NORTH SMITHFIELD – The North Smithfield Heritage Association welcomed Joey DeFrancesco to their virtually-adapted History Night on Friday, Nov. 20.
“It’s really important to keep things going like this,” said DeFrancesco to the group. “You know, keep these discussions about our history and remembering our past culture in our state.”
This month’s topic, titled, “Rethinking the Gaspee Affair: RI, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution,” was inspired by the historic 1772 attack on the British vessel, Gaspee, near what is now appropriately named Gaspee Point. It was, in DeFrancesco’s words, the “…first bloodshed of the American Revolution.”
Despite being a statewide celebration of patriotism and American history every year when its June 9 anniversary rolls around, this presentation, funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, offered a new perspective on the affair.
Possibly fueled by the Somerset Decision of 1771, which effectively ended slavery in England, DeFranceso pointed out a few particular players involved in the attack.
“When you hear about the Gaspee Affair, you assume it’s this ragtag bunch of Rhode Islanders going to blow up the boat,” he said. “It wasn’t. There’s probably a few dozen attackers, we’re going to look at ten briefly and you’ll quickly pick up on a common theme.”
That theme? The slave trade.
According to DeFrancesco’s presentation, the attackers, led by statesman John Brown, were not motivated by democracy but instead by their ties to the affluent slave trade in Rhode Island. In just over two decades, the state’s number of slaves transported to the colonies totaled nearly four times the rest of the entirety of New England, making Newport the largest slave trading port in North America. Fearing their greatest source of labor and revenue would not only be taxed at a higher rate but also criminalized by England, some of Rhode Island’s most influential figures organized their attack.
He admits that this idea is a hot topic in the Rhode Island history field, especially with a significant anniversary just around the corner.
“The 250 year anniversary is coming up [in] 2022, so I think a lot of this debate is going to be resurfacing as we move toward that,” he said.
View Joey DeFrancesco’s full presentation here.