J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pirates, Corsairs, and Privateers

Earlier this spring many Americans seemed to discover that there’s a piracy problem off the eastern coast of Africa. The international news media had reported about Somali pirates for years, but this time four of them took an American captive, and suddenly all our fond thoughts about Capt. Jack Sparrow vanished.

Folks who at other times express little sympathy for Americans who get in trouble delivering aid to a war zone suddenly advocated severe military action to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips. Some suggested punishing Somalis collectively for the actions of those four young men. The noise tapered off considerably when the U.S. Navy rescued Phillips, killing and capturing those particular pirates, but the larger problems in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden remain.

During that national discussion, many people invoked the historical antecedents of American actions against the Tripolitan states of North Africa starting in 1801. Few noted how for the previous fifteen years Congress had allocated money—up to 20% of the federal budget—to buy protection from those governments and to ransom prisoners from their corsairs.

One of the first popular American novels was Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive (1797), about such a captured sailor. (In the department of meaningless coincidence, that novel’s hero is named Underhill and Tyler became chief justice of Vermont; the rescued Capt. Phillips was from Underhill, Vermont.)

That novel portrays some other facts that Americans don’t always recall in discussing the “Barbary pirates.” Corsairs seized American ships only if they came close to North Africa; their waters, their rules. A lot of the American ships which did sail there were in the slave trade, and the number of Africans taken in captivity to North America was much larger than the number of North Americans held captive in Africa.

Rep. Ron Paul suggested a response to the current piracy problem based on Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress these powers:

  • To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations;
  • To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
  • To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
  • To provide and maintain a navy;
  • To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;...
As a libertarian, Paul sought a small-government, market-driven solution: post a large reward for pirates and “grant letters of marque and reprisal” allowing U.S. citizens to compete for that reward. In other words, charter a new generation of privateers.

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall (a historian who’s found a way to make a living with a website) pointed out the flaw in this proposal. During the Revolutionary War people invested their money, ships, and labor in privateering voyages because they hoped to share in the high profits that could come from selling captured British ships and cargoes. But even with a reward, there really isn’t a market for Somali sailors and their small boats.

I think this whole situation just highlights how much things have changed for the U.S. of A. The young men aiming for easy targets off their coast with the support of their families and neighbors back home—those were the American privateers in 1776, the Somali pirates today. The most powerful navy in the world trying to keep shipping lanes open, supply far-flung troops, and joust with other empires—that was the Royal Navy in 1776, the U.S. Navy today.


Vern said...

In fairness to Ron Paul, I think his suggestion was meant in the context of restoring the original American (deeply skeptical) view of a large military and the isolationist foreign policy that dominated when the US Constitution was adopted. Your contrast with the British of the day is poignant, given that the British policies were heading them into bankruptcy (not to mention the adverse effects of even their "successful" colonialism).

If repeating the role of 19th Century Britain is the alternative, maybe Paul's suggestion isn't so crazy.

J. L. Bell said...

It would indeed be interesting to consider what the U.S. of A. would look like if the first generation had maintained its skepticism about standing armies, a navy, foreign alliances, &c.

The country almost certainly wouldn’t be involved in so many foreign countries as it is today. Then again, the U.S. of A. almost certainly wouldn’t include California or much of its other current territory.

Bob said...

My way of a musical interlude: the late great folk singer Stan Rogers wrote a wonderful sea-shanty called Barrett's Privateers that is chronologically appropriate here. It tells the story of a Nova Scotia boy who signs on to a British privateer in 1778. There's one good (if abridged) version on YouTube. More here:


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that link to a foreign perspective!

Anonymous said...

Nice analogy, but to be a little more fair, 1776's (1812's also) privateers were operating in a war against an enemy. Somali pirates seem to go after anyone, N or S American, Euro, Asian or African.
Barbary pirates were primarily operating near N Africa but went corsairing far away also.
BTW I've seen claims elsewhere that Barbary pirates were encouraged to go after US targets by UK anf France.

J. L. Bell said...

I haven’t seen evidence that France or Britain encouraged attacks on American ships. Rather, after the Revolutionary War, ships from the U.S. of A. lost the protection that came with being British colonies or French allies.