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Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolutionby Robert H. Patton
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In this lively narrative history, Robert H. Patton, grandson of the World War II battlefield legend, tells a sweeping tale of courage, capitalism, naval warfare, and international political intrigue set on the high seas during the American Revolution. Patriot Pirates highlights the obscure but pivotal role played by colonial privateers in defeating Britain in the American Revolution. American privateering-essentially legalized piracy-began with a ragtag squadron of New England schooners in 1775. It quickly erupted into a massive seaborne insurgency involving thousands of money-mad patriots plundering Britain's maritime trade throughout Atlantic. Patton's extensive research brings to life the extraordinary adventures of privateers as they hammered the British economy, infuriated the Royal Navy, and humiliated the crown.
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The Washington Post
Patton (The Pattons: A Personal History of an American Family) turns his attention to an often overlooked aspect of the Revolutionary War: maritime privateering, or legalized piracy. Patton is careful to distinguish the mixed motives of these "patriot pirates," for often there was less patriotism than simple greed. Nevertheless, their work fulfilled George Washington's strategic aim to win the war by exhausting Britain into giving up the struggle. In what Patton terms "a massive seaborne insurgency" that dwarfed the efforts of the colonists' small navy, thousands of privateers nettled British shipping, sometimes gaining vast fortunes. Privateering also turned into a handy political issue when Benjamin Franklin, the American representative in France, succeeded in persuading his hosts to allow Yankee skippers to sell their booty in French ports-a breach of the country's neutrality that aggravated diplomatic tensions, as Franklin knew it would, and helped cement Paris's commitment to American independence. Patton gives an absorbing exhumation of an undersung subject that will be of particular interest to Revolution buffs. (May 20)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Read an Excerpt
The devil himself has not more cunning than these people.
—John R. Livingston, New York merchant, on dealing with Rhode Island businessmen in 1776
Rhode Island deputy governor Darius Sessions might as well have listed John Brown by name when, two months before Gaspee ran aground, he warned the governor that “a number of gentlemen of this town” were becoming annoyed with “a schooner which for some time past has cruised in the Narragansett Bay and much disturbed our navigation.”
Brown, “a stormy petrel and bold adventurer,” was the most prominent of four brothers who’d expanded their late father’s Providence-based shipping business into a conglomerate dealing in everything from pig iron to African slaves. Over six feet tall and more than two hundred pounds, his imposing physique was matched by aggressiveness that a year earlier had led him temporarily to quit the family partnership in order to sink all his cash into new ventures, a plan his cautious younger brother, Moses, predicted “will sooner or later lose the whole at one throw.”
John’s primary venture was, through illicit “navigation,” dealing West Indian (Caribbean) molasses to New England rum distillers in defiance of trade laws imposed almost forty years earlier to prevent British sugarcane planters from being undersold by the French and Dutch. Like most Rhode Islanders, he’d never paid heed to the Molasses Act of 1733 or any other of the assorted Navigation Acts restricting, for the benefit of British producers, colonial trade in everything from lumber to wool hats.
Founded as a haven for religious tolerance, the colony had “a reputation for contraband, quirkiness, and eccentricity.” Geography abetted its notoriety as a smugglers’ paradise. A wedge of coastline without a resource-rich hinterland, its towns dotted like hideouts among the islands and inlets of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island played a hustler’s role in the larger New England economy. Many of its most successful entrepreneurs were middlemen, conveying goods from producer to seller, profiting through markups and by keeping costs, namely customs duties, low. Nothing riled them more than government vigilance in limiting trade.
In neighboring Massachusetts, political protest, though rooted in issues of taxation and government intrusiveness, maintained a veneer of high-toned philosophical argument with Britain’s distant rule. Samuel Adams, Boston’s most influential revolutionary polemicist at the time, admitted, “I get out of my line when I touch upon commerce.” Not so John Brown, whose sense of persecution always centered on money. He’d rarely complained about the Navigation Acts as long as he could dodge them. But after Gaspee proved too diligent in its patrol of local waters, Brown and his fellow “gentlemen of this town” petitioned the governor for relief.
