Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic by David Head (review)
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Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic. By David Head. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015. Pp. xiii, 201. $64.95 cloth; $32.50 paper)

Numerous histories of conflicts at sea cast privateers in secondary roles, supporting the efforts of organized navies and fleets. At times, privateers are ignored altogether. David Head reverses this trend; in Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic, he brings privateers to the forefront by examining their role in Spanish America’s fight to gain independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century.

The book focuses on privateers in the context of a broader Atlantic world. Head contends that the geopolitics of the time—that is, “four interlocking developments … the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish American Wars of Independence, the War of 1812, and the United States’ pursuit of neutrality between France and Britain and between Spain and her colonies”—created a unique set of legal circumstances that enabled privateers to ply their trade with particular effectiveness [End Page 92] on the water (p. 6). By examining the ins and outs of privateering, the actors and governments involved, and the effects of these enterprises, Head posits that privateers played a critical role in the history of the Atlantic and the early republic.

Privateers of the Americas coalesces around four main ports of privateer operations: New Orleans, Baltimore, Galveston, and Amelia Island. After providing a narrative context of Spanish American efforts toward independence in chapter one, Head devotes the next three chapters to these four locations. New Orleans, in particular, was a “smugglers’ paradise” due to its location between Spanish holdings (p. 43). Head utilizes the Laffite brothers, Jean and Pierre, to highlight how privateers in the bayou exploited legal loopholes, such as the distress exemption, to justify and continue their operations. Head postulates that the laws of various nations at the time, supported and shaped by the aforementioned geopolitics, created an environment ripe for privateering and smuggling. Although the Laffites often ignored or overlooked the law, privateers in Baltimore used international law to their advantage, Head argues. The distinction ultimately underscores how the location of privateer ventures determined how they operated and how they sold and smuggled their cargoes.

Galveston and Amelia Island are paired together in chapter four as they fell outside of U.S. territory. Filibusters played a central role in those areas, Head maintains, because they could grant privateer commissions and establish prize courts. The final chapter of Head’s study examines the motivations of men involved in privateering, such as money and power, Spanish American independence, and personal aspirations.

Head’s main source material comes from the case files of the U.S. federal courts. But, although Head provides a colorful depiction of the actions of privateers, he never explains the court procedure for cases involving privateers or how these particular cases came to the federal courts. Readers would have benefited from an analysis of this process as well as an explanation of how Head chose particular pieces of evidence and prioritized certain case records above others. Sailors’ [End Page 93] depositions are cited as evidence of these mariners’ motivations, for example, but the quotations seem cherry-picked; no full deposition is ever given. Privateers operating during this era were also different from those who fought in earlier conflicts, such as the American Revolution, when admiralty courts were a necessary aspect of privateering ventures. Smuggling played a much larger role in the lives of these particular privateers. Thus, a chronological comparison would have served well to distinguish the men of this era from their predecessors.

Overall, David Head provides an in-depth look at Spanish American privateering, highlighting the crucial role of four main ports, and the multi-talented—and multi-motivated—men who served on board privateers. As such, Privateers of the Americas is a well-crafted study of American-based privateer operations on behalf of Spanish America during the early 1800s.

Kylie A. Hulbert

KYLIE A. HULBERT is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M–Kingsville.

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