Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 14: October 2010


‘A Word Of 'Captain Caution': Myths About Privateers In The War Of 1812

John A. Tures, LaGrange College, Georgia.

Introduction: From Sea To Silver Screen

The 1940 movie "Captain Caution" begins with the merchant ship Olive Branch at sea in the year 1812.  The vessel is attacked by a British warship, and Captain Dorman is killed in the action.  His headstrong daughter Corunna takes command, but the sailors, led by Dan Marvin, overrule her will to fight and surrender to the superior forces, earning him the name "Captain Caution."

Luck is with the Olive Branch, as the British prize crew is captured by Captain Stephen Decatur and his navy ship, and set free.  Yet Miss Dorman wants revenge for her slain father, sailing the ship to France to obtain a privateer commission to legally attack British boats.  She and her crew are betrayed by First Mate Slade, who sells them out to an English ship, but are rescued by the brave Dan Marvin, who was only pretending to be cautious in order to ferret out Slade's treachery.

This 1940 film, starring Victor Mature, Louise Platt and Bruce Cabot, and directed by Richard Wallace[1] is a romanticized tale of life at sea during the War of 1812, not unlike the gaudy pirate cinemas of yesteryear and today.  The question is whether or not our understanding of privateers is similarly idealistic.  Journalists credited them with almost "single-handedly" saving the young country from the rapacious British.  Historians have labeled them "the militia of the seas."[2]  The University of New Orleans dubbed its athletic teams "The Privateers."  Free market economists have lauded their accomplishments, using them as a justification for more modern-day private armies.[3]

With our increased focus on private contractors in American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such myths of privateers deserve closer scrutiny.  We need to look at more than just America's employment of privateers.  We should analyze what constitutes "success" with multiple measures.  You could say we need to employ a little of "Captain Caution's" prudence.

A closer examination of privateers reveals that many of their alleged accomplishments are somewhat overstated; they do not "walk on water."  But privateers are not without their successes; they were able to contribute to the War of 1812, just not always in the ways we've come to believe.  The paper includes thoughts about why privateering disappeared for years, and why it may be returning with the contemporary obsession with private contractors employed in Middle East wars.  This document also includes a proposal from a Texas Congressman for dealing with Third World piracy which would restore the concept for privateering itself!  The article concludes with concerns about the privateer-to-pirate history, how it might be replicated today, and how governments in the past dealt with the problem.

Providing a Definition

It has been said that one man's pirate is another man's privateer.  Colonel John Elting remarks "Privateering was also a highly speculative business – actually legalized piracy with a variable infusion of patriotism."[4]  But there is actually a difference between the two.  According to War of 1812 historian Donald Hickey, "there were two kinds of private armed vessels: (1) privateers, which were armed and had a large crew (75-150 men, depending on the size of the ship) but carried no cargo; and (2) letters-of-marque vessels, which were armed and had a smaller crew (20-40 men) but carried a cargo.  Privateers were fitted out to cruise against enemy commerce, while ships with a letters-of-marque were armed for defensive purposes and carried on trade, although they might take a prize if an opportunity presented itself…."[5]  Sechrest's definition of privateers and ships with letters-of-marque concurs.[6]  Economist Alexander Tabarrock adds "The privateer's license was no mere formality.  Without the license and a legal proceeding, the privateer could not sell its prizes legally.  More important, courts throughout the world recognized a privateer's license as valid.  Pirates, by contrast, were barbarians and operated outside the rule of law; if caught, they would be hanged."[7]  Tabarrock also notes that a privateer's crew taken prisoner were to receive the same treatment as navy prisoners.[8]

The Power of The Privateer in the American War of Independence

Privateering developed a certain celebrated status among some of the Founding Fathers.[9]  Tabarrock attributes this to the success of the practice during America's War for Independence, where Continental Navy ships and the budget to pay for them were in short supply.[10]  In contrast to the tiny naval force of 60 or more ships, there were 25 times more privateers, with more than ten times as many captured British ships to show for their work than the fledgling Continental Navy.[11]  Sechrest contends that British House of Lords complained that American privateering led to the capture of 559 merchant ships as of early 1778.[12]  It should also be pointed out that each Continental Navy ship nabbed on average 3.0625 of His Majesty's Ships, while the mean capture rate for each privateer was 1.345 British ships.

