The word “privateer” conjures a romantic image in the minds of most Americans. 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 men were 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 common opportunists, if noteworthy naval warriors. The profit motive was the driving force behind almost all of their expeditions, and a successful privateer could easily become quite wealthy. In times of peace, these men would be common pirates, pariahs of the maritime community. Commissioned in times of war, they were respected entrepreneurs, serving their purses and their country, if only incidentally the latter. However vulgar their motivation, the system of privateering arose because it provided a valuable service to thecountry, and indeed the American Revolution might not have been won without their involvement. Many scholars agree that all war begins for economic reasons, and the privateers of the war for independence contributed by attacking the commercial 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 a privateer in the employ of the Earl of Warwick.
Seeing how profitable this investment was, a great many of the English peerage commissioned their own privateers. The Seven-Years War saw the proliferation of privateering on both the English and French coasts as each attempted to disrupt their opponent’s colonial trade. American investors quickly entered this battle, commissioning ships to prey upon cargo vessels coming to and from French colonial holdings in the Americas. Here began the American privateer heritage, and when the American Revolution began many of these same men viewed the opportunity to profit, and resumed their ventures. The American privateer vessel was a ship “armed and fitted out at private expense for the purpose of preying on the enemy’s commerce to 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 a letter of marque. These were granted by the government, and were quite easily obtained. The government’s benefit was twofold. First, the revolutionary government took a share of the profits from the sale of any cargo captured by a commissioned privateer. The percentage ranged from ten to as much as forty percent, depending on the nature of the cargo. This provided the then cash-starved government with considerable revenue, with little to no overhead. It cost the government virtually nothing to issue a commission, and the financial rewards were great. Second, these privateers disrupted the enemy’s trade and sometimes even captured British military transports and supply ships. This system helped the government financially and strategically, while affording the privateer great economic benefits. These fabulous profits created an environment laden with potential for up ward mobility for motivated and talented seamen.
To fully appreciate the available opportunities, one must first be aware of how the individual privateer operated, and a cursory knowledge of ship design is helpful. Virtually every ship in that era, commercial or military, carried at least some cannon. However, these ships could not be outfitted with as many cannons as their owners desired. The term “pierced” refers to the rectangles that were cut in a ship’s sides through which cannons were fired. Cannons were usually located on either the top deck, or the level just below it. This lower level was preferable because cannon operation required a good deal of space due to recoil, and lurching cannons were dangerous obstacles to crews working the sails on the main deck. However, these lower piercings were difficult to make after the ship was constructed and affected the structural integrity of the ship itself. 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 needed to rearrange the placement of their cannons during battle ordered hasty V-cuts on the main deck. As mentioned before however, these were less than preferable because of the danger they posed to seamen trimming the sails. Thus the number and placement of piercings affected the ship’s desirability as a privateer. In the early stages of the American Revolution, investors purchased ships of all types, paid for their modification, crew, and provisions, and hired experienced seamen to command them. The entire crew was paid a salary, plus a small percentage of he spoils. These ships would sail out of port laden with ammunition, sidearms, and men, and short on provisions. Space was limited, and it was wiser to carry more men and weapons than food and water. The logic behind this outfitting was that the privateer would hopefully capture ships. Upon capture, the privateer crew would board the enemy ship, disarm the crew and assume command. The privateer captain would then place a small contingent of his men on board the captured vessel to command it back to the nearest American port. The captain and officers of the captured vessel would be placed under cabin arrest on their own vessel, while the privateer commanders quickly sailed for the closest friendly port. On these trips, the English crew continued to sail the ship, under the command of the privateer contingent. These privateers would load all available sidearms, and keep them in a locked room on the poop deck. In the case of an attempted mutiny, the privateers could take the high ground of the poop deck and fire repeatedly on the mutinous crew. The privateer vessel would commandeer the majority of the English ship’s provisions, with the logic that the captured vessel was headed for the nearest port and would not need them. By this method the privateers found sustenance.
Many a privateer voyage was cut short because provisions were running low and either no capture had been made, or a capture had insufficient food and water. It was not uncommon for a privateer to capture multiple British ships on one voyage, (the record being twenty-eight!), and so the surplus of men was necessary to man captured vessels.
The mutiny of prisoners was a very real and common danger. Many privateers who took too many prisoners or under-staffed a capture were the victims of viscous mutinies. The case of the sloop Eagle sailing out of Connecticut illustrates this. A six gun ship, the Eagle had captured seven British vessels on one trip. Her complement was reduced to fifteen, and she had taken many prisoners aboard.
When an opportunity presented itself the British seamen turned on their captors, overpowered them, and killed all but two boys. A rule of thumb in the privateering profession was to never capture more ships than the number of cannons you had on your own ship. If a privateer had six guns, 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 privateer voyage.
