Podcast 338 – The Burning of the Great Gaspee

In 1772 a group of Rhode Islanders attacked the HMS Gaspee in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Was this truly the first shot fired in the American Revolution?

In Episode 338 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger stroll the shores of Narragansetts Bay in Warwick, Rhode Island, to the see the site where Rhode Islanders led by John Brown attacked the HMS Gaspee and her overzealous crew in 1772. Could this shot have been the actual first shot fired in the Revolutionary War?

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Guest Voice Talent: Carl Hutchinson
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Burning of the Gaspee painting by Charles De Wolf Brownell, circa 1892.

The Burning of the Gaspee painting by Charles De Wolf Brownell, circa 1892.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

JEFF: Ray, when I ask you where the American Revolution began you’d say…
RAY: Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The first shots fired. The shot heard ‘round the world.
JEFF: And not too many people would argue with you. That was April 19, 1775.
RAY: And here we are the United States of America now.
JEFF: Right. But as you can imagine, that first shot fired didn’t come out of nowhere. There were many events that led up to it.
RAY: Sure. The Boston Tea Party for one, the Boston Massacre is another. Plus, many other little things like too many taxes, no say in government… It took years to build up that much tension.
JEFF: Very true. But the Boston Massacre was an example of the British shooting at the colonists. The story goes that the first shots in Lexington and Concord was the first time the colonists fought back against their oppressors.
RAY: Which makes me wonder why we’re standing on the shores of Narragansett Bay in Warwick, Rhode Island. We’re pretty far from Lexington and Concord.
JEFF: We are, but we’re pretty close to where an act of violence against the British may be a more accurate first shot fired in the Revolution. We’ve come to Narragansett Bay to witness the burning of the HMS Gaspee.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 338 of the New England Legends Podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle all of the weird history and strangeness that makes New England like no other place. Please be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts because it’s free and you don’t want to miss a thing. Also, please tell a friend or two about our show and post a review for us. That’s how we grow, and get new episode ideas because most of our story leads come from you.
JEFF: We’ll go searching for the HMS Gaspee right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: Okay, Jeff, so we’re talking about landing the first blows against the British in the Revolutionary War.
JEFF: We are. To be fair, it’s almost impossible to find the very first act of violence. There were dirty looks, stones thrown, even murders of British soldiers, but those events didn’t feel like an organized strike like Lexington and Concord… or like what happened here off the shores of Narragansett Bay.
RAY: Depending on when the attack took place it’s either treason or an act of patriotism in a war for independence.
JEFF: That’s exactly right. If you lash out, get hanged or jailed for treason, and nothing changes, then you’re a traitor. Do the same thing and overthrow the government and you’re a patriot and hero.
RAY: History is told by the winners.
JEFF: That it is. To find out who won this round and to learn how this stretch of beach got the name Gaspee Point, let’s head back to the year 1772.
RAY: It’s March of 1772 here on the coast of Rhode Island. Tensions are rising with King George III.
JEFF: I’d say they are. Britian is still recovering from the French and Indian War, and the Seven Years’ War. Fighting wars is incredibly expensive. Sure, Britain has gained a lot of new land, but they’ve also gained a lot of new debt. One way to raise funds quickly is with new taxes and tariffs on your new subjects.
RAY: (SNARKY) That’s one win to win the hearts and minds of your new people…
JEFF: Right?! Britian is arguing that they need the funds to protect these distant colonies.
RAY: “Protection Money” I get it. You pay for protection from… well… the British.
JEFF: Right, and the occasional pirate. So the crown decides to deputize the Royal Navy’s sea officers to enforce the customs laws in American ports.
RAY: And enforcing customs laws is NOT why any person joined the military.
JEFF: Not at all.
RAY: That’s not their job. Their job is defense, war, and hunting pirates and threats to their people. Not paperwork. Ugh.
JEFF: Still, an order is an order. And one person taking that order seriously is Lieutenant William Duddingston of the HMS Gaspee.
RAY: One could say he’s taking his orders TOO seriously.
JEFF: That’s true.
RAY: Lt. Duddingston arrived in Narragansett Bay last month and began stopping just about every ship that comes into the Bay. Big ships, small packet ships, it doesn’t matter. Lt. Duddingston is stopping them all, slowing down their business, and coming down for any infraction.
JEFF: All of the sailors are frustrated. Even if you’re following the rules to the letter, it’s a pain to have to stop and get searched by some overzealous Lieutenant. It slows you down, and time is money.
RAY: Of course as with many ships, some captains bend the rules a little bit. Maybe a little more cargo than what’s declared, perhaps a wee bit of smuggling. Nothing too grievous. I mean, everyone does it.
JEFF: Not under Lt. Duddingston’s watch, they don’t. He’s finding even the smallest infraction. And while you can complain all you want, you don’t have a strong argument when you’re the one breaking the law.
RAY: But, last month, Lt. Duddingston took it too far.
JEFF: What did he do now?
RAY: Last month the HMS Gaspee stopped to inspect a sloop called Fortune. Once on board, he seized about 12 hogsheads of undeclared rum.
JEFF: A hogshead is a barrel with about 55 gallons. So we’re talking hundreds of gallons of rum. I bet the locals took that one personally.
RAY: That they did. And the situation turned from bad to worse when Lt. Duddingston sent the Fortune on to Boston for trial.
