Privateering during the War of 1812: Interview with Faye M. Kert

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Privateering: Patriots & Profits in the War of 1812

During the War 1812, US and Canadian privateers fought most of the naval battles between the United States and Great Britain. These privateers were comprised of captains who were motivated by the promise of profit to fight for their countries. There was a strong legal framework in both the United States and Great Britain that normalized piracy. Canadian and American ship owners and investors took advantage of it and funded privateering outfits during the war. Needless to say, privateers were incredibly risky investments.

Faye M. Kert has finally written a comprehensive history on the privateers of the War of 1812. Privateering: Patriots & Profits in the War of 1812 published by Johns Hopkins University Press "highlights the economic, strategic, social and political impact of privateering" and explains why the dangers of piracy ultimately convinced the British to end its conflict with the United States.

Kert was previously a underwater archaeologist and she earned a PhD from the University of Leiden. She is currently an independent historian and the current book review editor for The Northern Mariner published by the Canadian Nautical Research Society. She is also the author of Trimming Yankee Sails: Pirates and Privateers of New Brunswick and Prize and Prejudice: Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada in the War of 1812.

Here is the interview with Faye M. Kert.

While I was familiar with the concept of privateers, I had no idea that they were such an essential component of the naval actions during the War of 1812.  What is a privateer and what role did they play in the War of 1812?

A privateer is a privately-owned armed vessel which has a licence or letter of marque from the government that entitles it to capture enemy vessels during wartime. By 1812, privateering had evolved into a regulated, legal, and often lucrative, form of maritime warfare that complemented naval activities but was not like any navy. A privateer could be anything from a rowboat to a 600-ton ship, although the most successful were schooners in the 200-ton range.

The men who sailed in these vessels were also called privateers. Like their ships, some were better sailors than others, some were just in it for the money, some for the adventure and some because it was the only work available when merchant vessels were afraid to leave port for fear of capture. Some have called privateering “legalized piracy”, but it was better controlled and generally, less violent. Like pirates, privateers could keep the ships and cargoes they captured, but only after it had gone through an Admiralty Court process and was condemned by a judge. As long as they had a valid commission or licence, if privateers were taken by the enemy, they were treated like prisoners of war who could be ransomed or exchanged. Pirates were hanged.

Privateering was particularly important in the War of 1812, because it was the only real maritime defence the United States had, at least at the beginning of the war. When war was declared in June 1812, the US had only a few frigates left over from the American Revolution and some smaller warships numbering about 17 vessels. Even though Congress granted funds to begin rebuilding the US Navy that had been decommissioned after the Revolution, it was a slow process and the larger ships required hundreds of trained men to sail them and fire their guns. Meanwhile, the British Royal Navy had hundreds of ships and men, seasoned by fighting Napoleon and the navies of Europe for over 20 years. While these vessels were largely preoccupied with the war in Europe and the Mediterranean, there were still a few frigates and warships available to protect Britain’s Caribbean possessions against the French and Canada against the Americans.

With so few warships, the USN could not afford to lose any, and thus, had to be careful about engaging British warships that were larger and more experienced. On the other hand, the British found the American navy were better gunners and keener sailors and lost almost all of the early single-ship contests they fought. The public outrage in Britain was so strong that the Royal Navy ordered her captains to avoid any combat with USN vessels unless they were sure they could win.

Fearing that war would destroy their livelihood, many American merchants and ship owners began converting their ships into privateers even before war was declared. Since most trading vessels already carried one or two large cannon to defend themselves from sea-borne predators, it was a relatively simple (though not necessarily inexpensive) matter to reinforce the decks to carry more guns, empty the cargo hold to carry more crew, and sign on enough men to allow for prize crews to sail captured vessels back to port to claim as their prize. This could be done in a matter of weeks and hundreds of vessels swarmed out of Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Salem and almost everywhere else along the eastern seaboard looking for prey. While a few dozen keen young naval officers jockeyed for command of the few ships available, hundreds of civilian sailors rushed to sign on to a privateer where they would work for shares of all the prizes they could take. During the first few months of the war, privateering was the only game in town and everyone who could rushed to take advantage of it.

This has been a long term project for you. How did you become interested in privateers?

