Privateers Essay, Research Paper

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 the country, and

indeed the Ame rican 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 upward mobility for motivated and talented


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


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 totaled 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


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