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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

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 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p53  8[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]France Gets Into the Fight

This mosquito period, the period of offshore privateering, soon passed. Then the amateurs became full-time professionals, and their patriotic zeal was to some extent replaced by a determination to make money at all costs. It is only fair to add, however, that the American privateers in the Revolution were an exceptionally patriotic group, as privateers went. They often took nonpaying risks to get information, prisoners, or goods for the government.

There were several reasons for this change.

For of all, Britain, worried — for trade was the very lifeblood of the nation — began to arm its merchantmen or to cause them to sail only in convoy, protected by warships. Obviously then open boats, men with pikes, no longer were enough to take such prizes.

Initially, commissions for privateering were issued only by the individual colonies, and were of doubtful validity, but after a few months of hesitation the Continental Congress itself, on March 23, 1776, resolved "that the inhabitants of these colonies be permitted to fit out armed  p54 vessels to cruise on the enemies of these United Colonies," and followed up this resolution, April 3, by authorizing the issuance of actual commissions. These were at once popular, for they were taken rather more seriously than the colonial commissions. Privateers could hardly be called timid men, but it was only human to wish to avoid any suggestion of piracy, since pirates were hanged. As it turned out the British never did hang any captured American privateer, though they often threatened to, and they certainly did not coddle such prisoners.

The law authorizing these commissions was strict for a privateering law of the time, and contained many provisions about reporting prizes, taking care of prisoners, and other matters. One curious clause stated that at least one‑third of a privateering crew must be "landsmen." Perhaps this was meant to protect the new Navy from having every one of its men drained off. The bond provision was somewhat higher than that set by most of the colonies — $5000 for a vessel under 100 tons, $10,000 for a vessel of 100 tons or more — but this did not deter any of the gamblers. That very same year of 1776 Rhode Island alone, the smallest of the colonies, sent out a total of fifty-seven privateers; and that was only the beginning of the flood.

However, the greatest reason for the swift spread of privateering was the attitude of the French.

After a humiliating defeat at the hands of Great Britain in the French and Indian War, France was eager for revenge. From the beginning she had been strongly in favor of the American colonist's cause, scarcely troubling to conceal this from the world. Soon, it was certain, she would get into this fight herself; meanwhile, she was doing  p55 everything she could to help, short of war. Through the agency of a "Spanish" firm named Rodrique Hortalez et Cie., located in the huge former Dutch Embassy in Paris, and operated by that ebullient watchmaker, financier, musician, and author of "The Barber of Seville," Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, she was sending the colonies all sorts of arms and gunpowder, though repeating officially that she was doing no such thing. And not merely Lafayette but dozens, scores, even hundreds of other young Frenchmen, titled and otherwise, were pouring across the Atlantic to take up arms with the Continentals. When Britain protested, the French Foreign Minister Vergennes dryly pointed out that the French "had a turn for adventure."

France soon went even further. She let it be known, unofficially, that her ports would be open to American privateers.

The Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713 by Britain and France at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne's War), still was binding upon both nations. It forbade either to permit the enemies of the other to use her ports for privateering. So now Britain protested quite properly. Vergennes replied that the French, being humane, could not bring themselves to bar from their harbor any vessel in distress. Thereafter every American privateer who needed to sell his prizes or to restock his larder or his powder magazine, blandly announced that he was "in distress."

The French themselves had a long tradition of privateering on a grand scale. The celebrated Jean Bart of Dunkirk on one morning — the morning of Monday, September  p56 25, 1690 — had taken four separate Hanseatic ships and had held them for an on‑the-spot cash ransom of 39,000 livres. Ducasse and DePointis got 20,000,000 livres ransom out of Cartagena a few years later. Duguay-Trouin, who in 1711 took Rio de Janeiro after defeating the whole Portuguese fleet, was ennobled for having captured sixteen men-of‑war and no fewer than three hundred merchantmen. Oh, the privateer was a hero in France! But as long as they stayed out of the War of the American Revolution the French had to restrain themselves.

Yet France was benefited, perhaps even more than America, by this policy of assisting "distressed" vessels. The American privateers, who otherwise would have had great difficulty operating so far from home, found that with the aid of French supplies and a French market they could make things so hot for Great Britain in the English Channel that insurance rates soared and the merchants of London took to shipping their goods in French bottoms, which, being technically neutral, would not be touched. This was truly a sardonic situation; it made Frenchmen chuckle while the British lion lashed its tail in rage.

The laws set down by Congress for American privateers said that all prisoners must be treated well, on pain of loss of license. These prisoners, on reaching port, became the property of the federal government, which was saving them for exchange purposes. There were a great many such prisoners. When the enemy moved a whole regiment across the sea it was, of course, protected by one or more warships, but again and again small single dispatch boats were captured with a handful of colonels and majors or a holdful of sergeants and privates, replacements. These  p57 usually came in small batches, but the total number was tremendous. The Army's acquisitions of prisoners were spectacular — at Trenton, Saratoga, Yorktown — yet the Navy and the privateers, and especially the privateers, took more than these. As a result in 1779 Great Britain at last felt herself obliged to sign a cartel for the exchange of these and other prisoners, something that until then she had stoutly refused to do, since it smacked of recognizing the damn rebels as an independent country.

Then at last, when she was good and ready, France did declare war on Great Britain, and on July 17, 1778, signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with "the United States of North America," the first nation formally to recognize this country. That treaty is long. It consists of many clauses, of which only Article XVII need detain us here, for it provided in the fullest terms that each nation should be free to use the ports of the other for privateering purposes. That did not seem significant at the time, for it had been taken for granted. It was to become very significant indeed a few years later, as we shall see.

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Page updated: 20 May 13