Newburyport Pirates & Privateers

Newburyport’s Pirates and Privateers        

It may surprise some to think of Newburyport as a home for pirates, but it was.    It all came down to how individual nations defined the function of ships during a war.
America was a colony of Britain and therefore any act of rebellion would be treated as treason.    Though the new Continental Congress issued Letters of Marque establishing government-sanctioned privateers, the British considered these former loyal British subjects attacking their shipping as pirates.    This was the attitude regardless that the action was motivated by insurgents motivated by political reasons.
In the British eyes, every privateer coming out of Newburyport was a pirate ship and the mouth of the Merrimack River was a pirate cove.
Consequently, the letters of marque were worthless and instead of being treated as prisoners of war with certain rights, they were treated worse than dogs often being left to rot on floating prison ships or in the cells of Plymouth, England.

On the other hand, the ships that left Newburyport harbor for privateering during the War of 1812; were going forth with legal letters of marque fully recognized by the British.      Hence, treatment was much improved compared to the Revolutionary War veterans.
Of course, unlike the pirates envisioned today who have lost all semblance of inhibition with a wench in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other; these privateers would pray at night on a Saturday and march faithfully into church on Sunday.     Their wildness on the open seas empowered by the all or nothing privateer financing structure – no prize ships, no profit.      

It is estimated that as much as 1,200 Newburyporters gave their lives during the combined efforts of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 undertaking the dangerous practice of privateering. 

The Definition of a Privateer

it is important to understand the definition of one.   Private citizens with special letters of mark allowed them to seize enemy ships.     The booty and the ship would be brought back to a home port and approximately half would go to the government and the rest would be kept by the Captain and crew by a previously agreed upon percentage. 

Unfortunately, these were effective during the War of 1812 as the battle was between two sovereign nations, but during the Revolutionary War; the British felt the privateer had the standing of pirates and worse, treason worthy of death. The treatment of American POW’s was absolutely horrendous with many starving on rotting prison ships out on harbors with escape practically impossible. (Shockingly, many managed to do so!) 

So why did so many risk their lives?

The impact of Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War 

The 13 Colonies, having declared their Independence, had only 34 ships comprising the Continental Navy. To add to this, they issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships and Commissions for privateers, which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships. Merchant seamen who manned these ships contributed to the very birth and founding of our Republic. 

Comparison of Navy vs. Privateers in Revolutionary War  

   Continental Navy  Privateers 
Total ships 64 1,697 
Total guns on ships 1,242 14,872 
Enemy ships captured 196 2,283 
Ships captured by enemy 1,323 


Before long, however, builders designed a vessel expressly built for privateering – the schooner. Although fairly small, she was very fast. Her foremast was shorter than the mainmast, but when she sailed with a tail wind, the square-rigged topsail of the foremast boosted her speed. These heavy schooners had crews of over 150 men and carried enough armament to engage British frigates. 

The Americans  
When the colonies declared they’re independence from Britain, their navy consisted of only thirty-four ships. Since that number was insufficient to mount a war against a more powerful enemy, the fledgling nation issued letters of marque to more than four hundred privateers whose attacks on British shipping crippled that country’s trade. The cost to insure British ships increased six-fold if those vessels sailed without protection.  

Many American privateers sailed from Philadelphia, the largest colonial port of the day. The Dispatch was so eager to capture an enemy ship she sailed from port unarmed in 1776. Within a few days she succeeded in her venture and sailed her prize to France. Other privateers sailed from Baltimore, where shipbuilders converted merchant ships to meet the needs of the privateers. Before long, however, builders designed a vessel expressly built for privateering – the schooner.   

 Newburyport and Baltimore became the premier ports for privateers.  

The Revolutionary War 

Privateering ships were incredibly fast and were often called ‘clipper ships’; ‘clipper’ meaning a fast or swift vessel.     The phrase, “He went along at quite a clip” still survives today in our common usage.      These were breathtakingly beautiful but heavily armed vessels that were an absolute scourge against the British during the Revolutionary War. 

