Privateering: Patriots & Profits in the War of 1812
By Faye M. Kert
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015
6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, viii + 215 pages
Illustrations, appendix, notes, essay on sources, index. $55.00
Trimming Yankee Sails (2005) and Prize and Prejudice (1997) are two previous works by Faye Kert on the subject of privateering. A third fascinating work by Kert appeared in 2015 as a treatise on certain aspects behind privateering (both American and British) during the War of 1812. The emphasis of Privateering: Patriots & Profits in the War of 1812 is clearly captured in the title. Kert uses this slender work to discuss the economic ramifications of privateering while also shedding light on the perspective of the privateers themselves. Supplemental emphases Kert places in this work are anecdotal stories discovered via her astounding research, in addition to the motivations for and against privateering as a state-sponsored institution.
The introduction of Privateering fully encompasses the book in its entirety. Not only does Kert briefly (in only eight pages) and expertly paint the picture of anti-war supporters, but she also lays a framework for contextualizing privateers and their mentality. For Kert, the final decision many privateers made during their raids was on the basis of, as she puts it, "the bottom line." Was the profit of the prize worth the effort and expected loss of life? If not, then many privateers let it alone. Kert's analysis here is soundly on the basis of economic prosperity. Beyond their interests in supporting the state, privateers put their livelihood front and center.
Throughout the five chapters of Privateering, Kert uses her knack for well-written prose to assist in portraying a wealth of primary source research. Included in chapter one is the curious case of the captured ship Marques de Somerueles, which entered the hands of Capt. Frederick Hickey of HMS Atalanta during the summer of 1812. Included in the captured cargo was a wealth of valuable paintings for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In a remarkable and unique court decision, the Admiralty judge, Alexander Croke, ordered the artwork to be returned to the academy. Croke defended his decision by saying, "The arts and sciences are admitted amongst all civilized nations, as forming an exception to the severe right of warfare, and as entitled to favour and protection." That is, the fine arts belong to the whole of civilization and should not be compromised as war booty. This example is just one of many Kert uses in her interesting discussion of Admiralty Courts and the legality of keeping prizes after captured.
Negative critiques of Privateering are few and mild. Transitions within chapters could be improved. Another improvement would be to shift the discussion of privateering's origins to the front of the book. This would aid the reader in discerning the difference between a letter of marque ship and a true privateer (both terms used before it was clarified.) The overall readability and profound research make Privateering: Patriots & Profits in the War of 1812 a crucial work for any historian, whether naval-oriented or embracing a focus on the maritime economics of early America and Canada.
Jacob T. Parks
East Carolina University