What’s a country to do when it doesn’t have a navy?
You’re at war. The other side is a big naval power. And you don’t have a navy. What’s a country to do? Contract for one, that’s what. And it was all perfectly legal.
To say that the Americans were ill-prepared to fight the British at sea at the start of the Revolutionary War is an understatement and a half. There was nothing even remotely resembling a naval force at the start of the war, and a proposal by Rhode Island’s Assembly to build one was practically laughed out of the Continental Congress. Maryland delegate Samuel Chase called it “the maddest idea in the world” and John Adams later wrote that the whole notion was derided as “an infant taking a mad bull by his horns.”1
Still, something had to be done. The British couldn’t be allowed to bottle up all American shipping, and the Americans needed supplies, especially gunpowder, from foreign sources. So if you don’t have a Navy and you can’t build one fast enough, you hire one. And that’s what the Continental Congress did: it commissioned more than 1,000 private vessels as privateers with the right to bear arms, and attack and seize British ships and cargoes at sea.2 The ship owners in turn got a big share of whatever booty they could capture.
The documents that commissioned those private vessels were called letters of marque and reprisal.3 The owners of the commissioned vessels were supposed to act within the limits set by Congress, and Benjamin Franklin’s printed version of the May 1780 instructions to the captains and commanders of private armed vessels with letters of marque and reprisal can be seen on the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project website here. Among those instructions: “You may by force of arms attack, subdue, and take all ships and other vessels belonging to the crown of Great Britain … And you may also annoy the enemy, by all the means in your power, by land as well as on water…”4
The letter of marque and reprisal wasn’t anything new when the Americans put it to use in the Revolution. It had been around since it was first used by the English crown in the 13th century.5 The power to grant one in the United States was committed to Congress when the Constitution was adopted in 1787,6 and the War of 1812 saw the letter of marque and reprisal used repeatedly.7 Even the Confederacy issued letters of marque and reprisal, leading the Union to threaten to try Southern privateers as pirates.8 Many of the records relating to American privateers are held by the National Archives.9But the United States was not the only country in North America to use letters of marque and reprisal. No, I’m not talking about Canada or Mexico here. Remember, for a brief time, there was one other republic on the North American continent: the Republic of Texas.
And it used privateers as well. Not exactly on the same scale as the United States: it issued a grand total of six letters of marque and reprisal, to the San Felipe, the William Robbins, the Terrible, the Thomas Toby, the Flash, and the Ocean. Turns out Mexican shipping wasn’t worth all that much, so few ship owners wanted to take the risk.10
The William Robbins later became the Texas war vessel Liberty. The Thomas Toby was best known for a mutiny on board and the murder of the ship’s doctor and purser, as well as the ship’s loss in 1837 in a storm off Galveston. The Flash was used to evacuate Texas officials and their families from south of the Brazos when the Mexican Army threatened their safety in 1836. The Ocean was instrumental in saving the schooner the Brutus from a Mexican blockade at Matagorda.11
And, just as there are records of the American letters in the National Archives, there are records of the Texas letters in the Texas State Library and Archives. Legislative records of the fight over whether and how to issue letters of marque and reprisal. The new Texas Constitution authorizing them. The applications for the letters. And, as shown here, lists of ships and officers granted letters.12
Not exactly the usual kinds of genealogical records, perhaps… no birthdates or marriage dates, maybe not even any death dates. But oh boy… what fun stuff.
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Continental Navy,” rev. 18 Feb 2012. ↩
- “To Form a More Perfect Union: Congress Makes Rules for Plundering Enemy Ships,” Library of Congress, American Memory Project (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ : accessed 23 Feb 2012). ↩
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 756, “marque and reprisal, letters of.” ↩
- “Instructions to the Captains and Commanders of Private Armed Vessels,” printed by B. Franklin, 1781; Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division; digital image, Library of Congress, American Memory Project (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ : accessed 23 Feb 2012). ↩
- “Letters of Marque and Reprisal,” Constitution Society (http://www.constitution.org : accessed 23 Feb 2012). ↩
- “The United States Constitution,” Art. I, sec. 8, U.S. House of Representatives (http://www.house.gov : accessed 23 Feb 2012). ↩
- For a list of commissioned privateers and their captures from colonial times through the War of 1812, see George Foster Emmons, The Navy of the United States, from the Commencement, 1775 to 1853 (Washington, D.C. : Gideon & Co., 1853), 124-201; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 23 Feb 2012). ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Letter of marque,” rev. 23 Feb 2012. ↩
- Try a search of the Archives.gov website with the search term marque or marque and reprisal. There’s a bunch of stuff! ↩
- “Texas Privateers,” Texas State Library and Archives Commission (https://www.tsl.state.tx.us/landing/public.html : accessed 23 Feb 2012). ↩
- Alex. Dienst, “The Navy of the Republic of Texas: The First Navy of Texas,” Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, 12: (Jan. 1909), 165-203. ↩
- See generally “Texas Privateers,” Texas State Library and Archives Commission. ↩