Like pirates, privateers preferred not to fight. They could be equally brazen. Jonathan Haroden (1745-1803) came alongside an English ship and demanded her surrender within five minutes.  He stood beside a cannon with a lighted wick and waited. The ship struck her colors and Haroden captured her. Unbeknownst to the English, his threat was a bluff. Had he fired the cannon, it would have been his one and only shot because he had no ordinance with which to reload the gun.  

Privateers of the American Revolution took over three thousand British vessels. They captured much-needed muskets and gunpowder, which they delivered to the Continental Army. The men who served aboard privateers sailed under the rule of no prey no pay. They only received shares of whatever plunder they acquired. For some, like those aboard the Rattlesnake, they returned home wealthy men after capturing prizes worth over $1,000,000 on a single voyage. The America (which weighed 350 tons, carried twenty guns and 120 crewmembers) took forty prizes, netting her owners a profit of over $600,000. The most successful privateer, a brig called Yankee out of Bristol, Rhode Island, captured forty prizes worth more than $3,000,000.  

Not all privateers were so successful. The Dash sank during a storm off the coast of Maine, yet residents still remember her because her ghost continues to sail their coastal waters. During World War II, a couple making love on the beach saw the ship loom out of the fog.  

Recently, a letter was found written by George Washington in City Hall with an hither to unknown writing to Newburyport thanking them for their privateers interdicting the British supply lines during the Battle for Boston.      So hurtful was our city’s efforts that during the War of 1812; a British ship was stationed outside Newburyport with the intention (unfortunately rather successfully) of bottling up our vessels from attacking the British! 

During the War of 1812 

American privateers played an equally important role during the War of 1812. Two months after war was declared, 150 privateers put to sea. The United States Navy owned twenty-three ships with 556 guns. During the war, they captured 254 British ships. In contrast the 517 privateers with their 2,893 guns took 1,345 prizes and cost the British an estimated $45.5 million in damage. As a result insurance rates for British merchants sailing the Irish Sea rose thirteen percent. The privateers also captured 30,000 prisoners.  

Napoleon’s surrender, however, brought the full wrath of the British navy to bear on America. Their blockade of American ports brought commerce to a virtual standstill and privateering dwindled.  Remembering how they smarted during the Revolutionary War from privateers, the British blockaded Newburyport making it impossible for the port to launch its privateers.    

Below the striking difference between the Two Endeavors:


The pirate (from Greek “peiratès”, which means “the one who undertakes”, “the one who tempts fortune”) acts for his own account, he is an outlaw who cross the seas and who plunders, violates and often kills without distinction of nationality. If he is caught, he is hanged high and short. High so that everybody sees him, and short to save some rope!

The privateer acts on a letter of mark delivered in the name of the king. This letter is a document by which a country recognizes him as an auxiliary military force. The privateer acts for the service of his country. If he is captured, he shows his letter of mark, which avoids him the rope. But some unscrupulous privateers took advantage of this official paper to plunder and kill civilian merchant ships, like the pirates. Now piracy is as old as the hills and still exists, whereas privateers raged only during three centuries (from the XVI to the XIX century).

The Smuggler. Enterprising individuals engaged in the clandestine business of trading in prohibited goods or for which he did not settle the customs duties.

The Buccaneer.     These hill poachers during the 16th century were composed of outlaws, army deserters’ runaway slaves and smugglers and which could be found in the mountainous areas of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic/Haiti).     The original word buccaneer came from the word in French for barbecuing called, Boucan.      The Arawak Indians called it Barbicoa which eventually came down to us as Barbeque.

These men became boucaner or literally barbequers.     Later in the 17th century, they found a much more profitable means and settled on the coast.     They were rough, cruel and desperate men and they’re style of piracy reflected it. They were not above murder in their pursuit of treasure.

The present-day costume for a pirate is of a buccaneer.     Happily, there has never been a single buccaneer in Newburyport throughout its long history though some have been sighted recently in Rockport and Salisbury.

Freezing the balls off a brass monkey