Anger over Gaspee’s activities was just one example of the rising and often unreasonable antipathy Americans felt for Britain. Everyone knew Rhode Islanders had been sneaking contraband through Narragansett Bay at a ferocious clip for decades; in some years as much as 80 percent of rum exports from the colony’s more than thirty distilleries derived from illicit molasses. Gaspee was merely fulfilling its duty of putting teeth into long-standing trade laws, but that didn’t stop locals from harassing its crewmen when they were in port or from calling its zealous young skipper, Lieutenant William Dudingston, “a hogstealer and a chickenthief.”
The problem was, authorities long had turned a blind eye to smuggling rather than disturb the healthy percolation of a colonial economy that was employing half the English merchant fleet in the import of huge quantities of English manufactures, especially high-profit luxury goods such as linen, lace, and housewares (called “conveniences” by increasingly flush American consumers). The “salutary neglect” with which Britain had treated the colonies was defined by this tacit indulgence of unrestrained commerce. Naval interdiction was minimal. Customs officials were absent, corrupt, or powerless. And judicial procedures were so tangled with red tape and tilted with hometown bias as to make prosecution of scofflaws all but impossible.
But the rules had begun to change in 1763 when Britain’s national debt soared after the Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War by Americans). Strapped for money and deeming the bustling colonies as due to start paying their share of the postwar tax burden, the government revamped its trade laws to more effectively extract revenue from America. In the case of the Sugar Act of 1764, the approach was carrot-and-stick. As an incentive toward compliance the duty on foreign molasses was halved; at the same time, customs offices were reopened, the use of search warrants was expanded, and warships were dispatched to monitor coastal approaches.
It was too late. Increasingly regarding themselves as Americans rather than dutiful British subjects, people were loath to give up the commercial freedom their government’s former indifference had encouraged. Tariffs that in Parliament’s viewpoint were fair and indeed rather mild given America’s prosperity were greeted by the colonists as tantamount to demanding that each family’s firstborn be consigned to the royal treasury.
Relations turned rancid between merchants and customs officials. Ship seizures doubled between 1771 and 1772. One, Fortune, belonged to Jacob Greene & Company of Coventry, Rhode Island. Gaspee took it in a typically rough shakedown capped with Fortune’s skipper, twenty-three- year-old Rufus Greene, a family cousin, getting his skull cracked under a companionway hatch when he resisted.
Nathanael Greene, Jacob’s brother and business partner, railed at the loss of their cargo of rum and sugar. “I have devoted almost the whole of time in devising and carrying into execution measures for the recovery of my property and punishing the offender.” He vowed to sue Lieutenant Dudingston; not surprisingly, Rhode Island law accorded merchants extraordinary protections against government overreach. But others in the local business community contemplated a more drastic course.
The seizure of Fortune sparked an escalating flurry of charges and countercharges. The first salvo was the mildest. “I have done nothing but what was my duty,” responded Dudingston to the accusation that his conduct was, in the words of Rhode Island governor Joseph Wanton, “illegal and unwarrantable.” Rhode Island’s royal charter conferred autonomy on its General Assembly and its elected governor, surpassing any other American colony. Consequently Wanton’s loyalty to the king was by no means a sure thing, a fact known to Admiral John Montagu, commander of the Royal Navy’s North American station.
Montagu called the governor’s complaint against the lieutenant “insolent” and threatened to hang “as pirates” anyone who obstructed his mission. Wanton retorted that the lieutenant “was a pirate himself,” whereupon each referred the matter to his higher-up, Montagu to the secretary of state, Wanton to the General Assembly. There, between the plod of diplomatic communication and a mutual desire to avoid further confrontation, it might have languished until the Greenes sued to regain their property. But two actions by the British brought tensions to a flashpoint.
