The Commerce War: “The Prize Game”

1. Introduction and Acknowledgment

In 1999 the Naval Institute Press published a fascinating little book by Donald A. Petrie entitled The Prize Game. Petrie is an attorney who was doing genealogical research and was led into the area of the commerce warfare in the age of sail through that research. He discovered it was a fascinating topic which involved some of the finest legal minds of the day in the area of maritime law related to prizes, prize-taking, and the outcomes of the process.

A great deal of what Petrie wrote in his little book is in this little essay. Most of the “rules” and laws apply to the American Revolution, but with one notable difference. The British did not, indeed could not, recognize the United States as a sovereign belligerent power. In some ways this hampered their maritime war; in other ways it helped them. In part of this essay I will follow “The Prize Game” and point out the ways in which it varied with the institutions and necessities in place during this war.

2. Commerce Warfare in the American War of Independence: Overview

At the time of the American War of Independence the only means of communication and transportation across the oceans was by water and by sailing vessel. Although that thought seems obvious, the implications of it are not so obvious to modern man. Distance, until very recently, has also equaled time. For example, North America was not only three thousand miles from England, but about two months away. The time of the voyage was as important, or more so, than the distance.

A second consideration, often forgotten, was that this was a time of muscle power. Other than a few exceptions (the wind powered devices and the water-wheel), there was no power source that did not involve muscles. Animals, men, women, and children provided the power needed to farm and manufacture and build. The major exception to muscle power was the sailing vessel.

In such circumstances all nations that used the sea, and were in hostilities with one another, made attempts to interdict and harass the shipping of the other. It was the single source of communication and made an obvious target. It was however, a very broad target: there were literally thousands of sailing vessels in the late 18th century. The largest fleet was the British, but the French, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, and Spanish also had considerable merchant fleets. Perhaps a quarter of the British fleet was American owned.

The warfare conducted against these merchant fleets was stylized to a great degree. The attacking country used single raiders, both regular navy and privateers, against the enemy country. The enemy responded with convoys (collections of merchant vessels escorted by armed vessels). The object of the attacking party was to hurt the enemy by capturing vessels and cargoes, and to force the enemy to disperse his efforts with more heavily guarded convoys. The object of the defender was to capture or destroy the raiders and ensure the safety of his communications and transportation.

The commerce war (known also as l’guerre de course, from it’s French name) was the background “noise” of late 18th century naval warfare. This war was always going on, no matter what the big fleets did. The single best way to quash an enemy’s attack on commerce was to seize his ports. The second best way was to blockade those ports. Since small raiders hardly needed much of a port, even these methods never shut down the commerce war completely.

The American War of Independence began in 1775 with the rebelling colonies on the one side and the British empire on the other. The British had both the largest navy and the largest merchant fleet in the world. The Americans had no navy, but did have a fairly large merchant fleet. The Americans were slow to attack the British merchant fleet for several reasons, the chief one being that of sovereignty. Only legally recognized entities could authorize raiders. Nevertheless, the Americans gradually expanded their list of acceptable targets from vessels supporting the British Army and Navy to all British vessels. Similarly, the British began with only the authority to seize customs violators and also gradually expanded their targets to all American revel vessels. Neutral vessels with American goods were added to the British targets.

During the period from 1775 to June 1778, the Americans attacked British shipping from any convenient port. Beginning in June 1778 the French entered the war, bringing in a major navy and another crop of privateers against the British, but also giving the British more targets in their commerce war. In June 1779 the Spanish entered the war, with another major navy and more privateers to annoy the British, and with a rich, although smaller, merchant marine. The Dutch entered the war in 1780.

During these periods literally thousands of vessels (known as “prizes”) were captured by each side. Although various estimates are given, no one really knows. Whether the attacks on commerce hurt the British is not clear: but most authorities think not. The British attacks on American commerce hurt the Americans: but not enough to prevent their armies marching or eating or shooting at the British.

3. The Microview: “The Prize Game”

In an ocean at war, any sail sighted on the horizon meant either trouble or opportunity. The sea war, in terms of encounters of single vessels, or small groups of vessels, was very much a war of predator and prey. An which one you were could change very quickly.

The game began with a sighting and a chase. A sailor on the masthead would call out a sail, perhaps away to the north. If you were the skipper of a small merchant sloop, you were prey. Accordingly, you did not steer for the sail, but watched intently to see what the stranger would do. If the stranger continued on its way, then the skipper of that vessel considered that it was prey too. However, if the stranger turned toward you, and made sail, then the stranger’s skipper considered himself a predator, at least until he found out what you were. By the act of chasing your vessel, it had acquired a new epithet relative to the predator: it was now the chase.

The terms can easily change. You command a fourteen gun privateer brig, a small but stout vessel, manned with seventy good hands. The masthead calls out a sail, away to the west. You turn toward the stranger and make sail. You think you are the predator, but a doubt nags at you: this stranger looks pretty big. In any event, the stranger is now the chase, relative to your brig. As you gain on the bigger vessel, you see three masts: a large ship. You see her begin to turn and see a white or yellow stripe horizontally across her side. She is a warship. You turn away, making more sail if possible. She is now the predator; you are the prey. Relative to the chasing ship, you are now the chase.

Deception was highly permissible in this game. Flags were not to be trusted, as any vessel could, and did, fly any flag that would give it an advantage. Frequently, no flag at all was raised. Gun ports could be, and were, disguised. Crews could be, and were, sent below decks. Sometimes, big ships trailed drogues in the water to slow down their speed while setting all sail. To the chaser, they appeared to be running with all sail set.

