Tales of battle and bounty pervade the folklore of privateering,which has become a cherished, if often overlooked part of our shared heritage. Legends were forged during the battle for American independence, and these menwere understandably glorified as part of the formation of our national identity. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of these men were commonopportunists, if noteworthy naval warriors. The profit motive was the drivingforce behind almost all of their expeditions, and a successful privateer couldeasily become quite wealthy. In times of peace, these men would be commonpirates, pariahs of the maritime community. Commissioned in times of war, theywere respected entrepreneurs, serving their purses and their country, if onlyincidentally the latter.
However vulgar their motivation, the system ofprivateering arose because it provided a valuable service to the country, andindeed the Ame rican Revolution might not have been won without theirinvolvement. Many scholars agree that all war begins for economic reasons, andthe privateers of the war for independence contributed by attacking thecommercial livelihood of Great Britain’s merchants. It is ironic that the entire notion of privateering began in Great Britain. In 1649 a frigate named Constant-Warwick was constructed in England for aprivateer in the employ of the Earl of Warwick. Seeing how profitable thisinvestment was, a great many of the English peerage commissioned their ownprivateers.
The Seven-Years War saw the proliferation of privateering on boththe English and French coasts as each attempted to disrupt their opponent’scolonial trade. American investors quickly entered this battle, commissioningships to prey upon cargo vessels coming to and from French colonial holdings inthe Americas. Here began the American privateer heritage, and when the AmericanRevolution began many of these same men viewed the opportunity to profit, andresumed their ventures. The American privateer vessel was a ship “armed andfitted out at private expense for the purpose of preying on the enemy’s commerceto the profit of her owners”. Not just anyone could be a privateer, however.
What distinguished a privateer from a common pirate was a commission, or aletter of marque. These were granted by the government, and were quite easilyobtained. The government’s benefit was twofold. First, the revolutionarygovernment took a share of the profits from the sale of any cargo captured by acommissioned privateer. The percentage ranged from ten to as much as fortypercent, depending on the nature of the cargo. This provided the then cash-starved government with considerable revenue, with little to no overhead.
Itcost the government virtually nothing to issue a commission, and the financialrewards were great. Second, these privateers disrupted the enemy’s trade andsometimes even captured British military transports and supply ships. Thissystem helped the government financially and strategically, while affording theprivateer great economic benefits. These fabulous profits created anenvironment laden with potential for upward mobility for motivated and talentedTo fully appreciate the available opportunities, one must first be aware ofhow the individual privateer operated, and a cursory knowledge of ship design ishelpful. Virtually every ship in that era, commercial or military, carried atleast some cannon. However, these ships could not be outfitted with as manycannons as their owners desired.
The term “pierced” refers to the rectanglesthat were cut in a ship’s sides through which cannons were fired. Cannons wereusually located on either the top deck, or the level just below it. This lowerlevel was preferable because cannon operation required a good deal of space dueto recoil, and lurching cannons were dangerous obstacles to crews working thesails on the main deck. However, these lower piercings were difficult to makeafter the ship was constructed and affected the structural integrity of the shipitself. It was much easier to piercing the sides of the ship on the main deck,because all it required was a simple U-cut.
In fact, many captains who neededto rearrange the placement of their cannons during battle ordered hasty V-cutson the main deck. As mentioned before however, these were less than preferablebecause of the danger they posed to seamen trimming the sails. Thus the numberand placement of piercings affected the ship’s desirability as a privateer. Inthe early stages of the American Revolution, investors purchased ships of alltypes, paid for their modification, crew, and provisions, and hired experiencedseamen to command them.
The entire crew was paid a salary, plus a smallpercentage of he spoils. These ships would sail out of port laden withammunition, sidearms, and men, and short on provisions. Space was limited, andit was wiser to carry more men and weapons than food and water. The logicbehind this outfitting was that the privateer would hopefully capture ships. Upon capture, the privateer crew would board the enemy ship, disarm the crew andassume command.
The privateer captain would then place a small contingent ofhis men on board the captured vessel to command it back to the nearest Americanport. The captain and officers of the captured vessel would be placed undercabin arrest on their own vessel, while the privateer commanders quickly sailedfor the closest friendly port. On these trips, the English crew continued tosail the ship, under the command of the privateer contingent. These privateerswould load all available sidearms, and keep them in a locked room on the poopdeck. In the case of an attempted mutiny, the privateers could take the highground of the poop deck and fire repeatedly on the mutinous crew. The privateervessel would commandeer the majority of the English ship’s provisions, with thelogic that the captured vessel was headed for the nearest port and would notneed them.
By this method the privateers found sustenance. Many a privateervoyage was cut short because provisions were running low and either no capturehad been made, or a capture had insufficient food and water. It was notuncommon for a privateer to capture multiple British ships on one voyage, (therecord being twenty-eight!), and so the surplus of men was necessary to manThe mutiny of prisoners was a very real and common danger. Many privateerswho took too many prisoners or under-staffed a capture were the victims ofviscous mutinies. The case of the sloop Eagle sailing out of Connecticutillustrates this. A six gun ship, the Eagle had captured seven British vesselson one trip.
Her complement was reduced to fifteen, and she had taken manyprisoners aboard. When an opportunity presented itself the British seamenturned on their captors, overpowered them, and killed all but two boys. Arule of thumb in the privateering profession was to never capture more shipsthan the number of cannons you had on your own ship. If a privateer had sixguns, then he should capture no more than six ships on a single voyage.
