American Privateers Raid British Trade c. 1778


Map Code: Ax00574

The American colonies, which had declared themselves independent of Britain in 1776, did not have the naval resources to fight the powerful British navy. The solution was privateering, with many patriotic American citizens using government commissioned vessels to seize British merchant ships. Privateers were mandated by a law dating back to the Middle Ages, which permitted private citizens to act as a military force in times of conflict. With appropriate documentation, known as Letters of Marque and Reprisal, they could legitimately capture an enemy ship and seize its cargo. The Privateers operated from major bases in Boston and Charles Town and seized cargo arriving and departing from Great Britain. The American privateers even intercepted British ships travelling from the Caribbean and Africa. The damage to British shipping was in the region of $18 million by 1783 ($302 million in today’s currency) and had a crippling effect on Britain’s commercial fleet.

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