The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine

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Chapter II. The Privateers Of ’76

The wars of England with France and Spain spread turmoil upon the high seas during the greater part of the eighteenth century. Yet with an immense tenacity of purpose, these briny forefathers increased their trade and multiplied their ships in the face of every manner of adversity. The surprising fact is that most of them were not driven ashore to earn their bread. What Daniel Webster said of them at a later day was true from the beginning: “It is not, sir, by protection and bounties, but by unwearied exertion, by extreme economy, by that manly and resolute spirit which relies on itself to protect itself. These causes alone enable American ships still to keep the element and show the flag of their country in distant seas.”

What was likely to befall a shipmaster in the turbulent eighteenth century may be inferred from the misfortunes of Captain Michael Driver of Salem. In 1759 he was in command of the schooner Three Brothers, bound to the West Indies on his lawful business. Jogging along with a cargo of fish and lumber, he was taken by a privateer under British colors and sent into Antigua as a prize. Unable to regain either his schooner or his two thousand dollar cargo, he sadly took passage for home. Another owner gave him employment and he set sail in the schooner Betsy for Guadaloupe. During this voyage, poor man, he was captured and carried into port by a French privateer. On the suggestion that he might ransom his vessel on payment of four thousand livres, he departed for Boston in hope of finding the money, leaving behind three of his sailors as hostages.

Cash in hand for the ransom, the long-suffering Captain Michael Driver turned southward again, now in the schooner Mary, and he flew a flag of truce to indicate his errand. This meant nothing to the ruffian who commanded the English privateer Revenge. He violently seized the innocent Mary and sent her into New Providence. Here Captain Driver made lawful protest before the authorities, and was set at liberty with vessel and cargo--an act of justice quite unusual in the Admiralty Court of the Bahamas.

Unmolested, the harassed skipper managed to gain Cape Francois and rescue his three seamen and his schooner in exchange for the ransom money. As he was about to depart homeward bound, a French frigate snatched him and his crew out of their vessel and threw them ashore at Santiago, where for two months they existed as ragged beachcombers until by some judicial twist the schooner was returned to them. They worked her home and presented their long list of grievances to the colonial Government of Massachusetts, which duly forwarded them--and that was the end of it. Three years had been spent in this catalogue of misadventures, and Captain Driver, his owners, and his men were helpless against such intolerable aggression. They and their kind were a prey to every scurvy rascal who misused a privateering commission to fill his own pockets.

Stoutly resolved to sail and trade as they pleased, these undaunted Americans, nevertheless, increased their business on blue water until shortly before the Revolution the New England fleet alone numbered six hundred sail. Its captains felt at home in Surinam and the Canaries. They trimmed their yards in the reaches of the Mediterranean and the North Sea or bargained thriftily in the Levant. The whalers of Nantucket, in their apple-bowed barks, explored and hunted in distant seas, and the smoke of their try-pots darkened the waters of Baffin Bay, Guinea, and Brazil. It was they who inspired Edmund Burke’s familiar eulogy: “No sea but is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not a witness to their toils. Neither the perseverance of Holland nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of England ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this recent people--a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood.”

In 1762, seventy-eight whalers cleared from American ports, of which more than half were from Nantucket. Eight years later there were one hundred and twenty-five whalers out of Nantucket which took 14,331 barrels of oil valued at $358,200. In size these vessels averaged no more than ninety tons, a fishing smack of today, and yet they battered their way half around the watery globe and comfortably supported six thousand people who dwelt on a sandy island unfit for farming and having no other industries. Every Nantucket lad sailed for his “lay” or share of the catch and aspired to command eventually a whaler of his own.

Whaler, merchantman, and slaver were training a host of incomparable seamen destined to harry the commerce of England under the new-born Stars and Stripes, and now, in 1775, on the brink of actual war, Parliament flung a final provocation and aroused the furious enmity of the fishermen who thronged the Grand Bank. Lord North proposed to forbid the colonies to export fish to those foreign markets in which every seacoast village was vitally concerned, and he also contemplated driving the fishing fleets from their haunts off Newfoundland. This was to rob six thousand sturdy men of a livelihood afloat and to spread ruin among the busy ports, such as Marblehead and Gloucester, from which sailed hundreds of pinks, snows, and schooners. This measure became law notwithstanding the protests of twenty-one peers of the realm who declared: “We dissent because the attempt to coerce by famine the whole body of the inhabitants of great and populous provinces is without example in the history of this, or perhaps, of any civilized nation.”

