English Reactions to the Gaspee Attack

When the news of the destruction of the Gaspee eventually reached London by ship, the English Attorney General called the Gaspee capture five times as serious as the Stamp Act protest. The English Attorney General joined with the English Solicitor General in London to give a formal opinion to King George III and Parliament which stated the attack on the Gaspee was “treason” and an “act of war”. Until then, each of the acts of violence or resistance by the colonists had not been so labeled by the English legal system.

Lord Hillsborough, the Royal Secretary of State for the Colonies, ordered Admiral Montague to go to Rhode Island and arrest the persons involved. Parliament quickly passed an act specifically providing that the burning of the Gaspee was treason, and the men involved were to be brought back and tried in England.

Legal proclamations were issued both by the Governor of Rhode Island and also by King George, each proclamation seeking information about the identity of the Gaspee raiders. The Governor’s was a weak proclamation, without substantial reward, intended mainly to show the King that the government of Rhode Island was doing enough so that the colony’s charter should not be revoked.

But the proclamation by King George V had teeth! The King proclaimed a reward of £1000, plus full pardon for your treason if you were one of the attackers, to anyone giving information leading to the arrest of the person who shot the English ship captain. This was a substantial reward. The Gaspee itself had been purchased as a new ship from a shipyard and outfitted at a cost of less than £545. A person getting the £1000 reward could easily purchase a ship of the type used by most merchants, pay for a crew to go on a voyage, and still have enough left over to buy a house!

The Bucklins of Rhode Island and Massachusetts obviously had reasons for hoping that the American Revolution did not end in failure, because then the Bucklin family most likely eventually would be found out and treated as conspirators in a treason.

The most impressive legal event by the English was formation of the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission was formed by the King’s direct order to investigate and bring to English the “traitors”. There was an old statute of Henry VIII giving courts within England jurisdiction to try citizens accused of committing treason outside the country island of England. This was the statute which the Crown intended to use to try the offenders who attacked the Gaspee.

Whether or not the Americans so considered it, the English considered that a war had begun. Apparently recognizing that by the time a large fleet and suitable new troops could be assembled it would be near the autumn time when it would not be good for an Atlantic crossing, England began to assemble a large fleet and additional troops to move to the American colonies in the spring of the next year.

American Reactions to the Gaspee Attack

Thomas Jefferson of Virginia proposed an important united reaction by all the American colonies. It was the reaction of all the colonies to this attempt to take Americans to England for trial that began the consolidation of the sundry colonies into a union of states.

When Rhode Island learned the terms of the Royal Commission, they became concerned about the probability of recourse to arms in defense of the colony. Many expected the English troops already stationed in Boston would to be landing in Rhode Island to take the colony by force.

The Rhode Island patriots sought the expert counsel of Samuel Adams. A group of men, including the deputy governor, wrote to ask him what to do next. Adams agreed with Thomas Hutchinson that the Gaspee’s burning should open eyes to the seriousness of the growing rebellion. Adams took the position that the Gaspee affair should unite the colonists against the English government. In a second letter, Adams wrote to Darius Sessions:

“I have long feared this unhappy contest between Great Britain and America would end in rivers of blood. Should that be the case, America, I think, may wash her hands in innocence.”

The most meaningful legal event to the English navy men was the Court Martial of Lt. Dudingston. Lieutenant William Dudingston was reluctant to testify in any civil inquiry. He wanted no civil testimony recorded that could harm him in a later court martial. His fear of testifying was not without basis. He wanted to only testify at his court-martial, where he was in danger of a penalty of death.

His fear of testifying was not without basis. Dudingston had surrendered his ship and the ship had been destroyed. In those days an English sea captain who lost his ship for whatever reason was always the subject of a court-martial. One of the court-martials of the navy probably in Dudingston’s mind was the 1757 court-martial of Admiral Byng. The Admiral had been ordered to take his ships and men and relieve the English force at Minorca. The Admiral did not have sufficient forces, and thinking it irrational to incur complete and useless destruction of his own ships and men, he finally gave up the attempt. Found guilty of neglect of duty, he was taken to his ship and publicly and promptly executed (by shooting) on the quarterdeck of his own ship in Portsmouth Harbor. Following that event, probably few English captains felt it proper to give up a ship because fighting more would cause the death of most of the crew.

Furthermore, Lt. Dudingston had let his ship be grounded on a sand bar during the chase of the Hannah. Another clause of the Royal Navy Regulations made that also a hanging offense for the captain of a Royal Navy ship.

Dudingston’s court-martial went well for him. For example, skillful advocacy by Dudingston’s counsel at Dudingston’s court-martial in London managed to avoid having the Admirals on the court martial board learn about the chase of the Hannah. Instead the grounding of the Gaspee was portrayed as a deliberate grounding of the ship to scrape the barnacles off the hull!  Dudingston’s court martial resulted in his acquittal, and he went on to become an Admiral of the English Navy during the American Revolutionary War.

However, after the Gaspee raid, Lt. Dudingston was sued in three separate lawsuits in the colonial courts, each suit alleging unlawful seizure of goods and ships. He lost all three.

More detailed information on post-Gaspee events is maintained in biographical material on the persons in the longboats that attacked the Gaspee and stored at our Gaspee.info specialized site.

  • Rootsweb has a page devoted to Rhode Island History which contains reproductions of a number of post-Gaspee documents, such as depositions in the investigation of the burning of the Gaspee; from Aaron Briggs, responses by Daniel Vaughan and Deputy Governor Sessions relative to the deposition of Aaron Briggs, and the Report from the Honorable the Commissioners, appointed by Royal Commission.