Having worked as an underwater archaeologist on a number of shipwrecks in Canada and the UK, and in a couple of Canadian national museums, when I decided to go back to school and do a masters degree, I wanted a topic with boats in it. I became interested in privateers when I was taking a colonial history course and discovered that Canada’s Atlantic Provinces sent out about 45 private armed vessels against American shipping in the War of 1812. I had never heard of privateering (except for Sir Francis Drake) and certainly had not known about its role in the War of 1812. I was fascinated by the idea of independent warfare for profit within a legal framework that stretched back to the Middle Ages and beyond. With so much of Canadian history dating to 1867, it was amazing to follow a process that was familiar to the Phoenicians, Crusaders, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and on up to the American Civil War. Canadian history is not known for its swashbuckling so the concept of privateering was irresistible. That interest carried me into further research and a Ph.D. at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands where privateering was both longstanding and a respectable maritime activity for centuries.

Once I got to know the Atlantic Canadian privateers, I decided to see how American privateering compared. I wondered why so little was written about US privateering and many years later, I can see why. Compared to the 45 New Brunswick and Nova Scotia privateers from the War of 1812 and their few hundred prizes, I have found over 600 American privateers who captured nearly 2,000 prizes, although not even half of them made it to port. The documents are sparse and spread over half a dozen national and state archives collections, numerous historical societies and state and university libraries. It has been a multi-year Easter Egg hunt and even after writing my book, I am still finding out new things. Just last week I found another privateer.

Becoming a privateer appears to be a high risk/high reward gamble. Since privateers were not military ships, who decided if a ship was going to be a privateer during the war? Did the crew have any say in this decision?

James Madison, President during the War of 1812

Privateering was a huge risk for the ship’s owners, the men who put up the several thousand dollar bond for the ship’s good behaviour and the crew who put their lives on the line to take the prizes. Because it was often the only alternative to leaving a ship at anchor for the duration of the war, owners and merchants weighed the possibility of no profit against that of a potential fortune and decided whether or not to request a commission. There were, in fact, two options. A ship owner could obtain a letter of marque but prepare his ship for a regular trading voyage. He might add a few more men and guns in case a prize came along, but the crew would be paid wages and the vessel’s main purpose was trade. On the other hand, he could decide to forego any pretense of trade, take on extra guns and men, and go out and cruise against enemy shipping as a privateer. In that case, the crew signed Articles of Agreement in which they agreed to work for shares of any prizes they might take. Once all the court costs, duties and other fees were paid, the profits were shared equally between the owners (who supplied the ship and guns and outfitted it for the cruise) and the officers and crew (who sailed and fought it).

The crew decided which type of vessel they wanted to sail in and were generally committed to making their fortunes. Some were willing to fight to the death for it. I have found only one case where a privateer crew, out of food, sick, low on water and without a prize asked the captain to turn back. When he refused and flew into a rage, the crew calmly locked him in his cabin, sailed the ship home and turned themselves over to the authorities on returning to port.

How did you become a privateer? Is there a strong legal basis for privateering?

Letter of Marque signed by James Madison in 1814

Becoming a privateer was easy – becoming a successful privateer was not. The key to privateering was the letter of marque. A ship did not dare leave port without it. Most privateers carried several copies of their commission so that the prize master of a captured ship could prove that the prize was a legitimate capture if it were recaptured by the Royal Navy. As a rule, privateers were exempted from being pressed into the British navy and that was a very valuable protection. Because privateers were privately owned, crews tended to be local men and boys who were known to the ship owner or the captain. Many were related or had sailed together on merchant voyages before the war. Captains or ships with a good reputation as prize takers never had any problem finding a crew. Others might place an ad in a couple of local newspapers announcing a ‘rendez-vous’ for a given date and place, attracting crews with promises of making their fortune. There might even be a fife and drum on site to march the recruits down to the dock where the ship lay waiting. By the end of the war, when the British blockade sealed up port after port and the number of prizes was declining, men were less likely to join a privateer and captains might have to stop at a couple of ports to get a large enough crew.

Once a privateer signed the Articles of Agreement on joining a ship, he agreed to work for a given number of shares (or a percentage). There were always a few bonus shares for things like being the first one to see a prize, the first one to leap on board, etc. If someone violated their articles by shirking their duty, falling asleep on watch, stealing from his shipmates, running away, etc. his shares were put back in the pot for all to share. If he were killed, his shares went to his wife or family.

You don’t need to watch many pirate movies before you realize why privateering needed a strong legal framework. The first known letter of marque dates from the thirteenth century. It provided a solution for a merchant whose goods were stolen by citizens of a country where the victim’s sovereign had no power. One ruler was not likely to declare war on another just because one of his subject’s ships had been taken by pirates flying the other king’s flag. Instead, he could give the victim a letter of marque, allowing him to take only the value of the goods he lost from a subject of the other king’s. That way, the new victim could claim justice from his own sovereign who could either personally pay his subject for the loss or pursue the pirates within his own realm for compensation. It was a practical solution to an international legal problem at a time when there were no state navies to protect ships at sea. After this concept expanded into compensating for losses suffered during wartime, it gradually became applicable only at times of war. Eventually, it became the resort of any nation without a strong naval force.

