Plaques and parades are nice, but the real story of the HMS Gaspee — the British customs schooner looted and burned off the coast of Rhode Island in the run-up to the Revolutionary War — is not rated "G." There was blood on Narragansett Bay that night. And bullets, fire, cursing, and a small army of men paddling from Providence (with oar locks specially wrapped so as not to squeak), looking for more than just a chat with commanding officer William Dudingston.
Rory Raven captures it all in his new book, Burning the Gaspee: Revolution in Rhode Island, released last week in time for the 240th anniversary of our most famous local act of arson. The book is wound tight with the tension of pre-Revolution Rhode Island, a colony where overzealous customs officials — known then as "tidewaiters" — were tarred and feathered in the streets of Providence. And in case you thought our state's "I didn't see nothin'" culture is a modern invention, Raven's account of the Royal Commission following the Gaspee incident might teach you otherwise.
Raven is a man of many talents. You may have attended one of his Providence Ghost Walk tours or gigs as a spoon-bending mentalist. But he also spends time squinting at 200 year-old newspapers. Burning the Gaspee is his fourth local history book, following a collection of ghost stories, an account of the Dorr War, and a 19th century true crime tale involving a minister and a mill girl.
He will be signing books at Twice Told Tales, in Pawtuxet, on May 26 and at Books on the Square, in Providence, on June 7. He discussed the tome with me last week, via email. The interview has been edited and condensed.
WHY HASN'T THERE BEEN A BIG-BUDGET ACTION MOVIE ABOUT THIS YET? Because nobody outside of RI knows or cares about it (much). And probably also because the main players aren't exactly white-hat good guy patriotic idealists — they were rum runners and slave traders who were (opportunistically) removing a thorn in their side. John Brown was prosecuted in federal court and found guilty of engaging in the slave trade after Congress had outlawed it. So . . . it's a little hard to get behind someone like that.
IS IT FAIR TO SAY THAT THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION BEGAN IN RHODE ISLAND? Not really — most of that is my publisher's slightly overzealous marketing department. But the burning of the Gaspee is one of the events that led up to the Revolution and, arguably, the first serious pushback against British oppression. It also happens at just the right time — there had been similar incidents, such as the scuttling of the British Liberty a few years before — but the attack on the Gaspee comes at a time when the British and the colonists had just had enough of each other, so they were both spoiling for a fight.
YOU'RE AN AUTHORITY ON LOCAL GHOSTS AND GHOST STORIES. ARE THERE ANY APPARITIONS FROM THEGASPEE STILL HAUNTING RHODE ISLAND? Surprisingly, no. You'd think that the Gaspee would end up like the Palatine, which is supposedly seen every year off Block Island. But . . . nothing.
: This Just In
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