Book Review: Patriot Pirates

Patriot Pirates:  The Privateer War For Freedom And Fortune In The American Revolution, by Robert H. Patton

This book is a surprisingly poignant one for a variety of reasons.  Although the United States has long dealt with civilian involvement in military matters in various fashions [1], the fate of the privateer has been a rather lonely one in history.  Few people write books glorifying the bravery of privateers, and no one knows how many died in ship-to-ship combat with the British or wasting away in prison hulks in New York’s harbor or in Britain.  While the concern of impressment in 1812 and of blockade runners in the Civil War is something that is known at least by those who are casually aware of the naval history of those wars, the fate of privateers in the American Revolution is not a topic that has drawn a great deal of interest by many writers, some of whom are actively apologetic when writing about the matter.  This book, though, does a good job at taking an area of history that is obscure and often neglected and shining a light on it that makes it easier to comprehend even if it ends up being far darker than one might think initially.

This book has an intriguing and somewhat unconventional design that corresponds with its somewhat unconventional subject matter.  Namely, the book consists of twelve chapters that look at the war more or less chronologically from the time before active war actually began but where New England’s penchant for combining anti-imperial protests and smuggling efforts were combined in the early 1770’s.  This chronological story of America’s efforts at privateering, the more or less willing partners they found in France, Spain, the Netherlands and their imperial possessions in the Caribbean, and the lure of patriotism and profit in the behavior of many famous and obscure founding fathers are intercut by twelve vignettes looking at a small piece of the war in a particular place and time, like Machias, Maine in 1775 or Penobscot, Maine in 1779 or Newfoundland in 1780, and so on.  We see accounts of diplomats trying to engage in skullduggery, of complaints and divisions within the revolutionaries as well as the European nations they were dealing with, and we have poignant accounts of relatively ordinary people caught between the desire to live safely and in peace with the irresistible lure of profits from blockade running, piracy, and slave trading, all of which served to corrupt the legal order of the United States itself as well as the other nations they were involved with.

Indeed, this was a particularly poignant book for a variety of reasons.  It puts stories and information behind the massive losses suffered by the seafaring communities of New England during the Revolutionary War years.  It shows the general unfaithfulness of Congress towards its debts of honor and financial remuneration to its own diplomats (like Silas Deane), its own soldiers and officers (like Nathaniel Greene), and to foreign idealists (like de Beaumarchais) who had loaned to the American cause.  The author does a good job as well looking at the opaque nature of privateering in that the people funding operations often did so indirectly or through shell companies to avoid the criticism that would come from ordinary people complaining about the mixture of public and private business at the highest levels of government.  Indeed, this book is a particularly cynical one when it looks at the behavior of all the parties involved, all of whom were seeking to grab their main chance in the uncertainties of war, and most of whom ended up worse off because of death (including at least one likely murder) or being disabled or imprisoned or suffering loss by dealing with unfaithful people who did not fulfill their side of the bargain.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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