Privateers: A Romantic Image among Americans

Topics: Royal Navy, Privateer, Piracy Pages: 6 (2392 words) Published: October 8, 1999

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...
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