The Explainer General
The Revolutionary War should have won us independence from Britain. Britain’s Royal Navy didn’t care. In the early 1800’s it was busy fighting Napoleon but it had time to stop United States merchant ships on the high seas from trading with France or British colonies. It always needed sailors, so its officers seized our sailors, claiming they were Royal Navy deserters.
We needed a more independent independence. President James Madison declared a second war against Britain in 1812. Britain declared an embargo, forbidding our ships to leave port.
The Royal Navy had hundreds of big warships; we had six. To supplement our tiny Navy, the United States issued letters of marque, government licenses for privateers, private men o’war.
The boldest and most successful privateer was Captain Thomas Boyle’s Chasseur. It was a new kind of vessel, a Baltimore pilot schooner, the fastest ship afloat.
No sailboat can go directly into the wind. A square-rigged ship could manage to sail only 80° to the left or right of the wind’s direction. The Chasseur sailed 55° off the wind. Working into the wind by tacking (sailing to one side of the wind, then the other) she could go 10 miles to windward by sailing about 24 miles on diagonal courses. The Royal Navy’s square rigged men o’war would log almost 59 miles to reach the same point.
Chasseur carried only 16 small cannon – no match for a big man o’war’s 30 to 40 guns. But Boyle had no intention of slugging it out. If a man o’war appeared, he would scamper away to windward. Chasseur couldn’t be caught.
Boyle crossed the Atlantic and quickly took 18 British merchant ships. He was bold as a lion: he sent the last vessel back into port, so its captain could nail a proclamation to the door of Lloyd’s Coffee House, where London ship-insurers gathered. It was a politely worded embargo on all the British Isles – the same embargo Britain had attempted to force on the United States!
Did Boyle succeed? Yes and no. Many British ships sailed, but fear of the Chasseur raised the price of insurance 300%! Some of Lloyd’s insurers wouldn’t write policies on ships voyaging near America. Our Navy was small but mighty: our six heavy frigates (including Constitution, “Old Ironsides”) beat many Royal Navy frigates ship-to-ship. Our combination of daring, skill and brass audacity won the War of 1812 against the largest navy in the world.
You know all about pirates. They were big guys with fancy hats, silk jackets, peg legs, and parrots cursing on their shoulders. They sailed big ships with brass guns and made lubbers walk the plank . . . right?
Wrong! If you want to know what pirates were really like, then read Jan Adkin's book, What if You Met a Pirate? Click here for more information.
Jan Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Man Who Held Up Britain." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6
Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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