The Untold War at Sea: America’s Revolutionary Privateers
Kylie A. Hulbert. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2022. 182 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. Illus. $29.95.
Reviewed by Frederick C. Leiner
Privateering was a form of commercial warfare undertaken by private citizens in the Age of Sail. Merchants armed their ships with a few cannon and, with a license from their government, sent their vessels out to attack the maritime trade of the enemy, receiving the revenue from the sale of the ships and cargoes they captured, if an admiralty court found that the capture was “good prize.” If the prize was held to be valid legally, the ship and her cargo were sold at auction, potentially providing huge profits. The privateering business was capitalistic, with ownership shares divided among consortiums, the investors’ costs and profits split by shares, and the crew paid by shares in the anticipated profits set forth in a group contract.
In The Untold War at Sea: America’s Revolutionary Privateers, Kylie Hulbert has taken on writing the story of privateers during the American Revolution. Her account is based on a deep dive into ships’ logs, newspaper accounts, personal papers, and court records. But writing about privateering is difficult. Hundreds of privateers sailed out during the Revolutionary years from dozens of ports, bound where their owners or masters thought they could take prizes. Some achieved success, but others cruised and captured nothing, and still others were sunk or captured by the enemy. In short, the privateers’ narrative has many story lines about relatively unknown entrepreneurs, seamen, and ships.
Hulbert deals with the difficulties of the narrative by organizing The Untold War at Sea around what might be called the life cycle of a privateer, cleverly naming chapters after lines from a contemporary song-poem written about a privateer captain.” In her five chapters, she covers: the earlier American colonial experience with privateering; the outbreak of the Revolution and the rush to arm, outfit, and man privateers; leaving port and encountering weather, foreign harbors, and ships; capturing vessels and sending them back to an American or a co-belligerent’s port for adjudication prize court proceedings; and after the war, how and why privateering was minimized as part of the Revolutionary narrative. Her purpose is to provide a social history of privateering and to internationalize the Revolution by portraying privateering as part of the Atlantic world. Her method is to introduce a concept within her song-poem outline, provide direct quotations from privateersmen and Founding Fathers as support, and then move to the next concept and quotations. The effect is a kaleidoscope of names, ships, and details.
Despite some non sequiturs and style miscues, Hulbert makes some fascinating points, including the efforts to inoculate crews against smallpox, the drain of manpower to privateers when men were needed in the Army and Navy, and Congress’ attempts to provide an appellate court to ensure a fair and uniform application of prize law. Hulbert describes the waning popularity of privateers after embarrassing cases of attacks on neutral and allied shipping, and, conversely, the high regard that people such as John Adams and Abigail Adams had for privateering.
There are problems attendant with Hulbert’s impressionistic approach. Although certain names recur, she does not follow individual entrepreneurs, sailors, or ships, nor does she intersperse stories of specific cruises beyond a terse mention: Her narrative lacks a sense of continuity. Perhaps because Hulbert’s purpose was to write a social history, the economics of privateering gets short shrift. She does not tell readers the cost of outfitting a privateer, the return on investment from any privateer, or whether privateering was profitable for investors collectively. She repeatedly refers to the ravages wrought by American privateers on British trade, but she never shares the rate of captures over time or how many British merchant ships were adjudicated “good prize,” how many were not, how many were recaptured, and how many privateers were captured or sunk.
Moreover, Revolutionary War privateering is hardly an “untold” story. Recent works include Donald Shomette’s masterful Privateers of the Revolution: War on the New Jersey Coast, 1775–1783 (uncited here). Indeed, in the essay “Was the Continental Navy a Mistake?” nearly 40 years ago, Jonathan Dull argued that the patriot cause would have been better off had the Americans fully put their maritime efforts behind privateers.
The Untold War at Sea has some compelling parts, but despite Hulbert’s command of original sources, it is an unsatisfying history of Revolutionary War privateering that leaves fundamental questions unanswered.
Mr. Leiner, a lawyer, is a regular contributor to Naval History about the Age of Fighting Sail. He has written several articles on the law and economics of privateering and several books, including the forthcoming Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803–1805 (Westholme).
Disaster on the Spanish Main: The Tragic British–American Expedition to the West Indies During the War of Jenkins’ Ear
Craig S. Chapman. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. 410 pp. Notes. Glossary. Index. Maps. Illus. $29.95.
Reviewed by William J. Prom
With the exception of Mount Vernon, named for the superior officer of George Washington’s older brother, few vestiges of the War of Jenkins’ Ear remain in North America. Even Craig S. Chapman, author of the new book Disaster on the Spanish Main, admits that the conflict is an “obscure war with a ridiculous name.” With his book, however, Chapman seeks to shed light on the often-overlooked 18th-century conflict between the British and Spanish empires and explain the failure of the British expedition in the West Indies.
