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Privateers of the Revolution

By Charles R. Lampson

The word privateer evokes different meanings for different people. Perhaps the definitions of both privateer and pirate will point out the subtle differences between the two.

Privateer: A person who sails under a nation’s or state’s “Letter of Marque” for the sole purpose of capturing prizes (ocher ships) selling the ship and cargo to make a profit for the men and crews. Only vessels of the enemy are fair game. Privateers sailed two types of vessels: one was well-manned for attacking and capturing the enemy’s vessel the other was primarily a cargo ship. Pirate: A person who robs or plunders and commits illegal violence at sea or on the seashore. A pirate owes allegiance to no one but himself and his crew. Vessels of all nations are fair game for the pirate.

In privateering, officers and crew were paid a share of all prize money that was realized
by the sale of the prize vessel and its cargo.

Privateering is almost as old as civilization itself. Records show that the Chinese and Japanese practiced privateering as early as 1200 B.C. The first European records have been traced to the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, these early efforts were not ocean-going, but were concentrated around ports, coastal waters and narrow straits.

One of the first English-recorded privateers was the frigate Constant-Watwick,built by Peter Pett for the second Earl of Warwick (1587-1658). The 400-ton ship carried an armament of 18 short 10 pounders, six short pounders and two minions. (A pounder was the weight of the ball fired by a particular weapon; a minion was a small piece of ordnance with a barrel opening of between 3 and 3 1/4 inches.)

The second Earl of Derby (1606-1651) also registered a privateer, which seemed to start a trend among the British peerage who were, if not the originators, then as least partners.

Privateering began to play an important role in England’s sea power during the “War of Jenkins’ Erl” (1739), which expanded into the European War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). When the war reached the English Colonies in North America, it was known as “King George’s War” (1745-1748). King George II reigned from 1727-1760.

Why Privateering?

The value of privateering for governments lies in the fact that privateers were privately owned vessels. The owners paid the crews, so in the main, it was a “free navy.”

Governments could interrupt the enemy supply lines and sea commerce at no cost to them except to issue a piece of paper, a Letter of Marque. They did not he to buy, build, rent or outfit my vessel or train, maintain and pay a crew.

The officers and crew were paid a share of all prize money that realized by the sale of the prize vessel and its cargo. They could become wealth from privateering. For instance, during the American Revolution, the privateer Rattlanalee netted $1 million from just one Baltic cruise. On a later cruise, it was captured by the British and sailed under the British flag until the end of the war. Another example an outstanding single cruise was the Hope in 1780. The prize cargo consisted of 149 puncheons of rum, 23 hogsheads of rum, 3% casks of rum, 9 barrels of rum and 20 hogsheads of Muscovado sugar. That totaled approximately 26,500 gallons of rum. In 1779, a 14-year-old cabin boy received the following for his share after one cruise: $700,1 ton of sugar, 35 gallons of rum, 20 pounds of cotton, 20 pounds of sugar, 20 pounds of ginger, 20 pounds of allspice and 20 pounds of logwood. No doubt he was popular with his family and very rich-just imagine what the captain of that privateer received as his share. For comparison, a soldier’s monthly pay at that time was $12 and a Continental Navy captain’s pay was about $32.

There were some drawbacks for a government having a large number of privateers. If the government also had a navy, there was competition between the two. This was true during the American Revolution, when more men chose privateering than the Continental Navy. Officers and crews opted for the possibilities of riches versus low pay, and rigid discipline. Also, ship chandlers and ether suppliers preferred casks for their supplies instead of IOUs from the government.

Another drawback was the cold hard fact that today’s ally may well be tomorrow’s enemy. During times of war, pirates would become privateers, selling themselves to the highest bidder. When the war ended, they often would return to pirating. This was particularly true in the 1500-1600s in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Once a French privateer captured the first Spanish treasure ship in the Caribbean and realized the fantastic riches that were available, the race was on. When France and Spain made peace, many privateers became pirates and continued to plunder the Spanish Main.

The French And Indial War, Seven Years War

Privateering thrived in the Colonies for the first time during this war. As might be expected, most
of the privateers were from the New England area, and many became rich as a result of their efforts. Examples were the Brown brothers, John and Nicolas, from Providence, R. I. Their most profitable privateer was the Gamecock, commanded by Capt.. Abraham Whipple (1733-1819). In one six-month cruise Whipple captured 23 prizes. He later married the sister of Samuel and Esek Hophs, and became the first afid only Commodore of the 11 Continental Navy. Whipple became one of the first captains in Continental Navy, and before that led the raid on the H.M.S. Gasbee in 1722. He and has four-squadron were captured with the fall of Charleston, S.C., in May 1780, and he I spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war.

