Head on Kert, 'Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812'

Faye M. Kert
David Head

Faye M. Kert. Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812. Johns Hopkins Books on the War of 1812 Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. 224 pp. $55.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4214-1748-6; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-1747-9.

Reviewed by David Head (Spring Hill College)
Published on H-SHEAR (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Robert P. Murray

Privateering was ubiquitous in the many Atlantic wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and yet because privateers were not as officially documented as naval vessels and have never been as alluring as pirates, they have languished in the literature alongside their better-known brothers in maritime prize making. The lazy definition of a privateer as a licensed pirate persists. I have even heard it at a scholarly maritime history conference. As an antidote, Faye M. Kert, a veteran privateer scholar, offers her brief, broad overview of the War of 1812 privateering conducted from the United States and Britain’s colonies in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The result is a work of painstaking scholarship that advances our understanding of the scope and scale of privateering in the United States’ second major war with Britain.

Kert describes privateering as fundamentally a business. Contrary to its wild-and-wooly image, privateering existed within a legal framework, extensive by the nineteenth century, that legitimized and regularized prize taking as a part of a merchant’s investments, a sailor or sea captain’s work, and a port’s industry. Privateering was nevertheless risky, Kert shows. Few vessels brought in the fat prizes of legend and many men lost their lives sailing under a letter of marque. Kert also emphasizes the secondary purpose of privateering: a weapon in a government’s quiver that harnessed private enterprise to public good. Although she maintains that the business side predominated—everyone from the lowliest ship’s boy to the loftiest merchant prince hoped to turn a profit—privateers also wanted to help win the war.

Kert covers the many sides of War of 1812 privateers in four quick chapters that discuss such topics as privateer operations, financing, law and legal procedures, recruiting practices, and the experience of sailors. A fifth chapter recounts the cruises of some of the most successful privateers, such as the Yankee of Bristol, Rhode Island; the Saucy Jack of Charleston, South Carolina; the Surprise and Comet of Baltimore, Maryland; and the Liverpool Packet of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, which despite its pedestrian name captured as many as one hundred prizes and brought in as much as four million dollars in prize money, more than any other vessel in Kert’s research.

Privateering is at its best when Kert reports the fruit of her prodigious research into the scattered legal, business, and newspaper records she found in the United States and Canada. Her work provides authoritative answers to some of the most basic, but heretofore elusive, questions about the scale of privateering. For example, Kert found that 45 vessels were commissioned in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick while in the United States, 1,172 commissions were issued to 625 vessels, with the same ship sometimes carrying multiple commissions during its career as its owners changed. Both figures include privateers proper—that is, privately owned warships whose primary purpose was capturing enemies—and letter of marque traders, vessels whose primary goal was trade but that also carried commissions to capture enemies if the opportunity arose. Her figures revise previous numbers, mostly estimates, and although not radically different from earlier estimates, it is reassuring to have the numbers tied to the actual commissions.

Kert does her best to shine light on the question of whether privateering was profitable. Her research suggests that it seldom reaped rich rewards for investors, captains, or sailors. According to Kert, fewer than half of privateers captured even one prize, and among those prizes that were taken, two-thirds never reached port to be condemned by a court and turned into money. Recapture was common and the dangers of the sea pervasive. Ultimately, however, she contends that the records are simply too skimpy to calculate a return on investment with any degree of certainty.

The larger impact of privateering on the war is also difficult to discern, according to Kert. The economic damage wrought by privateers seems significant. US privateers captured some 1,900 British vessels and insurance rates rose by 30 percent from 1812 to 1814. Still, as Kert notes, the British merchant marine numbered over 21,000 vessels, meaning privateers captured less than 10 percent of the total number of British merchant ships at sea. Privateers harassed the enemy and boosted morale, Kert writes, but American cruisers were largely bottled up once the British blockade descended in 1813 and merchant ships were well protected once the Royal Navy’s convoy system was in place. The American privateers’ greatest impact came in the war’s first six months and the Canadian privateers were most valuable in that same period when they offered protection the navy was not yet able to provide.

Privateers also seemed to have injected much-needed revenue into Atlantic ports whose trade was disrupted by war. British colonial privateers likely brought in some five million dollars to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; American privateers provided some ten million dollars to their home ports. Privateering kept sailors and dockworkers busy, ships active, and goods flowing. At the same time, it is difficult to know how much revenue would have been generated by regular trade during peace.

Governments benefited, too, from privateering, although again how much is an open question. Since privateers were privately owned and operated, governments augmented their naval forces essentially for free, and once the war was over, what to do with the vessels was not the government’s problem. Privateers also generated revenue in the form of court fees and customs duties and in the United States, the Seamen’s Hospital Fund received 2 percent of prize proceeds. And yet Kert contends that the strategic value of privateers was limited. They harassed the enemy and buoyed spirits with their tales of adventure but accomplished little else.

Kert has accomplished a great deal in a short space. Her notes, tables, and charts are jewels in themselves, and future scholars owe her a debt of gratitude for doing the hard archival labor and making her results widely available. Two tables, lists of all the Canadian and American privateers she found, are available on the book’s Johns Hopkins University Press site. (My favorite vessel names are: Black Vomit, Thinks-I-to-Myself, Young Teazer, and Young Teazer’s Ghost.)

Given Kert’s expertise, however, I found myself wanting to hear her weigh in more often on the role of privateering in the larger context of the war itself. Kert discusses some of the trade issues that led to war, and she shows the effect of the British blockade on privateering. I would have liked to hear her interpretation of where, exactly, privateering fit in with developments elsewhere in the war as it unfolded. Maybe not the connection between Andrew Jackson’s Indian fighting and the Black Vomit’s cruises, but certainly privateering must have been connected to naval operations and the decisions of policymakers, and it must have played some role in support or opposition to the war. It seems significant that New Englanders were such active privateers when antiwar sentiment was focused in that region. I would like to know what Kert makes of that pattern.

In a similar vein, Kert’s arguments could have been strengthened by placing privateers within the other alternatives available at the time to such people as shipowners and investors. Kert argues that privateering should be seen not as an activity sought in itself, as if merchants were incipient pirates dying to plunder with the protection of a commission, but as an investment that made sense during war given the disruption to trade and the lack of other options. My sense is that is correct. Nevertheless, it would have been ideal if Kert could have shown how a merchant went about investing in a privateer as one part of his other businesses. Finding the records would be a challenge, but surely there is one merchant with sufficient business records to permit a case study analysis.

Other questions remain unaddressed. I wonder about the opposition to privateering. How significant was it? What were the terms of debate? Were there regional patterns? I wonder, too, about the outcomes of prize cases. How often did courts find against privateers and fail to condemn a prize? So often that privateers had to be precise and exhaustive in their documentation? Or so rarely that the courts were a rubber stamp? What happened to the men who did not have their prize approved? What happened to the goods? Did privateers ever capture slaves and try to claim them as prizes? If so, what did the courts do?

All of this is to say, in the end, that privateering is an enormous topic and many opportunities remain for further research. Kert’s book points the way forward, providing a wealth of information that will guide future scholars navigating privateer waters.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=45359

Citation: David Head. Review of Kert, Faye M., Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45359

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