First, Dudingston sent Fortune and its cargo up the coast to the admiralty court in Boston—a violation of Parliamentary law, held dear throughout the colonies, dictating that customs seizures be tried under local (hence favorable) jurisdiction. Dudingston, aware of Rhode Island’s rigged legal system, assured the admiral that “the inhabitants of this government” would gladly sacrifice the captured rum “as bait” if guarding it through the course of a long trial kept Gaspee in Newport harbor rather than out on patrol. But the move was perfect fodder for political firebrands such as Samuel Adams in their fierce denunciation of Britain’s “violent infringement of our rights.” Montagu supported his lieutenant, however, and in such rude style it was a personal slap at Rhode Island’s proudest men.
He was known to be coarse. (John Adams, shocked by the admiral’s public assertion that Mrs. Montagu’s backside was “so broad that she and I can’t sit in a chariot together,” called him, “brutal, hoggish.”) Still, the General Assembly was dismayed to read, in letters presented by Wanton, the admiral’s utter rejection of any civil authority over his officers. “You have no business with them, and be assured it is not their duty to show you any part of my orders or instructions to them.” He warned against sending “the sheriff” on any such “ridiculous errands” as trying to arrest Dudingston. The sheriff he had in mind (Rhode Island had one for every county) was John Brown, elected in 1771.
A few days later a Brown-owned packet (mail) boat heading up the bay defied Gaspee’s signal to lower its sails and submit to inspection. The vessel, Hannah, tacked across a submerged sandbar to make its getaway (the same one Brown had hit twelve years earlier), traversing shoals that moments later snagged its pursuer. The jubilant crew then mooned the British goodbye, “their faces to the opposite point of the compass from those with whom they were parting.” When Hannah’s skipper docked at Providence that evening and told his boss about trapping Gaspee, Brown launched phase two of his answer to Montagu.
Seven hundred of Providence’s four thousand inhabitants were men above age sixteen. They resided with their families in close-set houses or in rooms above their shops along the town waterfront. Drumming a call to arms outside a popular tavern, Brown quickly mustered a band of sixty compatriots to strike a blow against His Majesty’s taxman. Eight longboats pushed off shortly after 10 p.m. to row the seven miles to where Gaspee lay aground. Two and a half hours later, they closed on their target.
The schooner was seventy feet long with a crew of 19, its armament an array of fixed cannon bored for a six-pound ball and small swivel guns used to rake the topsides of enemy vessels with antipersonnel shot. Its low freeboard above the waterline made the vessel vulnerable to boarding, and British lookouts hailed the longboats and warned them to stand off.
Dudingston appeared on deck “in his shirt” carrying a pistol and sword. His demand that the intruders declare themselves was met with a shout. “I am the sheriff of the county of Kent, goddamn you. I have a warrant to apprehend you.” Brown was the sheriff of Bristol County. One of his shipmasters, Abraham Whipple, was the sheriff of Kent under whose jurisdiction Gaspee now lay. Witnesses later differed as to who gave the shout, though certainly it fit Brown’s character to claim authority, valid or not, personally to clap Dudingston in irons.
The longboats pulled fore and aft of the schooner where its carriage guns couldn’t aim. The lieutenant discharged his pistol down into the dark before receiving a musket ball in the groin fired by someone below. Raiders swarmed aboard and subdued the crew with barely a fight. Three hours later, Brown, checking around to make sure his men had left behind no evidence of their identity, was nearly struck by spars and rigging that fell to the deck. Gaspee had been set afire, probably by tipping over the galley stove and scattering its embers in the hold. Documents had been ransacked, petty valuables stolen, its crew and wounded skipper deposited on shore where they heard the vessel’s powder explode as it burned to the waterline.
The last of the longboats rode the incoming tide northward to Providence, arriving at daybreak. The raiders dispersed “little conscious of the crime they were committing and the penalty they were incurring.” One young man was seen later that day “parading himself with Lieutenant Dudingston’s gold laced beaver on his head.”
