Monday, July 4, 2016

The Pirates of America

When I studied the War of Independence in grade school, I had some questions for my teachers. This wasn’t unusual. On this particular subject, my question was, “When the colonists were fighting the British army, where did they get the muskets and the gunpowder and the cannon balls and the cannons from?

My reasoning was as follows – the colonies were British. They traded mostly with the British, and certainly British merchants would not sell us any of these things. Other countries weren’t allowed to sell them to us. And we were not yet able to make them for ourselves. So, where did they come from?

My poor teachers struggled. People on the frontier had their own long rifles, and probably held some powder, they offered. Local militias started out with supplies. And, perhaps, more had been captured from conquered British forts and soldiers?

This seemed like a long stretch to me. Our history book pointed out that many Colonial soldiers did not come from the frontier, but from Eastern cities, where people were not as likely to own guns. I observed that the book also said that we didn’t capture British forts for years. And not one of these theories explained how the Colonial Army ever got its hands on any cannons.

My poor teachers. They tried. But I was too much for them. Throughout my school career, and for many years afterward, my questions remained unanswered. Finally, however, I have learned the answer.

It was pirates. Specifically pirates in the Caribbean.

As readers of this blog already know, pirates were in the habit of taking anything they could get away with, and selling it anyone who would pay, so they could get started drinking as soon as possible.

As soon as demand in the American colonies rose, profit-loving pirates set out to fill an obvious and profitable need. The British Crown regularly shipped supplies to its Caribbean colonies and amongst the many islands robbers found opportunities to capture British military supplies and send them to the American rebellion. Not only shot, muskets and powder made their way north in pirate-owned ships, but also rope, canvas, wool for uniforms, and many other goods.

Cannons at the time were simple instruments. Their use on land or sea was determined by the wooden carriage that supported the gun. It was a simple matter for the pirates to steal guns off navy vessels and armed merchants and re-purposed them for use on battle fields.

And how did the pirates learn of the colonies’ needs? How did they transfer the goods to the American military? Many prominent Americans had ties to pirates and smugglers. John Hancock had been called “The Prince of Smugglers” by his contemporaries, having made a great deal of money in that trade. New York had long been a known pirate haven, as had Charleston. Many, many of the most prominent families had ties to pirates or smugglers.

John Hancock, Founding Father and Smuggler

The American Revolution provided something the pirates had never known before: A buyer, or group of buyers, who were willing to pay market value for stolen goods. Most buyers were cheap – after all, if they were caught dealing with pirates, they might get into a great deal of trouble. The leaders of the American Revolution were already guilty of high treason. They desperately needed munitions. Prices for pirated goods were high.    

Benjamin Franklin, while serving as ambassador to France, also contributed to pirate adventures in the New World. In fact, Franklin created many pirates himself.

Benjamin Franklin

One of the ways a nation created a navy was to commission privateers. These licenses permitted merchant ships to arm themselves and fight against the merchant ships of an enemy nation. This was a money-maker for the nation, which sold the licenses and took part of the captured goods. The licenses enriched merchants successfully captured enemy ships.

Privateers had been licensed by European nations for hundreds of years. If the new nation of the United States wanted to join the society of established nations, writing out privateering licenses and selling them to those who wanted to make war on England would have been the most logical step for the Continental Congress.

Coat of arms or logo

But, for some reason, Congress did not issue the licenses. Franklin, working as ambassador in France, was besieged by prospective privateers. But he had no licenses to give them. Finally, being a revolutionary, Franklin took matters into his own hands and began handing out licenses.

In spirit, Franklin was correct. But by the letter of the law, he was handing out useless scraps of paper. An ambassador did not have the authority to authorize privateers. This required the authority of a ruling body, be it a king or a congress. Franklin did not have it.

Yet the French captains who took these licenses used them as an excuse to attack British merchant ships. These attacks were illegal. The men using them were pirates, and they had been put up to it by Franklin. The money from the licenses fueled the revolution, and the “privateers” provided much needed goods – tea, china, furniture – to the American people. They also helped stir up support for the Americans’ cause.

So that’s how pirates helped the American colonies to become the United States. 

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