privateers wreaked havoc -- 4/3/23

Today's selection -- from Rebels at Sea by Eric Jay Dolin. During the Revolution, American privateers captured an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 British merchant ships, devastating commerce and making a huge economic contribution to the American war cause:
"Oliver Wolcott was a member of the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a brigadier general in the Connecticut militia. In April 1777, he wrote that ‘nothing had given such surprise through Europe as the success of our privateering business.’ Nobody was more surprised than the British. As David Ramsay, a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress and one of the first historians of the Revolution, observed, ‘Naval captures, being unexpected, were [a] matter of triumph to the Americans.’ The British ‘scarcely believed that the former would oppose them by land with a regular army, but never suspected that a people so unfurnished as they were with many things necessary for arming vessels, would presume to attempt anything on water.'

"The success of American privateers was reflected in the large number of British prizes they captured. Determining the exact figure, however, is a tricky proposition. Information about prizes, to the extent that it is still available, is spread across thousands of eighteenth-century newspa­per accounts, admiralty court records, and other sources, many of which are in a sorry state. Even if it were possible to easily collect all this mate­rial, it would necessarily be incomplete because of poor record-keeping, duplicative listings, and the fact that some number of prizes were not taken into colonial ports to be adjudicated but rather were sold secretly or with scant paper trails in the West Indies and France. Still, we can arrive at a rough notion of how many British prizes the Americans took during the Revolution.

Oliver Wolcott

"One of the most oft-mentioned numbers is six hundred. The figure comes from Edgar Stanton Maclay’s widely quoted A History of American Privateers. Maclay offers no source; and, given that he claims that there were only 792 American privateers during the Revolution, an estimate that is far too low, we can safely assume that his number of captures is low as well.

"Arguably the single best source regarding captures comes from a tabu­lation in the early 1800s by John Bennett Jr., the first secretary of Lloyd's of London, the world's largest insurance marketplace. Bennett concluded that 3,386 British vessels were captured during the Revolution, 1,002 of which were either recaptured or ransomed. That leaves a total of 2,384 British prizes remaining in enemy hands. Yet that number includes cap­tures not only by American privateers but also by Continental and state navy vessels, Washington's navy and French and Spanish vessels, which preyed on British shipping after France and Spain allied with the Americans. However, because American privateers accounted for the vast majority of the captures, it is reasonable to estimate that they brought in somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,600 to 1,800 prizes, if not more.

"The financial damage caused by American privateering is likewise difficult to calculate. At the end of the war, British sources did not tally the overall cost of all the ships captured by the Americans. Still, there is an important clue. In February 1778, during a heated debate on the floor of Parliament, statistics were presented showing that the 559 vessels cap­tured by American privateers and Continental navy ships resulted in a loss of at least £2.6 million. This suggests that the average value of each vessel was £4,651; and if Americans brought in roughly 1,600 to 1,800 prizes, then the overall value of prizes would be between £7.4 and £8.4 million (between $1.4 and $1.6 billion today). A considerable amount of money, yet there is good reason to believe that these numbers are too low. There are many records of American prizes earning their owners and crews much more than £4,651 including the value of the cargo and the vessel. Take, for example, the British merchantman Hannah, brought into New London, whose cargo alone was worth £80,000 and the haul of the Holker, which as we have seen, captured ten prizes in a single cruise that sold for nearly £2,000,000 in total.

"At that same parliamentary debate in 1778, the Earl of Sandwich argued that, since British losses to privateers were nearly equal to the number of American vessels captured by the British, the impact of American pri­vateers was minimal. Captures on both sides essentially canceled each other out, and there was no loss to Britain as a whole. The Duke of Rich­mond pointed out the nonsensical nature of that argument when he rose to respond. 'When the merchants of this country have lost ... ships, valued at above two millions of money; to say that the commerce of this country is not affected by such a loss, because an equal number of ships have been taken from the enemy, and the prizes distributed to British seamen! This is so far from being a balance in our favor, it adds to our loss, for if we were not at war with America, the value of all these cargoes in the circuitous course of trade must center with Great Britain.'

"But the earl's argument was even weaker than that. He was wrong about the supposed parity in captures between America and Britain. By 1778, the Americans had brought in far more British prizes than the British had brought in American. And that imbalance persisted in subsequent years. At war's end, the tally for American prizes condemned at the prize court in London stood at 376. If we add to that the prizes condemned at the two other most active British prize courts, in New York, and Nova Scotia, the number increases to around 600-700 -- still far less than the roughly 1,600 to 1,800 British prizes taken by the Americans.

"One other consideration is the nature of the prizes taken by each side. Here, too, there was an imbalance that favored the Americans. Most of the prizes seized by American privateers were merchantmen full of goods that were both inherently valuable and much in demand in the states. In contrast, many of the prizes captured by the British were American privateers, as opposed to letters of marque, which had nothing that was of value to the British beyond the vessels themselves and perhaps their armaments. Even American letters of marque, which did have goods on board, were rarely as rich a prize as the British merchantmen taken by American privateers. According to the London Advertiser, in July 1776 'the value of the [American] vessels, and the cargoes taken from them is trifling, whereas those they take are worth more in proportion than ten to one.' This difference created an unusual situation. As James Fenimore Cooper observed, 'it is a proof of the efficiency of [American privateers] ... that small [British] privateers constantly sailed out of the English ports, with a view to make money by recapturing their own vessels; the trade of America, at this time, offering but few inducements to such undertakings.'"



Eric Jay Dolin


Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution




Copyright May 31, 2022


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