The Burning of the Gaspee has become somewhat of a tradition in Rhode Island these days. Last weekend was the 47 annual Gaspee days in Warwick, RI. It included a parade, 5k road race, and revolutionary encampment, the burning of a model Gaspee, and other festivities.
The HMS Gaspee was a British ship on a mission to enforce the rum tax. On one June night in 1772 it got stuck on a sand bar after it had chanced the smuggling boat Hannah up into Narragansett bay.
The ship probably could had been freed by the high tie in the morning, but a group of colonist led by John Brown had other plans, and during the middle of the night they rowed out and made their way close to the ship by claiming they had a sheriff on board, who needed to inspect the ship. What is more, they rowed straight on to the the ship.
The sailing ships clippers of the time of course only had guns broad side, and with the Gaspee stuck on the sand bar they could not turn broad side. So while they tried to quickly assemble small arms they were quickly overwhelmed. The officer in charge of the ship, Lieutenant William Dudingston, was shot and wounded while the rest of the crew was bound and escorted off the ship by the colonists.
The celebration recreates this to an extent, but takes quite a bit of artistic liberty. The celebration does not follow the same course of events as the real burning of the Gaspee, as they simply fire blanks from cannon on shore instead of rowing out to the ship in order to simulate the attack, and many of the reenactor are not in true period regalia or have added certain touches that are highly unlikely. Notwithstanding, they do a remarkable job and you can tell everybody has put a lot of time and effort into this.
One such touch was a sunken head, which could had theoretically been acquired through trade. Although, there is only solid evidence of the practice in the Amazon, and not really Africa and the Caribbean, where most slave trading took place. Yet, some believe it could had been an African practice and a recent DNA profile on a shrunken head from South America shows the man had ancestors from West Africa. It is still of course very unlikely that anyone attacking the ship that night had a shrunken head, and certainly not with them.
Nonetheless, you get a good sense and feel of the time, and the shrunken head does make for nice effect. As many movies have also sought to throw them in for effect. The encampment is a rather nice touch as well, and really adds to the feel of living in 18th century America.
The fire boat is quite a sight, and the only thing that really detracts from the sinking of the Gaspee is a large yacht docked right behind the Gaspee, which just really pulls you out of the period and makes you think that there ought to be some modern day occupiers over there or someone trying to figure out why lavish luxury boats get a free pass on property tax in this state, while all the little people have to pay taxes on their cars.
All in all Gaspee days has really come a long way, over these past few year and seem to have really grown into a celebration acclaimed much more widely across the state of Rhode Island now.