The Seven-Years War
The word "privateer" conjures a romantic image in the minds of most Americans. Tales of battle and bounty pervade the folklore of privateering, which has become a cherished, if often overlooked part of our shared heritage. Legends were forged during the battle for American independence, and these men were understandably glorified as part of the formation of our national identity. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of these men were common opportunists, if noteworthy naval warriors. The profit motive was the driving force behind almost all of their expeditions, and a successful privateer could easily become quite wealthy. In times of peace, these men would be common pirates, pariahs of the maritime community. Commissioned in times of war, they were respected entrepreneurs, serving their purses and their country, if only incidentally the latter. However vulgar their motivation, the system of privateering arose because it provided a valuable service to thecountry, and indeed the American Revolution might not have been won without their involvement. Many scholars agree that all war begins for economic reasons, and the privateers of the war for independence contributed by attacking the commercial livelihood of Great Britain's merchants.
It is ironic that the entire notion of privateering began in Great Britain. In 1649 a frigate named Constant-Warwick was constructed in England for a privateer in the employ of the Earl of Warwick.
Seeing how profitable this investment was, a great many of the English peerage commissioned their own privateers. The Seven-Years War saw the proliferation of privateering on both the English and French coasts as each attempted to disrupt their opponent's colonial trade. American investors quickly entered this battle, commissioning ships to prey upon cargo vessels coming to and from French colonial holdings in the Americas. Here began the American privateer heritage, and when the American Revolution began many of these same men viewed the opportunity to profit, and resumed their ventures. The American privateer vessel was a ship "armed and fitted out at private expense for the purpose of preying on the enemy's commerce to the profit of her owners". Not just anyone could be a privateer, however. What distinguished a privateer from a common pirate was a commission, or a letter of marque. These were granted by the government, and were quite easily obtained. The government's benefit was twofold. First, the revolutionary government took a share of the profits from the sale of any cargo captured by a commissioned privateer. The percentage ranged from ten to as much as forty percent, depending on the nature of the cargo. This provided the then cash-starved government with considerable revenue, with little to no overhead. It cost the government virtually nothing to issue a commission, and the financial rewards were great. Second, these privateers disrupted the enemy's trade and sometimes even captured British military transports and supply ships. This system helped the government financially and strategically, while affording the privateer great economic benefits. These fabulous profits created an environment laden with potential for up ward mobility for motivated and talented seamen.
To fully appreciate the available opportunities, one must first be aware of how the individual privateer operated, and a cursory knowledge of ship design is helpful. Virtually every ship in that era, commercial or military, carried at least some cannon. However, these ships could not be outfitted with as many cannons as their owners desired. The term "pierced" refers to the rectangles that were cut in a ship's sides through which cannons were fired. Cannons were usually located on either the top deck, or the level just below it. This lower level was preferable because cannon operation required a good deal of space due to recoil, and lurching cannons were dangerous obstacles to crews working the sails on the main deck. However, these lower piercings were difficult to make after the ship was constructed and affected the structural integrity of the ship itself. It was much easier to piercing the sides of the ship on the main deck, because all it required was a simple U-cut. In fact, many captains who needed to rearrange the placement of their cannons during battle ordered hasty V-cuts on the main deck. As mentioned before however, these were less than preferable because of the danger they posed to seamen trimming the sails. Thus the number and placement of piercings affected the ship's desirability as a privateer. In the early stages of the American Revolution, investors purchased ships of all types, paid for their modification, crew, and provisions, and hired experienced seamen to command them. The entire crew was paid a salary, plus a small percentage of he spoils. These ships would sail out of port laden with ammunition, sidearms, and men, and short on provisions. Space was limited, and it was wiser to carry more men and weapons than food and water. The logic behind this outfitting was that the privateer would hopefully capture ships. Upon capture, the privateer crew would board the enemy ship, disarm the crew and assume command. The privateer captain would then place a small contingent of his men on board the captured vessel to command it back to the nearest American port. The captain and officers of the captured vessel would be placed under cabin arrest on their own vessel, while the privateer commanders quickly sailed for the closest friendly port. On these trips, the English crew continued to sail the ship, under the command of the privateer contingent. These privateers would load all available sidearms, and keep them in a locked room on the poop deck. In the case of an attempted mutiny, the privateers could take the high ground of the poop deck and fire repeatedly on the mutinous crew. The privateer vessel would commandeer the majority of the English ship's provisions, with the logic that the captured vessel was headed for the nearest port and would not need them. By this method the privateers found sustenance.
Many a privateer voyage was cut short because provisions were running low and either no capture had been made, or a capture had insufficient food and water. It was not uncommon for a privateer to capture multiple British ships on one voyage, (the record being twenty-eight!), and so the surplus of men was necessary to man captured vessels.
The mutiny of prisoners was a very real and common danger. Many privateers who took too many prisoners or under-staffed a capture were the victims of viscous mutinies. The case of the sloop Eagle sailing out of Connecticut illustrates this. A six gun ship, the Eagle had captured seven British vessels on one trip. Her complement was reduced to fifteen, and she had taken many prisoners aboard.
When an opportunity presented itself the British seamen turned on their captors, overpowered them, and killed all but two boys. A rule of thumb in the privateering profession was to never capture more ships than the number of ...