The beloved Gaspee Days parade returned to Warwick, R.I., on Saturday, more than making up for the loss of last year’s events, which were cancelled due to the pandemic. People packed the streets for the celebration, which commemorates one of the earliest acts of rebellion leading up to the Revolutionary War.
The Boston Tea Party gets most of the historical fame and glory, but a year earlier, on June 10, 1772, Rhode Islanders took part in an act of rebellion that history has largely overlooked.
Rhode Island was the commerce center of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century, with West Indian molasses, which was used to make rum in distilleries in Rhode Island, traded there for enslaved workers. The British attempted several times tax or restrict trade in the Colonies, from the Sugar Act of 1764 to confiscating ships and inciting riots in Boston in 1768, to stationing customs boats in Narragansett Bay to enforce maritime trade laws, collecting customs and inspecting vessels to prevent smuggling.
On June 9, 1772, the captain of the packet ship Hannah led the British customs schooner HMS Gaspee into shallow waters near Providence. The Gaspee ran aground off Namquid Point (now known as Gaspee Point), and early the next morning a group of angry Rhode Island colonists led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown boarded the Gaspee, shooting the ship’s captain and burning the boat beyond repair.
The Governor of Rhode Island, Joseph Wanton, issued a proclamation authorizing the arrest of those involved with the affair, and King George III offered a reward to anyone who apprehended the perpetrators, but no one turned them in.
A year later, Sons of Liberty disguised themselves in Mohawk costumes, snuck onto three boats, and tossed about 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea told Globe Rhode Island recently that compared to the Gaspee event, the Boston Tea Party was more like a “frat party gone awry.”
“The burning of the Gaspee is really the first act of rebellion in the colonies,” said Gorbea.
The Gaspee Days Committee calls the affair “the first bloodshed of the American Revolution.”
“Since 1965, the village of Pawtuxet, R.I., has commemorated this act with our annual Gaspee Days Celebration finding new ways to engage the community and promote awareness of Rhode Island’s place in American history,” the committee says on their website.
Historians have said that the Gaspee Affair inspired the Sons of Liberty up in Boston.
’'There’s a period where there’s hope that maybe things could simmer down, but right in the middle of it, this Gaspee Affair happens,’' Philip Mead, chief historian at the recently opened Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, told the Associated Press in 2018. ’'It’s really a foreshadowing of what will happen with the Boston Tea Party, because both sides react very strongly to each other.’'
’'Even though we might not go so far as to say the Gaspee needs to replace the Tea Party in American consciousness, I think we can agree that those advocating for more attention for the Gaspee are right,’' Mead added.
In Rhode Island, Gaspee Days celebrate that rebellious act with parades, costumes, a 5K race, and a recreation of the burning, using a rigged replica stuffed with hay. Members of the Artillery Company of Newport fire cannons originally made by Paul Revere and delivered to the company in 1797.
Though rain threatened this year’s event, it went on as scheduled, with appearances by Governor Dan McKee, Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, Grand Marshal Angelica Penta (who owns Gel’s Kitchen in Warwick and West Warwick), and Parade Mace Bearer (and former Warwick police chief) Stephen McCartney, and Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi, who broke ranks to greet residents and ran to hug his grandchildren when he saw them in the crowd.
“The floats and the bands were awesome, lots of the elected officials participated and our Police and Fire Department turned out strong and people were thrilled to see them,” the mayor wrote on his Facebook Page on Sunday, congratulating organizers and giving kudos to Warwick Department of Public Works employees.
“They spent weeks sprucing up the area and assisting the Gaspee Day committee with logistical needs,” he wrote. “They didn’t get to walk in the parade and hear cheering, they were behind the sidelines with their equipment ready to begin the massive cleanup the minute the parade ended. Yes they got paid but they went above and beyond, this event was a mission to them and they really came through. I’m very proud of my guys!!!”
Amanda Milkovits of the Globe staff contributed to this report.