Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution


Pirates however for a scrap of parchment, American privateers wreaked havoc on British transport through the Revolution, contributing much more to victory at sea than the nascent U.S. Navy. Although precise data will not be accessible, roughly 1,600 American privateers seized greater than 1,800 British vessels. Privateering aligned with Individuals’ spirit of free enterprise. Certainly, a mania erupted amongst American ship homeowners and sailors for taking British ships—and getting wealthy within the cut price.

Most naval historical past focuses on battles between nationwide fleets, and so the swaggering historical past of the Revolution’s American privateers could have sailed previous some readers. Eric Jay Dolin’s complete effort helps appropriate that oversight.

A type of commerce raiding through the age of sail, privateering concerned outfitting privately-owned ships, usually transformed merchantmen, with cannon, muskets, and cutlasses to “annoy” enemy commerce. The authorized fig leaf for this thievery was the letter of marque—a doc issued by a authorities giving a privateer an official fee. Seized ships, or “prizes,” have been bought at particular vice admiralty courts, the proceeds divvied amongst homeowners, captain, and crew. Privateer crews acquired a bigger slice of prize gross sales than naval crews, making crusing on a privateer extra engaging than enlisting. A single cruise may go away even lowly crewmen rich. Fortunate privateer homeowners made fortunes. The privateer brig Holker of Philadelphia, dubbed “the swiftest crusing vessel…from America” by the British, took 10 prizes on one cruise. This haul was value £2 million—at the moment, roughly $300 million—together with a sizeable revenue for her proprietor, Irish-born service provider Blair McClenachan. 

In addition to inspecting privateer vessels, crews, and fights at sea, Dolin additionally research how privateering match American warfare goals, how the technique’s reputation affected the power of each the navy and the military, and the way privateers’ successes buoyed public spirits. He additionally touches on how this freebooting apply discomfited sure American leaders. Benjamin Franklin, an early proponent, got here to dislike privateering, calling the apply “…a remnant of the traditional piracy” and writing that it made warfare worthwhile and thus extra seemingly.

The one downside to Dolin’s fascinating effort could be an extra of element on congressional political machinations and the Revolution’s common historical past and never sufficient on the thrilling sea tales and battle accounts of those partisans-for-profit. —T

Pirates however for a scrap of parchment, American privateers wreaked havoc on British transport through the Revolution, contributing much more to victory at sea than the nascent U.S. Navy. Although precise data will not be accessible, roughly 1,600 American privateers seized greater than 1,800 British vessels. Privateering aligned with Individuals’ spirit of free enterprise. Certainly, a mania erupted amongst American ship homeowners and sailors for taking British ships—and getting wealthy within the cut price.

Most naval historical past focuses on battles between nationwide fleets, and so the swaggering historical past of the Revolution’s American privateers could have sailed previous some readers. Eric Jay Dolin’s complete effort helps appropriate that oversight.

A type of commerce raiding through the age of sail, privateering concerned outfitting privately-owned ships, usually transformed merchantmen, with cannon, muskets, and cutlasses to “annoy” enemy commerce. The authorized fig leaf for this thievery was the letter of marque—a doc issued by a authorities giving a privateer an official fee. Seized ships, or “prizes,” have been bought at particular vice admiralty courts, the proceeds divvied amongst homeowners, captain, and crew. Privateer crews acquired a bigger slice of prize gross sales than naval crews, making crusing on a privateer extra engaging than enlisting. A single cruise may go away even lowly crewmen rich. Fortunate privateer homeowners made fortunes. The privateer brig Holker of Philadelphia, dubbed “the swiftest crusing vessel…from America” by the British, took 10 prizes on one cruise. This haul was value £2 million—at the moment, roughly $300 million—together with a sizeable revenue for her proprietor, Irish-born service provider Blair McClenachan. 

In addition to inspecting privateer vessels, crews, and fights at sea, Dolin additionally research how privateering match American warfare goals, how the technique’s reputation affected the power of each the navy and the military, and the way privateers’ successes buoyed public spirits. He additionally touches on how this freebooting apply discomfited sure American leaders. Benjamin Franklin, an early proponent, got here to dislike privateering, calling the apply “…a remnant of the traditional piracy” and writing that it made warfare worthwhile and thus extra seemingly.

The one downside to Dolin’s fascinating effort could be an extra of element on congressional political machinations and the Revolution’s common historical past and never sufficient on the thrilling sea tales and battle accounts of those partisans-for-profit. —Tim Queeney is editor of Ocean Navigator journal in Portland, Maine.

This e-book evaluation appeared within the Autumn 2022 challenge of American Historical past journal.

Rebels at Sea: Privateering within the American Revolution

By Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, 2022

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