President John Adams had helped put together a "Blue-Water" U.S. Navy that defeated the French ships preying off the American coast in the "Undeclared War."[13]  Adams' fleet boasted 34 frigates, brigs, sloops and schooners, with another 16 ships-of-the-line under construction.[14]  Thomas Jefferson then upended Adams, taking the presidency with criticism of government power and big budgets.  The new president was appalled by the ships' cost and distrusted standing armies and navies as threats to democracy.   President Jefferson sold off most of the ships in service, preferring to rely on cheap (and ineffective) gunboats…but also the privateer, should war arise.[15]  President James Madison, a member of the Democrat-Republican Party like Jefferson, kept the status quo.  As a result, many of the U.S. Navy ships fell into disrepair or were sold; those that survived needed significant repairs just to stay afloat.[16] 

By the time of the War of 1812, America had six serviceable frigates, one light frigate, three sloops-of-war, and five brigs (though more were built during the conflict) to match the 640 warships of the British Navy, which included 124 ships-of-the-line and another 116 frigates.[17]  In other words, the self-imposed evisceration of the U.S. Navy almost forced the country to rely upon privateers to have anything seaworthy that could take another ship.

The Privateer versus the British … And the U.S. Naval Warship in The War Of 1812

Yet the journalists of the day, historians, free market economists and a host of internet sites sing the praises of the performance of these privateers in the War of 1812.  Author Jerome R. Garitee writes "Private armed vessels were the only successful American offensive weapon after 1813 engaged in the War of 1812.  According to a Baltimore editor, they 'sustained the honor of the country' almost single-handedly.  In doing so, they were one important factor encouraging the British to terminate the war."[18]  Given that many privateers sailed from Baltimore, effusive praise from a local editor is hardly surprising.

That popularity persists even today.  Using the Google Search Engine, I found that there are more than 100,000 sources for the search terms "privateer" and "War of 1812," an impressive list for a supposed "forgotten" war.  This pair is also twice as frequently mentioned as the "Battle of Lake Champlain" (or using "Battle of Plattsburgh,") + "War of 1812" or as it is also known.  This battle, where America's lake squadron captured a superior British squadron (only the second time in British history that this had happened…the first being at the Battle of Lake Erie) led by a frigate with an American ship no larger than a corvette, only netted between 38,000 and 55,000 hits, depending upon which battle name was used.

Tabarrock goes on to tout the ability of privateers at the expense of the U.S. Navy.[19]  He claims they netted 2,500 British ships, causing $40 million in damages ($525 million today), much more than the small number of prizes amassed by the U.S. Navy.  An exception is the success of the frigate USS Constitution.  Affectionately named "Old Ironsides," it took the HMS Guerriere, HMS Java (both frigates), and several smaller ships.[20]  But Elting contends that America's sloops-of-war and brigs (estimated to be 14 in number, for a total of 20 ships in the American navy) were more effective at besting enemy ships.[21]

Sechrest argues for the virtues of privateers, contending that even in democracies, navies are run by a few people, not many individuals.[22]  He finds security to be "an imaginary good" and argues for the privatization of defense.[23]  He cites historian Faye M. Kert, who claims that "without the presence of the American privateers in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the United States would never have been able to hold off the British Navy."[24]

Probing Privateer Prowess

Were privateers such a decisive force that they brought the British Empire to its knees?   Did they live up to their hype?  Or are these tales similar to the privateering movie "Captain Caution" and much publicized pirate tales?

