In June of 1775, with the Battle of Bunker Hill over, George Washington needed ammunition to prepare for the American Revolutionary War that was now upon him. Rhode Island’s Abraham Whipple was called upon to assist, on a secret mission to Bermuda.
Some 112 barrels of gunpowder were stored in the royal magazine near the government house at St. George in Bermuda, itself a British colony. It was lightly guarded.
Many in Bermuda were as unhappy with the British government as their American cousins, especially restrictions on trade. And Washington thought the colonies might turn this to their advantage. He wrote to Rhode Island’s Nicholas Cooke, who had been elected governor after Rhode Island declared its independence:
“One Harris is lately come from Bermuda, where there is a very considerable magazine of powder in a remote part of the island, and the inhabitants well disposed not only to our cause in general, but to assist in this enterprise in particular. We understand there are two armed vessels in your province commanded by men of known activity and spirit, one of which it is proposed to dispatch on this errand . . . I am very sensible that at first view this project may appear hazardous, and its success must depend upon the concurrence of many circumstances but we are in a situation which requires us to run all risks — No danger is to be considered when put in competition with the magnitude of the cause and the absolute necessity we are under of increasing our stock.”
Abraham Whipple to Bermuda
Cooke and the Rhode Island assembly turned to Abraham Whipple to pull off the raid. Whipple had served as a naval commander in the French and Indian Wars, and he was leader of the group of Rhode Islanders who burned the British ship Gaspee in protest in 1772.
Noyes informed Washington in September that the ship, Katy, was ready for the trip to Bermuda. “Capt. Abraham Whipple . . . hath been very ill, but is now upon the Recovery, (he) hath been consulted, and will undertake the enterprise as soon as his health will permit.”
Washington cautioned that Bermuda should not be expected to openly support the colonies in rebellion. “There is a great difference between acquiescing in the measure, and becoming principals,” he wrote. “The former we have great reason to expect, the latter is doubtful.”
To help Whipple in negotiating with the Bermudans, Washington gave the captain a letter to the people of Bermuda that he could show if needed. It said:
“We would not wish to involve you in an opposition in which from your situation we should be unable to support you, we know not therefore to what extent to solicit your assistance in availing ourselves of this supply: but if your favor and friendship to North America and its liberties have not been misrepresented I persuade myself you may consistent with your own safety promote and favor this scheme so as to give it the fairest prospect of success. Be assured that in this case the whole power and exertion of my influence will be made with the honorable Continental Congress that your island may not only be supplied with provisions but experience every other mark of affection and friendship which the grateful citizens of a free country can bestow on its brethren and benefactors.”
In Search of Powder
On September 12, Abraham Whipple sailed for Bermuda. He was ordered to take away the gunpowder without any communication with the inhabitants of Bermuda, if possible, as Washington did not want to be involved in politics. He was to use Washington’s letter in bargaining if necessary.
when Whipple arrived in Bermuda, his ship was first mistaken for a British warship and the people on the island panicked, but when he landed and told the local people of his mission, he was welcomed. He did not, however, collect any powder. The powder he sought was already gone.
In July, John Adams reported to the Continental Congress that he was aware that Bermuda might be amenable to sending its powder to America if it were allowed to continue trading with America for food and other goods. Bermuda could not produce enough food and other goods to survive without trade, and the island nation feared it might starve under British constraints on trade. The Congress had passed a law allowing that foreign trade with friendly nations would continue during the war.
Captain George Ord of Pennsylvania had arrived in Bermuda just a few days ahead of Whipple and had taken the powder away with him on his vessel The Lady Catherine. Supportive Bermudans had apparently helped load the powder and pack it off to America. As Whipple was dining with his Bermuda hosts, the powder was already back in Philadelphia.
Whipple returned to Rhode Island empty handed on October 20th and returned Washington’s letter. He had not needed it.
Abraham Whipple would later travel to France to acquire supplies for the war effort. As a privateer, he later captured the British Jamaica fleet off the coast of Newfoundland. That prize would be one of the richest of the war. Whipple was placed in charge of the American and French naval forces at the port of Charleston, S.C. and was captured by the British on May 12, 1780 following the siege of Charleston. The British held him at Chester, Pennsylvania, for the remainder of the war.
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