In March, 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston, in the armed schooner Gaspé, made his appearance in Narragansett Bay, and soon proved himself to be even more exacting than his predecessors. “He stopped all vessels, including small market boats; and without showing his authority for doing so; even sent the property he had illegally seized to Boston for trial, contrary to an act of Parliament which required such trials to be held in the colonies where the seizures were made”. Suit was begun against Dudingston by the owners of one of these cargoes, Jacob Greene & Co., of Warwick, in July, 1772, which resulted in a judgement against the British officer. Complaints of these proceedings were duly made, and Joseph Wanton, colonial Governor of Rhode Island, sent a number of letters to Rear-Admiral John Montagu, at Boston, protesting against the outrages, which, however, only elicited an arrogant reply from the admiral, who said: “I shall report your two insolent letters to my officer [Lieutenant Dudingston] to his majesty’s secretaries of state, and leave to them to determine what right you have to demand a sight of all orders I shall give to officers of my squadron; and I would advise you not to send your sheriff on board the king’s ship again on such ridiculous errands. I am also informed the people of Newport talk of fitting out an armed vessel to rescue any vessel the king’s schooner may take carrying on an illicit trade. Let them be cautious what they do, for as sure as they attempt it, and any of them are taken, I will hang them as pirates”. Dudingston evidently realised that many of his seizures were illegal, for he feared to venture ashore, as many suits at law were threatened against him by the owners of goods and vessels he had taken. The suit brought by Jacob Greene & Co. was instituted after Dudingston had been taken ashore by the captors of the Gaspé.
Affairs were in this critical state when, on June 9, 1772, the packet Hannah, Captain Benjamin Lindsey, left Newport for Providence. Soon after meridian the Gaspé gave chase and ordered the packet to come to. Lindsey refused, and, favoured by the wind, led the schooner a 25-mile race up the bay. When off “Namquit Point, which runs off from the farm in Warwick, about seven miles below Providence, now owned by Mr. John Brown Francis, our late Governor”, the Hannah stood west ward, while the Gaspé, in close pursuit, changed her course and grounded on the Point. “Lindsey continued on his course up the river and arrived at Providence about sunset, when he immediately informed Mr. John Brown, one of our first and most respectable merchants, of the situation of the Gaspé. He [Brown] immediately concluded that she would remain immovable until after midnight [as the tide was beginning to ebb], and that now an opportunity offered of putting an end to the trouble and vexation she daily caused. Mr. Brown immediately resolved on her destruction, and he forthwith directed one of his trusty shipmasters to collect eight of the largest longboats in the harbour, with five oars each; to have the oars and rowlocks well muffled, to prevent noise, and to place them at Fenner’s Wharf, directly opposite the dwelling of Mr. James Sabin, who kept a house of board and entertainment for gentlemen.
About the time of shutting-up of shops, soon after sunset, a man passed along the main street beating a drum, and informing the inhabitants of the fact that the Gaspé was aground on Namquit Point and would not float off until three o’clock the next morning, and inviting those persons who felt disposed to go and destroy that troublesome vessel to repair in the evening to Mr. James Sabin ‘s house. About nine o’clock, I took my fathers gun and my powderhorn and bullets and went to Mr. Sabin’s and found the southeast room full of people, where I loaded my gun, and all remained there till ‘about ten o’clock, some casting bullets in the kitchen and others making arrangements for departure, when orders were given to cross the street to Fenner’s Wharf and embark, which soon took place, and a sea captain acted as steersman of each boat”.
Abraham Whipple was chosen commander of the enterprise, having as his lieutenant John Burroughs Hopkins, both of whom afterward became captains in the Continental navy.
Others know taken part in the attempt were John Brown, Benjamin Dunn, Samuel Dunn, Joseph Bucklin, Dr. John Dickenson, Benjamin Page, Turpin Smith, Joseph Tillinghast, and Simeon H. Olney. Dr. Mawney wrote, in 1826:
“I went to Corlis’s Wharf with Captain Joseph Tillinghast, who commanded the barge, it being the last boat that put off. In going down we stopped at Captain Cooke’s Wharf, where we took in staves and paving stones; which done, we followed our commander Whipple, and came up with them a considerable distance down the river”.
