On June 9, 1772 the British customs schooner Gaspee ran aground in Narragansett Bay while pursuing a Rhode Island sloop suspected of carrying a cargo of smuggled French rum and molasses. That night, while the Gaspee’s crew waited for high tide to free their vessel, a group of colonists from Providence led by the merchants John Brown and Abraham Whipple rowed out to the stricken vessel. Swarming over the sides, the colonists shot the Gaspee’s commander and forced the rest of the crew to surrender. The despised schooner was then burnt to the waterline.
The destruction of the Gaspee sent shockwaves throughout the Thirteen Colonies as the first act of overt violence against British authority—preceding the Boston Tea Party by over a year. But less well known are the reasons for the customs cruiser’s presence in Rhode Island. The vessel had been sent to the colony as part of renewed British efforts to enforce the Navigation Acts, the foundational laws that gave shape to its American empire. These seventeenth-century laws forbade Britain’s colonies from trading with foreign nations except in a few narrow circumstances. However, for nearly a century the Navigation Acts were largely ignored by colonists who traded with foreign nations and colonies wherever a profit was to be made. Colonists particularly sought two items that legal trade supplied only at exorbitant prices: molasses and loose-leaf tea. Both were essential to the two most popular drinks in the Thirteen Colonies: rum and tea.
Smuggling was a cornerstone of Colonial American commerce, practiced in every port in every colony. Nowhere was it more widespread and organized than Rhode Island—dubbed “Rogue Island” by officials. Traders and seaman talked about it openly in their letters and records, many of which survive in the holdings of the Rhode Island Historical Society. One particularly detailed account can be found in a set of instructions given by an unknown Newport merchant to Captain Nathaniel Whitting (ca. 1743-1780) just a week before the Gaspee was destroyed. As commander of the sloop Little Polly, Whitting was ordered to sail to Newfoundland. There he was to trade his cargo of foodstuffs and candles for a cargo of salted cod. From Newfoundland, he was to sail to Gothenburg in Sweden where he was to sell the fish in exchange for a cargo of Bohea tea. This was flagrantly illegal under the Navigation Acts, but Whitting’s employers had a detailed plan to ensure his clandestine cargo reached Rhode Island safely.
|Instructions given to Capt. Whiting|
Whitting was to disguise his vessel as a “wood sloop” carrying timber from Maine by blackening the sides of his vessel, and if he encountered anyone on his voyage was to tell them he was “John Smith” of the Dolphin bound for New York. Upon reaching Narragansett Bay, he was warned to “be very careful of being deceived by the [customs] cruisers” like the Gaspee who “used many stratagems to deceive vessels such as hiring fishing schooners…and boats with wood” then offering “to assist vessels in running goods” as a pretense for getting near and boarding them. Taking all care, the Captain was to land his mate on a deserted beach from where he was to proceed alone to Newport, find “Mr. Stevens’ house…[and] go to the lower window at the [North] East corner of the house fronting the street and knock twice.” Stevens would then provide detailed information about the location of the customs patrols and instructions for the best place the sloop could land its illegal cargo safely.
|Detail from Whiting's instructions.|
While it is unknown if Nathaniel Whitting successfully delivered his cargo of illicit tea, his instructions demonstrate the high degree of organization smuggling had reached in Rhode Island. With every merchant house, including the colony’s largest traders such as the Browns of Providence, involved in contraband trade and with smuggled rum and tea major consumer products, it is unsurprising that the belated effort by British officials in the 1760s to combat smuggling was met with such hostility. Joined with the Gaspee’s heavy-handed habit of seizing of every ship it encountered for inspection, a violent confrontation was all but inevitable. And with it a major step towards Revolution.