The sailormen bothered their heads very little about taxation without representation but whetted their anger with grudges more robust. They had been beggared and bullied and shot at from the Bay of Biscay to Barbados, and no sooner was the Continental Congress ready to issue privateering commissions and letters of marque than for them it was up anchor and away to bag a Britisher. Scarcely had a shipmaster signaled his arrival with a deep freight of logwood, molasses, or sugar than he received orders to discharge with all speed and clear his decks for mounting heavier batteries and slinging the hammocks of a hundred eager privateersmen who had signed articles in the tavern rendezvous. The timbered warehouses were filled with long-toms and nine-pounders, muskets, blunderbusses, pistols, cutlases, boarding-pikes, hand grenades, tomahawks, grape, canister, and doubleheaded shot.

In the narrow, gabled streets of Salem, Boston, New York, and Baltimore, crowds trooped after the fifes and drums with a strapping recruiting officer to enroll “all gentlemen seamen and able-bodied landsmen who had a mind to distinguish themselves in the glorious cause of their country and make their fortunes." Many a ship’s company was mustered between noon and sunset, including men who had served in armed merchantmen and who in times of nominal peace had fought the marauders of Europe or whipped the corsairs of Barbary in the Strait of Gibraltar. Never was a race of seamen so admirably fitted for the daring trade of privateering as the crews of these tall sloops, topsail schooners, and smart square-riggers, their sides checkered with gun-ports, and ready to drive to sea like hawks.

In some instances the assurance of these hardy men was both absurd and sublime. Ramshackle boats with twenty or thirty men aboard, mounting one or two old guns, sallied out in the expectation of gold and glory, only to be captured by the first British cruiser that chanced to sight them. A few even sailed with no cannon at all, confident of taking them out of the first prize overhauled by laying alongside--and so in some cases they actually did.

The privateersmen of the Revolution played a larger part in winning the war than has been commonly recognized. This fact, however, was clearly perceived by Englishmen of that era, as “The London Spectator” candidly admitted: “The books at Lloyds will recount it, and the rate of assurances at that time will prove what their diminutive strength was able to effect in the face of our navy, and that when nearly one hundred pennants were flying on our coast. Were we able to prevent their going in and out, or stop them from taking our trade and our storeships even in sight of our garrisons? Besides, were they not in the English and Irish Channels, picking up our homeward bound trade, sending their prizes into French and Spanish ports to the great terror of our merchants and shipowners?”

The naval forces of the Thirteen Colonies were pitifully feeble in comparison with the mighty fleets of the enemy whose flaming broadsides upheld the ancient doctrine that “the Monarchs of Great Britain have a peculiar and Sovereign authority upon the Ocean . . . from the Laws of God and of Nature, besides an uninterrupted Fruition of it for so many Ages past as that its Beginnings cannot be traced out."*

* “The Seaman’s Vade-Mecum.” London, 1744.

In 1776 only thirty-one Continental cruisers of all classes were in commission, and this number was swiftly diminished by capture and blockade until in 1782 no more than seven ships flew the flag of the American Navy. On the other hand, at the close of 1777, one hundred and seventy-four private armed vessels had been commissioned, mounting two thousand guns and carrying nine thousand men. During this brief period of the war they took as prizes 733 British merchantmen and inflicted losses of more than two million pounds sterling. Over ten thousand seamen were made prisoners at a time when England sorely needed them for drafting into her navy. To lose them was a far more serious matter than for General Washington to capture as many Hessian mercenaries who could be replaced by purchase.

