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How a Rogue Navy of Private Ships Helped Win the American Revolution

September 10, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

A fleet of makeshift warships helmed by colonial ‘privateers’ ravaged British shipping.

When it came to waging war at sea during the .

The measure proved instantly popular as merchants, whalers and fishermen converted their vessels into makeshift warships. By May 1776, at least 100 New England privateers were plying the waters of the Caribbean. “Thousands of schemes for privateering are afloat in American imaginations,” wrote John Adams. According to the National Park Service, the Continental Congress issued approximately 1,700 letters of marque over the course of the war, and various American states issued hundreds more. Privateering proved so popular that the Continental Congress distributed preprinted, preauthorized commission forms with blank spaces for the entry of the names of ships, captains and owners.

The proliferation of privateers, however, infuriated Continental Navy commanders such as John Paul Jones. Not only did the reluctance of privateers to take enemy prisoners make it more difficult to negotiate swaps for the return of American sailors, but privateers lured many seamen away from the navy with the prospects of better pay, shorter enlistment periods and engagements with unarmed merchant ships instead of the fearsome warships of the Royal Navy.

READ MORE: John Paul Jones

Much like investors in the stock market, speculators made vast fortunes by buying shares in and bankrolling privateering enterprises. Ship owners and investors usually received half the value of seized goods, with the other half divided among privateering crews. “Fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots,” noted New England aristocrat James Warren of those involved in privateering. Morris saw privateering as a numbers game that relied on volume. “One arrival will pay for two, three or four losses,” he wrote. “Therefore it’s best to keep doing something constantly.”

Dispatched in 1776 to French-owned Martinique, a hub of international commerce, to secure weapons for the Continental army, the future Continental Congress delegate and U.S. Senator William Bingham also solicited “private adventurers” of any nationality to raid British shipping. Privateering became so prevalent in the Caribbean that, at one point, 82 English ships were anchored at Saint-Pierre awaiting the sale of their pilfered goods—in some cases back to their original owners. Bingham’s cut on a single shipload of coffee and sugar exceed a quarter-million dollars in today’s terms, according to Patton, who writes that “Bingham’s privateering activities vaulted …read more