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Merchant Mariners Ensure Survival of Newly-Founded U.S.

US and British Ships

Published Jul 5, 2015 5:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two hundred and thirty nine years ago the American colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, establishing U.S. sovereignty. However, in 1776 the Continental Navy was under a year old and only consisted of 31 vessels. These ships were capable of using around 20 guns at most, which hardly proved a formidable match for the most powerful seafaring nation on the planet.

In order to combat the British, the Continental Congress, authorized private commercial ships to act on their behalf in early 1776. The nearly 1,700 merchant ships known as privateers, became a fundamental force in ensuring the survival of the young nation.

Following the first shots of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord, commercial vessels began carrying canons and additional weaponry to defend against the British threat. The first sea engagement of the Revolution was carried out by merchant mariners. On June 12, 1775, near the Gulf of Maine, patriots crashed into the British armed schooner Margaretta and engaged in hand to hand combat. The British crew was disheartened when their captain was mortally wounded and lost the one hour long battle. Twenty five of the combatants were killed or wounded. The victors claimed "four double fortified three pounders and fourteen swivels" and some smaller guns.

Privateers were hardly distinguishable from pirates when British vessels encountered them on the open seas. Operating under official documents known as Letters of Marque and Reprisal, privateers pillaged British ships, dividing any loot they retrieved between the ship’s owner and the government. The merchant ships focused their attacks British commercial vessels that were either unarmed or only lightly armed. They would engage in physical confrontations often killing if necessary. Pirates at the time could be hung for their offenses, however privateers were considered prisoners of war since they were officially recognized by the American government.

Privateers proved indispensable in maintaining munition supply chains. By 1777, the privateers and merchantmen brought in over 2 million pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter for the war effort.  

Due to extensive blockades during the revolution, privateering often proved more lucrative than commercial trade. A mariner on board a privateering vessel could earn as much as $1,000 for one voyage, while average pay at the time was $9 per month.

The Malborough was one of the most successful privateers with over 28 hostile ship captures to its name. Also, notable at the time was Captain Jonathan Haraden of Massachusetts who was considered one of the best sea-fighters. He gained fame by successfully taking on three armed British ships at once.

When captured by the British Navy, these American mariners were given a choice: join the British Navy or prison. The conditions of captivity aboard the prison ships were inhuman. In The Memoirs of Commodore Barney, a young Continental Army soldier describes conditions of imprisonment aboard these British vessels. For fifty-three days Barney and his fellow Americans were kept in three foot high boxes with minimal food and clean water. An estimated 11,000 merchant seamen died from disease and malnutrition after being captured by the British.

Merchant mariners played a pivotal role in upholding the sovereignty of the United States in its early years. Over the course of the American Revolution privateers captured approximately 1,300 British ships and took around 12,000 prisoners. They dealt serious blows to British commercial shipping with estimated damages ranging from $300 million to $1 billion by today’s dollars.

More than 200 years later the United States owes a debt of gratitude to the 55,000 privateer patriots who fought and gave their lives to uphold American independence.