A privateer is a privately owned and armed ship licensed by its government to capture enemy trading vessels during times of war. Privateering has been historically interpreted as a combination of swashbuckling adventure and pseudo-piracy on the high seas. While there’s some truth to the former due to the freewheeling nature and libertine-like outlook many of the pirates had, the latter isn’t a fair comparison. Early American privateers weren’t pirates; the vast majority, in fact, were honorable, industrious, patriotic capitalists, and they played a crucial role in helping the colonies end British dominion.
Eric Jay Dolin, who has written fourteen books on diverse topics such as the fur trade, whaling, maritime history, hurricanes, and, as it happens, American pirates, has set out to correct the record about privateering. His newest work, Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution, refutes the widely held assumption that revolutionary-era privateers were a “sideshow in the war” and instead demonstrates that privateering was “critical to winning the war.” The historian notes that American privateers’ attacks on British shipping not only caused the mother country’s trade to suffer, but also generated questions over the war’s viability from the Admiralty’s point of view. At the same time, the attacks inspired confidence in America’s fight against the world’s preeminent military power and brought in desperately needed goods, military supplies, and money.
In 1775, Massachusetts became the first colony to be associated with privateering. That’s not terribly surprising when you consider its deep connection to the sea and its rebellious attitude towards its distant rulers. Dolin writes that the British considered Massachusetts to be the source of the colonies’ desire for self-rule, hence the British targeted that colony first.
New Hampshire and Rhode Island followed suit, successfully launching their own privateering missions the next year. On April 3, 1776, instructions (or regulations) to govern privateering were passed by the Continental Congress and signed by “John Hancock, President.” The three colonies that had already passed laws updated their legislation, and all future privateering commissions fell under Continental law. The instructions pertained to several items, including the vessel’s purpose (both taking prizes and conducting trade), the posting of bonds to ensure lawful compliance ($5,000 to Congress for vessels under one hundred tons, and $10,000 for anything beyond this), and the crew’s composition (one-third had to be non-mariner).
Privateersmen came from different walks of life. Many had maritime backgrounds, including extended service in the Continental Navy, although some came from the army. Crews were entirely male (with one possible exception on the American privateer Revenge, which Dolin couldn’t verify). Black men, including freedmen and escaped slaves, also joined privateers, while enslaved men were occasionally leased. Upon seizing a British slaver (of which forty were taken as prizes over the course of the war, totaling around ten thousand slaves), most American privateers transformed into slave-trading vessels themselves. Dolin, however, claims this action had an indirectly positive effect, citing the historian Christian McBurney’s analysis that because these seizures dissuaded financiers from heavy investment in the trade of human cargo, thousands fewer Africans were enslaved and forcibly transported to the Western hemisphere during the war.
The primary motivation for privateering was, of course, money, not glory. Once the government had authorized a privateer, the vessel embarked in search of prizes, of which the crew, captain included, typically received 50 percent. Of note, the book contains a fascinating discussion of the division of prizes differentiated by the type of attacking vessel. If a ship from the Continental Navy captured a British warship, its officers and crew kept 100 percent of the prize money as opposed to 50 percent for privateersmen. Seizing a British warship was, however, a rare occurrence on the high seas. It was more common to capture a merchantman, of which Continental Navy ships and privateers each kept 50 percent of the prize. The main difference? Continental Navy ships operated mainly in waters that loyalist merchantmen would avoid, whereas privateers could sail anywhere and attack any vessel.
Hence, privateering was a more lucrative line of work than serving aboard the state navies. Britain lost quite a few merchantmen (up to 8 percent each year, by some accounts), which enabled America’s privateers to make tidy profits as well as lend support to the Revolutionary cause.
While some modern historians look unfavorably toward privateering, many great figures of the American Revolution took a starkly different point of view. John Adams was the infant nation’s most vitriolic supporter of privateering. Benjamin Franklin used Continental privateers as bargaining chips to garner French military and naval support as a sort of return on investment for attacking British trade. Thomas Paine served aboard British privateers like Terrible and King of Prussia years before he wrote Common Sense. Some of the “more illustrious speculators” in privateering, as Dolin called them, included General Nathanael Greene, Paul Revere, Isaac Sears of New York’s Sons of Liberty, and—believe it or not—George Washington, who supported (at least) one privateer, which was named General Washington.
There are also intriguing sections of Rebels at Sea related to the privateersmen themselves. Dolin’s love of history and ability to craft intriguing stories bring this memorable, motley crew of characters to life.
There was John Barry, “often called the father of the U.S. Navy,” who served as the captain of a Philadelphia-based privateer, Delaware. Thomas Truxtun, who was appointed by Washington as one of the six original commanders of America’s first permanent navy, captained several privateers like Congress and Chance. There’s the tale of the General Arnold, commanded by the twenty-eight-year-old Captain James Magee—who was experienced at privateering, and rather successful—which crashed into the White Flats shoal near the opening of Plymouth Harbor. John Greenwood, who later became known (through self-promotion) as “Washington’s favorite dentist,” served aboard several privateers. And we can’t forget James Forten, a patriotic black freeman who became an abolitionist and well-respected leader in Philadelphia’s black community and, as a young boy of fourteen, signed up to join the privateer Royal Louis. He was subsequently held as a prisoner of war on both HMS Amphion and Jersey.
Even though the Constitution expressly grants Congress the power to commission privateers in wartime, it is safe to assume, Dolin concludes, that the United States will never find the need to employ them again. Still, for all of its imperfections and questionable attributes, privateering has a romantic air that cannot be replicated by any modern seaborne adventure. Privateersmen were the American rebels of the high seas, and their remarkable story has finally been told before the tide comes in.