Privateering also had to develop some controls. For example, if a ship were captured and all the crew killed or marooned, there was only the captor’s word that the ship had been found abandoned and carried in. Thus, it became necessary to bring at least one member of a captured crew back with the ship to testify under oath that the ship had been legally seized. Similarly with the cargo: a ship with a valuable cargo was especially tempting, so it became illegal to open or tamper with the cargo, an offense known as ‘breaking bulk’. Such a thing could mean loss of the prize.

Other rules applied to where prizes could be taken – at least three miles (or a cannon shot) from shore in international waters, which meant privateers were forbidden to attack any property on land. A privateer was not allowed to search a captain’s trunk or passenger’s belongings or take anything belonging to them without good cause. The ship’s papers were the basis of the legal case, so they could not be lost or tampered with on pain of losing the prize. If a privateer could not find proof that the ship and/or cargo were really enemy property, he had to let it go. Trickery, false flags, phony accents, etc. were all permitted, however, and many privateer captains confirmed their suspicions while pretending to be someone else. Because of the damage it was likely to inflict on both prize and privateer, force was usually the last resort, but the one regulation all respected was that you did not go into battle under any flag but your own.

Once the prize was taken into port, there were yet more legal hoops to jump through. The Admiralty Court system used in the War of 1812 developed in Britain over several centuries and was adopted and adapted by the United States once the colonies began to be settled and have maritime legal issues. Prize law was a special type of international law developed over time and administered by civil rather than criminal lawyers. Prize courts were designed to resolve cases quickly because a ship’s cargo could go bad, be destroyed, miss its market, etc. while the case was going through court. There was no jury, just a judge and legal representatives for each side. A clear-cut case could be over in a couple of weeks – though appeals and problems could extend a case for months. Sometimes, the judge decided that the captor had made a mistake and denied him the prize, but most of the time, the prize was declared “good and lawful” and condemned to the captor to be sold at auction to the highest bidder.

Your title hints at this, but were privateers patriots or profiteers? What was their primary motivation?

After looking at hundreds of privateers, I am pretty sure that profit was the primary motive. Privateering required a financial commitment on behalf of the owners and merchants who were primarily men of business. While many were no doubt patriotic citizens as well, they could have supported the American war effort in other ways without risking their money and their ships. Some had been involved with privateering during the American Revolution only 30 years earlier which fielded many more privateers and thus, were familiar with the potential profits. Others were accustomed to managing the risks of the shipping trade and saw privateering as a viable alternative, at least until the costs outweighed the profits.

The officers and crews were probably even more likely to be in it for the money. Merchant shipping slowed to a trickle during the war and seamen and fishermen found privateering a means of employment with the added excitement of rich prizes like a lottery win. The kind of patriotism that implied fighting and dying for your country was probably not part of the average privateer’s mindset. They were almost all fit young men, experienced sailors and full of confidence in their success. The concept of privateering was based on threat rather than combat. The idea was to stalk a ship you could capture, bring it to with either a shout or a shot across the bow, inspect its papers and capture it or not, based on the papers found.

The ideal capture was simple, civil and safe. Engaging in sea battles damaged the prize and/or the cargo thereby reducing its value at auction. It also damaged the captor, which meant time spent on repairs and refitting instead of privateering. Loss of crews, whether killed or wounded, lowered morale and made it harder to recruit new men. The fact that so many men died or suffered lost limbs or permanent disability, not to mention capture and imprisonment did not seem to dull the dream of certain wealth.

If you were motivated primarily by profits, which side (British or American) gave you the best opportunity to make the most money? Were there any really successfully privateers?

In privateering, like many other things, size mattered. The 45 British privateers from Atlantic Canada were mostly small schooners less than 100 tons who preyed on American shipping fairly close to home. Only one, the 67-ton Liverpool Packet was really successful. She was known as “the evil genius of the coasting trade” and was so effective against American shipping around Cape Cod, that local merchants began to suggest cutting a canal a century before the Cape Cod Canal became a reality. She is credited with at least 100 prizes, although 50 or half that number actually made it to port and through the court. It is impossible to determine what her net earnings were, but estimates range from one to four million dollars. When her owner, Enos Collins, died at nearly 100 years of age, he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Nova Scotia.

