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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2

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 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p15  3[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]Peace Makes Pirates

The people of colonial America were a maritime people. They thought in terms of the sea, which so recently they or their parents had crossed. They were not yet ready to challenge the land behind them, that dark savage place, and they had carved for themselves only a thin strip of  p16 coastline. None of them ever lived far from the sound of breakers.

The Atlantic was life. It was Home. Before you could gather your strength for an assault upon the wilderness you must face and deal with the Atlantic.

Just about every "boughten" thing that the American colonists owned, as distinguished from the many things they made, came to them by way of the sea — all their metal, all their tools, their weapons.

These colonists, too, were largely dependent upon fish, which meant more sailing. In the absence of roads, trade with one another was carried on by coastal boats they themselves had made. Salt water, you might say, was soaked into their very furniture.

One product they did have, and in plenty: they had wood. The forests, growing right down to the waterline, seemed to be inexhaustible. Many of the articles that among a people less poor would be made of metal, in colonial America were made of wood — dinner platees, spoons, hay forks, nails. The nails, pencil-like pins, were called "treenails," which was pronounced and sometimes spelled "trunnels." You can still find them in old houses or old boats.

It was no more than natural, then, that shipbuilding came to be one of their chief industries. At first the vessels were made for the colonists' own use, and were small; but soon many an English merchant learned that he could get the same ship built in America for only a little more than one third of its cost in an English shipyard, and he acted accordingly.

This was not because labor was cheaper in America;  p17 indeed, it was better paid than in England. It was because the British forests had been so thinned over the years and were situated so far back from the shore that heavy restrictions were placed on the cutting of trees. So carrying timber to the shipyards was an expensive business — much of it in fact had to be imported from Sweden. In the American colonies, however, great stands of oak, cedar, hickory, and ash reached right down to the beach.

Fittings had to be fetched from across the sea, true. Iron mines, if there was any iron in this New World, decidedly were not near the sea; and so, at first, they were not even sought. There was another reason as well. The colonial policy of England, like that of other European nations, decreed that colonies should be mere feeders of the Mother Country and should never be allowed any trade of their own, much less industry. The government at London would have looked with heavy disapproval on any attempt to set up an American smelter or iron foundry. However, very little metal went into a merchant ship of those days anyway.

Then again, if the vessel was destined for a West Indian run and should have her bottom sheathed against the teredos worm, the job could be done in England, after her first crossing. The colonies were not allowed sheet metal of any kind.

The colonies did have hemp for the manufacture of rope, a manufacture that they were graciously permitted, and their rope-walks were many, some of them more than five hundred yards long.

This building of boats was not confined to the cities. The average man who had need of any manner of boat would  p18 no more think of hiring somebody to make it for him than he would think of hiring somebody to shave his face. He'd do it himself, of course. If he didn't have the tools he would make them, or borrow them. If he did not have a saw pit he would dig one. As for the scaffolding and the launching ways, these could be thrown up for the occasion — using wood, of course.

The "amphibious farmers," whose property fringed the very shore itself, fished by custom in season, using boats that they themselves had built in their spare time, just as they had built the houses in which they lived. They took all this for granted.

When they built seagoing ships to order, the Americans were conventional enough, at least at first; but when they built smaller vessels they displayed great originality of design, favoring a shallow draft for rivers and bays, favoring too the fore-and‑aft rig over the clumsy square that European builders clung to. Thus the schooner was developed here.

The schooner, surely, was one of the most telling vessels in maritime history. It changed the course of events, time after time. Yet nobody knows who invented it, if indeed any one man did. But it was certainly American. Its inspiration was here.

American vessels, though small, were fast. This point is important. Speed counted for a great deal with smugglers, which many Americans became when Great Britain began to impose oppressive trade regulations on her colonies. Speed counted for a great deal, too, with privateers. They needed speed just as a swordsman needs a long arm and  p19 long legs. A man who attacks should be equipped to attack fast, and a man who runs away should run fast.

When the chance came, the colonists were ready.

In this they were encouraged by the Home government in England, which was glad to get any help against its enemies, and which managed to stay more or less embroiled in war for most of the latter part of the seventeenth century and just about all of the eighteenth.

To the American colonists these wars were lucrative.

