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Before the Revolutionary War began, the Continental Congress showed little interest in creating a navy for the new nation (Nelson 62). Congress was reluctant to supply the funds to purchase or build ships, purchase supplies, or pay sailors to man the ships. When the Revolution began, however, Congress realized it was important to have American ships patrolling the coasts of the new nation, especially because Britain’s naval force was the most powerful at the time (Frayler). Consequently, the Americans turned to privateering. Privateer ships were privately owned vessels and were similar to pirate vessels. Unlike pirates, privateers were authorized by the government to attack ships belonging to an enemy. Privateering during the Revolution financially benefited both sailors and colonists alike and it assisted the Continental Army by providing supplies. American privateers, commissioned by the Continental Congress and the colonies, played an important role in the development of the United States and the outcome of the Revolutionary War.
Beginning in 1775, soon after the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress and individual colonies began commissioning privateers (Konstam 148). In November of 1775, the Massachusetts General Court approved “An Act For Encouraging the Fixing out of Amed Vessels” (Patton 27). This act allowed citizens to “equip any vessel to sail on the seas, attack, take and bring into any port in this colony all vessels offending or employed by the enemy” (qtd. in Patton 27). Additionally, it outlined the proper procedure for obtaining commissions and creating prize courts to distribute the captured wealth.
The Continental Congress passed an act on March 23, 1776, which formalized the commissioning process and established rules of conduct for privateers (Frayler). The act required owners of privateering vessels to post monetary bonds in order to verify that they would adhere to Congress’s regulations. (Frayler). Applications for commission required the applicant to supply a sum of money as much as $10,000 as a promise to treat captives with “the greatest humanity and tenderness” (Patton 98). Applicants were charged $5,000 if the vessel weighed less than 100 tons and $10,000 if it was larger (Kuhl 86). In another act, passed on April 3, 1776, Congress issued instructions for the commanders of privateering vessels. The act authorized the commanders to “by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the inhabitants of Great Britain on the High Seas,” and “by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all ships and other Vessels whatsoever carrying Soldiers, Arms, Gun powder, Ammunition, Provisions, or any other contraband Goods, to any of the British Armies or Ships of War employed against these Colonies” (qtd. in Salem Maritime National Historic Site).
As Massachusetts’s act suggested, any vessel could become a privateer (Patton 27). Although this quickly increased the number of privateers on the seas, it made it possible for ships of any condition to become privateering ship. When Washington, a large Continental schooner, was captured by the British, the Royal Navy deemed it to be unsuitable for sea or for war, suggesting that not all privateer ships were in the best condition when they were commissioned (Patton 32-33). The physical state of a ship was important, but the size of a ship was equally significant. The largest ship was the Caesar, a 600-ton, 26-gun ship and the smallest was the 8-ton Defense (Frayler). The most prevalent ships were two-masted schooners and brigantines. By early 1776, ships of all sizes were cruising the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Canadian coast (Konstam 148).
In order to become a privateer, the owner of the ship had to be issued a letter of marque and reprisal. These documents promised that the bearers would not be prosecuted as pirates by their home nation (History Channel). If a ship attacked another ship but did not have a letter of marque, the attackers were considered pirates and could be hung for their crimes (Kuhl 12). Letters of marque provided extra protection to the bearer because it guaranteed that captured privateers would be treated as prisoners of war rather than criminals by the foreign nation (History Channel). The documentation from this time is incomplete, but about 1,700 Letters of Marque were provided on a per-voyage basis to Revolutionary privateers (Frayler).
Although letters of marque were supposed to protect the privateers, the promises made by the Congress were never fully accomplished because the British passed the Pirate Act in March of 1777 (Patton 34). Under this act, privateers were regarded as pirates, and were denied both due process in British courts and the opportunity for prisoner exchange. As a result, many captured American privateers were jailed and had only three options to get out: join the Royal Navy, escape, or die.
Even before the Pirate Act was passed, the British often treated their prisoners poorly (Kuhl 43). However, it is worth noting that many British citizens disagreed with the poor conditions that American privateers were subject to and many opponents called the Pirate Act “cruel, persecuting” and “shocking to humanity” (qtd. in Patton 142). In December of 1777, about one hundred Londoners met together and raised £1,300 to be allocated to American inmates so they could purchase goods that were otherwise unavailable to them (Patton 143-144). Three members of the House of Lords also contributed money to the cause and charities and churches donated food and other supplies.
The risk of capture, imprisonment, or death did not deter sailors and citizens from rushing to become privateers. Men continued to join privateering vessels because of the promise of riches. Although privateers received no pay for their service other than the spoils they stole from British ships, many men signed up to become privateers because they could quickly earn a large sum of money (Konstam 148). Privateering was so lucrative that it was possible for a man to make more money in a month as a privateer than he could earn in another occupation in an entire year (Patton xvii). There is at least one known instance of a sailor, Joseph Peabody, who rose from a lowly deckhand to a privateer investor by participating in just nine voyages between 1777 and 1783 (Patton 115). In August of 1776, John Adams observed, “Thousands of schemes for privateering are afloat in American imaginations. Out of these speculations many fruitless and some profitable projects will grow” (qtd. in Patton 113).
When a ship was captured by privateers, it was usually taken to a friendly port (Kuhl 33). Crews on a privateer tended to be larger than normal because part of the crew was required to board the captured ship and sail it. Goods captured by privateers, called prizes, were usually subject to judgement in an admiralty court (Kuhl 12). The admiralty court decided if the captors were eligible for payment and if they had followed the correct protocols (Kuhl 87). In order to receive payment, the prize had to arrive in port with the correct paperwork and whole cargo; it had to have been captured from an enemy; and the prisoners could not be harmed and their personal belongings could not be confiscated. However, in some cases of extreme need, supplies could be sent to the Army without being invoiced (Patton 120). In the case of the cargo ship Lively, the load of clothing and blankets were sent directly to American troops, and the captors did not receive payment for the supplies, which were estimated to be worth £25,000.
When the admiralty court decided that the crew had followed the correct protocols, the prize would then be auctioned off and the crew would be paid (Patton 121). Once they were paid, privateers tended to equally divided the payment between crew and owners (Kuhl 51). In some cases when the military was bidding on supplies, the public would sometimes refrain from bidding (Patton 121). Although this saved the government money, it lessened the payment that the crew would receive. Once the auction had ended, the winning bidder was usually required to immediately pay five percent of the purchase price (Patton 118).
In its infancy, Revolutionary privateering was a disaster. The first privateering ship, the Hannah, would cause numerous problems for Congress (Nelson 87). The captain of Hannah was reluctant to sail far from port so he frequently seized merchant ships belonging to fellow Americans (Patton 30). The first ship captured by Hannah was Unity, a continental transport belonging to a member of Congress. Although Unity had been captured by the British, Hannah’s crew received no payment for the recapture of the transport ship. As a result, thirty-six members of the angry crew mutinied and were punished when the mutiny was eventually subdued (Patton 31). The next seven ships captured by Hannah also belonged to Americans, and damages had to be paid out of Continental funds for the merchandise that the crewmen stole. Another early privateer ship, Washington, captured only one legitimate prize (a load of hay) before being captured by the British after only eight days of service (Patton 32).
Despite the discouraging beginnings, not all privateering ventures were disastrous. Lee, a small schooner crewed by 50 men, was able to capture Nancy, a transport ship that was four times the size of Lee (Patton 35). Despite Nancy’s size, Lee was able to capture the transport ship because Nancy’s crew was disoriented after sailing through a storm and they had mistaken the Lee for a Royal Navy ship. The British ship was loaded with precious supplies: tons of ammunition, thousands of weapons, and a three-thousand-pound mortar were all seized for use by the Continental Army. The cargo had an estimated worth of £10,000 to £30,000. In 1776, the Continental schooner Franklin intercepted the three-hundred-ton British transport, Hope (Patton 44). Hope carried numerous cannons and muskets as well as seventy-five tons of powder, making it the most valuable prize captured during the Revolution. When Hope and the cargo were finally auctioned off, they would be sold for more than $1.5 million (Patton 118). A Salem privateer ship named the Rattlesnake captured more than $1 million worth of prizes in a single cruise (Konstam 148). The Connecticut privateer Defence successfully captured two British transports, George and Annabella, and a third ship within a period of a few days (Kuhl 41-42). The captured ships carried necessary equipment, including tent supplies, blankets, cooking supplies, clothing, and small arms and bayonets (Kuhl 44). Washington immediately demanded that these supplies be sent to the Continental Army stationed in New York.
