Much has been written about the evils of pirates and privateers, the latter being those hired guns whose sole purpose was to wreak havoc on another country’s enemies. But one of the best kept secrets about these men of the sea is that they were pivotal in the birth of the United States.
You’ve heard of John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, but you’ve never heard their names mentioned in the same breath as pirates and privateers. Yet without the daring bravery and audacity of privateers with tactics perfected by pirates, the name of the United States might only be a minor footnote in the annals of history.
Glance at a map of the original thirteen colonies, and it becomes apparent almost all bordered the ocean, bays, and rivers ripe with ports for trade. And as the saying goes, “Where there are seas, there are pirates.” Or privateers. Throughout history it often becomes hard to distinguish between the two, but it’s worth noting a few distinct differences. To become a pirate, all you had to do was get a ship and crew and raid till your heart’s content. Or till you were caught and hanged.
Privateers, on the other had, though they shared a likeminded attitude towards raiding, faced several restrictions. For example, privateers had to obtain a letter of marquis from the government they worked for. They usually had to put up a bond as well. They also agreed to attack only certain ships. In the case of the colonies, British ones. Finally, they agreed to bring back the plundered booty for sharing. Aarrrgh!
From New England to South Carolina and beyond, ports with generous harbors abounded, and when things heated up between Colonial America and Britain, so did the activity of privateers. As you can imagine, when the colonies declared their independence, Britain not only amassed large armies on its shores to suppress the rebellion, but sent her finest ships commanded by her most able sea captains to blockade the ports. This was particularly true from Boston to the Mid-Atlantic states.
Without goods coming in or out of the colonies, defeat was all but inevitable. With a stranglehold on needed supplies from countries like France, the war against Britain was destined to become nothing more than a miserable failure. But Congress and state governments granted at least nine hundred letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to do what pirates have always done best. Raid ships, harass the captains, steal cargo, and cripple trade and commerce both on the seas and in port.
Were these privateers effective? Angus Konstam states in his book Scourge of the Seas, privateers took over 600 British commercial ships and with them sailors that Britain could ill afford to lose. Of course, Britain retaliated, but fighting in someone else’s backyard always leaves you vulnerable.
Eventually, Americans adapted and built ships made strictly for privateering. With more guns on bigger ships, privateers became a bigger pain in the ass than Britain could afford. With France and Spain to contend with, Britain could hardly spare ships to blockade American ports. Add to that the financial loss that British merchants were suffering soon had them begging their government to lose its taste for the war effort.
Pirates and privateers, heroes? Who knows? With all the talk about a new face on the ten or twenty dollar bill these days, maybe we should consider John Paul Jones, father of the United States Navy. He was accused of being a pirate because of his attacks in the British Isles during America’s struggle for independence. Or maybe his accusers were just sore because his Bonhomme Richard bested the HMS Serapis. America could do far worse than Jones picture on our twenty dollar bill. “I have not yet begun to fight!” has a nice ring to it. What’s your opinion?