If the goal of privateering was to boost one's coastal defenses, then they fell woefully short of that goal.  Few privateers challenged a warship, preferring more lucrative merchant ships that posed less of a security threat to American shipping and cities.  In fact, Hickey claimed that these privateers "more motivated by profit than patriotism…" were "no substitute for a navy."[25]

There is a pair of notable exceptions of an American privateer targeting a British warship.  The seven-gun vessel Decatur lived up to its billing.  Named for the gallant U.S. Navy captain, the schooner took on the HMS Dominica, a 16-gun schooner, and captured her off the coast of South Carolina.[26]  Though British Historian William James does his best to explain away the American ship's success, the tenacity and courage of the Decatur cannot be ignored.[27]  Sechrest provides another example of privateer bravery with the exploits of the Comet against an enemy warship guarding three English merchantmen off the coast of Brazil, leading to a capture of the latter's cargo.[28]  But the privateers were unable to chase away the blockaders, while the success of the U.S. Navy frigates against the British Royal Navy forced a change in the latter's policy.  Britain's Admiralty demanded a consolidation of the fleet to avoid ship-to-ship combat, thereby weakening the broad net the British could cast to catch American merchantmen.

Were privateers a more effective enterprise?  Like my Revolutionary War assessment, just because there were more privateers, it did not mean that they were more likely to nab a British ship, on average.  According to Elting, there were 515 privateers and ships with a letter-of-marque that were commissioned for action.[29]  Of these, 300 never captured a prize.[30]  The British caught and/or destroyed 250 of them.[31]  It seems much of the damage was done by a few amazing privateers like the America, a 20-gun schooner that captured 26 enemy ships.[32]

Did the privateers cripple the United Kingdom by taking too many ships?  That contention is also somewhat dubious.  Hickey's book, which debunks many myths of the War of 1812, finds that American privateers and ships with a letter-of-marque only took 1,140 British merchant ships,[33] almost half as many Garitee claims.[34]  This accounted for only 2.5% of all British ships in service.[35]  Moreover, roughly half of the prizes taken by United States privateers were recaptured by British ships.[36]  Elting tells the humorous tale of an unhappy English captain, who was captured and recaptured three times on the same voyage![37]  Perhaps that was why the British increased, rather than decreased, their commercial shipping during the War of 1812.[38]  Even if we take Garitee's overly optimistic numbers, it would mean 5% of British ships were captured, with half of that number going back to British hands. 

Using US Merchant Marine website numbers, we can conclude that American privateers took 1,300 prizes to the U.S. Navy's 254 captures.[39]  But, for each ship, that amounts to a capture ratio of for 2.51 prizes per privateer against the 11.04 ships captured per U.S. Navy warship, even though the sum of guns favored the privateers (nearly 3,000) over the 550+ on all U.S. Navy ships.  Even if we boost that number to the most optimistic number (2,500) that Sechrest claims were taken, that only increases the privateer capture ratio to 4.84 ships per privateer.[40]  Adopting Hickey's data, which includes the number of prizes retaken by the British, each privateer only nabbed a net total of 1.107 ships for each privateer.  If we take Sechrest's highly conservative numbers, crediting the USN with only 165 captures, that still means a 7.174 ship-to-prize ratio for public frigates, brigs and sloops-of-war.[41]  So if we take the worst numbers for the U.S. Navy and the best numbers for privateers (that includes inflated numbers and ignores retaken prizes), that's still a higher capture rate for America's government ships.

The Unrecognized Power of the Private Warship

One might conclude that privateering accomplished so little.  But that is not necessarily the case.  If we measure success in terms of coastal protection, captured vessels and scaring ships into staying in port, privateering did not accomplish as much as its proponents give it credit.  But there are other ways to look at the success of the practice.  Those include its impact upon shipping costs, the employment of privateering by other countries, and the effectiveness of combining private and public ships in a coordinated strategy.  They may have even forced a change in the leadership of the British Navy and weakened English forces waiting to challenge Napoleon's army in Spain and Portugal.

Even if the British Navy and commercial shipping were not seriously dented by American privateers, privateers did take their toll on the cost of doing business.  Alarmed by presence of American privateers and ships with letters-of-marque, operating even in the British home waters, insurers jacked up rates, as they did during the Revolutionary War.[42]  Elting describes the exploits of Captain Thomas Boyle of the American privateer Chasseur.[43]  This schooner did so much damage off the coast of America's enemy that he declared a "blockade of the British Isles."  As Garitee writes "British shipowners, colonial merchants, and insurance companies suffered heavy losses, and British vessels paid high insurance rates just to cross the Irish Channel after American privateers began operating in larger numbers in British waters."[44]  Hickey put this insurance increase number at 13%.[45]  This led wealthy merchants to complain loudly to Westminster, perhaps leading to an eventual termination of hostilities. 

