How a Rogue Navy of Private Ships Helped Win the American Revolution
When it came to waging war at sea during the American Revolution, the mighty British Navy had a huge advantage over its inexperienced little colonial counterpart. But while the Continental Fleet had little impact on the outcome of the war, tens of thousands of citizen sailors in search of both liberty and fortune played a critical, but underestimated, role in the quest for independence. An armada of more than 2,000 so-called privateers commanded both by the Continental Congress and by individual states attacked enemy ships on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, severely disrupting the British economy and turning public opinion British public against the war.
In a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, international law permitted countries at war to allow private sailors to seize and loot enemy ships. While privateers differed from pirates in that they were given legal permission to operate through an “official letter of mark and retaliation,” the distinction meant little to those who encountered marauders on the high seas.
Colonial corsairs were driven by both patriotism and capitalism
Although the cash-strapped American colonies could never challenge Britannia’s rule over the seas, they did have an advantage over their homeland. “[The British] we have much more to lose than we have, ”joked Declaration of Independence signatory Robert Morris. Faced with the impossibility of building a fleet to compete with the most powerful navy in the world, the Continental Congress decided to allow privateers as guerrilla-type disruptors.
During the siege of Boston at the start of the American Revolution, George Washington had hired private ships and staffed them in uniform. The Continental Congress went further in March 1776 by allowing individuals “to equip armed ships to navigate the enemies of these united colonies”. Privateers seeking commissions were required to post bonds of up to £ 5,000 as collateral to ensure that captives would not be mistreated and knowingly plunder American or neutral ships.
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While Washington offered the crews of its makeshift navy a third of the goods they captured and sold, the Continental Congress appealed to the financial interests of citizen sailors by decreeing that privateer crews could keep all their plunder. “This seed of financial incentive mixed with patriotic obligations has awakened the independent spirit of capitalism”, says Robert H. Patton, author of Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution.
The measure immediately proved popular when merchants, whalers and fishermen converted their ships into makeshift warships. In May 1776, at least 100 New England privateers plied the waters of the Caribbean. “Thousands of privateer projects are afloat in the American imagination,” wrote John Adams. According to the National Park Service, the Continental Congress issued about 1,700 letters of marque during the war, and various US states issued hundreds more. The privateer proved so popular that the Continental Congress distributed pre-printed and pre-authorized commission forms with blank spaces for entering the names of ships, captains and owners.
The proliferation of privateers, however, infuriated Continental Navy commanders such as John Paul Jones. Not only did the reluctance of the privateers to take enemy prisoners made the exchange negotiations for the return of American sailors more difficult, but the privateers drew many sailors away from the navy with prospects of better wages, periods of shorter enlistments and engagements with unarmed merchant ships. instead of the dreaded Royal Navy warships.
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Much like stock market investors, speculators have made great fortunes buying stocks and financing privateer businesses. Shipowners and investors usually received half the value of the goods seized, the other half being distributed among privateer crews. “The comrades who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots,” New England aristocrat James Warren noted of those involved in the running. Morris saw private racing as a numbers game that relied on volume. “One finish will pay for two, three or four losses,” he wrote. “Therefore, it is better to keep doing something constantly.”
Sent in 1776 to French-owned Martinique, a hub of international trade, to secure the weapons of the continental army, the future delegate of the Continental Congress and American senator William Bingham also called on “private adventurers” of any nationality to attack. British ships. The corsair became so prevalent in the Caribbean that at one point 82 English ships were anchored at Saint-Pierre awaiting the sale of their stolen goods – in some cases to their original owners. Bingham’s cut on a single cargo of coffee and sugar exceeds a quarter of a million dollars in current terms, according to Patton, who writes that “Bingham’s privateer activities have propelled him into the financial stratosphere.”
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Privateers damaged the British economically and politically
Not only did the hit and run attacks by American privateers seriously disrupt British trade from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Caribbean Sea; they also operated near British coasts, even ambushing merchant ships in the English Channel. The result: Marine insurance rates and the prices of goods imported into Britain began to soar.
The privateers’ success in plundering and hijacking ships angered wealthy British merchants, as well as consumers facing higher costs. Denying the legitimacy of the Continental Congress or its right to license privateers under international law, many British lawmakers viewed American trade raiders as pirates. Parliament passed the Pirate Act of 1777 which allowed American privateers to be detained without trial and denied them prisoners of war rights, including the possibility of exchange. The measures spurred an anti-war movement among the segment of the British public which saw the country compromising its moral values in its treatment of enemy combatants and its decision to allow its own privateers and revive the forced conscription of British citizens into the Marine.
As a result of the Pirate Act, the Royal Navy captured or destroyed hundreds of American privateers. Most of the 12,000 sailors who died in British prison ships during the war were privateers, and the losses left behind a generation of widows and orphans in some New England ports. In Massachusetts, according to Patton, Newburyport lost 1,000 men in the destruction of 22 privateer ships, while Gloucester lost all of its 24 registered privateers, halving the adult male population in the war.
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Yet despite British repression, there were over 100 privateer strikes in British waters in 1778 and over 200 in 1779, according to James M. Volo. Blue water patriots. This delighted Benjamin Franklin, who, from his diplomatic post in Paris, addressed letters of marque to Irishmen sailing around the British Isles and encouraged American privateers to sell the goods captured in French ports to create a diplomatic crisis between the British and French. “Franklin used privateers to drive a wedge between France and Britain, which had a difficult peace,” Patton says. “The war was not really decided before France entered, and Franklin’s manipulation of the privateers was a major part of it.
While the Mainland Navy captured nearly 200 ships as prizes during the war, Patton reports that privateers have brought back 2,300, according to conservative estimates. “The corsairs not only had an economic impact on the enemy, but in a political sense, they reversed the trend of the British civilian population against the war effort,” Patton says.