HMS Pickle After the Battle of Trafalgar, October 1805. Oil painting by Christopher Grimes

Relying on local shipbuilding expertise and the fastest ships, Bermuda’s privateers enjoyed lucrative success.

The first couple of generations of settlers in Bermuda had to scramble to make their living. They grew tobacco, of course, and that was successful as long as it lasted. But they also tried making and exporting things like rope and brooms and baskets and even hats made of palmetto leaves. There were times when people went hungry.

Out of the ferment, a number of lucrative lines of endeavour emerged. They were related to and intertwined with each other and with the sea—the provisioning trade, the production of salt, shipbuilding, trading in the Caribbean and America, and privateering.

If history would allow you to fit all these events into a neat little box, you could perhaps say that each one led to the next in a logical progression. It’s never that tidy in reality, but you could say it was the failure of tobacco that led Bermudians to start raising cattle, turkeys and pigs, and to grow oranges, lemons and other foodstuff to keep themselves alive. They expanded that endeavour in order to provision the many ships, including the privateers of several nations, that touched at Bermuda looking for supplies.

Salt was the only way to preserve food in those days, so Bermudians went off to the Caribbean to find sources of supply. They probably learned about those sources from Dutch traders, who were salt pioneers in the Caribbean. Ships were needed, so Bermudians began to acquire skill at building them.

Bermudians established a settlement in the Bahamas in the late 1640s and raked salt on a number of Bahamian islands. They settled in Turk’s Island in the late 1670s, and that island was the mainstay of Bermuda’s salt production for many years.

They expanded their provisioning of visiting ships to include trade in the Caribbean and America, supplying food and salt, and bringing a variety of needed supplies back to Bermuda, including grain, sugar, rum and lumber. According to Michael Jarvis, in his excellent book In the Eye of All Trade, published this year by the North Carolina Press, the first Bermudians to develop a regular overseas trade were John Stowe, in his ship Elizabeth and Anne, and Anthony Peniston, with his Blessing. They began making regular trips to Barbados and other Caribbean islands in the 1650s.

“Stowe and Peniston forged a regular interisland trade as they shuttled provisions, livestock and Bermudian emigrants to Barbados, and returned with sugar, rum, cash and small numbers of African slaves,” Jarvis writes. The two men, especially Peniston, expanded their efforts over the course of a generation or so until they were trading in ports from Surinam in the south up to New York—Bermuda’s first international businessmen, you might say.

Bermuda’s reliance on the sea had been helped greatly by Governor Nathaniel Butler, who arrived in 1619. He hired a Dutch carpenter who had been shipwrecked here to build boats. When the governor left Bermuda in 1622, he said the Dutchman had increased the number of vessels in use in Bermuda by fivefold—something the governor thought was “of tremendous benefit to the settlement.” He had no idea.

The Dutchman also taught Bermudians to build boats with fore-and-aft sails and raked masts, of a type known as a bezaan jacht in the Netherlands. Modified, these jachten became the Bermuda sloops so favoured by mariners in the days of sail.

Henry Wilkinson, in his Bermuda in the Old Empire, published in 1950 by the Oxford University Press, wrote that in the seventeenth century “Bermuda’s thoughts and livelihood were on the sea. A third of her able men were always afloat, and most of those ashore were engaged in some maritime business, especially shipbuilding. Three or four hundred small, two-masted fishing boats and 76 ocean-going vessels, ranging from 10 to 100 tons register, were constructed before the end of the 17th century. During the next two decades, about two dozen ships were launched each year.”

Bermuda sloops, light, stiff and deep-hulled in construction, were about the fastest things afloat. In an era of slow-moving, square-rigged ships, the sloop’s ability to point high into the wind was an enormous advantage to those wanting to move quickly.

Privateers, who relied on speed and audacity for success, loved them. Howard M. Chapin, the Rhode Island historian who did groundbreaking work on privateers in the first half of the twentieth century, recalls in his Bermuda Privateers 1739–1748, first published in The Royal Gazette in 1925, that during the War of Jenkins’ Ear between England and Spain, even the enemy relied on them. “A Bermuda-built sloop of 14 guns was commanded by the most successful Spanish privateersman of this period, the brave Capt Don Francisco Larenzo, better known perhaps by his nickname of Captain Ponce.... These vessels were a type by themselves and very highly prized by seamen.”

Père Labat, the French Dominican missionary who wrote about the Caribbean of the late 1600s and early 1700s, made a couple of his trips in a French-flagged buccaneer’s Bermuda sloop. Barbados, Nevis, St. Kitts, South Carolina and Massachusetts all either acquired Bermuda sloops for coastal defence or hired sloops and their crews to do it for them. Even the Royal Navy got in the act. Several traditional Bermuda sloops were built in Bermuda for them toward the end of the eighteenth century. The first three ordered from Bermudian builders, HMS Dasher, HMS Driver and HMS Hunter, were sloops of 200 tons, armed with twelve 24-pound guns. A great many more were either built or bought for the Navy, primarily for use as couriers. The most notable of these was HMS Pickle, which carried news of victory back from Trafalgar.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Bermudians were so involved with the sea and with sailing that the Atlantic and the Caribbean were like Bermuda’s back yard. As the excellent sailing qualities of Bermuda sloops developed and became widely known, it was an easy next step for Bermudians to emulate the wealthy privateers who called at Bermuda on their way elsewhere, and to become privateers themselves.