When the party came in sight of the Gaspé, Whipple formed his boats in a line abreast, taking the immediate command on the right, while Hopkins had charge of the left. Whipple arranged his attack so as to approach directly upon the bow of the Gaspés where she could not bring a gun to bear. “We rowed gently along” continues Dr. Mawney, “till we got near the schooner, when we were hailed from on board with the words:
“ Who comes there?”
Captain Whipple replied “I want to come on board”
The reply was “Stand off! You can’t come on board”
On which Whipple roared out “I am the sheriff of the County of Kent; I am come for the commander of this vessel, and I will have him, dead or alive. Men, spring to your oars”.
According to other reliable accounts Whipple; in this brief parley, emphasised his words with a remarkable amount of real sailor-like profanity; possibly with a view of concealing his identity. By this time Dudingston had appeared on deck in his shirt sleeves and ordered the boats to keep away, and on their persistent approach discharged his pistol while several of his men also fired. Colonel Bowen says: “I took my seat on the main thwart, near the larboard [port] rowlock, with my gun by my right side, facing forward. As soon as Dudingston began to hail, Joseph Bucklin, who was standing on the main thwart, by my right side, said to me “Ephe, reach me your gun and I can kill that fellow”. I reached it to him accordingly, when, during Captain Whipple’s replying, Bucklin fired and Dudingston fell, and Bucklin exclaimed . “I have killed the rascal!” [The ball shattered the lieutenant’s arm and lodged in his groin]. In less than a minute after Captain Whipple’s reply the boats were along-side the Gaspé and [we] boarded without opposition. The men on deck retreated below as Dudingston entered the cabin”.
Dr. Mawney thus describes the boarding of the Gaspé: “We were in an instant under her bows. I was then sitting with Captain Tillinghast in the stern of the barge and sprang immediately forward, and seeing a rope hang down her bows seized it to help myself in. The rope slipping, I fell almost to my waist in the water, but being nimble and active I recovered, and was the first of our crew on deck, when Simeon H. Olney handed me a stave, with which, seeing one [man] that I took to be of the crew of the schooner floundering below the wind- lass, I was in the attitude of a levelling stroke, when he cried out: “John, don t strike!” Being very intimately acquainted with Captain Samuel Dunn, I knew his voice, left him, and sprang back of the windlass, where there was commotion and noise, but which soon subsided. The crew jumping down the hold, I immediately followed, when I ordered them to bring cords to tie their hands with, and told them they should not be hurt, but be sent on shore. They brought some tarred strings, with which I tied the hands of two, when John Brown, Esq., called to me, saying. I was wanted immediately on deck, where I was instantly helped. When I asked Mr. Brown what the matter was he replied, “Don’t call names, but go immediately into the cabin; there is one wounded and will bleed to death.
I hastened into the cabin and found Lieutenant Dudingston in a sitting posture, gently reclining to the left, bleeding profusely, with a thin white woollen blanket loose about him, which I threw aside, and discovered the effect of a musket ball in his left groin. Thinking the femoral artery was cut, I threw open my waistcoat, and taking my shirt by the collar tore it to my waistband. Mr. Dudingston said “Pray, sir, don’t tear your clothes; there is linen in that trunk”. Upon which I requested Joseph Bucklin to break open the trunk and tear the linen and scrape lint, which he immediately attempted, but, finding the linen new and strong, could not make lint”. Discovering that dawn was rapidly approaching Dr. Mawney tore the linen into strips, and, bandaging Dudingston as well as he could, placed him in one of the boats where the other prisoners had been collected. After setting fire to the Gaspé so that she burned to the water’s edge and blew up, the boats returned to Providence, landing the prisoners at Pawtuxet.
This affair caused great excitement, the British Government offering a reward of one thousand pounds for the apprehension of the leader of the attack and five hundred pounds for any of the participants, at the same time promising pardon to anyone who would make disclosures. No one was found willing to give the desired information, although a special commission sat for this purpose from January to June, 1773. All those taking part in the affair were more or less disguised at the time.