The sinking of the HMS Gaspee is merely a footnote in some U.S. history books.
If a small group of Rhode Island citizen scientists succeeds, a search for the British vessel’s remains may help rewrite the nation’s annals, and place the Namquid Point (also known as Gaspee Point) explosion on the first page of the first chapter of the American story.
“We have an important announcement to make here today, on behalf of the Gaspee Days Committee and the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP),” said state Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (a Democrat representing District 19 in Warwick and Cranston). “It is time for Rhode Island and the Gaspee Affair to reclaim its place in history — in the first chapter of American history, not as a footnote to other minor events that seem to have captivated our historians.”
McNamara hosted an event at the Aspray Boathouse in Pawtuxet Village Tuesday morning, announcing the underwater search for the ship that Rhode Island colonists set aflame exactly two and a half centuries ago, helping to spark the American Revolutionary War several years later in 1776 (preceding the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773, by more than a year).
“It was in fact the flame that started freedom burning,” McNamara said. “And we plan on this 250th anniversary, to put it where it belongs, in the first chapter. It is my pleasure to inform you that we have started the process to search for the Gaspee.”
McNamara introduced Gov. Dan McKee, “one of the greatest Gaspee enthusiasts in our state.”
“Sometimes you get left out of the history,” McKee joked. “I’ve experienced that once or twice. That’s why we’re here. To make sure history gets corrected.”
McKee pledged to make Gaspee Day part of a new Ocean State destination marketing initiative.
“We know that this story is worth sharing throughout the country and to all Rhode Islanders,” McKee said. “Burning of the Gaspee, June 10 … 250 years (ago) … You might as well start somewhere, so we’ll start with the 250th year to make this a national event. And recognition that Rhode Island played a role ... before the event that happened up in Boston, Rhode Island was … declaring its independence in its way.”
The governor pitched a marketing initiative, starting as tourists enter the state at Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport, and highlighting Warwick’s annual Gaspee celebration.
“We want to make Rhode Island a destination state,” McKee said. “We want people to put Rhode Island on their bucket list … Probably the first time in the history of the state we’re going to have destination marketing through our airport, which is an access point for us in this state … We’re going to make destination marketing part of our economic make-up, and for this day, the Gaspee Day, that’s going to be part of that effort. So the work that you’re doing here, not only (is it) pride in your community, in Pawtuxet Village here, but it’s also pride in Rhode Island. And what happens that’s good in Rhode Island, is good for everybody, all 39 cities and towns, and the people who live in those communities.”
In 2014, McNamara helped put together a team of Warwick volunteers to start archaeology fieldwork on Gaspee Point, the site of the Gaspee sinking. RIMAP trained volunteers, and over six years the organization led “Not the Gaspee” field studies to distinguish discovered sea floor wreckage deposited by centuries of colonial sea-faring.
“In 2014, I sought out one of the world’s most prestigious marine archaeologists, Dr. Kathy Abbass, brought her down to Gaspee Point, and we have spent the past six years surveying wrecks that are not the Gaspee,” McNamara said. “However, what we found was a pride in our cultural history. These ships, these wrecks, are not as important as the Gaspee, but they are a major attribute to our state and our country.”
In 2021, RIMAP performed a remote sensing survey in the waters off Gaspee Point.
“Last year we started the search for the Gaspee with a survey of the Gaspee Point area to get context, and then in September we raised some money and did a ground-penetrating search of that area,” McNamara explained. “We believed that there was enough sites of interest to move forward to the next phase. However, the next phase — that is scientifically written out, using the best science and technology possible — had a price attached to it.”
A long list of donors stepped up to help launch the official search for the Gaspee, raising enough to cover the more than $30,000 estimated tab for an initial search exploration.
“It’s a volunteer organization led by an expert, but we had to raise some money,” McNamara said. “And I am pleased to announce today, that thanks to the generosity of private Rhode Islanders and company, we have raised the $32,000 necessary to proceed to find the HMS Gaspee 250 years later.”
“If we do find something Joe, we’re going to need a lot more money,” Abbass said to McNamara.
Abbas, RIMAP’s Principal Investigator, will lead the search.
This year’s Gaspee Days will conclude June 12 (the Gaspee Days Parade will be held Saturday, June 11). Abbass said the public will have multiple opportunities to participate in the search for the Gaspee.