Considering its striking moniker and the scale of the conflict, it is surprising the War of Jenkins’ Ear is not better known. Britain employed 40 percent of its capital ships, one third of its army, and, for the first and only time, colonial soldiers enlisted for military operations outside North America. The war began in 1739 and eventually became one of many conflicts considered part of the War of the Austrian Succession, which contributes to the war’s forgotten status.
Disaster on the Spanish Main offers a look at the War of Jenkins’ Ear, with the focus on 1739–42. After introducing Vice Admiral Edward Vernon—the most prominent figure in the book—during his successful attack on Porto Bello in 1739, the background of the conflict, and the attack on the eponymous Robert Jenkins, the book follows the preparation, conduct, and aftermath of the war in chronological order.
Chapman successfully places the conflict within 18th-century European and American history rather than separating it for examination as an isolated event. He depicts the war primarily from the British point of view but still includes Spanish and American perspectives throughout. This, along with examining the war’s effect on domestic politics in Britain and the events that led to the War of the Austrian Succession, provides an excellent context to the book without interrupting the narrative.
Both professional historians and history enthusiasts should find the book an informative and entertaining work of history. Chapman relies on British, Spanish, and American archives, manuscripts, and collections as well as modern medical analysis to build his narrative and convincingly support his conclusions. The epilogue’s historiography of how the war and its participants have been interpreted or forgotten over the past two and a half centuries and the detailed index and citations make the book an excellent tool for further research into the war or peripheral topics. Chapman’s narrative style is engaging, with a balance of colorful and tactile descriptions alongside strategic or technical descriptions. The glossary, maps, diagrams, and helpful explanations make the book accessible to readers without an 18th-century naval or military history background.
Disaster on the Spanish Main may have additional value to current military professionals with timeless lessons from the British expedition’s failure. The lack of cooperation between the army, navy, and colonial forces permeated all British operations. The problem was compounded by the government in London providing the means to conduct war but no
defined strategy for its use. Instead, it trusted the on-scene commanders, who did not have a clear hierarchical relationship for amphibious operations, to act in the best interest of the Crown as their guidance. And when disease ravaged the British and American forces, the interservice animosity led to mismanagement, which only exacerbated its impacts on combat effectiveness.
The War of Jenkins’ Ear may have faded into obscurity in the American consciousness over the past 280 years, but Chapman’s Disaster on the Spanish Main makes the case that the conflict is worth remembering.
Mr. Prom graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in history with honors and a commission in the Marine Corps. His work has appeared in Naval History, CIMSEC, and elsewhere.
Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War, 1895–1945
Anthony Tucker-Jones. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2021. Maps. Index. $30.
Reviewed by Chris Timmers
In his new book, Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War, Anthony Tucker-Jones writes that as a young man, Churchill craved adventure and glory. Indeed, his military service included time with the 4th Hussars in India and the 21st Lancers in Sudan, as a lieutenant with the South African Light Horse in the Boer War, and as a brevet battalion executive officer of the sixth
battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers (Western Front).
By 1911, Churchill had managed to get himself appointed as First Lord of the Admiralty (equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy). He took an active part in naval matters and with Britain’s entrance into World War I played a key role in formulating naval strategy in Asia with orchestration of the Gallipoli strategy. But that strategy not only failed to deliver but also produced more than 203,000 casualties (43,000 killed) and resulted in Churchill’s removal as First Lord and his demotion to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He lost his liberal seat in 1923 but became Chancellor of the Exchequer (Secretary of the Treasury) in 1925.
From 1931 to 1939, Churchill remained a member of Parliament but was granted no governmental responsibilities. Always an advocate of the empire, he despaired of what he regarded as the lack of law and order in India. He felt the conflict during this time between Hindu and Moslem had never been worse and saw disintegration of the empire as inevitable.
But from his wilderness years he would not have long to wait until called on to be both master and commander again. With the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, and the Royal Navy commenced attacks on U-boats and reinstated the convoy system that had been used to such success in World War I.
The beleaguered government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was repeatedly challenged by German aggression, and attacks on Denmark and Norway were followed by invasions of the Low Countries. On 10 May 1940, King George VI finally had enough and asked for Chamberlain’s resignation and for Churchill to assume the duties of Prime Minister and form a war cabinet.
“I felt as if I were walking with destiny,” he wrote of the day he became Prime Minister, and that “all my past life had been a preparation for this hour and this trial.”
The reader of Churchill, Master and Commander takes that walk with him.
Mr. Timmers, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, is a freelance writer specializing in military affairs. He has served with the 82d Airborne Division and the 3d Infantry Division and was a liaison officer with the German Army’s 4th Infantry Division.