In this section of
Gaspee HistoryPage Up


Go to
Gaspee Raiders
for biographical information on the Americans in the boats attacking the Royal Navy ship Gaspee.


Books: American Colonial and Revolutionary War history or the people involved. We have suggestions for you.




Copyrighted.  ©  2005  to 08/08/2010 Leonard H. Bucklin.   -----  The content of this site may not be reproduced except for brief excerpts for reviews or scholarly references..   
Copyright Notices, Privacy Policy, and Warnings & Disclaimers.


This is a history education and research web site of the
Joseph Bucklin Society.

References in brackets [  ] or in curly brackets {  } on any page in this website are to books, or other materials, listed in the Joseph Bucklin Society Gaspee Bibliography, or to materials held by the Joseph Bucklin Society.



The Case of John Robinson vs. The Brigantine Providence, 
on Appeal (1768)

BrigCaseTop.jpg (118144 bytes)This document is part of the record of the appeal by the Collector of Revenue in a lawsuit in which he tried, unsuccessfully, to have a ship captained by Joseph Bucklin 4th declared forfeit for being used in the criminal offense of transporting illegal goods (i.e., smuggling molasses to be made into rum in Providence). (Click on the thumbnail photo, above, to view part of the original  document.)

The case is significant on a number of points, not the least of which is the testimony of Capt. Joseph Bucklin that he did not know the crew put the molasses on board the ship being accepted by the Rhode Island judge as proving that there was no smuggling. It illustrates how the Rhode Island merchants turned civil law into a weapon against the English. Prejudiced judges declared seizures to be illegal, and thereafter the Rhode Island merchant could sue the English naval officer and the Collector of Revenue for the civil wrong of trespass in a jury case, in which the jurors would be instructed by the judge that the illegality of the seizure having been previously decided, it was not simply a matter of determining the damages the English naval officer the the Collector of Revenue would have to personally pay (or be thrown into jail as delinquent debtors)!

Also important to legal historians is that this case, decided by the English Court of Vice Admiralty located in Rhode Island, announced that even if there was a failure to pay the tax the taxing statue was not a valid legal exercise of the power of the English Parliament!

The discovery of this document is an example of Joseph Bucklin Society original research that finds and publishes documents that have been unknown to present-day historians.

The following  text is from the original manuscript of a court judgment our research discovered during a week of looking at the contents of dusty boxes in the Rhode Island Historical Society Manuscript Room. (This particular item is cataloged as MMS9003 , volume 1, page 15.) We have changed the following text by making the capitalization and spelling conform more nearly to twentieth century usage.

John Robinson
The Brigantine Providence

The claimants Nicholas Cooke, Benjamin Cushing, and Joseph Bucklin appear incontrovertibly to be the only owners of said vessel.

She arrived from Surinam into the Narragansett Bay and anchored about ten miles below the harbor of Providence, the place of her destination, and a member of the Port of Newport upon or about the thirteenth day of March 1767, in a most severe season, the weather being remarkably cold for the time of year. The Master, Joseph Bucklin, went on shore and having given or sent notice of his arrival to the other owners, he proceeded by land to Newport to make report and enter his vessel and the cargo on board.

In his absence there came on a hard gale of wind, which caused the vessel to part her cable, and drove her much laden with ice upon a lee shore, in extreme danger, on a reef of rocks. The wind continuing to blow hard, and the vessel being old and unsound, the other owners in the absence of the Master thought proper to strike out some of her water casks and some of her cargo to lighten so that she might be got off, which they accordingly did, by which means, and an ensuing moderation of the weather she was, though with great difficulty, got off the reef. Part of the molasses taken out with all that part of it that belonged to the cargo, properly so called, was returned on board, and eight barrels and four tierces of molasses being a private adventure of the people or mariners, which the Captain had no knowledge of, was by them put in the lighter and brought up to Providence and was gauged by them in the presence of on of the Officers of the Customs. This measure was advised by a Tide Waiter, who [told the mariners that] . . . .it had been the constant practice of the Customs House to exempt mariners adventurers , and being so gauged, the money for duties thereon was afterwards rendered to the collector, who refused it.

The whole of the cargo, that is to say all of the molasses laden on board that the Master had knowledge of, being one hundred and six casks, was duly reported to, and entered with, the Officers of His Majesty’s Customs Dwelling at Newport, yet notwithstanding the collector a few days afterwards seized said brigantine for a pretended breach of various Acts of trade, and filed his information against her in the Court of Vice Admiralty here.

