Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic
By David Head
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015
6” x 9”, softcover, xv + 201 pages
Illustrations, maps, tables, notes, index. $24.95
To understand the historical content and the events that led to privateering in Spanish America, author David Head offers a variety of perspectives from persons representing opposite sides of the conflicts, both on land and at sea. Wherever possible, Head consulted accurate first person account of events leading to the need for national privateering. Throughout, he strives to clarify the interlocking developments in geopolitical struggles around the turn of the nineteenth century that necessitated privateering. As a result, he examines the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 as precursors to the Spanish-American Wars of Independence and the struggle of nations to expand their territories.
Head stresses that privateering was a way to represent nations during a time of power struggle. He also mentions that privateering became a larger geopolitical role embedded in every nation wishing to expand their territories. Through several specific examples of privateering case studies, he provides perspectives that justifies the citizens of the United States who found Spanish-American privateering was an attractive option as a profession during a time of great financial instability and inconsistency. During the early 1800s a person’s profession, financial class, and social standings played a large role when making a decision to join a privateering force. His sources incorporate nearly 350 federal court cases concerning Spanish American privateering, as well as statistics from Lloyd’s List, letters from the different crews, commanders, and legal actions of the ship’s owners. For example, the analysis from letters and memoirs of a Captain Chaytors’s decision was presented tactfully. Chaytor had to choose between becoming a privateer for a foreign nation and supporting his family on the proceeds, or declining the opportunity and risking not finding financial stability in his own nation. He chose to risk his life as a privateer for the sake of his family.
One critical point developed by Head is that the sea has a logic of its own; only by penetrating that logic can the actions of privateers be understood. While understanding the driving forces behind the mentality of a privateer is the central theme of this book, understanding the sea is also a vital point. Head’s reasoning is that privateers, whether new to the Spanish American territories or not, had to adapt to the geography, currents, and elements of the southern hemisphere to become successful. The ability to adapt, combined with a privateer’s navigational and tactical skills, determined their ultimate success and the success of the nation for which they sailed during this time of expansion and flexing of power.
Tyler W. Ball
East Carolina University