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          Art: Privateers of the Americas
Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic
By David Head
University of Georgia Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0-8203-4864-3, $24.95
Also available in e-book and hardback editions

In the early nineteenth century, colonies in Spanish America wanted to break free from Spain. They initially did so to preserve themselves for the true king of Spain rather than Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, but later some leaders wished to establish new countries with their own governments. Like many colonies seeking freedom from their mother countries, the participants fought land battles while also wanting to strike Spanish shipping. They lacked any naval forces to do this, so they enlisted the help of privateers, many of whom came from the United States. This created problems for American government officials, because the US and Spain were at peace and interfering in such rebellions would upset the president’s foreign policy goals. In addition, having an American command an armed ship that planned to attack Spanish vessels violated the neutrality laws. In spite of these roadblocks, ever-resourceful Americans found ways to circumvent the law.

David Head opens his examination on Spanish American privateering by introducing Captain James Chaytor, who renounced his citizenship, swore allegiance to the government in Buenos Aires, and became a citizen of the United Provinces of the Rió de la Plata in order to legally go privateering. Head then sets out his goals in studying this facet of legal marauding:
  • How did it work?
  • Who engaged in it?
  • How did the American government respond?
  • How did privateers and their backers circumvent the law and manipulate international relations to work in their favor?
  • Why did these men become privateers or financial backers of privateering expeditions?
  • What did it mean to sail from the United States to become a privateer for a new Spanish republic?
His quest to unearth the answers to these questions led him to archives containing newspapers reporting on shipping news, diplomatic correspondence, government reports, personal papers, documents from ships and customs, court cases, and testimony from privateers and their victims.

The introduction also sets the scene for what is to come, concentrating on four developments: the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, Spanish America’s Wars of Independence, and American neutrality with France and Britain and with Spain and her Spanish American colonies. These highlight how the United States participated in global events and how Americans and Spanish Americans experienced international rivalries. In addition, Head discusses why Spanish American privateering and fighting for emerging nations appealed to people.

The book is divided into five chapters. The first one, “Diplomacy with Spain and Spanish America” examines the geopolitics that gave rise to Spanish American privateering and the United States’ response to it. Particular emphasis is placed on relationships between the US, Spain, and her rebellious colonies; privateering as it relates to the Transcontinental Treaty; and how such statesmen as Napoleon Bonaparte, Fernando VII of Spain, President James Madison, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay navigated this complex world. Salient points that are discussed include:
  1. Napoleon imprisoning the Spanish king and replacing him with his brother, which paved the way for insurrections led by men like Simón Bolivar and Father Miguel Hidalgo;
  2. American neutrality and the threat to derail foreign policy caused by privateering;
  3. how the Transcontinental Treaty would help eliminate the United States’ vulnerability to invasion; and
  4. members of the American government who did recognize their new republican neighbors to the south.
The next three chapters concern four specific locations in and near the United States from which the privateers operated. Chapter two examines “New Orleans and Barataria” before and during the War of 1812. This was where Jean and Pierre Laffite based their operations, in part because the geographic terrain was ideal for smuggling. It also provided the British with a way to invade New Orleans through backdoors, but the Laffites opted not to ally themselves with the enemy. The Baratarians held privateering commissions from Cartagena and, prior to the destruction of Barataria, they assisted Mexican revolutionaries. Head discusses how the Laffites and their associates worked, as well as the measures the federal and local governments took to curb their privateering, smuggling, and slave trading.

During the War of 1812, the British considered Baltimore, Maryland a “nest of pirates” because so many successful privateers set sail from this port city. The third chapter focuses on “Baltimore,” which became a place where Spanish American representatives attempted to recruit privateers. While similarities exist between Spanish American privateering here and the environs of New Orleans, there are also major differences. The reputation gained by the privateering vessels built in Baltimore during the War of 1812 continued to draw investors, agents, and seamen wishing to continue their legal plundering in the Spanish American Wars of Independence. The earlier experience also gave rise to men adept at exploiting legal loopholes to circumvent the law. For example, while it was against the law for an American to outfit a foreign privateer or for a foreigner to do so in the United States, it was perfectly legal for a US citizen to arm the ship, put out to sea, and then sell the vessel to a foreigner who intended to use it for privateering. Problems encountered and government countermeasures to curtail such privateering are also discussed.

Chapter 4, “Galveston and Amelia Island,” examines Spanish American privateering near the United States but outside its legal borders. Located in present-day Texas, Galveston Island was territory claimed by Spain, Mexico, and the US the time period of this book. Louis-Michel Aury initially based his operations here, but later Jean Laffite seized control of this island on the Gulf of Mexico. Amelia Island, on the other hand, belonged to Spain but was in close proximity to Georgia, which provided privateers with American markets where they could dispose of their plunder and acquire supplies for new ventures. Gregor MacGregor was the first filibuster to lay claim to the island, but Aury eventually took over after his ousting from Galveston. These two bases flourished during periods when the fight for Spanish American freedom was ebbing. Head looks at how these two locations operated, how the primary individuals came to power, and how the United States dealt with each island.

The final chapter “Service and Toil in Spanish America” discusses what motivated the captains, investors, seamen, and filibusters to become Spanish American privateers. Whether they did so for personal gain, revenge, the thrill of marauding, an ideological alignment with these republics gaining their independence, to escape debt, or as purely a business arrangement, each played a role in a maritime venture that eventually helped the Spanish colonies to become countries in their own right.

Head concludes his study by returning to the privateer mentioned at the beginning of the book, Captain Chaytor, and how he lived his life after being a Spanish American privateer.

Aside from chapter end notes and an index, Head includes black-and-white portraits, privateering commissions, maps, and tables to supplement the text. Each chapter has its own introduction and conclusion.

Part of the Early American Places series, Privateers of the Americas is a significant examination of a period of privateering on which historians rarely focus. The narrative is highly readable and easily understood by readers with little or no knowledge of privateering history. Priced well within the layperson’s budget, this volume serves as an excellent and valuable stepping stone to future studies for researchers wishing to explore this period in greater depth and detail.

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Review Copyrighted ©2015 Cindy Vallar
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