privateers help fund the american revolution -- 10/4/21
Today's selection -- from The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804 by Robert C. Alberts. Privateers made an enormous financial contribution to funding the America Revolution by capturing British (and sometimes other) ships and selling the ships and their contents. Notably, and tragically, this sometimes included slave ships.
One of the most important managers of this privateering activity was William Bingham, a young Philadelphia trader who worked for prominent merchant financiers Thomas Willing and Robert Morris, and who later became one of the wealthiest men in America. Willing and Morris dispatched Bingham to the Caribbean port of Martinique (Martinico) with instruction to engage in privateering and dispatch the proceeds back to Philadelphia. As was generally the case for all Americans involved in financing and provisioning the war, he was allowed to simultaneously conduct business for himself, which today would be considered a gross conflict of interest:
“[Raising money to help fund the American Revolution could best be done] by fitting out privateers in Martinique, manned with Frenchmen, and [a young trader from Philadelphia named William] Bingham was the man to do it. …
"According to a report he later made to the Congress, he 'took an early and active part in the arming of privateers out of this port ... generally manned with the subjects of France,' and [soon] had a small fleet in action. He was under the orders of Congress to 'encourage as many private adventurers as you can.' He wanted capital, profit and supplies, and in 1777 the best way to get all three was to arm a merchant ship and engage in licensed buccaneering.
"With Richard Harrison, the commercial agent for Virginia, as his first partner, and then with Robert Morris, Thomas Willing and others, Bingham would buy or engage a ship and sign up a captain. … The hunting was good in the West Indies. Up to February, 1777, Americans captured about 250 British vessels engaged in the rich West India trade, carrying cargoes worth an estimated $10 million. Of one fleet of sixty vessels bound from Ireland for the Indies, thirty-five were captured by American privateers. In the course of a single fourteen prize vessels were brought into Martinique. Insurance rates in England rose above the highest levels of the Seven Years War; British merchants began to ship their goods on French vessels; many of the British West India houses were ruined; the price of tobacco trebled; the revenues of England declined appreciably; and Parliament appointed a committee to conduct an inquiry. Prize goods were so plentiful in St. Pierre and Fort Royal that French sailors were going from door to door offering Irish linens for two dollars a piece and silk stockings for one dollar.
"As a merchant with old friends and trading connections in England and its possessions, Robert Morris at first opposed privateering; but as time and the war progressed, and as America suffered desperately for want of a navy, his opposition softened. Early in 1777 there arrived as a passenger in St. Pierre Captain George Ord, a hero of a raid made two years earlier on the powder arsenal of Bermuda, for whom Morris had obtained a privateer's commission from the Congress. 'You may depend on his good conduct and bravery,' Morris wrote to Bingham, 'and I hope you will procure a good vessel well manned and fitted for him. I think you should call her the Retaliation.' Then, two months later: 'I dare say Captain Ord and you have done something clever together by this time.'
"Bingham procured a ship for Captain Ord, a brig of eight guns with a crew of twenty-five, and called her the Retaliation. Morris wished his participation to be kept quiet, but on April 25, 1777, he informed Bingham, 'My scruples about privateering are all done away. I have seen [so] much rapine, plunder and distruction denounced against and executed on the Americans that I join you in thinking it a duty to oppose and distress so merciless an enemy in every shape we can. Therefore it matters not who knows my concern with Ord as I am now ready to encrease the number of my engagements in that way.'
"And he added, 'I have lately had the pleasure to hear that Ord in company with the Rattlesnake had taken and sent into Martinico nine sail of transport ships [and] two Guinea men [slavers] and two sail of transports into St. Eustatia. If this be true, and it seems well authenticated, we shall make a fine hand of it.' The rumor was true, and Bingham found himself the … part owner, by right of capture, of two armed Guinea ships carrying ivory and 498 African slaves.
"The profits of such prizes were enormous. The net proceeds from the sale of one captured British cargo of coffee, rum, sugar, and molasses shipped out of Hispaniola (Haiti) amounted to £13,780, of which Bingham's share was £4593. Not all 'adventures,' of course, were so successful, and some ended in substantial loss with capture of ship, cargo, crew, and captain."