On Tuesday morning, RIMAP members distributed a fact sheet describing the scope of work proposed for the Gaspee Point shipwreck search.
RIMAP and the Gaspee volunteers plan to “ground-truth and document” two targets identified by last year’s sonar survey.
“One target appears to be a later vessel and the second target may be where earlier archaeologists had worked to find the Gaspee,” according to RIMAP. “These assumptions need to be confirmed.”
Using Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) next-generation equipment, further remote sensing surveys of the study area will help locate more targets.
The group plans to “combine wet and dry archaeological techniques with GPS around Gaspee Point, then from the tide line to the trees, and also selected inshore areas.
After revolution-minded colonists lit the Gaspee, the ship exploded. Parts of her may be scattered over a large swath of the Providence River and its shoreline.
Ultimately, the band of searchers hopes to “collect permit-approved cultural materials for study” and “determine presence or absence of major cultural materials at Gaspee Point,” according to RIMAP.
“I have to tell you right up front, we can’t promise success,” Abbas said. “That’s what politicians will tell you … Is there anything there, or is there not? So at the end of this, if we have to come back and say, ‘Well, there wasn’t anything there,’ at least that’s a positive contribution to the scientific process that we have. I suspect we will be able to find something, but I can’t tell you what it will be.”
British Consul General for New England, Dr. Peter Abbott OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), attended Tuesday’s boathouse event with British Naval Commanders Simon Rogers and Steven White, of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
“I like to joke that being the British Consul in New England means you have to have some pretty broad shoulders,” Abbott joked. “I get invited to events to commemorate the Boston Massacre. I get invited to events to commemorate Evacuation Day. But I think what really takes the biscuit is to be invited to an event to commemorate the burning of a British ship.”
The crowd erupted in obstinate colonial chuckles.
“There is something that sort of gets me childishly excited about the prospects of a shipwreck,” Abbott confessed. “There is something that stirs the imagination about the idea of finding a ship that’s been sunk and has been under the waves for many many years.”
As a child, Abbott visited the Mary Rose, which was King Henry VIII’s flagship.
“It sank off the coast of England in 1545, and it was raised from the seabed in 1982 and it still has to be kept wet to prevent the timbers from rotting,” Abbott recalled. “So if a ship that sank in 1545 can be raised up, I have no doubt, if you find the Gaspee, it will be possible to raise it up as well. If you have the money to do so, I think it’s quite an expensive endeavor.”
Abbott admitted the British ship’s incineration deserves a pivotal place in volumes of American history.
“It is, of course, the Gaspee is a huge historical significance,” Abbott said. “The first act of hostility in the War for Independence … And the burning of the Gaspee established a tradition of insubordination in Rhode Island, which continued of course when you were the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain on the Fourth of May, 1776.”
Abbot ended with a warning for the descendants of rebels in the crowd, including Henry Brown, relative of John Brown, the colonist who helped lead the Gaspee scorching.
“I will close here just by saying that I think the King’s bounty is still in effect on the heads of those responsible for the burning of the Gaspee,” Abbott concluded. “So just be careful.”
McNamara refused the light dose of tongue-in-cheek intimidation.
“Wow,” he responded with sarcasm. “Fifty pounds sterling. We know that … King George III took this very seriously because he sent four ships over with boxes that had handwritten warrants and rewards for information leading to (those responsible) for the burning of the Gaspee.”
As champagne flutes full of sparkling cider were distributed to the crowd gathered in the packed boathouse, McNamara introduced Warwick Beacon and Cranston Herald Publisher John Howell, who delivered a toast.
“Let us all raise our glasses in a toast to our friends from across the pond who like parents tolerated the impertinent actions of their child who willfully burned the vessel of their protector thereby setting an example for their siblings to do likewise,” Howell said, lifting his glass. “Justly, such adolescent behavior bore consequences. But those times are now behind us and events that have followed have forged yet stronger bonds. As we set out to retrieve what we might of the Gaspee, rest assured we will treat it with reverence and promise not to play with matches again.”
Commander of the Pawtuxet Rangers, Ron Barnes, lead the flock in a “cheer of enduring friendship.”
McNamara had a gift for the visiting British dignitaries.
“The colonists have just passed down this rumor that there was a vandalism incident on the docks of Boston and that there’s a shortage of the beverage that we both hold dear,” he said, handing a small gift bag to Abbott. “So I have for you a box of American tea.”
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