Wilkinson wrote that to Bermudians, privateering “had such rich potentialities. It afforded every chance of thrilling adventure which was to be found in piracy, without the crime; and much of the essential usefulness of the Royal Navy, without the back-breaking discipline.”

The first privateer to be licensed in Bermuda (there were probably Bermudians who “freelanced” without the licence before that) was Capt. Thomas Hewetson in a ship of 50 guns, according to Wilkinson. Hewetson led a successful expedition against the French sugar plantation at Marie Galante in Guadeloupe. Hewetson probably wasn’t a Bermudian—he might well have been the English adventurer mentioned by David Marley in his book Wars of the Americas, published by ABC-CLIO in 1998, as being in the Caribbean at around that time. At the Leeward Islands in this 1689 expedition, Capt. Hewetson was joined by a little fleet of four vessels, one of which was under the command of the infamous Capt. William Kidd, a Scotsman later hung for piracy.

Bermudians who were financial backers of an expedition by another man who later became famous as a pirate, Thomas Tew, benefitted enormously from his cruise in the 70-ton sloop Amity. It’s a bit of a tangled tale, but essentially the Amity and another ship were commissioned by Governor Richier to attack French stations on the River Gambia in Africa. The second sloop, captained by George Dew, was damaged in a storm on the way across the Atlantic. Tew, abandoning Dew, proposed to his crew that they should forget about attacking French interests in Africa and instead look for a little plunder. The crew agreed. In the Mandab Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Tew put Amity alongside a much larger Arab ship, heavily armed and carrying 300 soldiers, and boarded it, making off with what was, in those days, a huge fortune. The Amity suffered no loss at all.

The Bermudian shareholders, apparently not scrupling at Tew’s conversion to piracy, pocketed what was, in those days, a very substantial sum of money—14 times the value of the ship.

A handful of Bermudian ships were licensed as privateers during King William’s War, with largely unspectacular results. During King George’s War, though, between 1739 and 1748, Bermudians had better success. The first to venture out was the sloop Popple in 1739, probably named after Alured Popple, the governor at the time. Howard Chapin wrote that Popple was commanded by Captain Samuel Spofferth, a man who had married into the Trott family. Near Curaçao, Capt. Spofferth captured a rich Spanish ship with a cargo of general merchandise, including 8,000 pieces of eight. He brought the ship and its cargo back to Bermuda.

By June 1740, Bermuda had sent out more than twice as many privateers as any of the mainland colonies. By the end of the war, a sizeable fleet of Bermudian vessels had been involved in the privateering business. The Anne, the Neptune, the Mary, the Charming Molly, the Delight, the Orange Tree, and the Charming Betty, among many others, had sailed from Bermuda to fight against, and profit from, the Spanish king’s forces. Well-known Bermuda family names like Outerbridge, Perinchief, Tucker, Dickinson, Wilkinson, Harvey, Darrell, Lightbourn, Dill, Frewen and Butterfield all appear in the lists of those involved as owners, captains or sailors.

The next opportunity for privateering on any kind of scale was the American War of Independence. But this was different. There was no great rush of Bermudians to Government House to ask for privateering licences to go and fight the Americans. There was good reason for that. Bermuda’s leading families, at least, felt a great kinship with their American colonist neighbours. Many Bermudians had emigrated west and were making their lives in the American colonies. Bermudians traded with the Americans, they were friends with them, sometimes married them and, perhaps most significantly, suffered as they did under the often arbitrary and infuriating yoke of English rule.

Over the years, Bermudians had learned to be thoroughly devious to survive. They smuggled, they lied, they twisted this way and turned that way to get the better of the English (and anyone else who tried to stand in their way). Bermudians had a thoroughly difficult relationship with most English governors. The first governor appointed by the Crown, Col. Richard Coney, for example, was so disliked that a captain of militia knocked him down and broke a sword over his back. The governor at the time of the American Revolution, George Bruere, became so angry with Bermudian dishonesty and fractiousness that, according to his son, he died of it.

In the American War of Independence, Bermudians who were prepared to temporarily set aside their loyalty to the Crown—and there were lots of them—saw a red-hot money-making opportunity. The Americans needed supplies more than they had ever done before—not just the usual supplies, but guns and ammunition and other materiel as well. The 13 colonies had decided to rely on privateers rather than building a big navy, so they needed ships. And not just any ships, but those that privateers loved best, Bermuda sloops.

