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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 17
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p99  16[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]If a Man Coward . . .

Yes, a privateer needed a certain amount of nautical knowledge if he was going to get anywhere, and the more he had the better, for he might be called upon at any time to man a prize and, with a mere handful of his fellow privateers,  p100 take it into a distant port. There might be but five or six of them — and fifty or sixty prisoners below hatches. Those on deck would have to do a little of everything throughout the month or more it might take them to reach port, if they ever did. They'd need to handle the helm and handle sail, swab, cook, keep watch, everything, with all the while the fear of an uprising at their very elbows and an unseen enemy just over the horizon. They didn't get much chance to sleep on those runs. A privateer had to be hardy.

It stands to reason that he had to be physically brave. He had been picked for that purpose. As much as possible the average privateering skipper avoided fighting, which was expensive and even dangerous. Fighting brought no glory — only sabre cuts, only bullets. But the skipper was not always given a choice. He might be trapped and have to fight his way out. Trapping a privateer, driving him into a corner, was one of the favorite pastimes of the Royal Navy, often in co‑operation with privateers on their own side.

Then there was always the threat of the prisoners, who might break out from below, whether you were on your own vessel or on a prize. You and a few others had to handle the vessel. They had nothing to but watch you, marking your habits, your condition. They had nothing else to think about except how wonder­ful it would be to jump you some time when your back was turned. Of course this called for courage.

There are no records of deaths at sea among the privateers, but it is possible to assume that these were at least as many as in the regular Navy.

 p101  There was yet another hazard, seldom faced by the Navy man or the merchant sailor. Privateering vessels almost invariably were oversparred; their sticks, their masts, were too tall, their booms too long. Nor were their hulls, as a rule, capable of taking much of a pounding. In a profession in which your very life might depend upon speed, the privateers spread much too much canvas. They knew this, themselves. It was a calculated risk. Now and then a privateer would crack her sticks and broach‑to, dead-eyes under, and capsize. Now and then, too, one would disappear entirely, without trace. That happened down in the West Indies to the Arrow brig, skippered by Captain Conkling, with 14 guns and 150 men, no scrap of which was ever seen again; it was supposed that she vanished in a white squall. Arrow was not the only one, just the largest.

Yet if there was one quality that was needed above all others, above skill, endurance, courage, it was alertness. The privateer as he went about his business must have been the most wide awake man in the world.

Just getting out of port in the first place often called for the keenest vigilance. In the beginning of the war Britain had only enough warships to blockade effectively the southern ports, up to and including Baltimore, always a great privateering center. Gradually, however, she extended this blockade as far as New York, and eventually it even included the New England ports. They had been spared until that time because New England was notoriously opposed to the war and was threatening to break off from the rest of the states — something that Old England would have loved. Now, privateers laughed at the blockade,  p102 but they did not laugh lightly or for very long. They had to keep their wits about them. One touch of overconfidence when he was sneaking out — or sneaking back — and a man might (as the old‑time sailors used to put it) "wake up with sand in his ears" at the bottom of the sea.

The ocean was crowded in those days, yet running lights were not the rule, so dawn after a dark night often found a privateer within a few hundred yards of an enemy frigate, too late to escape. That happened all the time.

In the same way it happened with rifts in a fog. On August 5, 1812, off Cape Sable, the privateering brig Curlew, out of Boston, abruptly found herself almost in collision with the overtowering British frigate Acasta.​a The fog, which had muffled all sound, swallowing it, closed in again; but it was too late; Curlew had been taken.

At such times, however, minutes, even seconds, could be made to count. For every capture made in this fashion there were a dozen escapes, all close, and all, probably, the result of sharp eyes, sharp ears, and quick thinking. Even in daylight this was true. The seamen were encouraged to keep watching, to keep their eyes peeled, all the time. For this reason rewards were offered to those who first spotted a sail, as you will see in the articles of agreement below.