In fact,that accomplishment was considered the pinnacle of success for a privateerThese captured vessels were the primary reason upward mobility was sopossible. A captain might return to port with a total of three captured shipson one voyage. He began his adventures as an employee of the investors whofurnished him with his original ship and crew. When divvying the spoils, it wasnot uncommon for a privateer captain to request one of the captured ships forthe bulk of his compensation. He could take this ship, hire the best men fromhis previous crew, and go into business for himself. This resulted in avacancy on his original ship, and experienced mates often moved up to theposition of captain.
Additionally, talented officers on a privateer owned shipfaced great prospects for their own advancement. It was quite common for asuccessful first mate to receive a ship of his own to command from a privateerowner/captain. In this way the privateer could increase his holdings andprofits by owning multiple ships, and ambitious officers could further their owncareers. At the end of the revolution, there were privateers who had as many asten ships in their service.
These men would retire from commanding ships, andoversee the business of “corporate” privateering. This system quickly blossomedafter the beginning of the war and was an economic boom for the maritime sector. This boom was due to the fact that American privateers were “damn good” atwhat they did. Their capture rate is astounding.
In 1781 four hundred andforty-nine vessels had been commissioned as privateers, the highest number ofany year of the revolution. These ships captured a little over thirteen hundredvessels, and sank almost two hundred more. The British were shocked by theprowess exhibited by American seamen. For years Great Britain had reignedsupreme on the seas, and a band of profiteering rebels was not only destroyingtheir trade, but humiliating their Royal Navy. In the early stages of the warprivateers would often come across HMS vessels, and attempt to engage them. Although they were not laden with commercial goods suitable for sale they wereoften troop transports, or even better, supply ships bringing necessities toBritish troops in America.
The Continental Congress had put bounties not on HMSvessels but rather twenty-five dollars a head on English servicemen delivered asprisoners. The ship and any goods were for the privateer to keep. This madetroop transports a suitable prize for privateers who could often outmaneuver thelarger military ships. A common tactic was to load their cannons with grapeshot and aim high for the British sails. If a privateer could disable the man-o-war’s maneuvering capability, he would gain a great advantage. Positioninghimself perpendicular to the British stern, the British would be forced tosurrender, being unable to return fire or quickly reposition to do so.
Britain’s loss of maritime and naval supremacy had a tremendous impact onthe war. In the beginning of the revolution, most Britons believed that the warwould have little or no effect on them personally. Granted, it would beexpensive to ship redcoats and Hessians across the Atlantic Ocean, but this costwould be more than covered by the profits British merchants were making fromcolonial trade. The provisions of the Navigation Acts ensured profits forBritish merchants as long as the system was in place, and putting down arebellion made good economic sense.
Furthermore, British merchants believedthat the war would be fought entirely across the ocean, perhaps destroying someinfrastructure in the colonies, but having no effect on British trade. TheAmerican privateers were quick to prove them wrong. The assaults of the privateers on British merchant ships cost Englishbusiness eighteen million dollars throughout the course of the war. Theestimated value of the ships that were captured totaled almost twenty fourmillion dollars. Combined, this makes approximately forty two million dollarslost to the privateers, a fortune in the late eighteenth century. Added to thiswere the sixteen thousand prisoners taken by the privateers, the vast majorityof whom where seamen.
The sheer audacity of the American privateers is evidentin the bold raids against British ships carried on just off the coast of England. Bold captains would sail for the English coast, capture ships, and escort themto French ports for the sale of their goods. These daring exploits had atremendous effect on British trade and morale. Britain’s power rested on hernaval strength, and her colonial empire was fed by her well-developed merchantmarine fleet. The privateers deprived Britain of her source of strength. Asidefrom the monetary loss from captures, privateering had ramifications throughoutthe British economy.
Privateers operating off the American coast effectivelydisrupted trade with the Americas. However, America was only a portion of GreatBritain’s colonial possessions. Taking the war to her coasts impacted all ofher trade routes with all of her colonies. Insurance rates on cargoes beingtransported on ships of British flag skyrocketed. Ships sailing for theAmericas were even more expensive to insure. To insure cargo bound anywherefrom Great Britain cost up to eight percent of the cargoes estimated value by1789.
It was impossible to get insurance for a ship sailing for America unlessshe moved in a guarded convoy, and even then insurance could reach thirtypercent. The loss inflicted by American privateers led to the formation ofthese armed convoys, often consisting of up to fifty ships. Even the linentrade with nearby Ireland was ravaged. Accounts of a convoy of linen shipssailing from Ireland to England with sixty ships, five of them being warships,indicated that less than twenty five arrived safely in England. Two warshipswere sunk, and the rest carried off by American privateers. Eventually, Britishcommerce was crippled.
The loss of ships and capture of experienced seamendrove up the price of transport. Insurance rates were at prohibitory levels. No ship flying an English flag was safe. British merchants began to ship theirgoods on French transports, which was also quite expensive, but still cheaperand safer than a British ship. The British merchants were taking losseseverywhere. The main reason for their prosperity, and that of England’s was thecolonial trade, and the American privateer had effectively denied them of this.
The merchants began to put pressure on Parliament to end the war. In fact, almost every motion put before Parliament to end the war with thecolonies was supported by economic motives. Powerful merchants used theirinfluence to cause dissent in the ranks of Parliament, and soon a strongmovement advocated peace negotiations. The logic was that first, an end ofhostilities would enable Britain to resume normal commercial relations with therest of her colonial possessions.
Second, American manufacturing capabilitieswould take years to develop, and England could profit to some extent from tradewith the former colonies. The system of privateering had wreaked havoc upon theBritish economic system and helped the American rebels win the war for their Bibliography: