Land of the Free, Made by Rebels of the Sea
ERIC JAY DOLIN
Rebels At Sea. Privateering in the American Revolution
W.W. Norton, 2022. 344 Pages, Colour illus. throughout
Hardcover, £21.37/$ 27.06
By Sean Kingsley
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The world of American privateers has for too long languished wedged between the thrilling, dastardly deeds of pirates and the heroics of the navy. In his latest book focused on privateering during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Eric Dolin majestically rectifies the oversight that the official canon of naval history in Britain and the United States virtually ignores privateers.
Dolin successfully shows through people, events and ships how privateering was no sideshow but was critical to winning the war. In the words of John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, “the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, and independence was won at sea. For this we have the enormous success of American privateers to thank even more than the Continental Navy.”
“American privateersmen took the maritime fight to the British and made them bleed,” Eric Dolin explains. In countless daring actions against British merchant ships, and even warships, privateers pushed British maritime insurance rates sky-high and diverted critical British resources and naval assets away from protecting their vessels to attacking privateers. Privateers also played a starring role in forcing France into the war on the side of the US, a key turning point in the conflict.
On the domestic front, privateering brought welcome goods and military supplies into the new nation, provided cash injections for the war effort, boosted coastal economies through the building, outfitting and manning of privateers and “bolstered America’s confidence that it might succeed in its seemingly quixotic attempt to defeat the most powerful military force of the day.”
To many confused ways of thinking, privateers are misunderstood as little better than pirates chasing ill-gotten gains for personal greed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Privateers were armed ships owned and outfitted by private individuals with government backing to capture enemy ships in times of war. These permits were called letters of marque, formal legal documents issued by the government that gave the bearer the right to seize ships belonging to belligerent nations and claim vessels and cargoes, lock, stock and smoking barrels, as spoils of war.
These prizes were auctioned off at port and their proceeds split between a ship owner and his crew. By attacking the enemy’s maritime commerce and naval forces, privateers inflicted major economic and military pain at no expense to the government. “Privateers were like a cost-free navy,” Eric Dolin writes, or “the militia of the sea.”
The Library of Congress’s Naval Records of the American Revolution lists 1,697 armed vessels, armed with 14,872 cannon and crewed by 58,400 men, as being issued with letters of marque in the course of the war. American privateers seized an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 prizes, inflicting a minimum of between $1.4 and $1.6 billion of damage (in modern value) on Britain’s war economy in terms of ships and cargoes seized from the stream of commerce, Dolin calculates. Massachusetts launched the largest number of privateers at around 600, followed by Pennsylvania (some 500) and then Connecticut and Maryland (about 200 each). Rhode Island was home to nearly 150, and Virginia and New Hampshire well below 100.
Massachusetts had been an especially rebellious thorn in Britain’s side for many years and was infamous as “the metropolis of sedition,” partly reacting to the British Royal Navy’s tendency to raid the region for impressed sailors. The parent struck the child hard during the war in the belief that if the “rabble-rousers in Massachusetts could be crushed any further, resistance would be squelched (a premise that proved to be woefully misguided),” Dolin writes.
The Boston Port Act of 1 June 1774 initiated a naval blockade of Massachusetts, which was followed by the New England Restraining Act or New England Trade and Fisheries Act from 1 July 1775, that schemed to starve New England by restricting the trade of its colonies to Great Britain, Ireland and the British West Indies. The act also banned the colonists from fishing anywhere in the North Atlantic Ocean.
By an Act of 1 November 1775, Massachusetts was lawfully free to unleash privateering hell in the colonies. Around 40 years later, John Adams felt that the impact of the privateers was so profound that “The declaration of independence is a brimborion [a trifle of little value] in comparison with it.”
When the Massachusetts privateer Jonathan Haraden, who took many prizes and seized hundreds of British cannon and prisoners, died of tuberculosis aged 59 in November 1803, he was celebrated as a man of “wonderful triumphs,” “consummate courage and severe intrepidity,” “a perfect hero” entitled “to a place in history by the side of John Paul Jones.” A legacy equal to the legendary naval officer was no mean feat.
Despite the reality that privateers were licensed to plunder, there were similarities to pirates in the way ships fought and crews behaved. Like on most pirate ships, where weeks and months of monotony were cut by the short-lived sniff of the hunt, life onboard a privateer was pretty dull, Dolin explains. Watches scanned the horizon for enemy craft, the crew practiced attacks – cannon had to be kept clean and ready to blast – and meals were made up of beef, pork and beans and salted fish, topped up by fresh fish. “Rotten meat and vegetables, as well as bread riddled with weevils, were relatively common” Dolin explains.
As on pirate ships, privateers too flew no single flag during the Revolution. Many identified themselves by their colony of origin first and foremost. Ships from Massachusetts Bay flew a pine tree with the words ‘Appeal the Heaven’ and South Carolina a rattlesnake. And like pirates, who held no reservations about cunningly flying the flags of enemies to sneak up to their prey, privateers like the 115-ton Hancock from Philadelphia felt no dishonour in rigging up a British flag when it saw the 600-ton English trader the Reward heading from Tortola for London. Privateers in port after a successful cruise of course spent their money recklessly on drinks and entertainment. The sailor’s creed across the board was piratical: “what I had I got, what I spent I saved, and what I kept I lost.”
The structure of command was the greatest difference between privateers and pirates. While sea bandits voted captains in and out of position in a surprisingly democratic way, the captain with a fixed position was the ultimate authority on a privateer.
American privateers set out from Annapolis, Baltimore, Boston, Little Egg Harbor, Newburyport, New London and other ports to sail the Atlantic in search of prey, travelling from Nova Scotia to the West Indies and from the North Sea to Africa. Their aims and exploits made them central to the American Revolution. By the time the end of the war was signed on 3 September 1783 at the Treaty of Paris, privateering had turned into one of America’s top industries. What George Washington called an American victory that “was little short of a standing miracle” was achieved with the major support of little-known captains and crews who stepped up to make the idea of a United States a reality.
Eric Dolin’s Rebels At Sea is original, meticulously researched and connects one of the USA’s great missing links in understanding how the land of the free earned its liberty. Rebels At Sea is rich in stories, historical explanation and tales of derring-do – a new and refreshing take on how the West was won.