Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution

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Release Date: 
May 31, 2022
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“The author makes this solid work of scholarship the sort of book that starts a young person’s love of reading and interest in history.”

Eric Jay Dolan, author of several books on America and the sea, sets out to offer “a comprehensive history of the full extent of American privateering, and just how important it was to the American cause in Rebels at Sea. The author never loses sight of the big picture but still tells lively tales of high adventure.

Privateers, privately owned vessels commissioned by governments to raid enemy shipping, played a major role in the American Revolution. American raiders seized more than twice as many merchant vessels (1,600 to 1,800) than the Royal Navy and British privateers (600 to 700).

The colonies in rebellion and the new nation sent to sea “more than a thousand American privateers” and “tens of thousands of privateer men.” They became predators hiding in numerous inlets and rivers, waiting for their prey. Britain survived on trade, and these ships savaged the Empire’s merchant fleet.

The British Empire reportedly lost as much as 8% of its merchant vessels annually to these privateers. “Such losses were certainly significant, because they were concentrated in the extremely valuable Caribbean trade.”

American privateers took the war to all parts of the North Atlantic. France and then Spain joined the war against Britain, adding even more privateers as well as the threat to seize British possessions in the Caribbean. The Royal Navy had to triple its number of effective warships.

The Founding Fathers, however, debated the merits of privateers and if they drew too much of the military resources of the Continental war effort. These ships, however, played a role in the complex series of events that officially brought France into the war as an America’s ally.

Americans had extensive experience in privateering from the colonial wars with France and Spain but particularly Massachusetts, which later led the American Revolution. That legacy included a century of the Royal Navy impressment (seizing) of merchant sailors to meet the Navy’s shortage of crewmen. Americans fought back years before the revolution.

Founders of the United States became part of this now forgotten history. George Washington created the Continental Navy as “privateers” as he understood the term. Benjamin Franklin had a famously negative history with privateers. Seafaring American heroes like Jonathan Haraden, John Manly, James Mugford, and Thomas Truxton deserve remembering.

African Americans had a place on the privateers. Enslaved but having escaped and also freedmen served in many of the crews. African American boy James Forten became a prisoner while a crew member on a privateer. He avoided sale as a slave and then survived a British prison ship. He would grow up to become a wealthy man, lead the Black community, and join the early American abolitionist movement.

Over 10,000 Africans, captured as cargo by the Americans went on the auction block just as with any commodity. They ended up sold on the American mainland instead of the sugar fields of the Caribbean, further hurting the British Empire’s economy.

Losses to privateers, however, encouraged the British investors to avoid the trade in human beings. These ships and the Black and White crews thereby unintentionally saved tens of thousands of Africans from the sometimes deadly transport on the Middle Passage and bondage in America!

In “the nature of the prizes taken” “there was an imbalance in favor of the Americans.” Captured American prizes were often only privateers and therefore valuable only for armaments and the ships themselves. Some of these ships did carry letters of marque that also allowed them to trade.

British merchantmen taken by American vessels usually carried rich cargoes with a difference estimated at 10 to 1 in overall value. It became a hugely profitable curiously civilized American guerilla war at sea. A large part of British privateering, however, became just taking back ships captured by the Americans!

Not every voyage went well. A voyage could earn huge profits but also could go bust. The crewmen could face death in battle but the sea also offered dangers. Ships like the Fame disappeared at sea.

Captain Moses Brown of the Benedict Arnold and midshipman John Greenwood of the Cumberland had incredible records of bad luck. “Despite the vicissitudes of privateering, many men became serial privateersmen, signing on for multiple cruises.”

Some losses proved significant. The battle of Penobscot Bay and Major General Charles Gray’s Bedford raid proved disasters for the New England privateer fleet and its investors. Whenever possible, the Royal Navy struck back, and usually effectively, at the privateer bases.

Dolin also discusses related subjects in Rebels at Sea. Other topics include British privateers, the prison hulks in New York, and even, in passing, the Confederate privateers of the Civil War.

The author makes this solid work of scholarship the sort of book that starts a young person’s love of reading and interest in history. Dolin never loses the reader in his clear and concise prose. Rebels at Sea has annotation, a select bibliography, and many illustrations, some in color.