These same shippers also barked at the British Navy to do something about the problem.  Privateers may have led to the demise of Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren's career; the British Naval leader in the West Atlantic theater complained about how privateers with their speed and mischief, had made his job all but impossible.[46]  The government had Warren sacked after his final demand for more help against the privateers.

American privateer success might also which explain why his replacement, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn chose to assault Baltimore.[47]  The city was the privateering capital of America, dubbed "a nest of pirates" by the British,[48] setting up that memorable confrontation that launched an American anthem.

Privateering was also successful in a way frequently disregarded by studies of such a practice: upsetting the British campaign against Napoleon.  Not only did the War of 1812 cut Britain off from its primary supplier for the Duke of Wellington's army in the Iberian peninsula (the U.S.A.), but American privateers preyed upon the shipping between England and its base in Portugal.[49]  One American privateer nabbed a craft with nearly half a million pounds in specie, payment meant for Wellington's troops, leading the army hero to blast his government and his navy in a series of angry letters.[50]

While American privateering gets a lot of attention from free market economists, it is surprising that so little attention is devoted to the British practice of privateering during the War of 1812.  For example, Tabarrock touts the English historical practice of privateering (with notable participants like Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh) and acceptance of it during the War of 1812.[51]  But he and others ignore the damage inflicting by British and Canadian privateers during that conflict.  An exception is the Anderson and Gifford article in the Cato Journal, though these authors focus more on the details of British privateering from well before the War of 1812.[52]

According to Hickey, the British captured about 1,400 American ships, with privateers accounting for at least a quarter of that.[53]  In fact, the first American ship taken occurred on Lake Erie when the sloop ironically named Commencement was taken on Lake Erie by British ships.[54]  Toll described the U.S. merchant marine as having been "all but annihilated," with trade levels falling by more than 80 percent.[55]  Given the inefficiencies in the British naval blockade, much of that credit should perhaps go to British and Canadian privateers.

Just as American privateering boosted British insurance rates, the United States shippers had to pay a high price for insurance during the War of 1812.  Garitee and Sechrest found these rates could be worth half a ship's cargo![56]

It appears that privateering by itself may not substitute for a navy, as Hickey puts it.  But the practice is most effective when used in a strategy that complements the navy.  The success of the USS Constitution and USS United States in capturing British frigates forced the Admiralty to issue an order that discouraged single-ship combat with their slightly larger American counterparts.[57]  By forcing a "buddy" system for British frigates and putting pressure to develop large squadrons to hunt and destroy the American capital ships, it freed up the privateers to wreck havoc on British commercial shipping, even in English waters.[58]

Further evidence came from a British officer, exhausted from pursuing those U.S. Navy ships.  "We have been so completely occupied looking for Commodore Rodgers's squadron, that we have taken very few prizes," he complained.[59]  British Admiral Warren added that chasing those U.S. frigates freed up "swarms of privateers" to attack British shipping, in his appeal for reinforcements.[60]

The Americans were hardly the only ones with a plan to meld the naval warship with the privateer.  The British sought to blockade the Americans, with sizable squadrons attempting to bottle up American frigates in their ports, freeing up Canadian privateers to ravage American shipping.  During this time, Hickey writes that more than 40 such ships sailed from Nova Scotia to take more than 200 prizes during this time.[61]  Like the Americans, Canadian privateering meant a lot of success for a small number of ships, as three alone took 80 American merchantmen as prizes.[62]  But the two-part strategy was quite effective, grinding American trade to a halt.[63]  This joint British-Canadian effort nearly convinced New England to secede, owing to the ineffective American government response, which was the goal.[64]  As Hickey best put it "privateering, in short, was a weapon that both sides in the War of 1812 used to good advantage."[65]

What Happened to Privateers

In short, privateering was a fairly effective practice, if not for the reasons we think.  With so many ships captured, one wonders why the practice fell from the arsenal of governments like the United States and the United Kingdom.  Of course, Britain signed the Treaty of Paris in 1856, outlawing privateering[66] and the Americans had pretty much outmoded the system by the time of the Spanish-American War of 1899, having barely employed them during the Civil War, if at all.[67]  But we need more than just treaties and policies to explain the motives behind them.