Wilfred Brenton Kerr, in his book Bermuda and the American Revolution 1760–1783, published by Princeton University Press in 1936, said Governor Bruere discovered that “ingenious Bermudians had discovered...a number of ways in which they could carry on business...They built or secured ships which could leave the island in perfect legality and become merchandisable commodities in neutral ports. In 1780, there were said to be one hundred vessels on the stocks in Bermuda intended for sale to the Americans by this method, and Bruere calculated that since 1775 over one thousand craft had reached the same purchasers by way of St. Eustatia, most built in the islands, the rest fast-sailing prizes bought and refitted for the traffic. The Bermudians were, in fact, the mainstay of American privateering.”

At the same time, Bermudian merchants were heavily involved in moving merchandise of one type or another, bought in Caribbean islands like St. Eustatia and Martinique, to the American mainland by a variety of routes and stratagems, often using false papers to keep out of the clutches of the Royal Navy, or English privateers, or American loyalist privateers. The Caribbean was so clogged with ships involved in the conflict in one way or another that the captain of a ship in a convoy moving supplies from Bermuda to Barbados saw more than 150 ships on the way down. He described the sea as being “alive with privateers…circling the transports like wolves.”

Things changed later in the war. The English put a stop in the most shocking way to the arms bazaar that had sprung up in St. Eustatia. An American who settled in Bermuda, Bridger Goodrich, saw an opportunity in the Bermudian distaste for privateering against the Americans, got himself a privateering licence and made a fortune. Other Bermudians joined in and made life very difficult for the Americans.

But here’s the thing: during the War of Independence, Bermudian supporters of the American Revolution were, as Wilfred Brenton Kerr said, the mainstay of American privateering. It was American privateering that beat the English. So forget the gunpowder Bermudians stole and supplied to George Washington. That was merely a trifle. It was Bermudian shipbuilders and their Bermuda sloops that did the trick for the American Revolution.

The Nature of Privateering

Most people think privateers were a short-lived and nasty phenomenon of the eighteenth century. “State-sponsored piracy” is a phrase commonly used to describe those whom governments licensed to prey on enemy shipping. At the very least, that is an over-simplification.

Privateering began in the Middle Ages, in the twelfth century, and it was still going on at the dawn of the twentieth century. Only a palaeontologist would call that short-lived. It began as a way to allow sea-going merchants of one country to compensate themselves for being “injured” by citizens of another country. They could ask for “a letter of marque and reprisal”—a licence to seize a ship belonging to the offending country, sell it and pocket the proceeds.

That changed as time went by. Countries realised that privateers could be used to inflict economic damage on their enemies, and it became the norm that privateering licences were issued only in time of war.

There were two types of licence available to private shipping interests. A letter of marque was a ship normally carrying cargo, but it was also permitted to seize enemy vessels if the opportunity presented itself. A privateer was a ship whose purpose was to seize enemy ships. Privateers were usually smaller and faster than letters of marque, and they relied not so much on heavy armament to carry the day but on bluff, audacity and, often, an unusually numerous crew to overcome their prey. (A ship that would normally carry a crew of 20 might, as a privateer, sail with five or six times as many.) They were distinct from pirates, in that their aim was not to sink ships, but to capture them for profit, a process much less destructive to human life and property than either piracy or naval action.

Further, two rules of the game acted to prevent excesses. First, those involved followed a code of practice. Donald Petrie, in his book The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail (Naval Institute Press), says the great majority of privateers were characterized by “a decent, civilized greed.... Like sportsmen, privateers played by a code of rules.” Deception played a large part in what they did. They carried false papers. They flew false flags. They disguised themselves. But, Petrie says, “They never fired a gun under false colors.”

Second, every country involved in privateering operated a prize court (there was an active one in Bermuda during the eighteenth century), which adjudicated every privateer’s claim to a seized ship and its cargo. It happened very often that such a court would refuse a claim and set the ship in question free if it found that it belonged to a neutral country, for example, or if its cargo was owned and consigned to neutrals.

Those who took part in privateering were guaranteed nothing. But there was a possibility that they might share in very large profits. The ships they captured were sold. Their cargoes were sold. The seamen who became their prisoners could sometimes be ransomed. And the profit could be shared among the owners, the officers and the men of the victorious privateer.

Was the practice a success? Any tactic of war that lasts for eight centuries can only be described as a roaring success. The literature is full of statistics demonstrating the harm done to the other side’s shipping, economy and morale by privateers; it is also full of references to the large profits that were made by the sailors and their backers. The practice was a powerful weapon of war. Indeed, it is now more or less an accepted fact that privateers won the American War of Independence for the thirteen colonies, despite what is claimed on behalf of General George Washington and others. The colonies were fighting the English on a shoestring. Relying on privateers for supplies and to inflict damage on the enemy must have been one of, if not the most successful, outsourcing exercises in history.

Statistics can vary quite dramatically from author to author at this remove. But in the literature, an often-repeated claim is that there were 31 ships in the Continental Navy at the onset of the American Revolution and 64 ships at the height of the war, all of which captured 196 enemy vessels. By contrast, there were some 1,700 American privateers, which captured 2,283 enemy ships. Those are eloquent facts, indeed.

Winter 2010