After the troubled period of the Protectorate, 1653‑1658, there was peace for a little while. And then there was the Dutch War of 1672‑1674.

At first the colonists played little part in this Dutch War, for two reasons. The Dutch did not then have any considerable possessions in the West Indies; and the West Indies, taken as a whole, were considered the richest territory, the finest prize, in the world, and were especially attractive to the hungry colonists of mainland North America.

Also, the Dutch were firmly settled at Nieuw Amsterdam, were prodigious shipbuilders in their own right, and were sometimes short-tempered, aggressive. A touch of privateering might cause the Dutch to send a fleet against the unprotected shores of New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts.

However, once Nieuw Amsterdam had been taken by an English fleet, and the name changed to New York in honor of the King's brother, the colonists soon fitted out a swarm of small, fast, effective vessels, one of the biggest investors being the Governor of Rhode Island, Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the traitor.

 p20  So long as Charles II and James II were on the throne of England and Scotland there was not likely to be a war with France, no matter what the provocation, for these Stuarts owed a huge debt, both financial and spiritual, to France. When James fled, however, and that dour Dutchman, William of Orange, came over to rule the island, things were different.

William hated France, and very soon he took his new holding into war with her, a war (1689‑1697) that was appropriately named after him — King William's War.

It was then that privateering really began to blossom in the American colonies.

When William died there was peace, but everybody knew that it would not last long. Nor did it. In 1702 there broke out a renewal of the conflict that was to last for eleven years. This is known, formally, as the War of the Spanish Succession, though in America at the time it was generally called Queen Anne's War.

Then there was a war with Spain, 1739‑1748, popularly dubbed the War of Jenkin's Ear. The American colonists made a good thing out of this, too. The colonists liked wars — in Europe. Your home was safe, and you could make money out of privateering.

The War of the Austrian Succession (in America, King George's War) lasted from 1740 to 1748, though once again when it was ended everybody knew that here was no more than a truce, for England and Scotland (it was Great Britain now, for England and Scotland had united) still had plenty to fight about.

In connection with this war the British Parliament passed several pieces of legislation designed to encourage  p21 legitimate and to discourage illegitimate privateering. The chief of these was 32 George II, 25: "An Act for the Encouragement of Seamen and the Prevention of Piracies by Private Ships of War." This provided, among other things, that only a vessel of at least ten guns, 3‑pounders or bigger, could be licensed for privateering. This was meant to quash the "shore pirates," who at night in open boats would row out to anchored vessels and swarm over them. These gentry were in no position actually to take over these vessels, they were intent only upon an immediate cash ransom. 32 George II, 25 specifically forbade such ransoming, which, however, was not often imposed off American shores. This was an effort, and a sound one, to make privateering a somewhat more responsible, even respectable business.

Finally there was the Seven Years' War (the French and Indian War in American history books), which really did decide the issue, for a while anyway.

The winner, Great Britain, triumphantly took over all of Canada. In this war the American colonists had been used in other ways than privateering, though there was God's plenty of that too. For the first time, Great Britain demand help — and got it. The colonists did their share in the conquest of Canada, and afterward were to wish that they hadn't.

From this time on, the War of the American Revolution was inevitable. Great Britain, badly crippled, almost bankrupt, resented the colonies' ambition to make some of their own goods, and she imposed the intolerable Regulatory Trade Acts. Also, Great Britain thought that the colonies should pay for the upkeep of the troops stationed among  p22 them for their own good (as she put it), and she taxed accordingly. These actions raised a howl of protest on this side of the Atlantic.

It seems odd that the one thing parent and child had done together, the winning of Canada, should cause them at last to separate so bloodily; but that's the way the world was.

Now, it might be thought that when war was over a privateer would be glad to go home and get down to the pestiferous paperwork involved in collecting his prize money, if any, especially since he could be sure that there would be an another war along in a little while. This was often the case. But at other times it was not the case.

Except for the bookkeeping, privateering, while admittedly perilous, was easy. Men got used to it. They failed to see why they should return to real labor on land. They had all the equipment, they had the experience, and there would be more merchant vessels than ever, so why should they start for home just because their privateering commissions had expired with the peace?

Some did not. They went "on the account." They cut their ties with civilization.

There was a saying at the time that "peace makes pirates."

Which brings us to the curious case of Captain Kidd.

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Page updated: 20 May 13