Tabarrock contends that the more destructive nature of government weaponry is responsible for the shift away from privateering.[68]  After all, such ships tended to succeed by having more men than more arms.[69]  Furthermore, as the technology changed, private and public vessels lost their fungibility.  In other words, it was harder for a merchantman to be become a warship, and vice versa.  Tabarrock provides the analogy of the nuclear submarine as an example of this lack of mutual substitution.[70]  Of course, the presence of Russian submarines in the Colombian drug trade shows that not all public weapons are useless in private enterprises.[71]  And Tabarrock is not entirely accurate in his description of a government's desire to destroy, instead of capture.  Nabbing merchantmen was one way of bringing in English goods to America that otherwise would not have arrived thanks to the blockade.  Also, one must remember the huge celebration heaped upon Stephen Decatur and the USS United States for capturing the HMS Macedonian and bringing it back into port, to become part of America's tiny frigate fleet.[72]  Evidence of the honors our government placed on such a capture can still be found today, prominently displayed in Annapolis at the U.S. Naval Academy.  Scuttling one's own ship to prevent its capture was also in evidence during the Civil War, showing that destruction of the enemy was not always the government goal.

Sechrest contends that jealous navy officers helped scuttle the privateering practice, outlined in the 1856 Declaration of Paris.[73]  He also blames those few countries with large navies, who attempted to undermine privateering by smaller competitors.  This, of course, assumes that navy officers were willing to overlook the contributions privateers made to their own naval goals during the War of 1812.  It also presupposes that such agents of the government would have more influence than the wealthy shippers that provided the privateers in the first place.  All of these are possible, of course, but do not explain why America exempted itself from signing the document, since it had a fleet of some size in 1856 as well as officers just as likely to be jealous as those of a signatory nation!

Of course, any theory of privateering that explains its demise would need to account for its recent rebirth in this new century.  Tabarrock contends that the manpower-intensive nature of this modern conflict lends itself to the return of "privateering" in a way that the Cold War with its nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines, never could.[74]  But when one thinks of private security guards armed to the teeth or government contractors using predator drones armed with Hellfire Missiles against terrorists, it is hard to contend that today's fights are low technology endeavors.  Similarly, as ships progressed from wood-based to ironclad and steam, the merchant ships of the post War of 1812 era did not shun these advances for sail and wood.[75]

Anderson and Gifford see the issue as one of developing an effective informal international "prize court system" for disputes over captured ships, as well as the attempt of governments to jealously abolish the privateering practice.[76]  But as the government's role has grown in the "War on Terrorism," so too has that of the contractors.  And while the demise of the international legal recognition of the practice may explain how privateering became passé, there is no corresponding informal judicial body associated with the rebirth of "modern privateering" in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If anything, international public opinion and legal rulings hardly seem supportive of America's "private warriors."

From Privateer To Pirate

Perhaps it is less a matter of technology, courts, and manpower, but what happens to privateering after conflicts.  After all, few writers have described privateering anything other than a lucrative enterprise.[77]  The problem is what happens once a conflict ends.  As hostilities cease, governments become unwilling to issue licenses to allow the legal attack upon the former opponents' shipping.  With the need to repair damage and pay for the costs of waging war, taxes are raised, leaving less money for the purchase of commercial goods.  A privateer has fewer options for returning to a legal way of earning what was made under wartime conditions.

Peter Leeson, whose 2009 book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates describes the free market economic rationality of pirates, concurs.  He writes "Privateering was thus a desirable option when war was raging.  But when it wasn't, privateering commissions dried up.  What was a sea dog to do?"[78]  He goes on to note that employment in the Royal Navy dried up, as did wages for the peacetime merchant marine.[79]  He cites "Captain Johnson" who claimed "Privateers in Time of War are a Nursery for Pyrates against a Peace," and Rev. Cotton Mather, who linked privateering to piracy.[80] 

Though piracy was illegal and consequences for its actions were severe, the payoff could even be better than sailing under a letter-of-marque during wartime.  "…[P]iracy could pay extremely well—even better than privateering.  Unlike privateers, pirates didn't have pesky shipowners who took a cut of their hard-earned loot.  A pirate crew enjoyed every penny of its ship's ill-gotten booty."[81]  Leeson even leaves off the annoying port taxes or other government intrusions that could further reduce one's profit from violent seafaring, making post-war piracy perhaps preferable to privateering even during times of conflict. 

