The Era of British Privateers in the Caribbean


Captains, now here is a note about British privateers in the Caribbean- The game begins in the 1770s, and at that time much of the West Indies was already in a state of war. In 1780 Holland entered the conflict in North America, supporting the American revolutionaries in the American War of Independence against the British. The United States was already being helped by France, and so by 1780 Britain was at war with the United States, France, Holland and Spain. In 1781 Britain suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, where it lost to American forces.

The Caribbean was an important factor in the American War of Independence because many of the nations involved depended on their trade with their colonies there. With Holland and France supporting the United States, Britain was determined to cripple the West Indian colonies of France and Holland, so as to weaken their support for the American revolutionaries.

In February 1781 the British commander Admiral George Brydges Rodney began issuing letters of marque to pirates who would help him attack, capture or destroy all American, Dutch and French commercial vessels operating in the Caribbean. Thus began the era of British privateers, who played a part in the war as mercenaries supporting the British government against the combined forces of the United States, France, Holland and Spain. Many of these British privateers attacked Dutch commercial shipping in particular, as there was already intense rivalry between the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the East Indies.

Privateers were thus an important element in the war that took place in the Caribbean region, and there were also privateers working for other nations like France. Admiral Rodney’s campaign continued for several years, and in April 1782 during the Battle of the Saintes Admiral George Rodney’s British forces defeated the French and Spanish, between Guadeloupe and Dominica. While the war was fought between the navies and armies of the countries involved, privateers were always part of the ‚undeclared war’ between them, acting as mercenaries in a proxy war that was being waged along the sidelines.




(Photo: Letters of the East India Company based in India, circa 1790-1810, from my private collection.)

Farish A Noor