Thursday, July 28, 2016

Pirates and Privateering in the New World

By Reece Nortum
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Piracy and Privateering, a specialized category of officially sanctioned piracy defined as "activities by armed privately-owned vessel(s) commissioned for war service by a government," presented a threat in the waters of the New World going back to the earliest days of colonization.  Many of the new colonies had a large number of people turn to privateering due to the harsh times they were facing ashore, made worse after needed supply ships were either lost at sea or to attacks by foreign pirates or privateers just off shore.


Examples of pirate flags from (left) the late-18th Century, and the early 19th Century (right). 
Piracy and privateering in the waters of the New World continued to be a constant danger to American shipping for two more centuries, even after the American Revolution. The threat to American merchant shipping from privateers dramatically increased after the beginning of the French Revolution, a decade-long period of political upheaval that began in 1789. 

On January 2, 1794, the House of Representatives had voted to authorize building a Navy in order to meet the challenges posed by French privateers in the Caribbean and Atlantic, as well as others operating in the Mediterranean from bases in North Africa.  Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted proposals to the committee outlining the design and cost of warships. To appease the strong opposition to the upcoming bill because of the high costs, with the government still in the substantial debt incurred during the Revolutionary War, the Federalist Party inserted a clause into the bill that would bring an abrupt halt to the construction if the Treaty of Tripoli was signed.  A diplomatic settlement with the Barbary States in North Africa would potentially make the Mediterranean shipping lanes more secure for American merchant vessels, negating the need for a large, expensive navy.  Construction of the frigates slowly continued until the 1796 announcement of the Treaty of Tripoli being signed. In accordance with the clause in the Naval Act, construction of the frigates was to be discontinued.  However, President Washington requested instructions from Congress on how to proceed.  Later an agreement was reached allowing Washington to complete two of the 44-gun and one of the 36-gun frigates. The three frigates nearest to completion, United States, Constellation and Constitution, were ultimately chosen, while construction was halted on the Chesapeake, Congress, and President, and some of their construction materials were sold or placed in storage. 


During the presidency of John Adams (1797-1801), "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" became the rallying cry of the Federalists as Adams ordered the completion of the three frigates that had had been under construction since 1794: United States, Constellation, and Constitution.  

Completing these vessels became imperative, not because of a collapse of the accord with the Barbary States, but because of a new threat to American merchant vessels posed by an erstwhile ally.  French privateers were preying upon American shipping in the Atlantic and Caribbean.  Congress also authorized 1,000 privateers as additional security forces for the ports and shipping channels to defend against French aggression.  By May 1798, the 24 gun man-of-war USS Ganges, a former merchant vessel purchased and pressed into naval service, was guarding the coast between Long Island and Chesapeake Bay, and was later joined by USS Constellation and USS United States.  

Congress rescinded all post-Revolutionary War peace treaties with France that were originally signed on September 3, 1783.  The regime that had signed the treaties was swept away in the chaos and upheaval of the French Revolution nearly six years later, and the current French foreign minister had demanded $250,000 in gifts, and $6 million in loans.  After his request was denied by President Adams, France began sending privateer ships to conduct piracy in order to get what France felt they deserved.  In July 1798, USS Delaware was patrolling the shipping lanes and captured the French privateer La Croyable off Egg Harbor, New Jersey, as she preyed upon merchant shipping.  Soon afterward, Congress authorized American warships to conduct offensive operations against French privateers.  Following this order, the US Navy sent 25 ships to the Caribbean to conduct counter-piracy operations.
  The so-called "Quasi-War" with France began as an effort to defeat French privateers, but ships of the rejuvenated American Navy also fought French naval vessels.  In this painting by John William Schmidt, USS Constellation battles French frigate L'Insurgente in the Caribbean in February 1799. (Naval History and Heritage Command Image)


The most famous battles involved the frigate USS Constellation, a 38-gun ship commanded by Thomas Truxtun.  The first of many engagements occurred on February 9, 1799, which involved the 36-gun L'Insurgente, a larger and more heavily armed vessel.  Commanded by Captain Michel-Pierre Barreaut, the French frigate had plagued American shipping for years.  The bold, largely unchallenged French attempted to board USS Constellation, but Truxtun was able to maneuver away and fire on L'Insurgente, leading to Captain Barreaut's surrender.  Almost a year later, February 1, 1800, USS Constellation engaged the 52-gun frigate La Vengeance.  Constellation pounded the French ship for five hours, but La Vengeance was able to escape under the cover of darkness that night. From New York to Havana, these long shipping lanes continued to be patrolled by American vessels until piracy was all but eliminated in this part of the world in the 1830s.

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