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The Gaspee was one of several schooners, built in Canada and New England, that were purchased in 1764 by the English Royal Navy.  The Navy wanted "Marblehead" design ships for customs enforcement in North America.  

Click to enlarge the various thumbnail of the ship plans and drawings scattered throughout this page. You will get a good idea of typical Marblehead schooner of the era, the type of ship the Gaspee was. (We also have probable measurements of the Gaspee down this page.)

We'll consider here on this page the relatively small obstacles to boarding of the Gaspee from the longboats. You can think about the overwhelming nature of even 60 attackers getting on board to attack a crew of less than 20 English sailors in the small deck space of the Gaspee. Once one subtracts the space for the hold hatches, and the guns, anchors, masts, sails, ropes, and other gear on deck, it is apparent that 60 attackers on deck, just by standing there, would fill up and physically occupy most of the available deck space. Without the use of their ship's cannons, the crew was never able to resist long. The attack on the Gaspee was an overwhelming show of force.

Purchase. Immediately after the 1763 end of the Seven Years War in which England became the owner of French Canada, the English experienced a rash of smuggling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This added to the already difficult problem that the "Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Navel Vessels in North America" had in his assigned territory that ran from the St. Lawrence River in the north to the Bahamas in the south. His twin duties were (1) enforcing the customs laws and (2) providing English navel superiority. In 1763 he had no more than six vessels in his command! Whether because the Lords back in England had no real concept of the size of the territory involved, or for some other reason, six ships were inadequate.

In January 1764, to remedy the problem of only six ships to patrol the entire east coast of America, the Lords of the Admiralty ordered the Navy Board to obtain six schooners.  The six schooners each cost between 420 and 545 English pounds and at the time of purchase were between nine months and three years of age. The Gaspee was one of those purchased.

Type of Ships. The six schooners purchased for the Royal Navy were for the express purpose of enforcing the customs laws in the territory of the North American command. Hence the need was not for a large amount of cannon on the ships, or enough crew, to fight navel battles, but rather the need was for agility in the coastal waters and just enough size and crew to overcome unarmed smuggling sloops. Thus, the purchase specifically was to be a purchase of six "Marblehead schooners or sloops."

The name "Marblehead" is generally accepted today as indicating ships of fast sailing abilities built in Essex County, Massachusetts. However, in the 18th century it also meant ships of the general design of those built there. Essex County was a leader in shipbuilding and its shipbuilders had standardized the arrangements of ships built there.  Hence, ships of that general design could be built elsewhere and be called "Marblehead schooners.@ The letters concerning the purchase of these six ships indicate that three of them were built in Halifax.  See Notes on the Gaspee Construction by Jack Silvia at the Gaspee Archives site. Therefore, it would appear that the Lords' order for "Marblehead schooners or sloops" meant to refer to general design, rather than the place the ships were built.

Design of Gaspee. We leave it to the Gaspee Virtual Archives to  furnish the particulars of the design of the Gaspee.  See their pages for more ship construction details.  Our particular interest in the design of the Gaspee, at our site, is limited to knowing enough about the design of the Gaspee to understand the attack that was made on the Gaspee, what happened at that time, and perhaps even give us a clue on what John Brown and the leaders of the group intended to do when they rowed out to the Gaspee

Given the assumed build date of the Gaspee (from the purchase correspondence), which was before the order for purchase, it's unlikely that she was originally built as a warship.  The likelihood is that Gaspee was built to be a merchant vessel.  Although of the general design type of "Marblehead", the Gaspee was still subject to a broad set of possibilities as to her exact hull form.   Our interest as historians of the attack on the Gaspee in 1772 is not in hull design, but rather our interest is in the general type of tactical problem the Gaspee presented to a rowboat borne force attempting to serve a warrant of arrest on someone on board or to destroy the ship.  As we shall see below, Joseph Brown reasonably could have thought the Gaspee did not present much of a tactical problem in boarding to enforce a warrant or destroy the ship, if enough men could be put on the deck of the ship quickly while the ship was unable to move and before the Gaspee's guns could be fired.

We know something about the shape and size and design of several sloops that were purchased by the English Navy,  because there exist drawings of three North American built ships of the period, the Chaleur, Halifax the Sultana.  Jack Silvia, who has studied the matter, conjectures  the Gaspee being like the Chaleur. See Notes on the Gaspee Construction by Jack Silvia at the Gaspee Archives site.   Basically, his premises and conclusions include that the general design of the Marblehead schooners was fairly common and was used for much of the century;  the known size of the Gaspee puts the ship to be about the size of the Chaleur; thus, he concludes,  Gaspee was likely to be more like the Chaleur than the smaller Sultana or Halifax. [Electronic correspondence from Silvia to the Society.]

On the other hand. Randy Biddle, of Windship Studios, a longtime student of the vessel Chaleur thinks that it is only speculation that Gaspee was like Chaleur because Chaleur was  "unlike her contemporaries for which we have lines. In the absence of lines for Gaspee we can only say that she may have been like Chaleur, or she may have been in fact, quite different in appearance." [Electronic correspondence from Biddle to the Society.] 

