The sea hath no king but God alone…
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Thinking about the American Revolutionary War conjures images of George Washington, tea in Boston Harbor, Valley Forge, and an ignominious surrender at Yorktown.
But what about The Pond?
The American Revolutionary War saw the birth of the United States Navy, but first there were privateers. For many, the word privateer is synonymous with pirate, but that’s too simplistic a view. Privateers sailed under Letters of Marque from a country for the purpose of striking a blow against that country’s enemies by capturing prizes – that is, enemy ships and cargo. They flew the flag of their sponsor country and were subject to all laws and treaties of that country. A pirate sailed for no man or country save himself, owed allegiance to no one, and plundered (stole, pillaged, and killed) at will. Some wily pirates did pledge allegiance to a country when the Marque provided access or legitimacy to big scores, but they quickly and indiscriminately dropped their loyalty when necessity withered.
Privateers have sailed the seas for centuries. Think Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha (Turkey), Sir Francis Drake (England), Sir Henry Morgan (Wales), and Jean Lafitte (French Louisiana). After the American Revolutionary War, new names were added to that roll call: Esek Hopkins, David Hawley, Noah Stoddard, and Ephraim Sturdivant.
Rogues ready to snap up any booty on offer, like privateers or pirates on a cruise.
Britain controlled the seas and coastline of its thirteen colonies prior to the American Revolution. In fact, they controlled most of the world’s seas, period. That all changed when the quarrel with the colonies developed, pitting loyal Englishman against disgruntled Englishman. Skirmishes steadily grew in frequency and severity as all-out war approached.
Because it lacked sufficient funds to build a navy of any count, the Continental Congress, in a bill signed by then-President John Hancock on 3 April 1776, gave privateers permission to disrupt the progress of any British ship involved in commerce. It read: “Commanders of Private Ships or vessels of War, which shall have Commissions of Letters of Marque and Reprisal, authorizing them to make Captures of British Vessels and Cargoes.” Congress soon upped the ante by issuing Privateer Commissions that allowed for direct harassment and attack of any British vessel regardless of purpose.
Both levels of privateering drastically changed the War. By seizing British vessels and goods, privateers supplied their fledgling country (and enriched themselves in the process). They also dealt a stiff maritime blow to their Mother Country. An estimated 300 British ships were captured during the War. It’s important not to underestimate the importance of private American seamen capturing vessels of the country that heretofore ruled the seas: victories of both supply and morale. In effect, these colonial upstarts were hoisting the English by their own petard.
It’s likely impossible to determine which was the greater motivator for taking to the seas during this period – politics or profit – but New England was lousy with both whigs and privateers. Huge prizes were taken and fortunes built as the war progressed. One such privateer, John Brown (1736-1803), used his newfound wealth to help found and construct the buildings for a new school in Providence known as Rhode Island College. That’s Brown University now, to you and me.
So as we celebrate our Independence from the tyranny of madness and taxation without representation (No More Kings!), let’s not forget to tip our hats to the unsung heroes of the Revolution. Those legal pillagers of all those who sailed under the flag, “His Majesty’s Jack.” Those harassers and despoilers of Redcoat ports and supply lines. Those usurpers of rum, sugar, and British nationalism.
American Revolutionary Cruisers.
- Slang term taken fro the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- There is a wealth of information to be learned from the National Park Service’s Stories from the Revolution and Privateers of the Revolution from The Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution.
- Find more statistics than you ever thought you’d need at the United States Merchant Marines’ Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War.
- Have your say by being in the know after reading The Privateering Debate in Revolutionary America by Michael J. Crawford.