They were legalized pirates empowered by the Continental Congress to raid and plunder, at their own considerable risk, as much enemy trade as they could successfully haul back to America's shores. They played a decisive role in America's struggle for independence and later turned their seafaring talents to the slave trade, revealing the conflict between enterprise and morality central to American history. In Patriot Pirates, Robert H. Patton, the grandson of the battlefield genius of World War II, writes how privateering engaged all levels of Revolutionary life, from the dockyards to the assembly halls; how it gave rise to wild speculation in purchased shares in privateer ventures, enabling sailors to make more money in a month than they might earn in a year; and how privateering created fortunes that survive to this day. As one naval historian wrote, "The great battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, but independence was won at sea." Patton writes how, in addition to its strategic and economic importance, privateering played a large political role in the Revolution. For example, Benjamin Franklin, from his diplomatic post in Paris, secretly encouraged skippers to sell their captured goods in French ports—a calculated effort on Franklin's part to break the neutrality agreements between France and Britain, bring the two countries to blows, and take the pressure off American fighters. This is a sweeping tale of maritime rebel-entrepreneurs bent on personal profit and national freedom.
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Robert H. Patton, the grandson of General George S. Patton, is a novelist living in Darien, Connecticut.
Audie Award finalist Alan Sklar has narrated nearly two hundred audiobooks and has won several AudioFile Earphones Awards.
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&...
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