Sets of these articles were, of course, filed with the admiralty clerk before each cruise, against the event of a dispute about the share‑out afterward. There are plenty of them still available, still on record. This one happens to be that of the Yankee mentioned in the preceding chapter. It was for her first cruise, but it is unlikely that the  p103 others were any different, this one having worked so well. It is printed here because it is typical.

Articles of Agreement Between the Owners, Officers and Company of the Private Armed Vessel of War, "Yankee"

"1st. It is agreed by the parties that the Owners fit the Vessel for sea and provide her with great guns, small arms, powder, shot and all other warlike stores, also with suitable medicines and every other thing necessary for such a vessel and her cruise for all of which no deduction is to be made from the shares, for which the Owners or their substitutes shall receive or draw One Half the nett proceeds of all such Prizes or prize as may be taken, and the other half shall be the property of the Vessel's Company to be divided in proportions as mentioned in the 15th article, except the cabin-stores and furniture which belong to the Captain.

"2d. That for preserving due decorum on board said vessel, no man is to quit or go out of her on board any other vessel, or on shore without having first obtained leave of the Commanding officer on board, under the penalty of such punishment or fine as shall be decreed by the Captain and Officers.

"3d. That the Cruise shall be where the Owners or the major part of them shall direct.

"4th. If any person shall be found a ringleader of any Mutiny, or causing disturbance, or refuse to obey the Captain, or any Officer, behave with Cowardice, or get drunk in time of action, he or they shall forfeit his or their  p104 shares of any dividend, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the Captain and Officers.

"5th. If any person shall steal or convert to his own use any part of a prize or prizes, or be found pilfering any money or other things belonging to this Vessel, her Officers, or Company, and be thereof convicted by her Officers, he shall be punished and forfeit as aforesaid.

"6th. That whoever first spies a prize or sail, that proves worth 100 Dollars a share, shall receive Fifty Dollars from the gross sum; and if orders are given for boarding, the first man on the deck of the Enemy shall receive Half a share to be deducted from the gross sum of prize-money.

"7th. That if any one of the said Company shall in time of action lose an eye or a joint, he shall receive Fifty Dollars, and if he lose a leg or an arm, he shall receive Three Hundred Dollars to be deducted out of the Gross sum of Prize-money.

"8th. That if any of said Company shall strike or assault any male prisoner, or rudely treat any female prisoner, he shall be pursued or fined as the Officers shall decree.

"9th. That if any of the said Company shall die or be killed in the voyage, and any prizes be taken before or during the action in which he is so killed, his share or shares shall be paid to his legal representatives.

"10th. That whoever deserts the said Vessel, within the time hereinafter mentioned, shall forfeit his Prize-money to the Owners and Company of the said Vessel, his debts to any person on board being first paid out of it, provided it does not amount to one half the same.

"11th. That on the death of the Captain, the command  p105 to devolve on the next in command and so in rotation.

"12th. That no one of said company shall sell any more than one half his share or right of claim thereto of any prize previous to her being taken.

"13th. That the Captain and Officers shall appoint an agent of said Vessel's company for and during the term of the said cruise.

"14th. That all and everyone of said Company do agree to serve on board of said Vessel for the term of four months, conformable with the terms herein mentioned, beginning the said term at the time of her departure from the harbour of Bristol.

"15th. That One Half of the Nett proceeds of all prizes taken by the said Vessel which is appropriated to the Vessel's Company shall be divided among them in the following manner (viz.) To the Captain sixteen Shares and all such privileges and freedoms as are allowed to the Captains of Private armed Vessels of War from this port. To the First Lieutenant nine Shares. To the 2d and 3d Lieutenants and Surgeon eight Shares each. Prize masters and Master's Mate and Captain of Marines six Shares each; Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner four Shares each. The residue to be divided among the Company in equal Shares excepting Landsmen or raw hands who draw one and one half shares each, and boys who draw one Share each. Ten Shares to be reserved to the order of the Captain to be distributed by him to such as he may deem deserving among the Vessel's Company."

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Thayer's Note:

a The online Index of 19th Century Naval Vessels, q.v., puts the capture of the Curlew on July 24th.

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Page updated: 20 May 13