Narraganset Bay

In the summer of 1772, an occurrence in Narraganset Bay made a great stir in the colonies and in Great Britain. The commissioners of customs, at Boston, sent an armed British schooner into the Bay, to enforce the revenue laws and prevent illicit traffic. It was the Gaspe, commanded by Lieutenant Dudingston. He loved to play the petty tyrant, and obstructed legitimate commerce by vexatious arrests of vessels on their course, without showing his commission. The chief-justice of Rhode Island (Hopkins) decided that no man coming into the colony had a right to exercise authority by force of arms, without first showing his commission; whereupon Governor Wanton sent the high-sheriff on board the Gaspe with a message to her commander asking him to produce his commission without delay. Dudingston did not comply. The demand was repeated in a second letter, with the same result. The lieutenant forwarded Wanton's letters to Admiral Montagu, at Boston, of whom John Adams wrote in his diary: "His brutal, hoggish manners are a disgrace to the royal navy and to the king's service." He wrote a coarse, blustering letter to the governor, saying: "I shall report your two insolent letters to his majesty's secretaries of state, and have them to determine what right you have to demand sight of all orders I shall give to all officers of my squadron; and I would advise you not to send the sheriff on board the king's ship again on such ridiculous errands. The lieutenant, sir, has done his duty. I shall give the king's officers directions, that they send every man taken in molesting them, to me. As sure as the people of Newport attempt to rescue any vessel, and any of them are taken, I will hang them as pirates." To this insulting letter Governor Wanton replied with spirit. He expressed his gratification that his letters had been sent to the secretaries, and his surprise at the admiral's impolite words. He informed him that he should send that officer's letter to the same gentlemen, and leave it for the king and his minister to determine on which side the charge of insolence properly belonged. "As to your advice," he said, "not to send a sheriff on board any of your squadron, please to know, that I will send the sheriff of this colony at any time and to every place within the body of it, as I shall think fit." Before ministers had time to settle the question, the affair had assumed a more hostile aspect.

Dudingston became more insolent and annoying. He ordered even well-known packet-ships to lower their colors in token of respect when passing the Gaspe, and often fired upon those which failed to do so. At about noon on the 9th of June (1772), the packet Hannah was passing up the Bay before a stiff breeze, and did not bow to the haughty marine Gesler. The Gaspe gave chase. The tide was ebbing, but the bar of Namquit Point was covered. The Hannah misled her pursuer, by a more westerly way, when the schooner ran upon the sands and was hopelessly grounded. This fact was told by the captain of the Hannah to John Brown, a leading merchant of Providence, who thought it a good opportunity to rid themselves of the nuisance. He organized an expedition to destroy the schooner that night. Eight of the largest boats in the harbor,--with four oarsmen each,--their row-locks muffled, were collected early in the evening, and the whole expedition was placed in charge of Captain Whipple, one of Brown's most trusted shipmasters.

Sixty-four well-armed men left Providence in the boats, between ten and eleven o'clock in the evening, and reached the Gaspe. They were hailed by a sentinel, but did not answer. Dudingston appeared on deck, waved his hand for the boats to keep away, and fired a pistol among them. The shot was returned from a musket. The lieutenant was wounded and carried below. Then the vessel was boarded without much opposition. Dudingston's wound was dressed by an American medical student, and he was taken ashore. The crew were ordered to gather up their private property, and go ashore also. This done, the vessel was set on fire, and at early dawn she was blown up by her ignited magazine.

This high-handed act was condemned by the local authorities in public. Governor Wanton offered a reward of five hundred dollars for the discovery of the perpetrators. The British government offered five thousand dollars for the leader, and twenty-five hundred dollars to the man who should discover and reveal the names of the others. A royal commission of investigation was appointed, and the admiral gave all the assistance in his power, but not one of the party turned state's-evidence, though tempted by large rewards to do so. Nor did any of the citizens of Providence, who knew many of the actors well, reveal the secret (and the names of none of them were spoken of as actors) until after the war with Great Britain was actually begun. Then it was revealed that Whipple was the leader. The fact caused a very laconic correspondence. Sir James Wallace was blockading Narraganset Bay with a single war-vessel in 1775, and Whipple was in command of a little provincial naval force to drive him away. Wallace wrote to that commander:

"You, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th of June, 1772, burned his majesty's vessel, the Gaspe, and I will hang you at the yard-arm.


He was answered:

"Sir,-Always catch a man before you hang him.


Return to Our Country, Vol II