In June of 1775, with the Battle of Bunker Hill over, George Washington badly needed gunpowder. Rhode Island’s Abraham Whipple accepted a secret mission to Bermuda to get it.
Some 112 barrels of gunpowder were stored in the royal magazine near the government house at St. George in Bermuda, itself a British colony. The magazine had little security.
Many in Bermuda disliked the British government as much as their American cousins did. They especially despised restrictions on trade. And Washington thought the colonies might turn this to their advantage. He wrote to Rhode Island’s Nicholas Cooke, 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,” he wrote to Cooke. The inhabitants, he wrote, were “well disposed not only to our cause in general, but to assist in this enterprise in particular,”
He suggested Cooke send one of Rhode Island’s two armed vessels to retrieve the gunpowder.
“I am very sensible that at first view this project may appear hazardous, and its success must depend upon the concurrence of many circumstances,” he wrote. “But we are in a situation which requires us to run all risks.”
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. He had also led the group of Rhode Islanders who burned the British ship Gaspee in protest in 1772.
Cooke informed Washington in September that the ship, Katy, could make 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 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,” he wrote.
[B]ut, he wrote, “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.”
Washington then assured the people he would use all his power to influence the Continental Congress. He pledged to persuade the Congress to supply provisions and to show “every other mark of affection and friendship.”
In Search of Powder
On Sept. 12, 1775, Abraham Whipple sailed for Bermuda. He had orders to take away the gunpowder without any communication with the inhabitants of Bermuda, if possible. Washington, a military commander, did not want to get involved in international politics. Whipple could use Washington’s letter in bargaining, if necessary.
When Whipple arrived in Bermuda, the islanders panicked because they mistook his ship for a British warship. But when he landed and told the local people of his mission, they welcomed him. He did not, however, collect any powder. Someone had already taken it.
Capt. George Ord of Pennsylvania had arrived in Bermuda just a few days ahead of Whipple. He had taken the powder away with him on his vessel The Lady Catherine. Supportive Bermudans had helped load the powder and pack it off to America. As Whipple dined with his Bermuda hosts, the powder had already reached Philadelphia.
Bermuda could not produce enough food to survive without trade. The island feared it might starve under British constraints on its trading partners.
In July, John Adams had reported to the Continental Congress that he knew Bermuda might agree to send its powder to America. But America had to allow it to continue trading for food and other goods.
The Congress therefore passed a law allowing foreign trade with friendly nations to continue during the war.
Abraham Whipple Returns Empty-Handed
Whipple then 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. Then as a privateer, he captured the British Jamaica fleet off the coast of Newfoundland. That prize would rank as one of the richest of the war.
Whipple then took charge of the American and French naval forces at the port of Charleston, S.C. The British captured him on May 12, 1780 following the siege of Charleston. The British held him at Chester, Pennsylvania, for the remainder of the war.
This story was updated in 2021.