JEFF: Ahhh got it. That’s what causes a problem more than just confiscating the booze. The Rhode Island Royal Charter states that any arrest that takes place within Rhode Island has to also serve trial within Rhode Island. Lt. Duddingston is overstepping now, and the word has reached Rhode Island governor Joseph Wanton. And he’s mad.
RAY: That he is. One thing that makes Rhode Island a little different from some of the other colonies is that its original charter states the people of Rhode Island can elect their own officials. The challenge for the elected officials is that they need to serve their people who elected them, but also their King. That isn’t always an easy line to walk. But in this case, it’s clear that Lt. Duddingston has overstepped. The people are angry, and so Governor Wanton fires off an angry letter.
JEFF: Did you see the letter?
RAY: No, what’s it say?
JEFF: I was able to grab a copy. Rhode Island governor Wanton says, and I quote, “A considerable number of the inhabitants of this Colony have complained to me of your having, in a most illegal and unwarrantable manner, interrupted their trade, by searching and detaining every little packet boat plying between the several towns. As I know not by what authority you assume this power, I have sent off the high sheriff, to inform you of the complaint exhibited against you, and expect that you do, without delay, produce me your commission and instructions, if any you have, which was your duty to have done when you first came within the jurisdiction of this Colony.”
RAY: Sounds like he’s setting up Lt. Duddingston for some potential formal charges.
JEFF: It does. Lt. Duddingston responds in writing. He says:
DUDDINGSTON: Sir, Last night I received your letter informing me that a number of the inhabitants of this Colony had complained to you of my having in a most illegal and unwarrantable manner interrupted their trade by searching and detaining every little packet boat, plying between the several towns. In answer to which, I have done nothing but what was my duty, and their complaint can only be founded on their ignorance of that. I am being sent to this government to assist the revenue and had my commission to show you if required, as it was ever understood by all His Majesty’s Governors I have had the honor to wait on, that every officer commanding one of His Majesty’s Vessels were properly authorized. The officer I send is equally qualified and has been in the boats at boarding most of the vessels and can give any information relative to my proceeding. Sir, Your humble servant, William Duddingston
RAY: So now we have a bit of an impasse. Lt. Duddingston claims he’s acting on orders of the King, and the elected Governor of Rhode Island is trying to fix a problem for his people. It makes for a tense Spring around Narragansett Bay.
JEFF: It’s the evening of June 9th and Lt. Duddingston and the HMS Gaspee is chasing down a packet ship called Hannah.
RAY: A packet ship is a small vessel meant to haul mail, cargo, and people shorter distances. The Hannah is quick, and looks like she’s going to give the much larger HMS Gaspee the slip.
JEFF: The Hannah is racing pretty close to shore, almost daring the HMS Gaspee to follow…
JEFF/RAY: Ohhh! Look at that!
RAY: The HMS Gaspee just ran aground in the shallow water.
JEFF: And the Hannah is going to get away.
RAY: It doesn’t look like the Gaspee is damaged, though. She’s just beached.
JEFF: Lt. Duddingston is furious! But not out of the game by any means. He’ll just have to wait for tomorrow’s high tide in the hopes he can free his ship.
RAY: With the HMS Gaspee stuck, some Providence locals get an idea. Led by John Brown himself, a group of five men see a way to solve many of their sea-fairing problems. Just before dawn, they board a row boat.
RAY: And row up to the HMS Gaspee. The men quietly board the ship.
JEFF: A few of the Gaspee crew are struck with handspikes. And that’s when Joseph Bucklin of John Brown’s boarding party spots Lt. Duddingston. Bucklin draws his pistol.
JEFF: He just shot Duddington right in the crotch!
RAY: That’s gotta hurt.
JEFF: Duddingston and his crew are invited to leave their ship. The men do so without much fuss.
RAY: After poking around the HMS Gaspee for a few minutes, John Brown and his crew finally do what they came here to do.
RAY: After setting the HMS Gaspee ablaze, John Brown and his men row back to shore and watch the Gaspee burn down to the waterline.
JEFF: A few days later, the wounded Lt. Duddingston is arrested for seizing a cargo illegally, and sent back to England. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Soooo the first shot fired in the Revolutionary War kind of wasn’t at Lexington and Concord… it was almost three years early and aimed at nether regions of one Lt. Duddingston.
JEFF: It’s so difficult to pinpoint where a war truly starts. Clearly tensions had been building all over. I guess we call Lexington and Concord the first shots because the war spread far and wide after that, whereas the HMS Gaspee incident was more isolated. War was coming, I’m sure the King realized if he let the Gaspee incident slide by, it would release enough tension that the people of Rhode Island’s coast might calm down for a bit.
RAY: The plan worked. It bought the king almost three years.
JEFF: John Brown would go on to be one of the founders of Brown University in Providence, and this piece of land on Narragansett Bay is now called Gaspee Point as a reminder of where Rhode Islanders took a stand against tyranny and oppression, AND took a shot at one annoying British soldier’s uhhhm crown jewels…
RAY: Uhhhg… but yup… that’s what happened. And that takes us to After the Legend where we dive deeper into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
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To see some pictures related to this week’s story including the original letters written by Lt. Duddingston, click on the link in our episode description or go to our Web site and click on Episode 338.

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We’d like to thank Carl Hutchinson for lending his voice acting talents this week with a very convincing British accent, thanks to our patreon patrons, thank you to our sponsors, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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