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RI HISTORY

Independence Day celebrates freedom — but not all Americans were free

Aaron Briggs confessed to participating in the Gaspee affair in 1772, but some believe the multiracial teenager was looking to buy his freedom.

Aaron Briggs, a Black man in Rhode Island in 1772, confessed to the British that he was forced to help destroy the Gaspee. Some doubt he was ever on the Gaspee and believe he was looking for a way to become a free man.Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE — It was the early 1770s, and colonists were just about done with paying taxes to the British. And while white colonists eventually rebelled, fought, and earned their freedom and independence, many of them continued to enslave Black people.

In Rhode Island, before the Revolutionary War even began, angry colonists destroyed the Gaspee, a British ship that was anchored in Narragansett Bay. In early June of 1772, a local ship captain lured the Gaspee into shallow waters a few miles south of Providence. John Brown, a prominent merchant who was frustrated by the high tax from the crown on his goods, waited until night fell and then rowed out to the British schooner along with other colonists. They shot the ship’s captain and burned the Gaspee.

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Afterwards, Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton issued a proclamation demanding information about the attack. He even offered 100 pounds for anyone who came forward with details, but no Rhode Islanders came forward for more than a month.

In early July, a 16-year-old by the name of Aaron Briggs, who was born to a Black father and a white mother from Narragansett, fled from his home on Prudence Island to the British ship, the Beaver, which was stationed nearby.

The Testimony

Aaron, a negro man, has declared that he rowed from Prudence, the evening his Majesty's schooner Gaspee was burnt, towards Warren, where he met a man called Potter, of Bristol, in a rowing boat, with eight men, armed with pistols, guns, and clubs; the said Potter desired him to go with him. In consequence of Potter's desire, I rowed by his boat until I came within a quarter of a mile of the King's schooner, that was on shore on a spit of sand.

Briggs had been left in the care of the government since he was a young child, and a farmer on Prudence Island, Samuel Thompkins, eventually took charge of him. Onboard the Beaver, Briggs confessed to participating in the raid that led to the destruction of the Gaspee, and the death of British seamen.

Historians continue to argue about whether Briggs was an indentured servant or enslaved by Thompkins, and why he fled to the Beaver in the first place. Like many Black people in the colonies at that time, there is little known about him other than the fact that when he escaped, he was not free.

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There is little known about Briggs, which can be found in documents from the time that are currently housed at the Rhode Island State Archives, including one that describes his testimony to the crew of the Beaver.

“Aaron, a negro man, has declared that he rowed from Prudence,” the handwritten confession begins.



I then got into Potter's boat by his desire; he told me with others, that he was to join other boats that was coming down from Providence, in order to burn the King's schooner that lay on shore. In about half an hour after, we joined seventeen boats from Providence, commanded, as they informed me, by John Brown. Immediately after the boats joined company, we rowed towards the schooner; before we came close to the schooner, they hailed the boats, and forbid them coming on board; but notwithstanding the officer of the schooner forbidding the boats to come on board, we had orders to row up to the schooner, which we did immediately, and boarded her. I saw Brown fire a musket when in the boat under the bows; the captain of the schooner immediately fell from the place he was standing on; the surgeon that was ordered to dress the captain was a tall, thin man, called Weeks, of Warwick; very soon after we got on board the schooner, the men's hands belonging to the schooner was tied behind their backs, and put in boats and put on shore.

Briggs made three claims in his testimony about the schooner’s destruction. He said that the slaveholder Simeon Potter, of Bristol, forced him into service while Briggs was rowing near Prudence Island that night. He claimed to have seen John Brown, and how he allegedly shot William Dudingston, who was a lieutenant for the British Navy. And, at the end of his testimony, he gave the British the names of five men who were involved in the attack and destruction of the Gaspee. Those names included John Brown, Joseph Brown, Simeon Potter, and a “Richmond of Providence.”

A British admiral stationed in Boston eventually ordered Governor Wanton to arrest the men. However, Brown and Potter, in particular, were powerful men in Rhode Island, and Wanton felt as though he could not arrest them and have peace in the colony. So instead, he investigated Briggs’ testimony, believing it to be false.



I rowed the bow oar in the boat that the captain came on shore in; I think there was five people belonging to the schooner in the boat. The captain lay abaft all the oars; Potter, of Bristol, was in the boat, and John Brown, of Providence; Brown steered the boat on shore; I had on a red and white spotted handkerchief tied on my head, and two frocks on my body.

Wanton ended up receiving confessions from four men, two of whom were indentured servants who shared a room with Briggs. Each of the men told the governor that it was impossible for Briggs to have been involved in, or even witnessed, the Gaspee affair since he had not left Prudence Island for months.

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It was suspected that Briggs had heard the story of the Gaspee affair and destruction, and believed that pretending to be a witness and making a “confession” to the British may lead him to his freedom. Others believe that a Captain Linzee of the Beaver forced Briggs to make up a confession, threatening to hang him if he did not.

Some historians theorize that Briggs was eventually allowed to join the British Navy, since he was no longer safe in Rhode Island.

However, like many Black men of the time, his fate is unclear.

Testimony from Aaron Briggs named five Rhode Island men who he said were involved in the destruction of the Gaspee.Rhode Island State Archives

Zara Norman contributed to this report.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.