Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution

Liveright: Norton. May 2022. 352p. ISBN 9781631498251. $32.50. HIST
After distinguishing between privateers and pirates (often merely lawless, ruthless thieves), acclaimed author Dolin (A Furious Sky) deftly defends and demonstrates the crucial impact of American privateering on the Revolutionary war effort. Individual colonies and Congress awarded permission to private ship-owners, authorizing their crews (with restrictions) to seize British mercantile and naval ships. “Prize” ships and their contents were sold. Privateer ship-owners, investors, and crews split the profits. Captured crews were generally treated as prisoners of war. Primary and secondary sources support Dolin’s detailed description of the vicissitudes of this controversial, prevalent, extremely risky, yet lucrative practice. Privateering filled gaps in American military efforts, inspiring hope and perseverance; boosted local economies; secured vital military and commercial supplies and hard currency; impaired British trade and strained the British navy; increased, with French cooperation, enmity between France and Britain, drawing France into the war. Nonetheless, it limited the number of recruits for the Continental armed forces, prompted brutal British retaliation against coastal colonial towns, and caused thousands of captured privateersmen to languish and die on hellish British prison ships.
VERDICT Scholars and general readers will enhance their knowledge of an often-neglected yet essential aspect of Revolutionary War history with Dolin’s cogent, absorbing, thoroughly researched account.
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