Therefore, the temptation to continue one's actions in the postwar era led many a privateer to become a famous pirate, like Captain Kidd, Edward Teach (who changed his name to Blackbeard after serving as a privateer during Queen Anne's War), and Henry Jennings, the English privateer who became a pirate.[82]  Credited with ushering in "The Golden Age of Piracy" in the 1700s, Jennings had been put in charge of eradicating pirates after his English privateering days were over in the early 1700s.  Yet, like Captain Kidd, he turned to piracy himself, establishing a base in New Providence, in The Bahamas.[83]  One saw such the shift from privateer to pirate in the aftermath of the wars of the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. 

In their arguments justifying the costs of a U.S. Navy, Federalists claimed "the threat of piracy would raise the cost of imported salt by at least a dollar and as much as two dollars per bushel.  In the first year alone, the added costs would equal three to six times the total cost of the proposed squadron."[84]  Just as privateers hurt insurance rates even more than shipping, so too did piracy (or the specter of it) boost the cost of consumer goods.

The piracy trend continued throughout the post War of 1812 time frame, as privateers rushed to the Gulf of Mexico to continue their trade in the Caribbean, as wars of independence swept Latin America, blurring the lines between privateer and piracy.[85]  New republics of Mexico, Colombia, Texas, and others were eager to grant privateering commissions to harass Spanish commercial shipping, but that could often spill over into raids on American, English, and other nationalities' boats.

One example was Don Pedro Gibert, also known as Pedro Gilbert.  Though Gibert once served as a privateer for the newly established Colombian government, he changed his profession to pirate after the Latin American revolutions of the 1820s had concluded.[86]  He raided American shipping off Florida on the schooner Panda, leaving few survivors.  Eventually, he was captured by the Royal British Navy, and turned over to the American judicial system, where he was tried, convicted, and executed for piracy.[87]

Another example was James Jeffers, who used the alias "Charles Gibbs."  He began privateering for the revolutionary Colombian government, holding a letter-of-marque.  But after a mutiny, he and the mutineers became cruel pirates operating in the Caribbean.  After being defeated by the USS Enterprise, he found work as an Argentine privateer against the Brazilian regime in the short lived "Cisplatine War" in the late 1820s.[88]  But the lure of piracy for this ex-privateer was too much for Gibbs.  He joined an American ship (the Vineyard) in 1830, instigating a mutiny that led to the captain's death, and then attempted to steal and sell the cargo.  He was captured and hanged for mutiny and murder the next year.[89]

This new trend of privateer-to-pirate even included the activities of Jean Laffite, the man who straddled the line between privateer and pirate for several countries, including the new South American Republic of Colombia.  The United States even found itself dispatching ships to combat their former ally Laffite.[90]  Perhaps that was the rationale for the 1856 anti-privateering treaty and America's decision to discontinue the practice.[91]

Privateers and Pirates in The Modern World

Nowadays, the postwar environment of many recent conflicts has generated a surge in piracy.  As the Vietnam War wound down, piracy in Southeast Asia went on the rise[92] which persists even today.[93]  Much has been written about the Somalia case, where postwar warriors shifted from fishing to fighting in a piracy boom for East Africa.[94]  Perhaps similar fears exist about the government contractors and "private warriors" once the Middle East wars die down; will they look to sell their services and expertise to the highest bidder once the spigot of government money is turned off? 

