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R.I. is searching for the Gaspee, the British schooner that was destroyed by colonists

The British schooner was destroyed by Rhode Island colonists a year before the Boston Tea Party, sparking the Revolutionary War — no matter what Bostonians say about it.

The Pawtuxet Rangers led a procession from the Aspray Boat House to the memorial where British prisoners were led ashore.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

WARWICK, R.I. — More than a year before barrels of tea were tossed into Boston Harbor, people here insist, Rhode Islanders actually sparked the American Revolution by burning a British ship.

Those Bostonian rebels may have gotten the credit, but Rhode Islanders are quick to correct the record: June 10 is the 250th anniversary of the day that a local ship captain lured the British schooner HMS Gaspee into the shallow waters in what is now known as Pawtuxet Village, just 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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But the Gaspee sunk into the depths of Rhode Island’s waters. And now, to commemorate the anniversary, the state is finally able to move on to the second phase of searching for the wreck after raising $32,000 from private donors.

Rhode Island Representative Joseph McNamara (center) showed Peter Abbott (right), the British consul general, the spot where British prisoners were brought ashore after the burning of the Gaspee. Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A small memorial plaque marks the spot where British prisoners were brought ashore after the burning of the Gaspee.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“This is why we’re here. To correct history,” said Governor Daniel J. McKee at a press conference Tuesday at the Aspray Boat House.

McKee explained that Rhode Island, which already had a bit of a reputation, became the first Colony in North America to renounce its allegiance to King George III and was the state that truly started America’s path to independence. Two months later, the other 12 Colonies formally broke their ties with the crown.

“That was [all before] that little event that happened up in Boston,” McKee said. He said finding the Gaspee will help put Rhode Island on the map for history buffs and travelers. “We want people to put Rhode Island on their bucket list.”

British Consul General Peter Abbott and two members of the Queen’s Royal Navy accepted trinkets of friendship from a very enthusiastic Representative Joseph M. McNamara, a Warwick Democrat leading the event. In front of the packed boathouse, they received citations from the Rhode Island House of Representatives, challenge coins, and even some American tea to make up for “that vandalism incident on the docks of Boston.”

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With a painting of their burning ship hanging behind them, the British delegation toasted the anniversary. From left to right, Commander Steven White and Commander Simon Rogers of the Royal Navy, and British Consul General Peter Abbott.Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Kathy Abbass, principal investigator of the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project, spoke at the event.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“Being a British consul in New England means you must have broad shoulders. I get invited to events that celebrate the Boston Massacre and Evacuation Day,” Abbott joked. “But what takes the biscuit is commemorating the burning of a British ship!”

Kathy Abbass, the principal investigator of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, said she was appointed to lead the mission but cannot guarantee her team will actually find the sunken ship.

“We cannot promise success. That’s what politicians will tell you,” Abbass said, with an eye on the governor and McNamara. She explained that in mid-July, Abbass and a team of professional divers and volunteers will search the bottom of Narragansett Bay for the ship’s remains.

Abbass was previously sought after by McNamara in 2014 when they started searching the wrecks in the bay. They found many, none of which were the Gaspee. She said they’ll conduct further remote sensing surveys; combine wet and dry archeological techniques with GPS around Gaspee Point, then from the tide line to the trees, and selected inshore areas; and collect permit-approved cultural materials for study, but said major excavations require a staff conservator.

“So, Joe, we’ll probably need some more money,” Abbass quipped to McNamara.

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Abbass said how much of the ship that is still left intact is still a mystery. But, she said, “we might get lucky.”


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