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A Navy of Privately Owned Ships Helped Win the American Revolution

The fleet posed an unexpected threat to the might of the British Navy.

privateer ships american revolution
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret that the early American Revolutionaries were up against a serious enemy when it came to the British Navy. Not only was the British Navy one of the most experienced in the world, but its fleet was massive. Compared to the small, inexperienced, and fledgling Navy of early America, the 13 colonies almost didn’t stand a chance.

That is, until tens of thousands of citizen sailors stood up and answered the call for freedom.

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Fed up with unjust British policies, these sailors played a critical role in America’s quest for independence, but are largely forgotten from the history books. These so-called privateers accounted for more than 2,000 sailors in America's early Navy and were all commissioned by both the Continental Congress and the states. Together, the armada preyed on British ships on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, which severely disrupted the British economy and turned British public opinion against the war.

But who were these privateers?

A tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages allowed countries at war to license private seamen to seize and plunder enemy vessels. It’s important here to note that privateers were different from pirates because pirates didn’t have legal authorization to plunder ships. Privateers had official letters from governments condoning their actions. Admittedly, the difference between pirates and privateers seems a little murky at best. But either way, the privateers at the helms of ships in the days of the Revolutionary War had one goal in mind: destroy as many British ships as possible.

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Early America was as cash-strapped as one would expect a fledgling country to be. The colonies were attempting to extricate themselves from British rule, which was understandably expensive. Early American leaders knew that there was no way the nation's inexperienced Navy would ever be able to challenge Britain on the seas, but they did have one specific advantage: Americans didn’t really have anything to lose. 

So the Continental Congress decided to capitalize on that. It issued money to privateers as guerrilla-style naval disruptors and told them to do whatever it took to stop British ships. And that’s exactly what they did. 

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  • The American privateer Jack and the Royal Naval brig HMS Observer in the Battle off Halifax. 

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Privateers were required to post bonds of up to 5,000 pounds as collateral to ensure that captives taken from British ships wouldn’t be mistreated. These sailors-for-hire also promised not to knowingly raid American or neutral ships. George Washington leased the ships and set out to man them with competent sailors up to the task.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and Washington sweetened the pot by offering privateers the opportunity to keep one-third of all the goods they captured and sold. In this appeal to the privateers’ financial self-interest, Washington soon had more volunteers than he knew what to do with. Financial incentive coupled with a newfound patriotism for their fledgling country helped awaken the early spirit of capitalism, and for the first time in their lives, these sailors realized they might actually be able to make some money. 

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Whalers, merchants and fishermen set out to convert their ships. By May 1776, there were over 100 New England privateers roaming the high seas, all with the same solitary goal in mind. Privateering became so popular that the Continental Congress started issuing blank commission forms for sailors to fill out themselves. 

Had it not been for the blossoming spirit of patriotism and the allure of cold hard cash, it’s possible that the Revolutionary War might have turned out very differently. Privateers helped damage the British economy and undermine British policy, both of which were helpful for the war effort. Ultimately, the privateers helped to capture over 2,000 British naval vessels. Faced with two fronts, one on British soil and one on American soil, the British Navy found it very challenging to keep up with the constant barrage of privateers. Ultimately, this helped America win the war and gain independence from Britain.