A TRIM churchyard in Elie, Fife, is the last resting-place of William Dudingston, a retired Rear Admiral who, 45 years before his death in October 1817, inadvertently played a key role in the lead-up to the American Revolution.

His vessel, HMS Gaspee, a twin-masted Royal Navy revenue cutter, was attacked and sunk by furious colonials in Rhode Island in June, 1772. It happened well before the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the event which is widely held to have sparked the great colonial rebellion against the British Crown.

As Sheldon Whitehouse, a US Senator for Rhode Island, has remarked: “We Rhode Islanders contend that a different spark 16 months earlier out on Narragansett Bay ignited the revolution.” Like many others he believes the Gaspee raid was an “important but overlooked event in American history”. He quotes the words of Frances Whipple McDougall, a Rhode Island abolitionist: the raid was the “first blood’’ drawn in America’s struggle for independence.

In 1922 the New York Times, on the 150th anniversary of the incident, wrote: “Perhaps not one person in twenty-five knows what the Gaspee was, why it was burned, or by whom. The school histories, when they mention the Gaspee at all pass over it so hurriedly as to leave no definite or lasting impression.”

Fife-born Dudingston was a 32-year-old naval lieutenant in command of Gaspee when it arrived off Newport in March 1772. His orders were to patrol Narragansett Bay, enforcing maritime trade laws against anyone minded to evade taxation on imported goods or by smuggling contraband.

He became despised, as Whitehouse observes, for “destroying fishing vessels, seizing cargo, and flagging down ships only to harass, humiliate, and interrogate the colonials”.

Rhode Island’s Deputy Governor, Darius Sessions, complained to Governor Joseph Wanton that the Scot had “no legal authority to justify his conduct, and his commission … [was] more of a fiction than anything else”. Dudingston was, in short, exceedingly unpopular, not least with influential merchants, whose trade he was disrupting.

“Those who lived in the towns and villages along Narragansett Bay and made their living on the water didn’t welcome the oversight of their business”, notes Rhode Island journalist and author, Kelly Sullivan. “The irritation concerning interruptions in their endeavours soon turned personal. The hatred of Commander Dudingston became a popular topic of discussion.”

Matters reached a head on June 9. At around noon, Gaspee was making its way from Newport, bound for Providence, in pursuit of a packet sloop, Hannah. But the sloop’s captain Lindsey lured Gaspee into shallow waters off Namquid Point (since called Gaspee Point), just south of Pawtuxet Village in Warwick.

Realising that they were marooned on a sandbar, Gaspee’s crew tried their best to free the schooner, but to no avail. Darkness settled, and Dudingston left three watchmen on board. The Hannah, meantime, arrived at Providence, and Lindsey informed John Brown, a prominent merchant, of Gaspee’s plight. A plan was quickly hatched to visit revenge on the ship and its much-loathed commander.

Later that afternoon, people in Providence’s dockyards area heard a drummer inviting those men interested in destroying the Gaspee to meet that night at Sabin’s Tavern, alongside the docks. At length, eight longboats containing 50 men, under the command of Captain Abraham Whipple, set off for Gaspee.

Firearms and clubs were taken on board, and the boats’ oars and rowlocks had been muffled, so as to preserve the element of surprise. The small armada rowed six miles south to Gaspee. When the moon had set just after midnight, they approached with stealth.

Alerted by a watchman, Dudingston appeared, and threatened to fire his pistol if the boats did not retreat. He fired but was promptly shot in the groin by one of the intruders. “Lord, have mercy upon me. I am done for!” he cried out.

He ordered his crew to resist the attackers but the Providence men scrambled from their longboats, forced the crew to abandon Gaspee, and escorted them over the side.

Dudingston’s wound was dressed by one of the boarding party, medical student John Mawney, and he was helped into a small boat and sent ashore with his crew, arriving on the shore of Pawtuxet. Behind him, Gaspee was burned to the waterline. The raiders made good their escape.

The Crown was infuriated by the assault on one of His Majesty’s ships. Substantial rewards, including one from King George III himself, were offered for information about the identities of those involved.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry was formed, with the power to detain the raiders and send them to England for trial. Stephen Hopkins, Chief Justice of Rhode Island, declined to recognise as valid any such arrest if made within the colony. In the end, the Commission came up empty. No-one was ever brought to justice for what had happened to Gaspee.

“This bypassing of the established American continental legal system greatly alarmed public leaders who perceived it as a direct threat to their rights as British subjects, and created much disaffection towards the Crown”, Dr John Concannon, a retired paediatrician who is the historian for the Gaspee Days Committee in Warwick, has written.

To assess further threats, he added, Committees of Correspondence were re-established among colonial legislatures: “This simple act of unification was among the first steps leading towards the First Continental Congress and, eventually, the Declaration of Independence.” Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, who wrote the Declaration in 1776, included in the Declaration at least three grievances against George III that were directly attributable to the Gaspee Affair, adds Dr Concannon.

Dudingston himself wrote to Admiral Montagu, his commander-in-chief, shortly after the incident: “The schooner is utterly destroyed, and every thing appertaining to her, me, and the schooner’s company. If I live, I am not without hope of being able to convict some of the principal people that were with them”.

Dudingston was awarded an annual pension of £91 in recognition of his battle wounds. He seemed to marry into money; one of his homes was in Edinburgh’s affluent Heriot Row. He went on to command other ships and retired in around 1805.

The Gaspee incident has never been forgotten on Rhode Island. There is an unshakeable belief that the assault on the Gaspee deserves more credit from historians of the Revolution, that Rhode Island truly was where America’s “first blow for freedom” was heard. “If people in Rhode Island wrote the history books, this would be the shot heard ‘round the world’,” one local resident said in 2003, watching the annual Gaspee-related celebrations in Warwick. Since 1965 the village of Pawtuxet has commemorated “the burning of the hated British revenue schooner ... by Rhode Island patriots” via an annual Gaspee Days Celebration. The burning is re-enacted each year, when a scaled-down model of Gaspee is put to the torch.

This year’s events, marking the 250th anniversary, also include a walking tour, an arts and crafts festival, fireworks and a colourful parade. Limited-run garden flags, T-shirts and hats and caps are on sale.

A comprehensive website, gaspee.org, explores the incident in detail.

Three years ago, Angela Innes, from Elgin, and her husband Roddy attended the Gaspee Days event in Pawtuxet. She was put on a good-humoured mock trial, formally indicted for the crimes committed by Dudingston against America.

The Americans were delighted to see her. Though she is not related in any way to Dudingston, she is the direct descendant of a woman, Jean Douglas, from Crail, who married a Michael Oliphant in 1744. Their many children included Spence, who went on to marry a woman named Fotheringham Dudingston, William’s sister.

She came across William, and the Gaspee story, as she dug further and further into her family tree and into the Dudingston name. Intrigued, she flew out to Rhode Island. She had no intention of taking part in the parade but ended up the centre of good-natured attraction and being invited to stay with Dr Concannon and his wife. “It was an amazing experience and the people out there are incredibly friendly.”

Like many, Angela is fascinated that an unknown Scots naval man should have played a role in the lead-up to the American war of independence. She now plans to mark the 250th Gaspee anniversary by holding a Gaspee Day party in her back garden.

*With acknowledgements to: website of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Kelly Sullivan/ Beacon Communications (John Howell, Publisher); gaspee.org; Dr John Concannon; Gordon Ritchie, Glasgow; allthingsliberty.com.