As strange as it sounds, some political figures are already considering a return to the privateering practice.  Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a presidential candidate whose son is a Kentucky Senate candidate, called for the United States government to issue letters-of-marque, a warrant to capture or demolish Somali pirates.[95]  And Paul isn't alone.  "'If we have 100 American wanna-be Rambos patrolling the seas, it's probably a good way of getting the job done,' said Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow and security expert Eli Lehrer.  'Right now we have a Navy designed mostly to fight other navies.  The weapons we have are all excellent, but they may not be the best ones to fight these kinds of pirates.  The only cost under letters of marque would be some sort of bounty for the pirates."[96] 

The plan is likely to have plenty of appeal…the anti-pirate modern-day privateer, manned by soldiers-of-fortune, patrolling the Straits of Malacca or Horn of Africa, with little expense to the American taxpayer, right?  The only problem is that these contemporary pirates don't resemble the merchantmen of yesteryear, with valuable prize cargoes.  They are seeking ransom, not goods, and they aren't laden with prize money.  Nor are they likely to win possession of goods stolen from ships of other sovereign nations.

"That isn't a viable way of funding in today's world," Lehrer says in the Politico article.  "These pirates don't really have treasure chests, and their money is tied up in Swiss Bank accounts.  Congress would probably have to attach sizable bounties to people."[97]  Therefore, the American taxpayer will have to bear some cost, unless shippers can perhaps fund the bounty system.  That already appears to be happening, as ship owners hire private armed guards to defend their boats.[98]  But a Ship Management International article cites dangers inherent in such a practice, including expense, risk, confusion over rules, chain-of-command concerns, and international liabilities.[99]

Even then, the old problem persists of what happens to the privateer once the piracy problem is brought under heel, or conflict in these war-prone regions simmers down.  Will former privateers become pirates themselves, as they did in the old days?  "Piracy is definitely going to increase; it's a proven business model," states the Ship Management International.[100]  Unless such a problem is met with an effective solution, one may see the modern-day private security firm follow in the footsteps of the privateer-turned-pirate of old, seeking a lucrative means of continuing their old profession. 

One may examine some more effective means of dispatching pirates with a carrot-and-stick approach.  Of course, there was the Royal Navy and U.S, Navy, which dispatched many pirates.  But not all approaches need to rely upon the stick.  An inventive practice, the "carrot," was utilized in the early 1700s, which induced many pirates to adopt an early retirement.  It provided pardons, and (more importantly) grants of land to pirates willing to trade their once lucrative life for a different free market endeavor: gentleman farmer.  Such a practice was instrumental in inducing even the great Henry Jennings, who had launched the "golden age of piracy," to quit.[101]  Jennings is reported to have retired comfortably after the amnesty.  Similar stories exist about a China amnesty that convinced the notorious female pirate Ching Shih to retire from her craft and adopt a more lucrative business practice: running a gambling house.[102]  This amnesty and private sector opportunity seems to play better to the sensibility of pirates than enlisting them in government service to hunt down other pirates, as Henry Jennings and Captain Kidd’s employers discovered.

The weakness of such an argument actually revolves around the omnipresence of such a practice.  If piracy was so common for ex-privateers around the conclusion of conflicts, why did it take so long (until 1856) to outlaw privateering? 

It seems that though piracy was rarely ever a "nice" business, it was more like a business proposition worthy of Adam Smith economics.[103]  This changed in the 1820s and 1830s, where accounts of piracy were especially cruel, even for characters like Captain Kidd (who killed only one man—one of his own gunners, William Moore, in a fight) and Blackbeard (who offered captured crewmembers a chance to join his fleet).  Instead of "your money or your life," the post-War of 1812 pirates (outside of Jean Laffite) adopted the practice of "your money AND your life."  Phrases like "dead men tell no tales" (originally lifted from the quote "dead cats don't mew" from Don Pedro Gibert, a pirate operating during this era) were common during this time.[104]  Many of these privateer-to-pirates of the 1820s and 1830s also operated for republics so poor that prize courts were little more than a wish, leaving these characters to their own devices.  However, the presence of a stronger nation's navy (the U.S.A.) close to their hideouts, instead of colonies far-flung from the mother country was an added bonus for combating the practice.  Finally, these countries made the mistake of not offering the amnesty deals that helped secure the peace after the wars of the 1600s and 1700s.  It took an aggressive navy to defeat this new breed of piracy.

