American Privateers

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In the late 18th Century, privateers were ships commissioned by governments to pillage, steal and burn merchant vessels. But few people know during the Revolutionary war one band of privateers were sailed directly under the orders of one of our greatest statesmen: Benjamin Franklin.

In the late 18th Century, privateers were ships commissioned by governments to pillage, steal and burn merchant vessels. But few people know during the Revolutionary war one band of privateers were sailed directly under the orders of one of our greatest statesmen: Benjamin Franklin.

    •    Benjamin Franklin was likely the most traveled American of his day. He made sure that maps of the world hung in the Pennsylvania Assembly and essentially invented America’s foreign policy during his time in France.
    •    Documents authorizing private parties to attack enemy vessels, known as “Letters of Marque,” were regularly issued by European governments. There were an estimated 1,700 Letters of Marque granted during the American Revolution.
    •    England was extremely vulnerable to commerce raiding by pirates. As an island nation, a large amount of goods came in by sea. They had the biggest merchant fleet in the world and it was the backbone of their economy and empire.
    •    Franklin’s first commissioned privateer, The Black Prince, would often masquerade as a Press Gang, an official British ship sent out to find able-bodied sailors for the Royal Navy.
    •    According to underwater archeologists, the less distinguishable markings found on shipwreck discoveries, the likelier they may be from privateer vessels. The British and French naval forces were known for their meticulous labeling of ship parts, whereas privateers preferred covert operations.
    •    During the Revolution, English penal complexes – the prison ship Jersey, docked in New York, and the Mill and Fortson prisons in England - held upwards of thirty thousand captured American seamen.
    •    Punishment in the English prison system was severe, including flogging and up to 6 weeks seclusion in tiny, windowless cells known as “black holes.”
    •    Ben Franklin’s son, William, serving as governor of New Jersey, was imprisoned for siding with the British Government against the interests of colonial patriots; an act that severed once-warm relations with his father.
    •    A quarter-mile off the coast of Holyhead, Wales is a treacherous point nicknamed “The Fangs.” This line of jagged rocks just below the water surface meant certain doom for many an unsuspecting sea vessel.
    •    Unlike the motor boats of today, it was much more difficult to turn the massive sailing ships of Ben Franklin’s era; especially when caught in a powerful current or storm. Thus the number of ship wrecks close to shore.
    •    Keel-hauling, a brutal punishment inflicted on seamen guilty of mutiny, involved fastening the culprit to a line and dragging him underwater along the ship’s barnacle-encrusted bottom. When hoisted back up onto the deck, if he hadn't drowned or been cut to pieces, he was considered to have paid for his crime and set free.
    •    A former merchant sailor, John Paul Jones would become America’s greatest Revolutionary naval commander. While facing heavy British cannon fire and most certain surrender, he famously roared, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
    •    By the end of the war, it is estimated that the total damage to British shipping by American privateers was about $18 million, or just over $302 million in today's dollars.
    •    Pardoned after his conviction for “Piracy on the High Seas”, Captain Luke Ryan eventually landed in debtor’s prison, where he died in 1789. After plundering dozens of ships filled with riches, he was jailed for an unpaid bill in the amount of 100 pounds “for the inoculation of three of his children.”
    •    The U.S. continued to rely on the use of privateers for many years following the Revolutionary War. As late as 1856, the small-navy nation refused to abide by an international treaty banning this method of warfare.
 

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