Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective




The Revolutionary War

Molasses was very important to the prospering colony; any restrictions on its import, the British should have anticipated, would lead to trouble and rebellion. Parliament had passed a Molasses Act in 1733, imposing a duty on molasses bought at ports that were not British- owned, but it was not strictly enforced, and the shipping companies knew of ways to avert the customs officials in the harbor. Enforcement of the act was so lax that Rhode Islanders got away with importing five-sixths of the molasses they used from French, Spanish, and Dutch islands. Then in the 1760s Parliament took measures toward greater control over the colonies and passed a series of acts, the first of which was the Sugar Act of 1764. Duties on molasses not from the British West Indies would be strictly enforced, and the ships that now patrolled Narragansett Bay proved how unrelenting the officials could be. Rhode Islanders resented the revenue ships, the searching of their vessels, and the stupidity of the measure. The British knew that their islands in the West Indies did not have enough molasses to supply the colonies and that the duties would cut into money for imports needed from London merchants. The act would therefore affect both economies.

 Then, in August 1764, the colony received word that Parliament was considering the imposition of a stamp tax on the colonists. Stephen Hopkins, then governor of Rhode Island, wrote "The Rights of the Colonies Examined" in which he questioned the right of the British to tax their fellow subjects: "All laws and all taxations which bind the whole must be made by the whole." This was the first appeal from the colonists against the unfairness of taxation without representation, but it had no effect on Parliament, and the Stamp Act was passed in March 1765.

 The Rhode Island General Assembly declared the Stamp Act null and void within the colony. When the stamp distributor arrived from London, he was met by an angry mob and forced to resign, and the stamps were never unloaded from the ship. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766.

 In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which imposed duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea The New England colonies boycotted all British goods in reaction, but Rhode Islanders, playing the "scoundrels" they so often were claimed to be, continued to trade with the British and ignored all appeals from the other colonies to join in the boycott.

 In 1773, the Tea Act was passed. When the Bostonians threw the tea into their harbor, the British passed the Coercive Acts, closed the harbor, and sent troops into the city. Rhode Island sent food and supplies to the people of Boston. Because of the continued hardship of the city under British troops, Rhode Island in 1774 called for a Continental Congress which would unite all the colonies in a stand for their rights and liberties. Soon after, ten British patrol boats were stationed in Newport Harbor.

 Throughout this period of taxation and repression, Rhode Island won a few small victories over the British, and played an important role in the establishment of America's first navy.

 In July 1769, the British revenue ship Liberty seized two Connecticut ships and brought them into Newport Harbor. The Captain, William Reid, was intensely disliked by the colonists for his overbearing manner and his overenthusiasm in searching vessels for illegal imports. An enraged group of Newport citizens boarded the Liberty, cut her cables, cut down her mast, destroyed her small boats, and let her drift. She was grounded on a small island and then burned.

 The burning of the HMS Gaspee on July 9, 1772, is a more famous incident. Captain William Dudingston was also very unpopular with the colonists; he had been inspecting even the small boats that transported goods between ports in the Bay. The Gaspee, chasing the sloop Hannah in order to search her for smuggled goods, was lured too close to shore by the Hannah's captain and was grounded. The Gaspee had to wait till morning for the tide to free her. The crew was asleep, the captain on deck, when in the middle of the night a small party of men boarded her. Captain Dudingston was wounded—he was the first Englishman to shed blood in the American Revolution—and the sleepy crew was rounded up. They were rowed ashore, and the Gaspee was burned. The names of the men who had rowed out to the ship so soundlessly that night were kept secret and no one ever claimed the reward offered by the British for information leading to their capture.

 On June 15, 1775, Captain Abraham Whipple attacked the HMS Rose in his sloop, made her run aground on Conanicut Island, and captured her.

 The War of Independence began with the shot fired Bridge on April 19, 1775. During the night, British troops had left Boston to march to Concord and Lexington in order to capture gunpowder stored there by the colonists. They were met by Massachusetts militiamen, who had been warned of their approach and were ready for battle. The colonists fought effectively enough to force the British to retreat. The New England colonies then decided on offensive action and sent troops to Boston -: to lay siege to the city. Rhode Island sent 1,000 men. However, the siege was unsuccessful.

 In the summer of 1775, the colony took steps to protect itself against the British. There was real cause for alarm a British army was a day's march to the north, and there were British men-of-war in the Bay. On July 20, 1775, the British fleet sailed up to Newport and threatened to open fire unless they were given provisions. ; After their demands were met, the fleet withdrew, but residents began to leave Aquidneck Island with their possessions for the safety of the mainland.

 The General Assembly commissioned two ships to protect Newport, the Washington and the Katy, and placed Esek Hopkins, the brother of Stephen Hopkins, the former governor and now a delegate to the Continental Congress, in command. There was only one fort in the colony at this time, on Goat Island, and the General Assembly began to make plans for fortifications an along the Bay, beginning with Fox Hill to protect Providence, where a battery of heavy guns was emplaced.

 Congress in late 1775 began to commission ships for a fleet and, on December 21, 1775, confirmed Esek Hopkins as commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy. He sailed on the Katy, now renamed the Providence, with Abraham Whipple as captain, to loin the other vessels in the Delaware River for operations against the enemy. (Both Hopkins and Whipple had received their training on a John Brown slaveship.)

 In March 1776, Hopkins took the fleet to the Bahamas to capture a supply of gunpowder for Washington's army; the attack was successful, and on the voyage home the fleet captured two British ships, the Hawk and the Bolton. On April 6, as they neared Point Judith, three of the ships engaged the British gunboat Glasgow. After heavy fighting the Glasgow escaped, and the three American ships, badly damaged, limped into Providence. Rhode Islanders were very unhappy about the loss of the Glasgow, and so was the Congress. Hopkins, Whipple, and other officers were censured for allowing the gunboat to escape. John Paul Jones took over command of the Providence.

 This was a very discouraging time for Hopkins and the new Continental Navy. After the excursion to the Bahamas, most of the crew were sick and had not been paid, and the ships were desperately short-handed.

 Whipple was exonerated by Congress in July, Hopkins in August of that year. The commander-in-chief was ordered back to Rhode Island to gather all available ships for operations against the fisheries and British merchants in Newfoundland, but because so many sailors were being recruited on privateers, he wasn't able to man the ships. On December 7, 1776, a British fleet sailed into the Bay and occupied Newport. The American fleet was blockaded in Providence, and never again went to sea.

General Washington agreed to attempt to save Newport in the spring of 1778. It was to be a coordinated attack General John Sullivan, moving in from Massachusetts with 8,000 soldiers, and Lafayette, moving in from New York with 2,000, were to attack the island from the north, while a French fleet under Comte Jean Baptiste d'Estaing, with 2,800 marines, would attack from the southwest. Because of a violent storm, the fleet had to withdraw to Boston for repairs. Sullivan had pushed the enemy to the barricades of Newport, but, lacking reinforcements, he was forced to retreat. The British stayed on until October 1779, when they themselves decided to leave.

 In July 1780, a French fleet of ten war vessels and 6,000 men under Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport, and the people warmly welcomed them as friends and allies. They stayed on through the winter, but could not provide aid to General Washington because British reinforcements had them bottled up in the Bay. In March 1781, Rochambeau entertained General Washington in his quarters at Vernon House. The French fleet left shortly afterward, and the island saw no more military action.

 Newport never regained its prosperity after the Revolutionary War. Providence emerged as the center of business and commercial activity for the Narragansett Bay region, a position it never relinquished.


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