Having finally closed with a chase, the chaser would signal for the chase to heave to: brig her bow into the wind and lower her sails. Although this could be done by signal flag or speaking trumpet, it was usually done by firing a shot across the bows of the chase. According to the rules of the game, the true colors of the chaser had to be raised before shooting started. This was a good “rule.” Frequently, the chaser was discovered to be the same nationality as the chase. It served to prevent vessels of the same nation engaging one another by accident.

The firing of the signal gun, for the chase to heave to, was subject to frequent arguments. Were the colors raised first by the chaser? Was the shot fired into the chase? Were several shots really necessary? Could the chase have misinterpreted the signal? The firing of the signal gun was also a crucial moment for the crews of both chase and chaser. If there was going to be a fight, it would begin now. If the chase wanted to string it out, hoping to elude capture, that would begin now. If the chase was near land, it’s crew might abandon ship now.

The next step was the boarding party and the inspection. If the chase was clearly an enemy the boarding party would be armed, with several officers, and might consist of a large number of men. If the chase appeared to be neutral, the party might be smaller, and more polite. Once aboard the boarding officer called for the vessel’s papers. The boarding officer was supposed to follow certain rules, but had the right to examine papers, interrogate the officers, crew and passengers, examine the vessel and request that sealed areas be opened. The boarding officer might take particular care to examine the passengers and crew to see if all were present, and to inquire whether they had seen any papers destroyed or thrown overboard during the chase. Finally, the master of the chase could be required to attend the captain of the chaser aboard the chaser, with his books and papers.

Following the inspection, the chase might become the prize. If it was an enemy vessel, or if it had contraband aboard, and in the American Revolution, the British considered any American grown or manufactured product as contraband, then the vessel was a “good” prize. If the skipper of the predator considered the vessel as a prize, it was, at least temporarily. The crew of the prize might be entirely or partially removed, and a prize crew put aboard. The prize crew was a minimal crew whose purpose was only to work the prize into a port, usually nearby, where the predator’s case for the capture could be reviewed. The prize crew might be large or small, and was under the command of the prize master, who was now in charge of the prize.

Getting a prize into port might well be a tricky business. First, there was the matter of the prisoners. Seldom were they all removed from a prize. They were frequently used to assist in working the vessel. If not employed in this way, they might be confined in the hold or otherwise below decks. There was always a danger that, at an opportune moment, the prisoners might rise, overpower the prize crew, and re-capture the prize. This happened far more often than one might think.

The second hazard was the appearance over the horizon of another predator, from the enemy country. In that case the prize might become a chase again, and go through the entire cycle, before be-coming a re-capture. There are instances of one vessel changing hands five times on a single voyage. Re-captures were a very common hazard, especially to prizes captured by the Americans, in this war.

If the prize successfully got into a friendly port, the next step was the various admiralty or maritime courts. The captor or it’s agents, would libel the prize. This was simply the presenting of a public notice to the courts requesting a trial on the legality of the capture. The libel had to be public. In the American courts they were commonly published in the newspapers, frequently in large batches. The libel called on all those who had an interest to contest the capture, or claim the property. A trial date was usually set in the libel. At trial evidence and interrogatories would be presented to prove the vessel and/or cargo was enemy property. If proven, the vessel would be condemned. It would be sold, and the purchaser could be assured of a good title to his property. The vessel was no longer property of an enemy, but of the purchaser.

And just here is a major difference between the American War of Independence and other 18th century maritime wars. The Americans were in rebellion against their legal ruling authorities. They had declared their independence, and set up their own admiralty and maritime courts. The British did not recognize these courts, indeed, they could not, as having legal power to judge prizes. Very often, vessels which had been tried and condemned in American courts were captured later, by the British, and were adjudged as re-captures. Only salvage value was paid to the captors in these cases.

The Americans, who frequently took valuable prizes far away from their own admiralty courts, often sold their prizes at a great discount, in order to get something out of them rather than risk sending them on a long voyage home. Naturally this process involved a determined effort to not keep records.

4. The Prize Lists

The prize lists began as part of the privateer narratives: what they captured, when, and so forth. It quickly became evident that, to have any kind of an accurate account of prizes by American raiders, a list of British prizes was necessary. Prizes changed hands frequently. Captures and re-captures were common.

The prize lists contain an arrangement by date of prizes. These lists are incomplete, and will never be anything more than incomplete. Each prize list, arranged by month and day, has a link for each entry to a datasheet for that entry. The data sheets are, mostly, incomplete. The brackets [ and ] are used extensively and serve two purposes. The first purpose is to enclose estimated data. For example, the date [5] January 1777, means that the day (the 5th of the month, is estimated). In a case like this, it is equivalent to “early in the month.” The date [15] January 1777 usually means any day in January 1777. A look at the comments may indicate more clearly the date. The date [15 January] 1777 means both day and month are estimated. When only the year is known, prizes are placed in June of the given year. Arbitrary dates are mentioned in the comments.

The second use of the brackets [ and ] is to indicate alternate data. For example, Commander Thompson [Thomason], indicates the man’s name, and an alternate version of the man’s name. Similarly the vessel Vryheid [Juno] indicates the name of a vessel and an alternate name.

There is no navigation bar on the prize list or datasheet pages. On the prize list page, click on the logo at the top to return to the American or British master page. On the data sheets, click on the logo to go to the master pages, or on the “Back to” to go back to a particular list.

Revised 6 August 2014 ©