sale, which closed in late September, ends a turbulent history in Rhode Island that was capped three years ago when the ship was seriously damaged in a snowstorm while it was passing the winter on land in Newport Shipyard.

High winds blew the ship off its cradle support, snapping its mast and smashing a hole in its wooden hull. Afterward, owner Thorpe Leeson, a Newport boat builder and captain, estimated it would cost half a million dollars to repair it.

Rhode Island Historian Laureate Patrick T. Conley, who for a time allowed the sloop to dock off his property in Providence, bemoaned the sale, saying it was just the latest historical ship to leave Rhode Island. The Constellation, a Navy sail training vessel, was based in Newport for half a century before finding a permanent home in Baltimore while the Rose, a replica of a British war ship, spent its first decade in Newport but is now docked in San Diego.

“We’re supposed to be the Ocean State, and yet we repeatedly lose major maritime artifacts that not only promote history, they promote tourism,” Conley said.

The original Providence was built in 1768 by merchant John Brown and purchased by the colony of Rhode Island to protect shipping in Narragansett Bay in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The 12-gun ship became the first command of Capt. John Paul Jones, fought in 60 naval battles, captured 40 British ships and was burned by its crew in 1779 to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British.

In 1976, a Brown descendant, John Nicholas Brown, built a fiberglass replica of the Providence as part of the nation’s bicentennial. It was later acquired by the city and run as an educational platform by the Providence Maritime Heritage Foundation.

Declared Rhode Island’s official flagship by the General Assembly, the Providence had been out of the water for four years and had fallen into disrepair by 2011 when Leeson bought it and took it to Newport. He restored it with the hope of one day returning it to its former role as an education and training vessel.

Sarandinaki, a management consultant with a passion for naval history, came across an advertisement for the ship last summer and decided that, once refurbished, it would be the perfect addition to the Alexandria waterfront, which lies along the Potomac River.

The original Providence had a strong local connection to the region. Its first mission was to clear the nearby Chesapeake Bay of British ships, according to Sarandinaki.

After reaching out to the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, Sarandinaki connected with Scott Shaw, a member of the foundation’s board and a Virginia restaurant owner who had also seen the ad for the ship and was interested in bringing it south.

“We both came up with this idea without knowing each other,” Sarandinaki said.

In a matter of weeks, they formed the Tall Ship Providence Foundation, purchased the ship for $175,000 and had it sailed from a shipyard in Somerset, Massachusetts, to Gloucester, Massachusetts, for an initial round of renovations.

They estimate that, including the purchase price, it will cost $600,000 to $800,000 to ready the ship for its new life. So far, they’ve secured $400,000 in donations and pledges, according to Sarandinaki.

Workers are currently renovating the interior of the Providence to make it more representative of an 18th-century warship. When they finish, the ship will be sailed to Bath, Maine, where new spars and rigging will be installed.

The work is being overseen by shipwright Leon Poindexter, who led the restoration of the Constitution’s gun deck and worked on ships used in the film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

The foundation plans to sail the ship to Alexandria at the end of this year or in early 2019, and to open it to the public at the beginning of the summer of 2019.

The ship will be used for sailing programs and also as a living history museum with staff in period costume. Tours will be interactive.

“We’re hoping to have people participate in an adventure,” Sarandinaki said.

And in a nod to the ship’s appearances in two “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, it may be used for pirate-themed cruises as well as more traditional sunset cruises.

Leeson could not immediately be reached for comment on the sale. After the accident in 2015, he expressed mixed feelings about commencing more repairs and said he may be open to selling the ship.

“It’s still a great boat with a great history, but it might need young blood,” he told The Journal.

Rhode Island Lighthouses

To view information about a lighthouse, click on the photograph or title.


Block Island North

Block Island Southeast

Bristol Ferry

Bullock's Point

Castle Hill

Dutch Island

Fuller Rock

Gould Island

Gull Rocks

Hog Island Shoal

Musselbed Shoals

Nayatt Point

Newport Harbor

Plum Beach

Point Judith

Pomham Rocks

Poplar Point

Prudence Island

Rose Island

Sabin Point

Sakonnet Point

Sassafras Point

Watch Hill

Whale Rock

Wickford Harbor

A Brief History of Rhode Island Lighthouses

There are twenty five active and retired Rhode Island Lighthouses. They range from the southern tip of Block Island to the entrance to Providence Harbor. There are also seven former lighthouse and lightship sites in Rhode Island. Four of the lighthouses were closed and destroyed, when they weren’t needed. The fifth was destroyed in the 1938 hurricane. Brenton Reef Lightship and Hog Island Shoal Lightship were replaced with a buoy and lighthouse respectively.

Rhode Island's first lighthouse, Beavertail Light, was built in 1749. It was the third lighthouse built in America. It was constructed of wood and burned down a few years later. It was replaced with a stone lighthouse that lasted for 100 years before it was replaced by the current Beavertail Lighthouse.

In the first three decades of the 19th Century, as shipping increased along the East Coast, eight lighthouses and a lightship were built in Rhode Island. Three of them, Watch Hill Light, Point Judith Light and Block Island Light, were coastal lighthouses built to aid ships traveling from Boston to New York. The other Lighthouses, Dutch Island Light, Poplar Point Light, Warwick Light, Nayatt Point Light and Goat Island Light, were built in Narragansett Bay.

During the 1840s and the 1850s only four new Rhode Island lighthouses, Bristol Ferry Light, Conimicut light, Lime Rock Light and Prudence Island Light, were established. Most of the early Rhode Island Lighthouses had to be rebuilt because of poor construction and insufficient maintenance. An 1855 report described one of the lantern and stairs of the lighthouses as "extremely bad". Block Island North Light had to be moved because of soil erosion.

