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  • Robert Farago

The Truth About The American Revolution?

The Gaspee affair raises an uncomfortable question


I’m not exactly sure why historians seized on the Boston Tea Party as the first rebellious act against Britain, leading to the creation of the United States.


I suppose it’s thanks to the organizers’ intent (middle-fingering Britain’s tax on tea) and the protest’s colorful realization (colonists dressed as Native Americans dumping crates of tea into Boston harbor).


I can only imagine Colonial Rhode Islanders’ reaction.

Wait. You guys dressed up as Indians? Were you drunk as fuck or is that your kink? What the fuck were you thinking throwing away all that tea? Do you have any idea how much that shit is worth? We could have moved it for you, easy.

Rhode Islanders rightly claim that their attack on the Royal Navy customs schooner Gaspee a year previous did more to foment revolutionary fervor than Bostonians’ costumed caper.



On June 9, 1772 between 50 and 60 Rhode Islanders rowed-up to HMS Gaspee, boarded the ship, shot Captain William Dudingston in the leg and burned the schooner to the waterline. Whereupon its powder magazine exploded (as above).


The Gaspee’s fiery demise was one of the first violent uprisings against the Crown in British North America . The first time British blood was spilled in that endeavor, albeit non-fatally.


The Brits were not well pleased. The Gaspee raiders were charged with treason. Despite knowing the perpetrators, the Powers That Be couldn’t marshal enough evidence to arrest and extradite the Gaspee’s raiders. (I didn’t see nothin’.)


Even so, the prospect of a British judge trumping Colonial justice set off alarm bells throughout the 13 colonies. wikipedia:

The Rev. John Allen preached a sermon at the Second Baptist Church in Boston which utilized the Gaspee affair to warn listeners about greedy monarchs, corrupt judges, and conspiracies in the London government. This sermon was printed seven different times in four colonial cities, becoming one of the most popular pamphlets of Colonial America. This pamphlet and editorials by numerous colonial newspaper editors awoke colonial Whigs from a lull of inactivity in 1772, thus inaugurating a series of conflicts that culminated in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

And now the rest of the story…


You were probably taught “taxation without representation” was the Colonists’ beef with their British overlords. Remove the words “without representation” and you’re a lot closer to the truth.


Rhode Island merchants were royally pissed at His Majesty’s highly effective campaign to carve-out a piece of their profits. Their livelihood. The Gaspee didn’t just confiscate smuggled cargo. She confiscated ships.



Most notably, Dudingston captured a rum-filled packet sloop called The Fortune – owned by the powerful Greene family of East Greenwich. Assuming confiscated rum stored in a Rhode Island wharehouse would be "reclaimed” by the locals, Dudingston towed the ship to Boston harbor.


The ship’s relocation was a violation of the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663: any crime committed within the Colony should be prosecuted by the Colony. Where, I might add, it usually ended in the colonist’s favor.


The Fortune was a prime example of the smuggled cargo targeted by the Brits: sugar (imported from the Caribbean) and rum (exported abroad). It was big business. At the time, Newport, Rhode Island was home to 22 distilleries, turning the former into the latter.



Rhode Island’s rum trade was massive for one reason: slavery. The smallest Colony was the epicenter of the hugely profitable “Triangle Trade.” As above: rum to Africa, slaves to America, sugar to Newport, making huge bank at all three stops.


Rhode Island merchants controlled some ninety percent of America’s slave trade, transporting more than ten million souls to America.


You need only take an architectural tour of Providence, Bristol and Newport to see the enormous riches the Colony earned as a result of its heinous trade in humans.


The connection between the Rhode Island slave trade and the burning of the Gaspee is as obvious as it is unavoidable.


John Brown, North America’s pre-eminent slaver (and Brown University founder), was the assault’s instigator, financier, HR manager and active participant.


In short, the burning of the Gaspee was motivated by business, not questions of representation. Which comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the corruption that’s endemic in the Ocean State.


While the Gaspee gets all the press – at least in Rhode Island – it’s worth noting that it wasn’t the Colonial merchants’ first foray into “taking care of business.”



In 1764, Rhode Island rum makers were worried that the Sugar Act was pricing their product out of the market (relative to untaxed West Indian rum). They took control of Fort George on Goat Island (in Newport harbor) and fired cannons at the British revenue ship HMS St John.


In 1769, the Captain of the customs ship HMS Liberty seized two Connecticut ships in retribution for an assault on his crew. Colonists boarded Liberty (docked in Newport) and set the ship aflame.

And no point did any of the Colonists involved mention Parliamentary representation.



Which raises an interesting question: how much of the American Revolution was motivated by politics, how much was driven by economics? You know, greed.


Common sense and historical records indicate it was a combination of the two, with many if not most proto-Americans signing-up in the name of liberty. Except, I gotta say, in Rhode Island.

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