According to the Royal Navy List database information of C .H. Donnithorne, the Gaspee was purchased as a 10 gun ship of 102 tons, with dimensions of:  Keel Length 49 ft; Extreme Breadth 19 ft 10 in; Depth in Hold 7 ft. 10 in.  Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World (Houghton Mifflin Co., NY, 1997) puts the Gaspee at 68 feet long by 20 feet wide with a 9 foot high hold.  This size is only slightly different from the Chaleur, which was 70 feet long by 20 feet wide with an 8 foot high hold.   However, Jack Silvia has studied and researched the available Gaspee information and has slightly different measurements. He estimates that the deck of the Gaspee was about 62 feet long by about 17 feet wide.  To the same effect was William Baker, who in 1967-1968 drew detailed plans for a sailing reconstruction of the Gaspee. [The papers are at MIT.]  Some further measurements from his reconstruction are useful in understanding the attack on the Gaspee:

  • Length, on the range of the deck - 62' 10",
  • Width, at broadest of the deck -  17'6",
  • Depth, to Underside of Deck at Side (Height of Hold) - 8' 4",
  • Side Rail, Underside of Deck to Underside of Main Rail at Side - 3' 0" .

Click on the thumbnails, of the English Navy drawings of the Chaleur, toChaleur3.jpg (99582 bytes)Chaleur4.jpg (63260 bytes) appreciate the ship boarding events of the capture of the Gaspee.  For example: consider how easy it would be to get on board the Gaspee from a longboat alongside. The hold of the Gaspee was about eight feet high.  Subtract from this hold height the portion of the ship below  the waterline, and you see how easy it was for the attackers of the Gaspee to get on board.  At the midpoint of the ship, the ship probably only had less than three feet of freeboard above the waterline. This low freeboard allowed easy loading of the ship from the docks of the day, and allowed large waves to wash over the middle of the ship and not overturn the ship.

Therefore, amidships the attackers had only to stand on the side of their longboat, grab the rail, and hoist themselves up three or four feet or so to get aboard.  Although the height of the Gaspee on the bow, where Lt., Dudingston was swinging his sword, was higher, it was not that much more higher or difficult to climb over. It is true that the Gaspee was boarded after she had run aground on a falling tide. As a consequence, the height of the rail above the waterline was likely to have been higher than it would have been under sailing conditions. But because there was water enough so that the Gaspee was not laying on its side, the difference in boarding height could not have been greatly increased because of the grounding.

TheChaleur2.jpg (273261 bytes) artists' drawings one commonly sees of the Gaspee Chaleur1.jpg (517310 bytes) attack usually exaggerate the height of the Gaspee in comparison with the attacking longboats.  One good military drawing of the attack exists, to wit: the one at the United States Naval Museum in Newport, Rhode Island. Click on its thumbnail picture at the top of this page to enlarge it. Study it, and you will get a good idea of the actual attack positions available and the lack of any real tactical problems in boarding the Gaspee, if it were stuck immobile on a sandbar and the crew was surprised by an overwhelming number of attackers.  

Click to enlarge to see what Gaspee ship looked like.Click on the photo to the left to enlarge it.  This is a photo of the recreated sloop Sultana, which was slightly smaller, but like the Gaspee.  While you have the photo enlarged, see how easy it would be to board a ship like this from longboats. (The white painted area of hull is the area that would be below waterline of the loaded vessel.) 

Crew of Gaspee. The six sloops/schooners purchased by the English Navy, of which the Gaspee was one, were each authorized to maintain a complement of 30 men.  More information on the crew of the Gaspee   At the time the Gaspee was patrolling the Narragansett Bay the Gaspee crew numbered only about 22 sailors and three officers.

Guns.  These six ships purchased in 1764, including the Gaspee, were armed with a combination of carriage guns and swivel guns. Carriage guns are the guns we are used to seeing in the movies,  heavy cannon-like pieces that generally could only fire out the openings in the side of the ship or the deck railing.  Swivel guns were much smaller.  One could think of them as good size blunderbusses, mounted on a swivel that looked much like an oarlock, and fired from the deck.  They were more easily aimed at various angles and were effective anti-personnel weapons. 

When it is mentioned above that the Gaspee was purchased as a "10 gun ship", it is a measure of what could be mounted and not necessarily what was on the ship. With a crew of only 22 sailors, it would seem unlikely that ten carriage guns were actually on the ship.  It probably was a combination such as eight or less carriage guns and four or less swivel guns.  After the attack on the Gaspee, and naval warfare became likely,  the Royal Navy retired these small boats from American duty, for being too lightly armed. The swivel guns of these ships or their small size carriage guns  were inadequate to deal with a privateer or American ship with a "real" cannon of longer range.


Rear Admiral John Montague, who in 1771 became the Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Naval Vessels in North American, was charged with enforcing the customs laws and otherwise provide English naval superiority in a huge territory  -- the entire American coast  that ran from the St. Lawrence River in the north to the Bahamas in the South.   Until after1774, he never had more than 12 vessels  at any time, and of these only two were ships of the line, capable of engaging French or other enemy forces.

The small size of the Gaspee dictated that it was not officially named as a ship of the King of England.  Hence, it is not correct to call it H.R.M (His Royal Majesty's) Gaspee.  Instead the nomenclature is: the Royal Navy's armed schooner Gaspee.


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