Pirates and Privateers
THEIR ROLE IN MAKING AMERICA
Their role in making America
The research for this article took three years to complete. I’ve traveled from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, south to New Orleans, and then to Key West, Florida. I visited Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, the site of the Battle of New Orleans in New Orleans, as well as the Mel Fisher Museum in Key West.
Stories of pirates plying the waters of the Atlantic from Key West to Maine are more numerous than ticks on a dog. Some of them are just that: stories. Others often have a ring of truth to them. Although it might seem doubtful, one thing is certain, if it weren’t for pirates, the United States wouldn’t exist.
I found Hollywood’s portrayal of pirates to be inaccurate. We often see them depicted as eyepatch-wearing, bloodthirsty rogues with parrots on their shoulder. A lot of pirates really were this way, and none were what we’d call upstanding citizens, but most didn’t live like their Hollywood counterparts. What isn’t covered in film is the role that these people played in our country’s history.
The Golden Age of Piracy
Along the North American side of the Atlantic (including the Caribbean), the years 1680-1730 are often referred to by historians as the Golden Age of Piracy, with the most activity happening between the present-day Carolinas south to the Florida Keys and east to the Bahamas. According to Corey Malcom, director of archeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, “though pirates did travel through the waters around the Keys, Key West was never a haven for them before the mid-1800s.”
Nassau, in the Bahamas, became a den of piracy. Its shallow harbor worked well for the shallow draft vessels of the pirates and privateers, yet it was not deep enough to allow the larger and heavier warships to get close. Two other pirate strongholds were Port Royale, Jamaica, and Charleston, South Carolina.
All three of these areas became major trading ports built mainly upon the ill-gotten loot of pirates. Though this is true, and the southern waters were rich hunting grounds with Spanish ships laden with gold, silver and jewels making regular trips between Central
“We often see pirates as eyepatch-wearing, bloodthirsty rogues with a parrot on their shoulder …”
and South America to Cuba and then on to Spain, the North Atlantic had its fair share of pirates and privateers.
Privateers Become the American Navy
When the 13 colonies decided to declare their independence, they were in no position to defy the greatest naval power in the world, which at that time was the British Navy. While most of the American Revolution was fought on land, the flow of supplies needed to fight that war was directly linked to those who controlled the seas, namely the British Navy. Without an adequate force to oppose them, the British Navy would be able to choke off the colonial upstarts. To keep their foes busy, the new nation needed a navy of its own. America turned to hiring private citizens and pirates, making them privateers.
It’s all in a Name
Before we go any further, there are three terms, often used interchangeably, that actually mean different things. Those terms are “pirate,” “privateer” and “buccaneer.” Simply put, a pirate is any person who uses the high seas to commit robberies or other serious crimes. A privateer is a person who is authorized by their government to attack ships or settlements belonging to an enemy
government. Last, but not least, buccaneers were originally merchant mariners from countries other than Spain doing business in the Spanish-controlled Caribbean. These merchants were not allowed in Spanish ports, so they did business with anyone and everyone who was willing to pay the price for the goods they offered.
The lines often became blurred between pirate, privateer and buccaneer, with the title of the person in question often being decided by whom you asked. A couple of examples of this are Sir Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte.
Henry Morgan was a privateer hired by the English to raid Spanish ships in the Caribbean—something he did very well. Though licensed to do this by the British government, Capt. Morgan was considered a pirate by the Spanish. Morgan would attack and capture Spanish ships, bring the ships and cargo to a safe English port, take his share and
turn the rest over to the English authorities, but he didn’t stop there.
Morgan would often trade or sell some of his acquired goods in other ports, thus making a tidy profit. This made him a buccaneer. There are also reports of Capt. Morgan raiding Spanish ports without authorization, thus making him a pirate in the truest sense of the word. Despite this grievous digression, the English authorities ignored his moonlighting.
Jean Lafitte made his name as a pirate, raiding ships from all countries. He sailed the Caribbean and up into the Gulf of Mexico. One of his favorite ports of call was the New Orleans area, though he was known to visit many ports in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In these “safe” ports made so by the proper bribes to the right officials, Lafitte would sell his ill-gotten goods to the highest bidder, thus making him a buccaneer. Lafitte is best known by students of United States history for his role at the Battle of New Orleans alongside Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. So, does this make Lafitte a pirate or a privateer?
The term “hired” is used very loosely here, as there was no real money exchanged between the government and the privateers. The American government had no way to pay these men. Instead, the ship owners paid the crews. Their reward was a share of the spoils taken from a successful raid. In many cases, this was much more than the government paycheck and well worth the risk. If caught by the British, the captains and crews of the privateers were often charged as pirates and hanged.
Armed with Letters of Marque, which authorized them to harass British shipping in the name of the American government, these privateers operated out of many Atlantic ports including Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Newburyport and Boston, Massachusetts; New Haven, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; Baltimore, Maryland; and Richmond, Virginia, just to name a few. An estimated 1,700 Letters of Marque were issued to privateers during the American Revolution.
“… raids were happening so often that many supply ships refused to make the transatlantic crossing without a warship escort.”
American privateers captured muchneeded supplies such as gunpowder, firearms and other goods from British supply ships. Being no match for a toe-to-toe encounter with a British warship, the privateers targeted the often weaker supply ships. By the time a British warship could respond to the attack, the much lighter and faster privateer could easily escape and live to fight another day. By the end of the war, it’s estimated that American privateers took 16,000 British seamen prisoners and captured 3,386 British ships, many of those ships finding themselves now part of the new American Navy.
While securing needed supplies was important to the American cause, a few other things happened because of these raids, other things that were equally, if not more, important. First, every supply ship captured or sunk by the Americans denied supplies needed by the British fighting forces.
In fact, raids were happening so often that many supply ships refused to make the transatlantic crossing without a warship escort.
While the privateers did bring needed supplies to the colonies, they couldn’t do enough to keep the war effort going. Supplies needed to be secured from other sources, namely the French. With the British Navy tied up with supply-ship escort duty, they couldn’t stop the French supply ships from reaching the Americans as effectively as before.
Of course, there were pirates also selling their product to the highest bidder. Though the Americans were not above purchasing these supplies, the fact remains that pirates seized any ship that came within range, whether it was American, French, British or Spanish. That meant dealing with pirates was often a double-edged sword.
“American privateers captured much-needed supplies such as gunpowder ... from British supply ships.”
The birth of the United States was a rough one. We needed to make our place in the world, which is something we could not have accomplished without the use of pirates and privateers. Their presence in the waters along our coast directly affected the war that was happening on land.
(left) Privateers in the American Navy often sailed from the Strawbery Banke area located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. PHOTO COURTESY OF STRAWERY BANKE MUSEUM (below) American privateers obtained the gunpowder and firearms they needed by raiding...
Corey Malcom holds the barrel of a typical early matchlock musket at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. PHOTO BY DANA BRENER
(left) Strawbery Banke is more than a maritime and pirate museum. The grounds host many historic homes, some dating to the 17th century. (below) Visitors come from all over to immerse themselves in living history at the Strawbery Banke Museum. Many of...
(above) Strawbery Banke was a busy seaport, and many a privateer sailed from here. PHOTOS COURTESY OF STRAWERY BANKE MUSEUM (below) This monument marks the location of the Battle of New Orleans. (opposite) The boats used by pirates were often shallow...