In his well-researched monograph, Privateers of the Americas, David Head sheds light on an exciting yet understudied chapter of Atlantic history. By examining the activity of U.S. seafarers who sailed as privateers for Spanish American revolutionary governments, the book successfully demonstrates the economic and political significance of the links between the United States and Latin America in the early nineteenth century. In the 1810s, privateers from different regions of the United States (from New York to Louisiana, from Boston to Charleston) manned more than one hundred ships under the flags of Latin American revolutionary governments. Sailing for newly created republics—including Mexico, Venezuela, Cartagena (modern-day Colombia), the United Provinces, and the Banda Oriental (roughly modern-day Argentina and Uruguay, respectively)—these enterprises involved thousands of men. Ship captains, sailors, caulkers, carpenters, investors, grocers, and blacksmiths in the United States profited from the collapse of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. Privateering for Spanish American rebels hauled millions of dollars in gold and silver, merchandise, and even slaves into the U.S. economy. Nevertheless, these privateers operated on the edge of legality, switching imperial and national allegiances, and exploring imperial rivalries and competing sovereignties. American privateers did not hesitate in swearing loyalty to new republics in order to exploit the legal loopholes in international law during the convoluted age of Atlantic revolutions. At the same time, they represented a challenge to U.S. presidents and secretaries of state, who tried to preserve the country’s neutral status in the conflict with Spain.
The book examines the Atlantic context during the wars of independence in South America, the main geographic areas that served as bases for American privateers, presenting an overview of the social background and motivations of captains, sailors, and investors who were involved in the privateering industry. Head begins by mapping the convoluted political landscape of the Atlantic world in the early nineteenth century. After Napoléon Bonaparte’s 1808 invasion of Spain, a series of autonomist movements emerged in Spanish America. From 1810 to 1822, creole-led revolutionary governments proclaimed new independent states in Mexico, Río de la Plata (United Provinces of Río de la Plata, Paraguay, Banda Oriental), Chile, Peru, and Gran Colombia (modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, and [End Page 753] Ecuador). If public opinion and some merchants in the United States supported recognition of and commerce with the nascent Spanish American republics, U.S. authorities and political leaders were cautious in recognizing the new governments as they struggled to maintain the neutral status of the United States. American privateering angered foreign diplomats (mostly Spanish officials) and posed a challenge for early U.S. foreign relations.
The book then analyzes the agents, networks, methods, and logistics of American privateers operating in New Orleans/Barataria (an area on the coast of Louisiana), Baltimore, and Galveston and Amelia Islands. New Orleans/Barataria became a thriving commercial center for smuggled goods and slaves because the region was historically connected to the United States, as well as to Spanish, British, and French America. Making use of commissions issued by foreign governments with overlapping claims to sovereignty, local traders were able to take advantage of competing imperial interests to build robust contraband trade and privateer networks in the Gulf of Mexico. In Louisiana, smugglers and privateers relied on the local population’s leniency and cooperation while deploying bold violence against U.S. customs officers and authorities.
Another robust base of American privateering was Baltimore, which developed a thriving maritime economy during and after the American Revolution. Having excelled at trading in the Caribbean by taking advantage of the neutral status of the United States, Baltimore merchants and sea captains found in Spanish American privateering an opportunity to expand their activities into the wider Atlantic. By 1816, dozens of Baltimore merchants and captains formed societies to outfit vessels for privateering under South American flags. Acquiring commissions (nineteenth-century terminology for letters of marque) from different republics, such as Mexico and the United Provinces...