Sailors were not the only people to profit from government-endorsed piracy against British fleets. Many ports, including the ports at Salem, Baltimore, and particularly Boston, benefitted from the privateers that operated off their coasts (Konstam 148). General Washington praised Bostonians for “the valuable prizes that have been lately brought into your port. We stand in need of all your activity to increase our supplies by these means” (qtd. in Patton 107). Rhode Island benefitted as well, and an estimated £300,000 worth of prizes were brought into Providence between April and November of 1776 (Patton 91).
Sailors of privateer ships often pledged future earnings to creditors as a way to settle debts (Patton 79-80). If the sailor’s earnings exceeded the debt amount, the agreement allowed the creditor to keep the difference. Investors earned money by owning and trading privateers shares (Patton 80). The value of these shares depended on the quality of the ship and the competency of the crew. A sixteenth of a share in a small privateer ship cost £56 during the war (Patton 91).
Manufacturing companies in the colonies profited as well. One cannon company owned by the Brown family in Providence, Rhode Island, sold their cannons for £35 per ton (Patton 88). Congress ordered sixty twelve- and eighteen-pound cannons for their privateering vessels and a former member of Congress ordered twenty-six cannons (Patton 89). However, because many of the guns manufactured by the Brown’s company were set aside for private ships who would pay in advanced and pay extra for weapons, customers like Congress had to wait a long period of time for their guns to be produced (Patton 90).
Although privateers helped the American cause by supplying the Continental Army with goods and weapons, privateering had a downside: privateers were owned by individuals, rather than the Navy or government, so they were not obligated to fight enemy ships (Nelson 285). While this helped maximize profits for the privateers, it limited their usefulness in the war. However, targeting merchant vessels did help the Revolutionary cause by applying financial pressure to English merchants (Kuhl 51). The Americans knew that if they harassed the British merchants enough, the merchants would in turn pressure Parliament and the king into ending the war.
The popularity of privateering also decreased the number of men fighting in the Continental Army (Patton 124). Naval sailors were especially attracted to privateering, and they frequently deserted the Navy. While the Continental Navy offered many of the same benefits as privateers (such as a doubled prize share for the first sailor to spot an enemy vessel and a tripled share for the first sailor to board an enemy vessel), privateers had no regulations against cursing and did not require sailors to attend a religious service twice a day (Patton 78). As a result, the government began to place embargoes on the privateering industry (Patton 124). Before a privateer or merchant ship could leave its home port, the town had to fulfill the military manpower quotas for the town. Unsurprisingly, businessmen openly protested the embargo. John Adams opposed the embargo as well, stating, “I am sorry the embargo was ever laid. I am against all shackles upon trade. Let the spirit of the people have its own way” (qtd. in Patton 124)
As the Revolutionary War progressed, the success of the privateers began to dwindle. In 1777, British Parliament authorized their own anti-American privateers (Patton 107). Parliament had been initially been reluctant to authorize anti-American ships because it would acknowledge America as a legitimate country. As a result of Parliament’s decision, more than a thousand loyalist ships were launched from Britain and the West Indies and another one hundred warships launched from New York. Some estimates claim that admiralty courts in New York were inundated with up to 2,600 requests for privateer commission and letters of marque (Patton 147).
It is difficult to calculate the number of American privateers killed, but records show that 832 Continental seaman (not including privateers) had died at sea during the Revolutionary War (Patton 111). During the Revolution, American privateers had captured more than three thousand British merchant ships (Konstam 148). Other sources state that eight hundred vessels that were commissioned as privateers have been credited with capturing or destroying about six hundred British vessels (Frayler). The British lost an estimated £6 million annually as a result of privateering during the war (Patton, 43). Maritime diminution in the West Indies alone by mid-1777 were calculated at £2 million (Patton 135). Additionally, American privateers caused an estimated $18 million (a little more than $302 million today) worth of damage to British ships (Frayler). In fact, shipping losses caused by privateers were a part of the reason in Britain’s decision to surrender (Konstam 148).
Privateering was initially a disaster but many ships were very successful in capturing British vessels. Although privateering was dangerous, it was an extremely profitable venture that many Americans benefitted from. Sailors benefited by quickly earning money, merchants supplied weapons and other necessary items to privateers, and investors could earn money by trading stock in privateer ventures. Most importantly, privateers helped supply the Continental Army with captured British goods, such as clothes, blankets, weapons, and gunpowder. Privateers, regardless of their successes and failures, played a crucial role in the development of the United States and the outcome of the Revolutionary War.
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