New Lighthouse construction in Rhode Island stopped in the 1860s. This was probably due to the Civil War. In 1867 Block Island North Lighthouse was moved and rebuilt, due to erosion.

There were eight Rhode Island Lighthouses built in the 1870s. Most of them, Bullock Point light, Sabin Point Light, Pomham Rocks Light, Fuller Rock Light and Sassafras Point Light, were built in the Providence River. After the Civil War, passenger and freight shipping increased on the Providence River. Ship owners and ship captains wanted more lights to protect ships and passengers. Musselbed Shoals Lighthouse was built in 1873 to guide ships through the treacherous entrance to Mount Hope Bay. Block Island Southeast Lighthouse and Rose Island Lighthouse were the other lighthouses built in Rhode Island.

In the 1880s six new lighthouses and a lightship station were established in Rhode Island. The Old Colony Steamship Company, a freight and passenger line that traveled between New York and Fall River, maintained private lights on Gould Island, Gull Rocks and Hog Island Shoals to aid their ships traveling up and down Narragansett Bay. The government thought that these lights weren't reliable and replaced them with Gould Island Lighthouse, Gull Rocks Lighthouse and Hog Island Shoals Lightship. Poplar Point Lighthouse was replaced with Wickford Harbor Lighthouse.

Whale Rock, a dangerous obstruction at the entrance to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay was a hazard to shipping. At least a couple of ships had sunk after hitting it. Whale Rock Lighthouse was built on it in 1882. Sakonnet Point Lighthouse was built in 1884. It was a remote light and had a hard time keeping lighthouse keepers.

There were only two Rhode Island Lighthouses, Castle Hill Light and Plum Light, established in the 1890s. Castle Hill Light was built in 1890 near Newport. The money to build it was appropriated in 1886 but the site where the light was going to be built was near a mansion owned by Alexander Agassig. He refused a right of way to the site. It took two years before the government was able to obtain a small right of way from Agassig. Construction started on Plum Beach in 1896. A metal foundation was placed on the site. Test borings showed there was quicksand under it. Construction was stopped until 1898, when $9,000 was appropriated to fix the problem. The lighthouse was completed in 1899. It was the last original lighthouse established in Rhode Island.

In the early 20th century two lighthouses were built to replace old lights. Hog Island Shoals Lightship LV-12 was in poor condition and needed to be replaced. There were discussions on placing a new lightship on it or replacing it with a lighthouse. It was finally decided to replace it with a lighthouse. Hog Island Lighthouse was built in 1903. The 1826 Warwick Lighthouse was replaced with a new lighthouse in 1932.

As technology advanced and shipping patterns changed in the 20th century, the need for manned lighthouses was reduced. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the government closed Ida Lewis Lighthouse, Bristol Ferry Lighthouse, Conanicut Lighthouse and Wickford Harbor Lighthouse and replaced them with skeleton towers.

The 1938 Hurricane damaged several Rhode Island lighthouses. Bullock Point Lighthouse and Musselbeds Shoals Lighthouse were severely damaged. They were torn down the next year and replaced with skeleton towers.

Prudence island Lighthouse was badly damaged and its keeper's house was destroyed during the hurricane. The keeper's family and friends were killed when the house was destroyed by a storm surge. The lighthouse was electrified and automated after the hurricane. Whale Rock Lighthouse was destroyed during the hurricane and its keeper was killed when a rogue wave tore the lighthouse off its base. A skeleton tower replaced the light.

In 1941 the first Jamestown Bridge was completed next to Plum Beach Lighthouse. The light was no longer needed and was deactivated.

During the 1940s and 1950s Rhode Island Lighthouses started to switch from gas and kerosene to electricity. This meant a keeper wasn't needed to fuel the light during the night and the lights could be automated. Four lighthouses, Castle Hill Light, Dutch Island Light, Point Judith Light and Sabin Point Light, were automated during this period. Gould Island Lighthouse was closed and was replaced with a skeleton tower. Sakonnet Point Lighthouse was closed due to storm damage.

Lighthouse automation and closure accelerated during the 1960s and 1970s. Radar and other technology had made many of them less important as aids to navigation. Most of the remaining Rhode Island Lighthouses were automated. There were a few exceptions. Sabin Point Light and Gull Rocks Light, two unique lighthouses were closed and burned down. Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was closed in 1974 and replaced with a skeleton tower. Rose Island Lighthouse was closed in 1971. It was left to rot for 20 years until Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation was organized to save it. It was restored and opened in 1993. To raise money to maintain the lighthouse, the foundation lets visitors become guest keepers. They paid to stay at the lighthouse overnight or spend a week.

In 1980s and early 1990s the last three Rhode Island Lighthouses with keepers, Block Island Light, Watch Hill Light and Warwick Light, were automated. The value of lighthouses changed during this period. Lighthouses went from buildings to be abandoned or burned down to valuable historical structures. Block Island Southeast Lighthouse was in danger of falling into the ocean because of erosion. In earlier years it would have been abandoned and crashed into the ocean. Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation was formed to save the lighthouse. They raised $2,000,000 to move the lighthouse. In August 1993 the lighthouse was moved 300 feet back and was relighted in 1994.

Block Island Lighthouse's move was a renaissance for Rhode Island Lighthouses. People realized how close they were to losing these treasures. Several Preservation groups, including, The Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse, Inc. and Dutch Island Lighthouse Society were formed to restore Rhode Island's abandoned and deactivated lighthouses. Because of their efforts Sakonnet Points Lighthouse was relighted in 1997, Plum Beach Lighthouse was relighted in 2003, Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was relighted in 2006 and Dutch Island Lighthouse was relighthed in 2007.

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