None of the 600 or more American privateers came close to the Liverpool Packet’s prize record but a few made money. The Yankee of Bristol, RI (158 tons) captured 54 prizes and sent in 20. The America of Salem, MA (331 tons) is said to have taken 46 prizes but only 19 made it in. The Saucy Jack of Charleston, SC (164 tons) took 45 prizes and sent in 20. The True Blooded Yankee based in Nantes, France (302 tons) took 42 prizes but sent in 17. The Surprize and Comet, both of Baltimore, MD, at 302 and 187 tons, captured 40 and 36 prizes respectively with only 11 each sent in. The 208-ton Fox of Portsmouth, NH is credited with 37 prizes with 10 sent in. Their winnings are estimated at $1-2 million for the Yankee to $1.1 million for America and $600-700,000 for the Fox with Surprize and Comet earning $200-300,000 apiece. This was enormous money at the time and many individual crewmen earned a year’s worth of wages in a single cruise.

Privateering offered maritime communities an economic outlet at a time when there was little money to be made elsewhere. It supported the sail-makers, rope walks, chandlers, taverns and all the trades dependent on the sea. Those who earned money tended to spend it at home, so privateering benefitted more than just those directly involved. Nevertheless, hundreds of crews made no captures whatsoever. Many vessels undertook a single cruise with a letter of marque and gave it up as unprofitable, others hung in a bit longer, sometimes as a privateer and sometimes as a letter of marque trader. In the end, once the number of potential prizes declined, so did the enthusiasm for privateering.

While you were working on this project, what surprised you the most?

One of the biggest surprises was how dangerous privateering actually was and how little people seemed to take that into account. Probably because of the risk of any seafaring activity, people were willing to accept shipwreck, storms, disease, accidents, lightning strikes, etc. as simply part of the job at sea. When training accidents, combat, capture and imprisonment were added to the equation, young men were still ready to sign on to a privateer for three to six months at sea. Various ships logs describe men being put in irons for drunkenness, petty theft and other misdemeanours, but there do not seem to be any floggings or cruelty by the captains. In fact one is mentioned as getting into brawls with his own men and sorting them out.

The things that really seemed to upset privateers were bad food, bad language and bad faith. The Harpy’s cook received twelve lashes for really bad pea soup, and the logs record short rations and shorter tempers. The loss of grog rations was the standard punishment for drunkenness or gambling. Profanity was frowned upon, even in the rough and ready life of a privateer. Cheating and stealing in the crowded confines of a privateer were punishable by dismissal and loss of prize shares, a good indication of how important it was to be able to trust a shipmate.

Who do you think is going to love your book the most? How would you recommend using it in a classroom? 

I think the book will appeal to anyone who is interested in sailing and war at sea in the early nineteenth century. There is some legal history, some economic history, some cultural history and some history of technology to explore. Students who think history is dull have never heard of privateers. Suddenly, the seas are full of interesting characters like Joseph Almeida, J.P. Chazal and Thomas Boyle and ships with great names like Black Vomit, Water Witch and Poor Sailor. There are wonderful, very human stories of close calls, fierce fights, amazing bravery, dirty tricks, practical jokes, acts of kindness and murder, all by people who were much the same age as high school and university students (and some as young as 10 or 11). As privateers, they are sailing, manning guns, capturing prizes and fighting for their country. Some are wounded, some fall overboard and are rescued, some are not so lucky. Their adventures are part of a long history of irregular warfare that no longer exists. Figuring out why it worked so well up to the War of 1812 and then ceased to be effective is part of the fun of privateering.

In a classroom, the book can be used to study an important but little known aspect of the War of 1812. There are hundreds of references to local newspapers of the period, many of which are on-line and can be used to examine what was going on in various towns and cities as the war was being fought on land and sea. Looking at the home ports of the privateers can lead to an examination of maritime communities and what privateering meant to them. Various aspects of maritime law and international law can be examined such as the Three-Mile Limit and the protection of cultural patrimony. Statistics courses can analyse data concerning where privateers came from, how many prizes they took per year, how big they were, and other useful information

Instead of the history of officers, admirals, politicians or great leaders, my book is about privateers, a pretty ordinary segment of maritime society who have a lot more in common with today’s high school or university student than they would think. Like many of today’s jobs, privateering was “part-time”, temporary work until the war was over and men could go back to their regular pursuits. Students should have little trouble imagining themselves as privateers and speculating what prizes they would take and why. Read the book and then watch Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp and compare fact and fiction. Or better yet, get the students to make a privateer movie. Of course, I will expect a percentage.

Thank you again for agreeing to do this interview.

You are very welcome.

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