Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in History


U.S. History



First Advisor

Catherine DeCesare


This thesis analyzes the Gaspee Affair within the context of 18th century Rhode Island's business of slavery. It argues that Rhode Islanders' 1772 attack on the British revenue collector Gaspee was a self-interested attempt by the colony's merchant class to preserve an unregulated slave economy. The established historiography of the Gaspee Affair almost uniformly praises the raid as a heroic mob action rooted in patriotic ideals, and ignores issues such as slavery, race, class, and the material interests of the attackers. The fantasy of the Gaspee conspirators as a disorderly group of common Rhode Islanders is demonstrably false: the leaders and nearly all the participants were members of the colony's small merchant elite. These men were the primary architects, beneficiaries, and defenders of the colony's lucrative involvement with the West Indies trade and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. More than any other group of Rhode Islanders, these elites had a direct economic interest in purging Narragansett Bay of British customs vessels such as the Gaspee. Their ideology and tactics were rooted in a longer timeline of Atlantic merchants using political action to advance their private interests in the slave economy.

This study pays special attention to Aaron Briggs, an unfree Black and Native man who was the central witness to come forward during the British investigation into the attack to testify against Rhode Island's most powerful men. Briggs offered his deposition after he escaped bondage on Prudence Island by fleeing to a British ship stationed in Narragansett Bay. Briggs's life is a vital history to tell on its own, and his escape -- and white colonists' reactions to it -- help reveal the centrality of race and slavery to the Gaspee Affair and colonial Rhode Island more broadly. Briggs remained with the British after the Gaspee events and joined the Royal Navy as a full seaman. If the Gaspee attack was the first shot of the American Revolution as the Whig historians contest, then Aaron Briggs must be viewed as the first of the tens of thousands of unfree men, women, and children who won their freedom by fleeing to the British in the Revolutionary Era.

Available for download on Friday, September 05, 2025