In April 1780, the 180-ton three-masted ship Pickering* departed her home port of Salem, Massachusetts, and headed across the Atlantic for the Spanish port of Bilbao on the Bay of Biscay. Laden with so much sugar that her gunwales seemed perilously low to the water, she clearly was a merchant vessel seeking trade in Europe. But the Pickering also was something else. Armed with 16 6-pounder guns and a letter of marque from the General Court of Massachusetts, she was recognized as a corvette with authority to act as a privateer. Many ships such as the Pickering did double duty during the American Revolution by participating in legitimate trade while also capturing British merchant vessels when opportunities arose.
The Pickering’s captain, Jonathan Haraden, was no stranger to trade or combat. When the Revolution began, he accepted a commission in the Massachusetts State Navy to serve as first lieutenant in the aptly named sloop-of-war Tyrannicide. In 1777, he was promoted to captain of the ship and, for the next two years, captured many British prizes, as well as seizing a number of dispatches that proved valuable to General George Washington. After the Tyrannicide and 43 other American ships were lost in the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition during the summer of 1779, Haraden took command of the Pickering and, over the next year, captured more British prizes while trading in sugar, chocolate, molasses, and cognac.
With his cargo of sugar, Haraden entered the Bay of Biscay on the first of June 1780 and almost immediately encountered the Golden Eagle, a British privateer armed with 22 cannons, including 14 9-pounders. Despite the disparity in armament, Haraden pressed the attack, and after a spirited engagement, the British captain, Robert Scott, struck his colors. A prize crew took the British brig, and Captain Scott and a number of his crew were brought on board the Pickering.
Two days later, as they neared the port of Bilbao, Haraden’s good fortune appeared to ebb. A large ship appeared flying British colors. Scott informed Haraden that she was the Achilles, the largest lugger* ever fitted out as a privateer; her 43 9- and 18-pounders loomed large over the Pickering’s diminutive 16 6-pounders. Haraden watched helplessly as the Achilles recaptured the Golden Eagle but, undaunted, vowed to stand and fight. With the sun setting and a heavy overcast draping a shroud over the bay, it was apparent that the looming fight would have to wait until the next day.
Dawn brought not only illumination but much clamor ashore in Bilbao. Nearly a thousand people had gathered at the water’s edge to watch the coming fight. Many ventured into boats to gain a better view.
The ensuing battle did not disappoint. For several hours the two ships hammered away at each other. The Pickering was so low to the water from the weight of her cargo that she presented little freeboard for the Achilles’ sailors to target. One of the Pickering’s crew observed that this low profile made his ship look “like a longboat,” and that his captain was “as calm and steady as amidst a shower of snowflakes” while “shot flew around him.”
Some reports claim Haraden eventually resorted to firing crow bars that were part of his cargo, while others refer to his using standard bar shot (balls or half-balls with a connecting bar that could snag and tear away an adversary’s rigging). Whichever they were, they began shredding the enemy’s sails and rigging with devastating results. This proved too much for the Achilles’ captain, and he suddenly put his helm over and withdrew from the fight. Haraden pursued his vanquished foe for a time, but even with the damage she had suffered, the Achilles was able to outdistance her pursuer. Haraden came about and made for his lost prize, the Golden Eagle, which he recaptured without resistance. The battle with the Achilles had cost him one crew member killed and eight more wounded.
When the Pickering dropped her anchor, she was swarmed by small boats full of cheering people. Ashore, Haraden and his crew were treated with much admiration and celebration during the weeks he spent in Bilbao, selling his prize and effecting repairs, before returning to his role as a privateersman and capturing more prizes.
Jonathan Haraden was only one of the many privateersmen who served in the American Revolution, but—sometimes equated with John Paul Jones—he was clearly one of the best. There were 26 times more privateers than Continental Navy ships, and their effect on the outcome—while not decisive—was considerable (See “Book Reviews,” p. 61). These marauding ships secured desperately needed supplies for the rebels, weakened the British economy by the loss of much merchandise, and significantly raised maritime insurance rates for shipowners and investors, many of whom were members of the British Parliament. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman praised “the enormous success of American privateers,” observing that “the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, [but] independence was won at sea.”
*Also known as the General Pickering.
**Named for their fore-and-aft–rigged square lugger sails.