Going on the Account: Knowing Our Ropes

As I do for the readers here who keep coming back to see what’s going on in the real world in what we call the Modern Age of Piracy (though the ones who drop in at random are just as welcome), I scour the news to pass on the latest word.  Much like ship captains when spotting sails on the horizon and hailing other vessels to pass on word, I do what I can to let others know what’s going on.


Which brings up finding this trivia piece appearing in the online Racine (WI) Journal Times concerning town father Gilbert Knapp.  A writer asks if he was a pirate, to which the response comes across as badly misinformed by claiming that he was a privateer, making him better than a pirate.


Excuse me?


Let’s be frank here:  The main difference between pirates and privateers lies in their justification.  The strategic choices made overall during the voyage, the tactics employed in each engagement, all of these factors are pretty much the same between pirates and privateers.  Where there is a difference is in terms of who is sponsoring the venture and whether there are some conditions placed on the crew by the sponsor, such as not attacking vessels flagged by that sponsor and her allies.


This point is alluded to at this biographic entry on Knapp, the relevant item quoted here:


The open water soon proved to be his truest passion, and he left home at the age of 15 to sail with his uncle to Canada and Spain.  When the nine-month voyage ended, Knapp joined the crew of the Leo, a private vessel equipped with 17 guns and 150 men.

During the War of 1812, the ship was chartered by the American government to prey upon enemy ships and carry dispatches past the English blockade and into France.

Knapp sailed with the Leo three times, battling British ships on every voyage.


Now, let’s take a second here:  We have a ship that was in private hands engaging in hostile action at sea… and this doesn’t make it a pirate vessel how?


For that matter, let’s remember something:  A large number of vessels on the American side in the War of 1812 were private ships operating under letters of marque, issued by no less than President James Madison.  According to a history maintained on the Web by the US Merchant Marine, when the US issued privateering licenses, then ended up with increasing by five-fold the number of guns aboard ships they could bring to bear upon the English.


In fact, as nicely summarized on a Web page maintained by the tall ship Pride of Baltimore, one of the last great bastions of pirates in the New World in the Age of Sail was Baltimore, MD.  So treacherous was this nest that the British felt they had to mount a major operation to go after these pirates, involving a two-pronged assault consisting of landing troops up the Potomac, who never made it to the city but settled for ransacking Washington and burning the White House down, and a direct naval assault into the harbor that was repulsed by the guns at Fort McHenry.  Not only did the British lose the battle, they also had swiped from them the tune to a favorite drinking song, which we turned into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


So the point is:  We American owe a large part of our history to pirates.  For all the folks who might forget this and want to separate modern and Golden Age pirates, keep this in mind next time the question comes up:  There are characters in our past that may not be the most savory of folks, but without whom we would not be where we are today.  Had it not been for them, our history would not have led us here.


And who’s to say that in the 22nd Century, the founders of the Republic of Punt might themselves be trying too hard to distance themselves from their grandfathers who carried out desperate acts on the high seas (like those depicted in this map designed by the United Nations)…

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