- Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic by David Head
In the early nineteenth century, the United States saw itself as the world’s foremost neutral carrier in a world of economic and international uncertainty. While legitimate commerce flourished, privateering, piracy, smuggling, and the slave trade ran amok during the same period. The chaos of the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and the subsequent Spanish American revolutions of Central and South America provided opportunities for commercial activity spanning all ranges of legality. David Head’s Privateers of the Americas offers a detailed account of the act of privateering against the Spanish American Empire and, in doing so, he reveals how this maritime activity connected the Atlantic world to the world of the early American republic through diplomacy and economics.
Privateers—or armed private commercial ships licensed with a letter of marque from a revolutionary government that provided the legal authority to attack enemy vessels—sacked Spanish ships, transported their cargoes to bases in Baltimore, Amelia Island, New Orleans, and Galveston and sold it to an appreciative public. These seemingly nefarious individuals included sea captains, sailors, merchants, suppliers, financiers, and others who believed they could make a quick profit. Yet many saw themselves in grander terms—as international freedom fighters advancing the ideology of independence and freedom. Some instead were trying to provide for their families and communities. Others, still, simply were opportunists taking advantage of an uncertain world and were committed to nothing other than themselves.
Among the hotbeds of illicit activity, Galveston emerged after the War of 1812 as a center for privateering and filibustering. Outside the jurisdiction of the United States and operating under the auspices of a revolutionary government, successive leaders issued decrees and official papers that the United States acknowledged as legitimate. Whether it was French privateer Louis Michel-Aury or smugglers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, the United States waited to preserve neutrality and favorably settle its relationship with Spain. Meanwhile, from 1810 to 1820, eleven filibustering forays passed through Galveston and each provided a chaotic opportunity to prey on Spanish shipping and commerce. By the time of the last filibustering [End Page 259] expeditions, Charles François Antoine Lallemand’s 1818 founding of the Bonapartist Champ d’Asile colony on the Trinity River and James Long’s 1819 attempt to wrest Texas from Spain, the geopolitical situation had changed considerably. The Transcontinental Treaty between Spain and the United States, which gave Florida to the United States and established a western boundary between the American Louisiana Purchase and Spanish territory, brought stability and signaled the end of privateering from American territory.
Privateering declined just as the Age of Revolution ended. Those involved had to relocate, and most simply stopped. Without revolutionary governmental sanction, it was but piracy. David Head’s account of privateering highlights how it tied into the larger movement of Manifest Destiny and to Spanish-American diplomatic relations during the early republic. His engaging and readable description illustrates the exciting nature of the privateers’ world and how suddenly their world disappeared.