If the raiders were oblivious to the severity of their act, local officials were not. Fearing that Rhode Island’s unique freedoms under its charter might be rescinded by a vindictive Parliament, Governor Wanton immediately launched an inquiry involving proclamations, rewards, sworn depositions, and a lot of gaudy outrage at “this daring insult upon authority.” At the same time, he and the entire Providence community hindered the process at every turn, converting an obvious case against the attack’s ringleaders into a fog of conflicting testimony that implicated many and singled out none.
Like the attack itself, the yearlong inquiry showed how quickly Americans could mobilize into group action in which private interest and anti-British sentiment coincided. After all, these were people who often bitterly feuded. On a broad level, for example, other colonies long had resented Rhode Island’s “intent to take an advantage of sister colonies” by violating their collective boycott of certain British goods in protest of the Navigation Acts. In 1770, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston had refused to do business with “parasitical” Rhode Island merchants unless, through compliance, they began sharing the financial hit caused by the boycott. Though these nonimportation agreements eventually broke down due to the colonies’ temptation “to turn the self-denial of their neighbors to their own immediate advantage,” the mistrust of Rhode Island persisted.
Even so, citizens everywhere were alarmed by rumors that suspects in the Gaspee raid might be sent to Britain for trial. In Massachusetts, John Adams decried the inquiry as “the Star Chamber Court, the Court of Inquisition.” His cousin Samuel, confronting “such provocation as is now offered to Rhode Island,” on the one hand warned of potential “rivers of blood” while on the other urged the colony to do nothing “which may by the invention of our adversaries be construed as even the appearance of acquiescence in so grasping an act of tyranny.”
In March 1773 Thomas Jefferson reacted to the ongoing inquiry by calling on the Virginia House of Burgesses to coordinate resistance to British legal encroachment wherever it occurred. “We were all sensible that the most urgent of all measures was that of coming to an understanding with all the other colonies to consider the British claims as a common cause to all, and to produce a unity of action.” Committees of correspondence were established throughout the colonies as a result, a major step in the unification of their often contentious constituencies. And all due to actions undertaken by a little-loved colony whose maverick government, a Newport loyalist wrote Montagu one month after the Gaspee attack, “bears no resemblance to any other government under the crown of England.”
Political disputes within Rhode Island were likewise set aside to present a united front against the Gaspee inquiry. In recent years, territorial rivalries had divided the colony as its commercial hub shifted north from Newport at the lower end of Narragansett Bay to Providence, where a sheltered, upriver harbor and proximity to interior Massachusetts and Connecticut had proved a long-term advantage.
The more established Newport featured a blithe, loyalist-leaning aristocracy whose indifference to the anti-British nonimportation agreements had, by association, hurt Providence’s reputation in the eyes of other colonies. In 1770, the upstart northern town had scored a coup by outbidding Newport to become the home of Rhode Island College. The move was good for business and, its supporters hoped, would garner “every other public emolument” that accompanies a prestigious place of learning. The political tussle was heated and personal, and tipped in favor of Providence on the basis of “zeal,” wrote Moses Brown, expressed in practical terms by construction discounts and free land given the project by his brothers, Nicholas and John.
Yet the Newport–Providence factions joined together to shield the Gaspee raiders from justice. The collusion was exemplified by the partnership of Governor Wanton and Lieutenant Governor Sessions, from Newport and Providence respectively, in obstructing the very inquiry they headed. It also figured in the deluge of rebuttal to testimony supplied by Aaron Briggs, an eighteen-year-old indentured servant variously described as “Negro” and “mulatto” who’d been coerced into rowing one of the longboats to the Gaspee attack.
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Meet the Author
Robert H. Patton graduated from Brown University and Northwestern University. He is the author of The Pattons: A Personal History of an American Family. Patton lives with his wife and family in Darien, Connecticut.
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