John Brown (1736-1803) helped construct the buildings and founded Rhode Island College at Providence. Today, that college is known as Brown University.

During the war, the French privateers were so numerous and successful in the European waters I of the Atlantic that they came close to bringing England’s sea commerce to a halt.

Mark M. Boatner (see References) reports that 1 nearly U,000 American seamen were privateers. Many New Englanders became wealthy and added a new class of prosperity to the area.

The American Revolution

On Nov. 5,1775, John Adams wrote the following to James Warren of Massachusetts:

“I want to how what is become of the whale men, cod fishers and other seaman belonging to the Province and what number of them you imagine might be enlisted into the service of the I continent, or of the Province, for private adventures, in case a taste of Privateering and maritime warfare should prevail. Whether you think two or three battalions could be enlisted in our Province.

“What ships, brigantines, schoolars are suitable for armed vessels might be purchased or hired, and at what pirates in our Province, and what their burthen, depth of water, length of keel, breadth, height between decks, age etc. and to whom they belong.

“What places are most suitable that is safest and best accommodated for building new vessels, if any I should be wanted – and what shipwrights may be had, and in what time vessels completed.

“But above all, what persons, their names, ages, ages, place of abode and charters, may be found in our Province who might be qualified to serve as commanders and officers etc.

“These are necessary enquires, and I am ill qualified to make them, yet to tell you a secret in confidence, it has become my duty. There is a disposition prevailing to spare no pain or expense in the necessary defense of our rights by sea or land.”

0n March 23, 1776, the Continental Congress resolved: “That the inhabitants of these Colonies be permitted to fit out armed vessels 1to cruise on the enemies of these Unite-d States.” In fact, the Congress would issue a total of 1,697 Letters of Marque during the war, with ‘ various states issuing between 942 and 1,151 letters for a total of between 2,639 and 2,848. This includes letters issued by Benjamin Franklin in Paris to mostly Irishmen who plied the waters around the British Isles. It also includes the six letters issued to Oliver Polluck in New Orleans.

Privateers Often Incorrectly Identified

In many books, the authors incorrectly identify the first ships of the Continental Navy as privateers. In fact, the first vessels to interrupt British sea commerce were eight schooners hired by George Washington and manned by members of Col. Glover’s Massachusetts 14th regiment, known as the Marbleheaders. Army officers manned the schooners with army crews and operated horn September 1775 until November 1777. After Washington assumed command at Cambridge, Mass., he realized the importance of a sea force 60 disrupt British supply ships and help supply his army. The group was known as Washington’s navy or schooners. The army crews manning the vessels were all experienced seamen, from fishermen to merchantmen. The vessels were the Hannah, Hancock (formerly Speedwell), Franklin (formerly Elizabeth), Lee (formerly Two Brothers) Warren (formerly Hawk), Harrison (formerly Triton), Washington (formerly Endeavor), and the Lynch.

During the Revolutionary War, as before, there were huge profits to be made in privateering. Since this was a new country’s first war, privateering would have a mixed impact.

The history of the schooners, the exploits and adventures is a story itself. The Hannah was one of the first successful vessels. On Nov. 27,1775, it captured a British ordnance vessel, the Nancy. At a time when the new Continental Army desperately needed military supplies, the cargo that was turned over to it consisted of 2,000 muskets, 31tons of musket shot, 30,000 round shot of various sizes, 100,000 musket flints, 11mortar beds, and a 2,700-pound 13-inch mortar base. hall, Washington’s little fleet captured a total of 55 prizes that yielded the necessary dietary supplies for the new, ill-equipped army.

For privateers, the most popular hunting area was the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At times, there were so many in the area they got in each other’s way. More than once, the captains went to battle stations only to discover their prey was a few privateer.

The second most popular place was the Caribbean, where privateers would team up to attack British convoys “wolf-pack style.”

Thousands of Men on Privateers

Throughout the war an estimated 70,0000-plus men served aboard privateers that carried upward. of 20,000-plus guns. Compare that with the Continental Navy, which had a total of 53 ships, 340 officers and 3,000 men, and carried only 2,770 guns.

