Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic by David Head, and: Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812 by Faye M. Kert (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
With privateering—the state licensing of individuals to wage war at sea against declared enemies—mostly an anomaly in the contemporary world, it is easy to overlook its significance to past conflict. And yet this tactic, typically a weapon of weak powers unable to construct their own navies, was absolutely central to the military struggles for independence of the western hemisphere’s young republics. But privateering was also about so much more than mere penury. Claiming the right to authorize commerce raiding was an important marker of legitimacy and self-determination for emerging nations in North and South America. To issue letters of marque was to stake a claim for the legal right to do so; indeed, international law plays an important role in both these studies of maritime fighting. And, in a larger sense, privateering helped promote a sense of patriotism and national belonging amongst its diverse practitioners. Not quite the glorified marauders some at the time painted them as, privateers helped to articulate and define the meaning of revolutionary struggle during a chaotic moment in the history of the Atlantic world.
David Head’s focus in all of this is the large number of U.S. citizens who sailed aboard Spanish American privateers during their wars for independence from Spain. Over the course of five concise, solidly written chapters, he explores the multifaceted universe of this diverse group of individuals. Head is interested in not only how the process of privateering for a foreign government worked, but maybe more importantly, what such behavior can teach us about the role of the early republic’s citizens within the wider world. In that sense, the book is a valuable contribution to both the diplomatic and Atlantic history of the young United States. Indeed, the author is at his best when demonstrating the extraordinary aptitude many Americans (and foreign nationals) displayed in skirting, evading, or manipulating domestic and international law in [End Page 363] their quest for profit and glory on the high seas. As Head makes clear, confining privateers solely to the water limits our understanding of their true significance. Complex political considerations governed their operations, courtrooms determined the justice of their cause and the disposition of their prizes, and so they carried their battles with them ashore. Successful privateers were not so much brave as they were creative or savvy students of the shifting legal environment within which they operated.
Some of Head’s best material demonstrates this fact. A chapter on the notorious Lafittes, operating out of New Orleans, shows the entrepreneurial brothers utilizing the 1808 U.S. ban on slave trading, not to mention laws requiring ports to harbor any vessel that claimed to be in distress, to their own advantage. This illicit dealing in human flesh became not only highly lucrative, but crucial to the expansion of the Gulf South plantation economy. In later chapters on the recruiting of privateers in Baltimore and the short-lived revolutionary movements at Galveston and Amelia Island, the author shows similar scheming. In those instances, investors in privateer vessels, ship captains, sailors, and would-be governors all manipulated maritime law, international law, and U.S. neutrality laws to their own advantage. The author’s impressive detective work, meanwhile, shows us that almost every man of means in Baltimore invested in at least one privateer nominally flying the flag of an independent Latin American government; the ships were built in the United States, floated out into international waters, surreptitiously sold to “dummy” owners abroad, with the crew now sworn in as citizens of a Spanish-speaking republic. It was a complex process, and one that made some individuals significant amounts of prize money off of cargo captured, condemned, and auctioned off. Only with the passage of more specific, better enforced laws, Head finds, did the American government begin to successfully discourage its…