Hunt for Missing Ship Sunk in 1770s Resumes

renewed search for hms "gaspee" commences in july 2022

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

In 1772, Rhode Island colonists looted and burned Britain’s HMS Gaspee. After 250 years, marine archaeologists have confirmed that they will renew the search for the ship’s sunken wreckage. British and colonial relations collapsed in the 1760s.

Destruction of the schooner gaspee, from an old engraving. The Providence Plantations for 250 Years (1886)
“Destruction of the schooner Gaspee. From an old engraving,” in The Providence Plantations for 250 Years (1886), page 59. Image courtesy of Welcome Arnold Greene / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A British ship was sent to the colony of Rhode Island in 1772 to enforce Britain’s trade laws. It ran aground in shallow water and was looted and burned by Rhode Island colonists in a brazen act of rebellion against Britain’s treatment of the colonies, which later would form into the individual states of the United States of America. Despite being grounded onshore when the HMS Gaspee was attacked, the ship’s wreckage has never been found.

The hunt for the sunken ship has resumed 250 year later—or, rather, it will soon. Rhode Island state officials have announced that marine archaeologists will once again search for the HMS Gaspee, starting in July. The pillaging of the ship has been a point of pride for Rhode Islanders, often being compared to the Boston Tea Party.

Aside from this incident and other events leading up to the American Revolution, British rule over its North American territory, generally, proceeded without much trouble for a century. What went wrong? In his video series The Skeptic’s Guide to American History, Dr. Mark Stoler, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont, looks back at the turbulence between the Crown and its British colonies in America.

Long-Distance Relationships Never Work

Until the 1760s, Dr. Stoler said, American colonists were largely happy to be a part of the British Empire, considering themselves Englishmen, first; members of their local colony, second; and Americans, a distant third.

“Such perceptions would change dramatically over the next decade in response to acts by a British Parliament faced with a staggering debt as a result of the French and Indian War,” he said. “That debt was only increasing as a result of continued warfare in the West with a powerful coalition of Indian tribes under Ottawa Chief Pontiac.”

Parliament passed a law called the Proclamation Line of 1763, prohibiting colonists from crossing the Appalachian Mountains into Indian territory, enforcing the law with troops. Meanwhile, to pay the debt, a party within Parliament passed a three-pronged tax plan on the colonists, arguing that the colonists had benefitted the most from the war.

First, England began to enforce its 17th-century laws controlling trade to be used to help pay English debt. Second, the colonists would pay England part of the cost for troops needed to enforce these laws and the Proclamation Line. Third, England passed new taxes specifically to raise revenue. The most notable of these was the Stamp Act of 1765, requiring colonists to purchase stamps for all published documents.

According to Dr. Stoler, the colonists had a quite different opinion. They viewed the Proclamation Line as denying them the fruits of their victory from the French and Indian War. They also believed that the enforcement of the 17th-century trade laws was destroying their economies and that the methods of enforcing new taxes were infringing upon their rights as Englishmen.

Almost Tea Time

“Colonial resentment accumulated from 1761 to 1765 and then exploded over the Stamp Act, which led to the Stamp Act Congress where representatives from nine colonies met and agreed to boycott British goods until the law was repealed,” Dr. Stoler said. “This was the first real example of intercolonial cooperation.”

In response, Parliament agreed to repeal the Stamp Act and lower some other taxes. However, Parliament reasserted that it had the right to continue to pass taxes like the Stamp Act, any time it chose. In 1767, Parliament enacted the Townshend Acts, taxing colonial imports from England and appointing a new Board of Customs Commissioners to enforce it.

Colonists responded to the Townshend Acts with anger, then mob violence. British troops were sent in, leading to the Boston Massacre and subsequent fears of Parliamentary corruption and despotism over the colonies. These events would light the fuse that exploded with the looting and burning of the HMS Gaspee by the colonists of Rhode Island in 1772.

“In 1770, a new British ministry under Lord North repealed all the taxes, except the one penny tax on tea, as a symbol,” Dr. Stoler said. “Then, in the Tea Act of 1773, it allowed the bankrupt British East India Company to sell tea in the colonies without paying any of its old taxes except the one penny Tea Tax that was leftover from the Townshend Duties.”

This development meant that British tea was cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea, but it was the last straw for the colonists of Massachusetts, which led to the Boston Tea Party. Although the attack on the HMS Gaspee happened before the Tea Act, it was the result of a very similar anger among colonists as seen during the Boston Tea Party.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily