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Who shot first? Did the English
 or the attacking Rhode Island men shoot first?

Bowen in his account makes no mention of the English firing any shots. Nor does Mawney, the only other written eye witness American witness account.

The English crew were questioned by the commission sent to investigate, as well as by the court martial investigating the matter. The crew mentions firing the initial shots in the engagement, and that seems likely for two reasons.

First, the crew members testified that they fired first, and that their shots were both before and also after they had been told that an official of the colony wanted to board the ship. Generally they testified that the boarding Americans said their assault was because the ship had unlawfully attacked the "Sheriff@ in the longboats after the "Sheriff@ had identified himself and said he had a warrant. There is no reason for the English crew to fabricate this type of statement [that the American's claimed an attack by the English shooting toward the sheriff, a colony official]: it lessens, rather than adds to,  their defendant's position in the court martial.

Second, the English testimony seems reasonable as to their description of  the order of the events that occurred. They testified: 

  • The sentinel discovered the approaching longboats and made a challenge.  He then attempted to fire [he attempted to be the first to shoot] on the approaching boats, before those boats did anything but approach..
  • His rifle misfired, but he called the commanding officer on deck.
  • The commanding officer, Lieutenant Dudingston, rushed on deck in his nightshirt, and with his sword.
  • The commanding officer gave the command for all hands to be on deck, without putting on their clothes. 
  • The commanding officer ordered the arms chest opened and firearms  distributed to the crew.
  • The big guns of the ship could not be brought to bear on the longboats, because of the angle of attack of the Americans, attacking the front and the rear quarters of the ship.
  • The few sailors on board (probably 18) shot a few times, before any shots came from the approaching boats.
  • Then, the commanding officer was hit by a shot and fell back onto the deck.
  • After this the Americans boarded the ship.

In summary, the English claimed to have fired first, and  also they claimed the Americans said the English fired first.  This seems sensible, and there is no real reason to think the English would fabricate that story.

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