Privateers


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
seamen.
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