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Privateers in Charleston 1793-1796

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dc.contributor.author Jackson, Melvin H. en_US
dc.date.accessioned 2007-09-26T16:52:06Z en_US
dc.date.accessioned 2013-03-18T18:00:56Z
dc.date.available 2007-09-26T16:52:06Z en_US
dc.date.available 2013-03-18T18:00:56Z
dc.date.issued 1969 en_US
dc.identifier.citation Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology; 1 en_US
dc.identifier.issn 0081-0258 en_US
dc.identifier.uri http://hdl.handle.net/10088/2400 en_US
dc.description.abstract The privateer was a privately owned vessel bearing a commission from a sovereign state that empowered her to seize declared enemies of that state on the high seas. Such seizures, or prizes, after due process in the courts of the sovereign or of friendly powers, became the property of the captor to do with as he would. The license under which the privateer operated was known as a letter of marque and reprisal, and in time the vessel bearing such a commission came to be known as a "Letter of Marque." All too often the letter of marque was used as a legal cloak for banditry on the high seas, and efforts over the centuries to restrict the worst features of privateering evolved an elaborate body of international convention and domestic regulations. By the early nineteenth century, however, privateering finally came to be recognized for the incorrigible institution it was, and in 1856 it was swept away by the Treaty of Paris, to which, it is interesting to note, the United States and Spain did not subscribe. Privateering as a form of warfare persisted over so many centuries largely because it was a cheap weapon. For France at the outbreak of the long Wars of the French Revolution--her caste-ridden navy long neglected and destroyed at last by social upheaval--privateering was a weapon of last resort--but, it must be noted, one for which history records her longtime predilection. For the investor and the seaman alike, the potent lure of privateering naturally was the quick dollar: "Any Seaman or landmen that have the inclination to make their Fortunes in a few Months May have an opportunity by applying to read the broadside nailed to the tavern door. Grateful governments, eager to strike a blow against the wealth-bearing commerce of an enemy, granted letters of marque to all who met a few simple requirements. Inquiries into the character of the outfitters, if made at all, were casual. Bonding, if required to insure compliance with international law, was only casually enforced. Privateering, therefore, tended to attract the unprincipled, and therein lay the evils of the institution that often led its practitioners to the borders, and beyond, of outright piracy. For the owners, a privateer armed, provisioned, and ready for sea might represent a heavy investment. If they committed their vessel to all-out commerce raiding, the risk to their capital was greater than if the letter of marque was used as an adjunct to normal cargo carrying, during which the seizure of a chance prize might enhance the profits of carriage. The commerce raider, on the other hand, could roam the seas at will, trimmed to her fastest sailing lines, uncluttered with cargo, and carrying a crew large enough to work the ship, handle the guns, and man the prizes she took. Glorious single-ship actions and bloody resistance were shunned. The aim of the privateer was to capture, not to destroy, enemy shipping, and investors, captain, and crew worked together under the best of incentive plans--No prize, no pay! These men, no matter how highly they were motivated by patriotism, were far more horrified by red ink than by blood. For her part, the merchant ship, deeply laden and difficult to maneuver, and more than likely under-armed and short-handed, was seldom a match for a determined privateer. The merchant captain, aware of the futility of fighting or running away from such an adversary, often would fire a gun to windward to salve his honor and then haul down his colors. For the most part, the bringing to and surrender of a merchantman, armed or unarmed, was as formalized as a quadrille. History affords examples of prizes of inordinate value, yet over the years the vast majority of privateers had indifferent success. Enemy merchantmen were not easy to find. Often they were under the protection of heavily armed men of war. As a result, a prize once taken was seldom released, even if her papers seemed to be in order. It was too well known that vessels might carry double or even triple sets of papers during times of war, and might sail under as many different flags as did the privateer herself as she worked into hailing distance of a strange sail. Handling of the prize prior to adjudication of her case ashore varied from punctilious observance of international convention to acts of piracy. The prize's stores or cargo might be pilfered by the privateer crew, her papers might be tampered with or destroyed entirely to insure condemnation, and often her captain and officers were detained, or set ashore in some distant part, to make certain that no libelant would appear before the court to challenge the legality of the capture or to tie up the proceeds of the sale in endless legal red tape. To walk the thin edge of legality, then, was the everyday lot of the privateer commander. Some fell off. Others, using forged papers and abetted by corrupt port officials, operated as little more than outright pirates--gens sans aveu. The French-commissioned privateers sailing out of Charleston who are the subjects of this study exhibited all of these traits. And the emotional motivation of those who sailed aboard their vessels--the burning anglophobia of French and American alike--was important and accounted for much of the bravura, daring, and scoundrelism that characterizes their story. This study develops a facet of a larger work in progress on the privateering wars in the Caribbean, 1793-1801. To those who read, corrected, and offered invaluable suggestions regarding it, I wish to express my gratitude: to Robert Greenhalgh Albion, who really started all this; to Dr. Ulane Bonnel, for her guidance in French maritime affairs; to my colleague Howard I. Chapelle, an inexhaustible source of information on the ships and shipping of the eighteenth century; to Donald Green and Terrence Murphy, for eliminating the worst of my outrages against the language of the law; to Peter F. Copeland of the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits, for his advice and assistance with the illustrations; to Welles Henderson, who graciously supplied photographs of a fine painting in his collection, showing a French privateer overhauling an American ship; to the late John Gaillard Stoney, for conjuring up for me the Charleston of the late eighteenth century; to Virginia Rugheimer, of the Charleston Library Society, for her patient help; to Mary E. Braunagel, for reading the galley proofs; and finally, to my wife Faith Reyher Jackson, who, although weary of privateering, never failed me during the long voyage. Such errors in fact or judgment that may appear can only be my own. M.H.J. February 1969 en_US
dc.format.extent 21430272 bytes en_US
dc.format.extent 7045139 bytes en_US
dc.format.mimetype application/pdf en_US
dc.format.mimetype application/pdf en_US
dc.title Privateers in Charleston 1793-1796 en_US
dc.identifier.srbnumber 113104 en_US
dc.identifier.eISSN 1948-6006 en_US
dc.identifier.doi 10.5479/si.00810258.1.1


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