WARWICK — Two hundred and fifty years and one month ago, a British customs schooner patrolling the waters off Rhode Island for smugglers ran aground on a sandy spit while chasing a ship called the Hannah. A group of Rhode Islanders, enraged by HMS Gaspee’s alleged harassment, came down from Providence to get their measure of revenge. They shot the captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston, in the gut (or groin, depending on the account) and set the Gaspee on fire.
It’s pretty standard Rhode Island historical fare, and part of the state’s identity even in 2022: The lack of recognition in history books of the Gaspee affair is like a Narragansett Bay-sized chip on the shoulder of Rhode Islanders who like to say that the real first shot of the Revolutionary War hit Lt. Dudingston, and that the Boston tea party was a minor vandalism incident compared to the arson and attempted murder in Rhode Island more than a year earlier.
But where is the shipwreck of the actual Gaspee? The answer to that question has eluded historians for generations.
This month a group of volunteers working under a Rhode Island nonprofit organization set out to try to find her. And on Tuesday, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and its charismatic and polarizing leader, Kathy Abbass, brought reporters out onto the water for a look at that ongoing work.
But first, Abbass had a few warnings: One, the 40-foot RIMAP-chartered research vessel on which the media tour would be conducted was no pleasure yacht, so wear appropriate clothing. And two, more broadly, they are still very early in this work. Don’t expect someone to emerge from the water with a bell that says, “Gaspee.”
“Phase one,” Abbass cautioned, is about “Presence or absence.”
In other words, they’re looking around what’s known as Gaspee Point in Warwick to determine if there’s something out there that might be a shipwreck. If they find something, then they’ll need to determine if it’s actually the Gaspee. That involves a lot of work studying artifacts, poring over historical records, and comparing the (hypothetical) shipwreck to the historical record of the Gaspee.
If history is any indication — as in the contretemps over the HMB Endeavour, which may or may not be in Newport Harbor — it could be many years before RIMAP is satisfied.
“This is real science,” Abbass said. “This isn’t a documentary.”
The RIMAP team has been out on Gaspee Point since Friday, and is scheduled to be out there until the end of the month for its phase-one work, which has a donor-supported budget of around $50,000. RIMAP is a UNESCO-accredited all-volunteer team that has the ear of some powerful politicians in Rhode Island.
“Rhode Islanders believe they’ve been cheated out of a legacy,” Joseph McNamara, a Warwick state representative, the state Democratic Party chairman, and a RIMAP volunteer, said as he stood aboard the Norlantic Diver, the vessel RIMAP uses for its operations. “It’s time for us to reclaim our part of history.”
As the Norlantic Diver bobbed in the water off Gaspee Point, a smaller boat was doing long laps parallel to shore. This was the real work going on Tuesday: The other boat was dragging along sidescan sonar, which can reveal objects standing proud from the bottom, and a magnetometer, which can determine the presence of metals, including iron. Over the weekend, divers went into the water to start setting up some dive sites. Though just 20 feet deep, the currents were strong, and visibility was limited with a murky curtain of muck over their goggles.
Later in the project, they’ll do what’s called sub-bottom profiling, using sonar to look vertically, rather than horizontally. Presence or absence: They’ll try to determine if there’s anything down there that might be something like a ship. If they find anything, they’ll look more and more closely at it until they come up with an answer. That answer might be, “We don’t know.”
But Gaspee proponents, like McNamara, say the search for Gaspee has ginned up more interest than the search for Endeavour in Newport Harbor. And diving into Rhode Island history beats talking about more modern problems.
“This is a lot better than talking about how much the price of calzones has gone up,” McNamara said.
Indeed, a team of about a dozen RIMAP volunteers was out at the research station (a tent with some tables and chairs) on the beach on a rather warm Tuesday morning to wait for Abbass to hand down direction. Many of them live nearby in the Gaspee Point neighborhood, which has always taken the local celebration of the Gaspee affair — Gaspee Days — seriously.
“It’s part of history,” said Stanley “Swede” Johnson, a RIMAP volunteer who came out Tuesday to help however he could. “We’re the beginning of the revolution.”
Abbass, meanwhile, is quick to defend the quality of her team’s work. Although they’re volunteers, and many (but not all) lacked professional experience in archaeology or diving before joining, they’re invested in the integrity of the site.
It’s true that some people criticize the quality of the work RIMAP does. It’s also true that some people take issue with Abbass’ territorial nature, her aggressive approach to perceived opponents, and her unwillingness to play nice with other institutions.
To Abbass, though, the proof of her approach was right out there Tuesday morning.
“Citizens can do as good science as anybody,” she said from the Norlantic Diver as she directed the work. “If they have good direction.”
Over the weekend, working under Abbass’ direction, the team found its first possible artifact: a brick. What was it? Did it come off a nearby house? Did someone simply dump their trash in the water? Or was it maybe part of a … ship? And if so, what kind of ship?
There are many more questions to ask. If they are able to determine that the Gaspee is out there, Abbass said Rhode Island could follow the model of other places around the world, with underwater parks, interpretive tablets, and other symbols of the historical significance of the site.
“That’s the goal — to be able to share,” Abbass said. “If we find something.”