In 1772, the captain of a smuggler's sloop tricked a pursuing British coast-guard schooner into running aground on the shore of Narragansett Bay. The people of Provincetown and Bristol were cheering him in their streets. But a second thought sobered them: the Government ship would work its way free on the rising tide.
Eight rowboats from Provincetown and one from Bristol, full of men armed with knives and muskets, set out in broad daylight to attack an armed schooner of the King's Navy. The captain ordered his men to the guns, and fired a broadside at the rowboats, but the rowers kept coming. They swarmed up the schooner's side, laid out the crew, wounded the captain, put them all on shore, and burned the King's ship.
The name of the ship was Gaspee. The place where its ashes lay is called Gaspee point.
His Majesty's Government posted offers of large rewards for information leading to the arrest of the rebels, and everyone knew who they were. But no one was ever arrested, and the reward was never accepted.
From 1660 onward, smuggling was a way of life in the colonies. Running the blockades was an ordinary and necessary business hazard. The King's gunners sunk a few ships, killed a few sailors, wasted some goods, and kept prices a little higher than they would have been. But the colonies prospered.
When the revolution came, smugglers played an major role. Several of the signer's of the Declaration of Independence were smugglers. John Hancock was known as the "prince of smugglers." The Pine Tree flag, one of the early revolutionary flags, referred to the practice of chopping down trees marked for use by the British Navy and using them to build smuggling ships instead.
The Colonies relied almost entirely upon water routes for transportation, following the rivers and streams inland as they moved away from the coast. With the British occupying the major port cities, smuggling became an even more hazardous activity, but remained critical to both the revolution as well as the normal flow of goods and news.
Our success is a tribute to the skill and daring of American smugglers, who started a tradition of Yankee sailing and trading superiority which lasted throughout the 19th Century and well into the 20th.
It would be naive to attribute any sort of noble motives or even more than normal patriotism to smugglers. People undertake this activity because it pays well. But this does not diminish their accomplishments. After all, this world would be a much better place if more people did the right thing for the wrong reasons and fewer did the wrong thing for the right reasons.
In any case, whenever and wherever governments try to oppress the people by suppressing trade, there will be smugglers. They are the first to fight against tyranny, and the first to die in the battle for freedom. Without their efforts, no revolution would ever be possible, and the world would be an incomparably worse place to live.