High Profit On the High Seas

By Evan Thomas,
who is editor at large of Newsweek and the author of "John Paul Jones" and, most recently, "Sea of Thunder"
Tuesday, June 10, 2008


The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution

By Robert H. Patton

Pantheon. 291 pp. $26

When Americans think of the Founding Fathers, they generally imagine virtuous types such as George Washington, John Adams or James Madison (Thomas Jefferson, consort of Sally Hemings, is a more morally ambiguous figure). They certainly do not devote attention to the likes of John Brown, a war profiteer whose traffic in slaves is still a source of embarrassment for the Rhode Island university that bears his family name.

At more than 6 feet and 200 pounds, Brown was described in one contemporary account as "a stormy petrel and bold adventurer." Before the revolution, he made a fortune as a smuggler, using the coves of Narragansett Bay to evade British cruisers. In 1772, the Gaspee, a Royal Navy ship sent to crack down on the illicit trade, ran onto a sandbar off the Rhode Island coast while chasing a boatload of smugglers. The saucy colonists dropped their trousers and mooned their grounded pursuers while sailing away. That night, Brown brought eight boatloads of men over from Providence and burned the Gaspee, shooting the ship's captain in the groin before he boarded. The burning of the Gaspee was one of those early acts of insurrection, along with more famous eruptions such as the Boston Tea Party, that signaled the coming storm. The principle at stake in the Gaspee raid was the freedom to make as much money as possible; to a degree conveniently overlooked today, profit was an animating motive of the early patriots, or so argues Robert Patton in his entertaining and enlightening new book.

When war broke out in 1775, Brown saw a chance to really cash in. He sent his ships on "powder voyages" to Spain, Holland and France to supply the fledgling Continental Army with gunpowder, and he sold 3,000 cannons, for a total sum approaching $1 billion in today's dollars, up and down the East Coast. He also invested heavily in privateers.

Private warships licensed by the government to commit piracy, privateers had a long and not entirely reputable history on the high seas. American privateersmen included bandits and patriots, who were often one and the same. These privateers were the source of much frustration to John Paul Jones, the hero of the fledgling Continental Navy. Jones's men were constantly deserting to join privateers, in part because salty, rough-hewn sailors disdained the enforced virtue aboard Navy ships (religious services twice a day, no swearing) but also because they valued greed over glory. The system of prize money worked against the Navy. The officers and men in the Continental Navy could divvy up only a third of the value of a captured ship -- "a prize." The rest of the money went to the cash-starved Continental Congress. (The Navy's share was later raised to half, then two-thirds.)

Privateer crews, on the other hand, kept the entire value of any enemy ship they seized. No wonder that by 1781, fewer than 10 Continental Navy ships were sailing against the British -- while almost 500 American privateers roamed the seas. The Continental Navy, Patton argues, was a "non-factor" in the Revolution, while the "massive seaborne insurgency" of the privateers exacted a heavy financial and psychological toll by taking the war to Britain.

Privateering was dangerous work. "Untold thousands" of privateers lost their lives, estimates Patton, and more than 3,000 rotted in English jails or, worse, prison ships, hellholes of pestilence. But the survivors made out like, well, bandits. Boston boomed with war profiteers. "Fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots," huffed Samuel Warren, a New England aristocrat who bridled at the nouveau riche. One of the parvenus was Joseph Peabody, a teenage deckhand at the beginning of the war who, by war's end, owned a fleet sailing out of Salem. (In America, new money quickly becomes old; the Peabody family is now regarded as pure Brahmin. A Peabody scion, Endicott, founded Groton School in the early 1880s.)

Patton, the grandson of the legendary World War II general, has dug deep into Revolutionary War-era records and writes with verve. His organization in "Patriot Pirates" is, like that of the privateer fleet, a little scattershot, but he has a great eye for ironic detail. Paul Revere, the silversmith who roused his countrymen on that fateful morning in April 1775, went on to become an artillery colonel accused of "unsoldierlike behavior tending to cowardice" in a botched raid against the British in Penobscot Bay, Maine, during the summer of 1779. While trying to clear his name, Revere invested in a privateer, the Minerva. The privateer's cruise was a success, capturing a British transport ship carrying cargo worth 80,000 pounds sterling. Revere made a killing.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company