Conclusion: The Pros and Cons Of Privateering

As Sechrest suggests, many analyses of America's seapower exploits before the Civil War emphasize the role of the U.S. Navy, while deemphasizing the prowess of privateers.[105]  Yet here have been several studies by free market economists challenging this orthodox view.  These studies have attempted to show that it was the privateer, not the naval warship, which struck a greater blow against Britain in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812.

Analysis in this article shows that privateers have a place in the ocean defenses of America in the past, and perhaps the present.  They did indeed capture more ships through a focus on commerce raiding (instead of going after British warships) in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.  But their per-ship capture ratio is actually less than the average American naval craft's record in both conflicts.  Critics claimed that privateers were no substitute for a navy, owing to its inability to contribute to coastal defenses (while American frigates at least forced a consolidation of British forces, weakening the blockade).  Many privateers never nabbed an enemy vessel, and a number of those commercial ship prizes were retaken by the British.

But privateers have their place in seagoing conflicts, in ways that aren't always considered by the history books.  First, their actions were costly to British and American shippers in the form of forcing higher insurance rates.  Second, American privateers weakened Duke of Wellington's British campaign against the French in Spain.  Third, privateering was hardly an American practice alone.  History has shown the effectiveness of such a policy by the British long before the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.  During the latter conflict, British and Canadian privateers nearly hounded American merchantmen from the sea more effectively than any blockade.  And the Baltimore privateers angered His Majesty's Ships so much that it induced the British to make their ill-fated assault on the city and Ft. McHenry.  When public and private ships combined forces, they made an unbeatable combination.

Given that these privateers were effective in so many ways, why did they disappear for so long after the War of 1812?  The 1856 Treaty of Paris, signed by so many nations (but not the United States), has been cited as a cause, but it is more of an outcome than an explanatory factor.  A host of reasons have been offered, ranging from petty jealousy by public naval officers, to technology, to the abolition of prize courts, to the desire of governments to destroy enemy craft, instead of capture and/or ransom it.

Instead, it seems that the abolition of the practice came about by a maddening desire of privateers to continue their practice after wartime, thereby becoming pirates.  The lure of the profits, the ability to continue their specialty, and the lack of other options as appealing made piracy a choice worth the high risk of capture.  These booms in piracy and unprecedented levels of cruelty eventually led to the 1856 Paris Treaty and a desire of the United States to wean itself from the privateering practice in subsequent years.

Modern day advocates of privateering to combat contemporary piracy, like Texas Congressman Ron Paul along with shipping owners seeking to hire private armed guards, would do well to remember the lessons of the past.  "Modern-day Rambos" with military weapons may well be tempted to replace Somali or Southeast Asian pirates once those groups are eliminated.

History also teaches us that there are solutions to fighting pirates.  Hiring privateers to dispatch pirates only seemed to augment the latter with the former.  U.S. Naval warships and the British Royal Navy eventually ended the careers of many pirates after the War of 1812.  But an even better system emerged in the 1600s and 17000s which would please most free market economists.  With pardons and pledges of land grants to pirates, many former privateers operating outside the law were induced to retire and become merchants or plantation owners.

As the title suggests, we need a word of caution when evaluating the record of privateers.  There were many successes for these private vessels, but some drawbacks as well.  Understanding when and how privateering works, as well as when and how it doesn't, is instrumental to the modern debate about using some or all of the free market in the service of America's security goals.

About the Author:

John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.  He holds the following degrees: BA in Communications and Political Science (Trinity University, San Antonio, TX), MS in International Studies (Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI) and Ph.D in Political Science (Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL).  He has published articles in the Journal of the War of 1812, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Peace Research, Journal of American Studies, Journal of Conflict, Security and Development,  Homeland Security Review, Homeland Security Affairs Journal, Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, Journal of International and Area Studies, Peace and Conflict Monitor, Online Journal for Peace and Conflict Resolution, American Diplomacy, Middle East Journal, Asian Politics & Policies, Arab Reform Bulletin, East European Quarterly, New Balkan Politics, Cato Journal, Journal for Private Enterprise, Journal for Applied Global Research, as well as research monographs for the United States Government, the University of Georgia, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Berlin, Germany.


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