BOOK REVIEW – Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic

David Head, Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2015. 201 pp.

Review by Benjamin Armstrong
King’s College, London

The wars of the early American republic, and the forces that fought those wars, have come to dominate the naval history of the early 19th century. From the founding of the U.S. Navy in response to Barbary and French attacks on American shipping to the frigate duels of the War of 1812, naval historians have frequently been guided by a kind of caricatured Mahanian view of naval affairs that focuses on fleet composition and sea battles, decisive or otherwise. Likewise, maritime historians of the Atlantic world regularly cast their view as far from broadsides and the gold braid as they can, focusing on the multitude of socio-cultural and economic elements of studying merchant sailors. Into the divide between these interests sails the small group of scholars who specialize in privateers and privateering. David Head’s Privateers of the Americas makes a well crafted and solidly researched contribution to this sometimes overlooked part of the field.

Napoleon’s capture of Fernando VII of Spain in 1808 sent the Caribbean world into a crisis of identity that brought danger and insecurity to the southern borders of the United States. As the Spanish American colonies went through alternating experiences of rebellion, reconquest, and civil war, naval affairs played an often understudied role. During this revolutionary era each of the new nations created fleets of privateers, matching the example set by their northern neighbor during the United States’ own war for independence. Many of the men, who took up these Spanish American commissions, and the ships they sailed, were actually from the United States. Privateers of the Americas lays an important foundation for the study of these mariners and their roles as combatants and actors on the cutlass edge of legality and warfare in the Atlantic world.

The structure of Head’s effort is straightforward. He begins with a thorough and quite readable explanation of the diplomatic events of the era. After summarizing the history that brought Spanish America into a state of rebellion, the book pulls focus on the Monroe administration and the work of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to lay the background for the following chapters. The general discussion of revolt, counter-revolution, and diplomatic maneuvering gives way to three chapters which are each focused on a different physical area of operations.

The first discusses the men of New Orleans and Barataria. Historians of the period, and even some readers of popular history, will be well familiar with the Lafitte brothers and their band. While discussing that relatively well mined history the author’s contribution is placing these men in the context of the larger geo-political and economic factors that played out during the period. The second chapter introduces the privateers who fitted out and sailed their ships from Baltimore for the revolutionary cause. Though clearly a violation of United States neutrality laws, Head shows how the city which had become the center of American privateering in the War of 1812 continued in its preferred industry while developing ways to circumvent U.S. law. The final of the theater focused chapters explains the development of Spanish American privateering bases on the edge of U.S. territory at Amelia Island, Florida and Galveston, Texas. In this chapter Head’s history brings together a fascinating array of interests from the privateers, to filibusterers intent on the capture of territory, to the government officials of the U.S. Navy and Treasury attempting to enforce confusing and sometimes contradictory national policy.

In the final chapter of the book the author uses representative samples of the Americans and foreigners involved in Spanish American privateering to discuss the differing motives and intent of a colorful cast of historical figures. He illustrates how these non-state, pseudo-state, and national actors operated among their peers in the name of everything from patriotic zeal to clear profit motive. The research for the book has an excellent grounding in the previous scholarship of the period and the Spanish American revolutions, then builds on that using relatively unstudied court records from U.S. Admiralty cases that provide excellent detail of the privateers who worked from American shores.

There is however, one missing element of the author’s analysis that this reviewer found rather glaring. Head never satisfactorily addresses the question of whether these men were privateers or pirates. As early as page 2 of the book the author defines what it takes to be a privateer: a ship with a commission, a captured enemy vessel, and a ruling from an Admiralty Court that it is a legitimate prize. However, in an enormous number of the examples that the author so deftly describes, there is no ruling of the legitimacy of the prize. Instead, the “privateers” simply sell off their captured merchandise and ships or smuggle the goods into the United States. This was the Lafitte brothers’ great skill, which is so well described and documented in the book. It is also the definition of a pirate. While the author seems to dismiss President Monroe’s characterization of these men as “privateer pirates” as something like political grandstanding, this reviewer is left wondering if the President was right.

The question of piracy aside, Privateers of the Americas is a well crafted and researched addition to the study of American privateering and maritime history. The privateers that sailed the Caribbean, whether from the Spanish American revolutionary governments, the United States, or European powers, made for a conflicted and dangerous sea. David Head’s history of Spanish American privateers and the United States in the early 19th century makes an important contribution to defining and understanding the maritime interests of that era.

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