Review: Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution by Eric Jay Dolin, (New York: Liveright, 2022)

Compared to the rest of the literature on the American Revolution, the war at sea gets relatively little attention.  Eric Jay Dolin has joined a small cadre of writers and historians trying to rectify that shortfall.  In his latest book, Dolin takes on the privateering war, activities by privately financed vessels to wage war on British trade at the nominal behest of various states and the Continental Congress.  Granting letters of marque, essentially a license to take foreign ships as prizes on the high seas, gave states a way of quickly tapping private capital to create sea power and attack an enemy on the ocean.  It was an important innovation, one Britain and its colonies had used widely before the Revolution, and was often preferable to the expense of maintaining a large navy.  The rebelling colonies first issues such letters, followed by Congress itself.  

            The status of privateers was controversial.  Because the ships were privately financed, their owners and crews cashed in on prizes taken.  Entire fortunes could be made at the same time the war impoverished others.  For shipowners, the risks were manageable to secure such payoffs.   Officers and crewmen could also expect a healthy payday from a successful cruise.  Their risks, however, were substantial.  

Britain, of course, did not recognize its colonies as independent states, which invalidated any letters of marque and made the privateersmen crewing the ships pirates subject to summary hanging.  In practice, however, captured privateersmen were simply sent to prison, often the ship hulks floating in New York’s harbor.  It could be the same as a death sentence.  In America, some viewed them as a distraction from the main war effort created by greedy men lacking in public spirit.  

Dolin thoroughly reviews all of these issues and comes to the conclusion that, on the whole, privateers and their crews materially hindered the British war effort while preventing coastal economies from collapsing in the face of Britain’s superior fleet and control of the seas.  He backs the argument up by citing previous studies of economic losses.  For example, the first Secretary of Lloyd’s of London, and dominant insurer, concluded that 3,386 British vessels were captured during the war, of which 1,002 were either recaptured or “ransomed.” (That figure includes captures made by naval vessels and America’s allies.) Dolin estimates the value of captures made by American vessels at between $1.4 and $1.6 billion today.  In other words, the impact of privateering was substantial.

Dolin livens the story with narratives of ship encounters and individuals caught up in the war.  Much like the privateering war itself, they are too episodic to hang together as an integrated narrative.  But, he uses them effectively to underscore his broader points while helping the reader relate to the war at sea.  Dozens of illustrations enrich the read.  

            Eric Jay Dolin is an excellent writer, straightforward with a style that keeps the book moving while thoroughly engaging the reader.  Rebels at Sea is destined to become the starting place to understand the privateer war during the American Revolution. 

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