BOOK REVIEW: Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution by Eric Jay Dolan (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2022)
Marine historian Eric Jay Dolin, the author of Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates (2018) and Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2007), has added to our understanding of a little-researched subject, on which Benjamin Franklin had opposing viewpoints. Dolin’s newest book, Rebels at Sea: American Privateering in the American Revolution, puts privateers at the center of the American war effort. Privateers were not the same as pirates, as Dolin makes abundantly clear. Their efforts, legally sanctioned by states and the Continental Congress, influenced Britain’s ability to wage war. They stepped forward to help make the idea of the United States a reality.
Privateers were given official permission, in the form of documents known as “letters of marque,” to attack enemy ships and then profit from the sale of these “prizes.” Ship owners turned their vessels into fast and efficient war ships whose goal was to chase and attack British ships. Unsurprisingly, the forefront of the privateering enterprise was the coast of Massachusetts. Future vice-president Elbridge Gerry, from the coastal community of Marblehead, was responsible for drafting a resolution that gave the Massachusetts General Court the power to grant letters of marque. Dolin points out that Gerry’s resolution made Massachusetts a separate, independent entity, for only sovereign states could grant letters of marque. Once the Revolution started, men eagerly signed on to work aboard privateering ships. Why did they go? Dolin explains there were several reasons, such as seeking an adventure and money, or simply escaping a life of manual labor. Others also joined privateering expeditions for ideological reasons. The Congress passed a privateering resolution in the spring of 1776. Some of the founders still were hesitant about sanctioning privateers because they believed it went against the ideals of the Revolution. General Washington did not concern himself with a strong navy, but John Adams advocated naval power.
The fourth chapter, “A Privateersman’s Life,” offers many details about who signed on to become privateers, how a privateer was fitted out, what life was like on board—including ship routines and food, and how battles were fought. Some of the privateersmen were free African Americans, while others were enslaved. If a privateer seized a British slave ship, the privateersmen became slave traders and made a profit selling captured human beings. The world of American privateering changed when the French signed a military alliance with the United States, for now privateers could find safety in French harbors in the Caribbean and European waters. American and French privateers were successful in preventing needed supplies and men from reaching British forces in North America.
Dolin relates many individual stories about specific engagements involving American privateers in the chapter “Privateering Triumphs and Tragedies.” The reader will doubtless be entertained by the adventures of Washington’s dentist, the failed Penobscot (Maine) expedition, Benjamin Franklin’s privateers, the battle between the Governor Tryon and the Sir William Erskine, the success of the privateer Holker, the black patriot John Forten, and the unforgivable actions of Lund Washington at Mount Vernon regarding the British ship HMS Savage. The actions of the British against privateers is explored in Chapter 7, “The Lion Roars.” The brutal attack of Benedict Arnold on his hometown of New London, Connecticut is included here.
The final two chapters are devoted to the capture of privateersmen and how the privateering enterprise effected the nascent U. S. Navy. Some privateers were taken to prisons in Britain, and some were impressed into service on British warships. The chapter “Hell Afloat” is about the infamous British prison ship Jersey, anchored off New York City. Thousands of Americans died on board these ships due to ill-treatment, disease, and starvation. Some were able to escape and told others about the horrors they witnessed. In Chapter 9, “The Home Front,” General Nathanael Greene lost money on investing in privateers while others found such an investment successful. Meanwhile, William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration, sought to discourage American reliance on privateering, a practice which he considered to be uncivilized. He viewed them as no better than pirates, ignoring the fact that most American privateers limited themselves to attacking only British ships and treating their prisoners humanely. In the Epilogue, “A Few More Rounds,” the practice of using privateers continued when it was convenient in wartime, as it did in the War of 1812 and even during the Civil War, by Confederate vessels.
Rebels at Sea is sure to be another successful addition to Dolin’s catalog. The narrative is fast-paced and exciting, and all the characters who played roles in the world of privateers are familiar to readers: Washington, Adams, Hancock, Jefferson, Arnold, Gerry, Franklin, and Silas Deane. The work also has some stunning and colorful pictures, including paintings, maps and portraits. This ranks as one of the best books the Journal of the American Revolution has reviewed.
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Dear Mr. Symington:
Enjoyed your review of Mr. Dolin’s book. Does his book mention anything about the crews of captured American privateers being sent to Jamaica as prisoners? I am trying to locate any records for Jamaica or any other British-held islands during the Revolutionary War that would give lists of American seamen or privateers interned as POWs. I have an ancestor who enlisted on a privateer in the colonial town of New Bern, North Carolina. He stated his ship was captured by the British and the crew sent to Jamaica in his pension application. Trying to verify this statement. Any assistance you could offer would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and have a pleasant day.
John F. Speight