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December 16, 2009

Patriot Pirates

The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune n the American Revolution
Robert H. Patton - ISBN 978-0375422843

As advertised, this tome explores the government sanctioned privateering during the Revolutionary War. And quite well, indeed. This is a subject seldom discussed except in passing, and a subject worth the exposition because it contributed mightily to the effort expended in our separation from the budding British Empire.

It proved a boon to the battered economy by employing shipbuilders, related workers and trades, and a network of agents and legal officials necessary to adjudicate the captured "prizes." It also employed thousands of seamen. As well, it provided government revenue for the prosecution of the war, as it enabled investors to create fortunes, some of which persist to this day. These men, of course, were amongst the many investors who fueled America's industries after the war.

Robert Morris was already wealthy, but became more so. Amongst the rest were men named Cabot, Peabody, and Lowell, now Boston Brahmin families all. The Browns of Newport deserve mention, honorable and otherwise. (The Browns became particularly wealthy as slavers after the war.) One cooper's apprentice in Beverly (Israel Thorndike) skippered a privateer at age 19 before going on to amass one of New England's largest fortunes in banking and textiles. Patton remarks that additional and important benefit from these endeavors was the effect on business practices, banking, finance, etc.

Government records reflect that 832 seamen died in Revolutionary combat, but there is no certain way to establish the number of death amongst the privateering navy. It is known that Newburyport listed 22 vessels destroyed with 1,000 men dead, while Salem lost a third of its registered 54 vessels and Gloucester lost all 24. The adult male populations in these communities were reduced by half during the period. A third of Marblehead women were widowed and a fourth of children were fatherless. Clearly the privateers contributed mightily to the war effort.

The cost to Britain was immense. Though fewer transports were lost, the greater wealth and breadth of British trade corresponded to a higher level of the individual cargoes--the difference was between American vessels carrying barrel staves while British vessels bore sugar, textiles or slaves. They simply had more property to lose.

The book explores the ships, their cargoes, their battles, the men and some of their biographies, and does so comprehensively. It is very interesting, but too much detail for my taste. However, if you enjoyed the Hornblower series, or Patrick O'Brian's works, you'll like this book as well.

Posted by Curmudgeon at December 16, 2009 1:17 PM