Pi­rates and Pri­va­teers


Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Dana Benner

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.”

The Raids

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.”

Mak­ing Amer­ica

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...

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