The word "privateer" conjures a romantic image in the minds of most Americans. Tales of battle and
bounty pervade the folklore of privateering, which has become a cherished, if often overlooked part of
our shared heritage. Legends were forged during the battle for American independence, and these men were
understandably glorified as part of the formation of our national identity. The fact of the matter is
that the vast majority of these men were common opportunists, if noteworthy naval warriors. The profit
motive was the driving force behind almost all of their expeditions, and a successful privateer could
easily become quite wealthy. In times of peace, these men would be common ...view middle of the document...
Here began the American privateer heritage, and when the American Revolution began many
of these same men viewed the opportunity to profit, and resumed their ventures. The American privateer
vessel was a ship "armed and fitted out at private expense for the purpose of preying on the enemy's
commerce to the profit of her owners". Not just anyone coul!
d be a privateer, however. What distinguished a privateer from a common pirate was a commission, or a
letter of marque. These were granted by the government, and were quite easily obtained. The
government's benefit was twofold. First, the revolutionary government took a share of the profits from
the sale of any cargo captured by a commissioned privateer. The percentage ranged from ten to as much as
forty percent, depending on the nature of the cargo. This provided the then cash-starved government
with considerable revenue, with little to no overhead. It cost the government virtually nothing to issue
a commission, and the financial rewards were great. Second, these privateers disrupted the enemy's trade
and sometimes even captured British military transports and supply ships. This system helped the
government financially and strategically, while affording the privateer great economic benefits. These
fabulous profits created an environment laden with potential for up!
ward mobility for motivated and talented seamen.
To fully appreciate the available opportunities, one must first be aware of how the individual
privateer operated, and a cursory knowledge of ship design is helpful. Virtually every ship in that era,
commercial or military, carried at least some cannon. However, these ships could not be outfitted with
as many cannons as their owners desired. The term "pierced" refers to the rectangles that were cut in a
ship's sides through which cannons were fired. Cannons were usually located on either the top deck, or
the level just below it. This lower level was preferable because cannon operation required a good deal
of space due to recoil, and lurching cannons were dangerous obstacles to crews working the sails on the
main deck. However, these lower piercings were difficult to make after the ship was constructed and
affected the structural integrity of the ship itself. It was much easier to piercing the sides of the
ship on the main deck, because all it required was a simple!
U-cut. In fact, many captains who needed to rearrange the placement of their cannons during battle
ordered hasty V-cuts on the main deck. As mentioned before however, these were less than preferable
because of the danger they posed to seamen trimming the sails. Thus the number and placement of
piercings affected the ship's desirability as a privateer. In the early stages of the American
Revolution, investors purchased ships of all types, paid for their modification, crew, and provisions,
and hired experienced seamen to command them. The entire crew was paid a...