WARWICK, R.I. – Rhode Islanders celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Gaspee affair with a weekend of events that featured everything from a parade to replica cannon fire to a bit of ceremonial arson.
“That vandalism incident, the tea party – it’s overshadowed by a real act of war,” Joseph McNamara, a Warwick state representative, the state Democratic Party chair and a leading advocate for Gaspee’s place in history, said Sunday.
McNamara was among the hundreds of people who came out to Pawtuxet Park on the Warwick side of the village to watch the culmination of the Gaspee Days celebration – the burning of a replica HMS Gaspee.
If you’ve been in Rhode Island long enough, you’ve probably heard the story. In June 1772, a British customs schooner called the HMS Gaspee patrolling Narragansett Bay for smugglers and scofflaws made the fateful decision to chase a packet ship called the Hannah up toward Providence.
The nimbler Hannah made it around the point that juts out into the bay. The Gaspee did not, running aground on what is now called Gaspee Point, a bit south of what is now Pawtuxet Park. A group of early Americans – subjects of King George III, though that would soon change – came down from Providence. Enraged about the Gaspee’s history of alleged harassment and years of rising tensions with crown authorities, they set her ablaze and shot her commander. The real shot heard ‘round the world, some local historians say, hit Lieutenant William Dudingston in the groin. They brought the Gaspee’s crew on shore as prisoners, not too far from Pawtuxet Park.
This was not just some tea party.
“In our opinion, it’s the start of the American revolution,” said Steve Miller, president of the Gaspee Days committee. “It was the first act of aggression against a British ship.”
To celebrate it, as is the custom in this village that straddles Cranston and Warwick, a Gaspee replica would be set ablaze at around 4 p.m. – if everything went according to plan. That is not always a given in the history of Gaspee Days, which has roots as a civic celebration in the 1960s. One year the lighter fluid on the replica ship dried up; they had to set it on fire with a grill starter. Other times they’ve used matches.
This year, they went relatively high tech: The fire would be set remotely, with a wiring system involving cables leading to a replica Gaspee filled with kerosene-soaked hay and rigged with flammable sails. It had been a long few weeks – the event is called Gaspee Days, after all, not just Gaspee Day – and Miller couldn’t help but worry. Everything had gone off without a problem so far, including a parade Saturday that brought out even bigger crowds than usual. But this was only the second time they were going to try the remote-starting thing.
“We’ll all cross our fingers,” Miller said.
As they waited, there was plenty of fun to be had by all in Pawtuxet Park: A historic militia group called the Pawtuxet Rangers set up an encampment, with realistic canvas tents, open-fire stoves and period outfits.
“I brought me fife,” said militia member Lee Singer, pointing to the musical instrument in her haversack.
The Pawtuxet Rangers were originally chartered in 1774, two years after the Gaspee affair as Americans and British continued to head on the path to war. Singer, who is from the Wakefield section of South Kingstown, was wearing a tri-corner hat with a black cockade, a waistcoat, fall-front breeches and buckles on her shoes. It all helped her get into the character. A majestic flying winged creature, so huge it didn’t even need to flap its wings, roared by, headed to land in a big gray field nearby. Singer and fellow re-enactor Pam Burlingame looked up at it with amazement and confusion.
“I’ll give you some ale, lass,” Burlingame told Singer, pouring her a sip of Diet Coke.
Yes, they were re-enacting colonial militia life, but no, they’re not purely loyal to the time: One participant was a corgi named Cadbury, wearing a dog-sized red Pawtuxet Rangers uniform with dog-sized medals, dog-sized tri-corner hat and dog-sized haversack.
Gaspee Dog pic.twitter.com/TOw8N7PZq4— Brian Amaral (@bamaral44) June 12, 2022
“Might march better than some people in the rangers,” said Ron Barnes, the colonel commander of the Pawtuxet Rangers.
They had a chance to put that to the test just before 4 p.m., when a few cannons went off to prepare for the burning of the Gaspee. Re-enactors grabbed their haversacks and muskets and got in line, firing blanks vaguely in the direction of the replica Gaspee out in the water. (Historians are launching renewed efforts to find the actual Gaspee.)
Then a few minutes passed. As 4:05 became 4:10 and then 4:15, the crowd grew restless with anticipation.
The fog of battle obscured the exact cause of the malfunction. Some suggested the stores of kerosene may have been pilfered, so there was not enough to soak the hay in the ship. Or maybe the kerosene didn’t reach all the way down to the igniters. Or the wind blew out the igniters before it got the chance to get fully involved.
Either way, the remote wiring system didn’t work. So a man named Al Nazareth went out on the prow of the harbormaster’s boat and chucked a lighted flare into the pile of hay
“Burn it! Burn it!” a child cried from shore as the flames ate away at the sails.
“This is way better than a tea party,” a man in the crowd said.
The burning on Sunday was preceded by the annual parade on Saturday, attended by local politicians and luminaries, costumed reenactors and actual National Guard members, fife and drum players, and scores of happy locals. Here’s what Saturday’s scene was like:
This article has been updated with additional photos from the Gaspee Days celebration on June 12, 2022.
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.