He procured summons for a number of witnesses the names of some of whom were never heard of before, as we can learn. And although longer time was had, and greater indulgence shown towards the Informant both by the Judge and the Other Officer than ever had been known in any case of a like nature, yet finally no witness appeared or could be found to support the information in the least measure or degree. At length the Judge, by his Definitive Sentence acquitted said Brigantine, and ordered Restoration with Costs, all the proofs offered in support of the Information not amounting to even a probability.

It is not to our propose to enter minutely into the Cause, as the papers in the case and the Judge’s Decree are very particular. We think the Case rests on these two points. 1. Whether there was any breach of the Act of Parliament referred to in the Information, and 2. whether if the facts and breaches complained of had been fully proved, the Vessel would have been liable to confiscation.

As to the first point it appears by the paper in the case that report was made to the Naval Officer who represents the Governor, as he is appointed by and acts for him, and also to the Collector, and as to all the other breaches the informant has not induced any proof, unless his own suspicions can be deemed such, but on the contrary from the whole of the proceedings, it appears that there was no fraud done or intended.

The vessel hold appearing in confusion will not be of the least weight, if we consider she had been on shore, and could not have been got off without unloading some part thereof; and that the same or part of the casks taken out had been put on board again in a great hurry and in a time of extremity, which might occasion in appearance of disorder in the hold.

The Captain reported and entered his whole cargo. He had no knowledge of the people having put on board a few small casks of Molasses for their private adventure. Besides it was not the custom of the officer to require a report of such private adventures, or the payment of duties as is before mentioned; and the informant refused to take the duties thereon when offered him, and at this very time Mr. Paget, Searcher and Preventive Officer for this Port of Providence had in his hand a note given by the said Nicholas Cooke to him, Mr. Paget, to pay the duties if they should be demanded.

If the vessel and cargo had perished on the reef the owner could not have recovered against the insurers unless they made use of their best endeavor to get her off.

As to the second point we think that upon a critical examination of the Act referred to it will be found that if the breaches occurred in the information had been fully proved, the vessel would not have been liable to confiscation.

By the Collector’s stipulation in the Court of Vice Admiralty here upon the eighteenth day of May 1767, he bound himself with his bail to prosecute his appeal within twelve months from that date, and the Citation or Inhibition taken out of the High Court of Admiralty bears date of July 1768, which is more than twelve months after the entering into said stipulation.

Upon the whole the respondents case is fair and they make no doubt that the former decree will be affirmed with costs.

By Silas Downer


Note: What Downer refers to "As to the second point" is what lawyers call "dicta".  Dicta is extra language that is not necessary to decide the case. but that the judge wants to say anyway and uses the case for an excuse to say it.  Downer, having decided that the case was not proved factually, did not have any legal need to go on to make the observation that even if Bucklin had been smuggling, a ship engaging in smuggling could not be confiscated. 

"As to the second point we think that upon a critical examination of the Act referred to it will be found that if the breaches occurred in the information had been fully proved, the vessel would not have been liable to confiscation."

The only reason to make such a statement is to give "warning" or "advice" to the collector of revenue that "in the Court of Vice Admiralty here" the English custom's law act did not authorize seizure of a ship even if it was carrying cargo without paying the tax.

To put it another way, if you were an English navy officer who had intercepted a ship that was smuggling, you would be much better off to take the ship to the Boston vice-admiralty court than to the Rhode Island vice-admiralty court.  And if you were Joseph Bucklin, you might feel safe in continuing to smuggle in Rhode Island waters. 

Silas Downer a few years later delivered a famous discourse on the right of Americans and the legal inability (as he saw it) for the English parliament to pass laws regarding the taxation of people in Rhode Island.   This put in written form his philosophy that formed the basis for his dicta in his decision regarding the brigantine Providence. See, Downer, S. (1768). A discourse delivered in Providence, in the colony of Rhode-Island, upon the 25th day of July 1768. At the dedication of the Tree of Liberty, from the summer house in the tree, Providence.

Note: The above case first had been decided by an adjunctive judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court located in Rhode Island, then appealed by the collector or revenue to the senior judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court, Silas Downer. When Silas Downer decided against the collector in May, 1967, the collector appealed to the "High Court of Admiralty. As Downer notes in the paragraph appended near the end of this document, the collector filed his appeal two months late, making the judgment of Downer the final judgment in the case.

To date, we have not found a subsequent suit at common law by Joseph Bucklin against the collector, seeking money damages for an "illegal seizure", but that was the common practice of the time, making the collector's life an unhappy one.