These captured vessels were the primary reason upward mobility was so possible. A captain might return to port with a total of three captured ships on one voyage. He began his adventures as an employee of the investors who furnished him with his original ship and crew. When divvying the spoils, it was not uncommon for a privateer captain to request one of the captured ships for the bulk of his compensation. He could take this ship, hire the best men from his previous crew, and go into business for himself. This resulted in a vacancy on his original ship, and experienced mates often moved up to the position of captain. Additionally, talented officers on a privateer owned ship faced great prospects for their own advancement. It was quite common for a successful first mate to receive a ship of his own to command from a privateer owner/captain. In this way the privateer could increase his holdings and profits by owning multiple ships, and ambitious officers could further their own careers. At the end of the revolution, there were privateers who had as many as ten ships in their service. These men would retire from commanding ships, and oversee the business of “corporate” privateering. This system quickly blossomed after 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” at what they did. Their capture rate is astounding. In 1781 four hundred and forty-nine vessels had been commissioned as privateers, the highest number of any year of the revolution. These ships captured a little over thirteen hundred vessels, and sank almost two hundred more. The British were shocked by the prowess exhibited by American seamen. For years Great Britain had reigned supreme on the seas, and a band of profiteering rebels was not only destroying their trade, but humiliating their Royal Navy. In the early stages of the war privateers would often come across HMS vessels, and attempt to engage them. Although they were not laden with commercial goods suitable for sale they were often troop transports, or even better, supply ships bringing necessities to British troops in America. The Continental Congress had put bounties not on HMS vessels but rather twenty-five dollars a head on English servicemen delivered as prisoners. The ship and any goods were for the privateer to keep. This made troop transports a suitable prize for privateers who could often outmaneuver the larger military ships. A common tactic was to load their cannons with grape shot 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. Positioning himself perpendicular to the British stern, the British would be forced to surrender, being unable to return fire or quickly reposition to do so.
Britain’s loss of maritime and naval supremacy had a tremendous impact on the war. In the beginning of the revolution, most Britons believed that the war would have little or no effect on them personally. Granted, it would be expensive to ship redcoats and Hessians across the Atlantic Ocean, but this cost would be more than covered by the profits British merchants were making from colonial trade. The provisions of the Navigation Acts ensured profits for British merchants as long as the system was in place, and putting down a rebellion made good economic sense. Furthermore, British merchants believed that the war would be fought entirely across the ocean, perhaps destroying some infrastructure in the colonies, but having no effect on British trade. The American privateers were quick to prove them wrong. The assaults of the privateers on British merchant ships cost English business eighteen million dollars throughout the course of the war. The estimated value of the ships that were captured totalled almost twenty four million dollars. Combined, this makes approximately forty two million dollars lost to the privateers, a fortune in the late eighteenth century. Added to this were the sixteen thousand prisoners taken by the privateers, the vast majority of whom where seamen. The sheer audacity of the American privateers is evident in 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 them to French ports for the sale of their goods. These daring exploits had a tremendous effect on British trade and morale.
Britain’s power rested on her naval strength, and her colonial empire was fed by her well-developed merchant marine fleet. The privateers deprived Britain of her source of strength. Aside from the monetary loss from captures, privateering had ramifications throughout the British economy. Privateers operating off the American coast effectively disrupted trade with the Americas. However, America was only a portion of Great Britain’s colonial possessions. Taking the war to her coasts impacted all of her trade routes with all of her colonies. Insurance rates on cargoes being transported on ships of British flag skyrocketed. Ships sailing for the Americas were even more expensive to insure. To insure cargo bound anywhere from Great Britain cost up to eight percent of the cargoes estimated value by 1789. It was impossible to get insurance for a ship sailing for America unless she moved in a guarded convoy, and even then insurance could reach thirty percent. The loss inflicted by American privateers led to the formation of these armed convoys, often consisting of up to fifty ships. Even the linen trade with nearby Ireland was ravaged. Accounts of a convoy of linen ships sailing from Ireland to England with sixty ships, five of them being warships, indicated that less than twenty five arrived safely in England. Two warships were sunk, and the rest carried off by American privateers. Eventually, British commerce was crippled. The loss of ships and capture of experienced seamen drove up the price of transport. Insurance rates were at prohibitory levels. No ship flying an English flag was safe. British merchants began to ship their goods on French transports, which was also quite expensive, but still cheaper and safer than a British ship. The British merchants were taking losses everywhere. The main reason for their prosperity, and that of England’s was the colonial 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 the colonies was supported by economic motives. Powerful merchants used their influence to cause dissent in the ranks of Parliament, and soon a strong movement advocated peace negotiations. The logic was that first, an end of hostilities would enable Britain to resume normal commercial relations with the rest of her colonial possessions.
Second, American manufacturing capabilities would take years to develop, and England could profit to some extent from trade with the former colonies. The system of privateering had wreaked havoc upon the British economic system and helped the American rebels win the war for their independence.