In some respects privateering as waged a century and more ago was a sordid, unlovely business, the ruling motive being rather a greed of gain than an ardent love of country. Shares in lucky ships were bought and sold in the gambling spirit of a stock exchange. Fortunes were won and lost regardless of the public service. It became almost impossible to recruit men for the navy because they preferred the chance of booty in a privateer. For instance, the State of Massachusetts bought a twenty-gun ship, the Protector, as a contribution to the naval strength, and one of her crew, Ebenezer Fox, wrote of the effort to enlist sufficient men: “The recruiting business went on slowly, however, but at length upwards of three hundred men were carried, dragged, and driven abroad; of all ages, kinds, and descriptions; in all the various stages of intoxication from that of sober tipsiness to beastly drunkenness; with the uproar and clamor that may be more easily imagined than described. Such a motley group has never been seen since Falstaff’s ragged regiment paraded the streets of Coventry.”

There was nothing of glory to boast of in fetching into port some little Nova Scotia coasting schooner with a cargo of deals and potatoes, whose master was also the owner and who lost the savings of a lifetime because he lacked the men and guns to defend his property against spoliation. The war was no concern of his, and he was the victim of a system now obsolete among civilized nations, a relic of a barbarous and piratical age whose spirit has been revived and gloried in recently only by the Government of the German Empire. The chief fault of the privateersman was that he sailed and fought for his own gain, but he was never guilty of sinking ships with passengers and crew aboard, and very often he played the gentleman in gallant style. Nothing could have seemed to him more abhorrent and incredible than a kind of warfare which should drown women and children because they had embarked under an enemy’s flag.

Extraordinary as were the successes of the Yankee privateers, it was a game of give-and-take, a weapon which cut both ways, and the temptation is to extol their audacious achievements while glossing over the heavy losses which their own merchant marine suffered. The weakness of privateering was that it was wholly offensive and could not, like a strong navy, protect its own commerce from depredation. While the Americans were capturing over seven hundred British vessels during the first two years of the war, as many as nine hundred American ships were taken or sunk by the enemy, a rate of destruction which fairly swept the Stars and Stripes from the tracks of ocean commerce. As prizes these vessels were sold at Liverpool and London for an average amount of two thousand pounds each and the loss to the American owners was, of course, ever so much larger.

The fact remains, nevertheless--and it is a brilliant page of history to recall--that in an inchoate nation without a navy, with blockading squadrons sealing most of its ports, with ragged armies on land which retreated oftener than they fought, private armed ships dealt the maritime prestige of Great Britain a far deadlier blow than the Dutch, French, and Spanish were able to inflict. In England, there resulted actual distress, even lack of food, because these intrepid seamen could not be driven away from her own coasts and continued to snatch their prizes from under the guns of British forts and fleets. The plight of the West India Colonies was even worse, as witness this letter from a merchant of Grenada: “We are happy if we can get anything for money by reason of the quantity of vessels taken by the Americans. A fleet of vessels came from Ireland a few days ago. From sixty vessels that departed from Ireland not above twenty-five arrived in this and neighboring islands, the others, it is thought, being all taken by American privateers. God knows, if this American war continues much longer, we shall all die of hunger.”

On both sides, by far the greater number of captures was made during the earlier period of the war which cleared the seas of the smaller, slower, and unarmed vessels. As the war progressed and the profits flowed in, swifter and larger ships were built for the special business of privateering until the game resembled actual naval warfare. Whereas, at first, craft of ten guns with forty or fifty men had been considered adequate for the service, three or four years later ships were afloat with a score of heavy cannon and a trained crew of a hundred and fifty or two hundred men, ready to engage a sloop of war or to stand up to the enemy’s largest privateers. In those days single ship actions, now almost forgotten in naval tactics, were fought with illustrious skill and courage, and commanders won victories worthy of comparison with deeds distinguished in the annals of the American Navy.


Chapter I. Colonial Adventurers in Little Ships  •  Chapter II. The Privateers Of ’76  •  Chapter III. Out Cutlases and Board  •  Chapter IV. The Famous Days of Salem Port  •  Chapter V. Yankee Vikings and New Trade Routes  •  Chapter VI. “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”  •  Chapter VII. The Brilliant Era of 1812  •  Chapter VIII. The Packet Ships of the “Roaring Forties”  •  Chapter IX. The Stately Clipper and Her Glory  •  Chapter X. Bound Coastwise  •  Bibliographical Note

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Old Merchant Marine
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