Privateers captured an estimated 3,087 prizes, including 89 British privateers. The British accounted for only 1,U5 American merchantmen and 216 privateers.

American seamen captured at sea’ were considered traitors and their treatment was harsh, particularly for those imprisoned in England, which most Americans were captured on land. also received harsh treatment on the British prison ships, but they were considered to be prisoners of war. It is a little-known fact that more Americans died while in captivity than in all the sea and land battles combined. The Continental Navy and the privateers combined captured 16,000 seamen, compared with 22,000 British soldiers/loyalists captured on land.

Estimates of the total value of privateers’ prizes captured range from $15 million to $60 million. (The British estimated that 10 percent of the troops and cargo sent to. America never made it.)

The navy never had more than eight ships at sea at one time during the war, while the privateers had hundreds. In 1781, for instance, there were only three navy vessels at sea compared with 499 privateers.

Many historians have treated the subject of privateers as an unimportant aspect or contribution to the American Revolution. I disagree, because a lot more data has become available over the past 50 years that points to their important contribution. For example, there was once thought to be only about 2,000 privateers, but with the publishing of The Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, we know Congress alone issued 1,697 Letters of Marque. Many privateers operated in European waters and harassed the British. We can look at what the three privateers under Benjamin Franklin accomplished when he issued Letters of Marque in Paris. These Irish-manned ships were the Black Prince, the Black Princess, and the Fear not, which in a 15-month period, 1779-1780, captured 114 prizes. Operating around the British Isles, American and FT privateers and John Paul Jones of the Continental Navy forced the British Navy to stay at home instead of deploying many of its vessels to American waters. The same was true in the Caribbean, where the British had to stay in the area to protect their island possessions.

Many Future Naval Officers on Privateers

Many of the future United States Navy officers gained valuable experience as privateers. Some names that are familiar to seagoing types are Truxton, Porter, Biddle, Decantur, Barney, Talbot, Barry, Perry, Murray, Rogers, Cassin, Little, Robinson, and Whipple.

The American Revolution was the last hurrah for American privateers. There were very few during the War of 1812, which was a war with minimal sea encounters. Navy ships had become so large and carried so much armament that armed merchantmen “privateers” were no match for them. In 1856, the Declaration of Paris did much to discredit privateering throughout the world. The South issued a few Letters of Marque during the Civil War but after that, the practice of privateering ended in the U.S.

Piracy, on the other hand, continued and in certain parts of the world is still a threat to merchant shipping. There is an occasional incident in the waters around South America, but there are continual activities in the South China Seas, around the thousands of islands in the Philippines and Indonesia and off the coast of Somalia. Other less active areas are in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. According to the International Maritime Bureau, in 2000, 419 incidents were reported, resulting in the deaths of 72 people.

The complete story of the American privateers has yet to be told, although many have tried. Over the years, records have been lost and some are yet to be discovered. The story is an interesting one and space precludes a more detailed study of any aspects of the subject, especially some of the personalities such as Jonathan Haraden, considered to be the John Paul Jones of privateering. There was Gustavus Conyngham, whom the English dubbed the Dunkirk Pirate. The story of the Jersey Whaleboat men could be an article by itself.


  • Boatner,Mark W. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Stackpole Books, Merchandianicsburg, PA 2004

  • British Newspapers Articles from the London Chronicle, Currant, Event Post, and Public Advertiser, 1770-1782.

  • Clark, William Bell. Ben Franklin’s Privateers: A Naval epic of the American Revolution, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA 1956.

  • Coggins, Jack. Ships and Seaman of the American Revolution, Stackpole Books, Merchanicsburg, PA 1969.

  • Fowler, William M. Rebels Under Sail: the American Navy during he American Revolution, Charles Schribner’s Sons, New York, NY 1976.

  • Hearn, chester G. George Washington’s Schooners: The First American Navy, Naval Institute Proceedings, Annapolic, MD 1995.

  • Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Letter of the Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789, Washington, DC, 1976-1999.

  • Maclay, Edgar Stanton, A History of American Privateering, D. Appleton and Company, New York, NY 1899.
    Miller, Nathan, Sea of Gory: a Naval History of American Revolution. The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, Charleston, SC 1974.

  • Stivers, Reuben Elmore, Privateers and volunteers, Naval Institute Pres, Annapolis, MD 1975.

  • Whipple A.B.C. Fighting Sail, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA 1978.

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