Outrage at Sea! The British Attack on the American frigate USS Chesapeake.

Following America’s independence from Britain, the American government decided to disband both the American Continental Army and the Continental Navy of the United States. This may seem a strange decision by the standards of our time, but it has to be understood in its historical context then: America was a young country that was burdened with an enormous foreign debt (amounting to almost 77 million dollars in 1790). America was also a federation of states, and the founders of America were fearful of creating a singular army and navy that could be used by the federal government, which might lead to more political power concentrated at the centre.

Soon after, it became clear that America needed to have a navy after all, for American merchant ships – that were plying the trade routes between north America, the Caribbean and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, were constantly being attacked by privateers and pirates. A new navy was created under the direction of John Adams, who would later become the second President of the US; and in time American warships – mostly frigates and sloops-of-war in the early days – were engaged in anti-piracy operations against the Barbary pirates of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; as well as the privateers and pirates of the Caribbean.

But one foreign navy in particular was a bigger threat to the Americans: The British navy.

America, thanks to George Washington’s proclamation of neutrality, tried to stay out of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and wanted to maintain trade links with Napoleon’s France (though America would never send troops to Europe to support Napoleon, popular though he was among some American leaders.)

The British navy, in its attempt to cripple France’s commercial links with the rest of the world, attacked, captured and/or destroyed all ships that were sailing to French ports, and by 1807 the British navy grew more aggressive towards American ships too.

One of the most famous incidents of this era was the attack on the American 38-gun frigate USS Chesapeake, by the British 40-gun 4th-rater HMS Leopard. Chesapeake was commanded by Captain James Barron, while the Leopard was commanded by Captain Pryce Humphreys. The Chesapeake was spotted by the HMS Leopard, and for several hours the American vessel was chased by the more powerful British ship.

The HMS Leopard was finally able to stop the USS Chesapeake, and its commander informed the Americans that they would board the American vessel to look for British deserters (who they thought had joined the American navy to secure American citizenship later.) The American captain refused, and the HMS Leopard opened fire, letting loose several broadsides that killed 3 crew and wounded many others. The British then boarded the American ship, and took as prisoner several crewmen who they claimed were British sailors.

This event – called ‚the Chesapeake Affair’ – may have been small by the standards of naval warfare, but it was hugely important in turning the American public against Britain. In the wake of the event, Americans rioted and demonstrated against the British government, and demanded retaliation. Among the long term consequences of the Chesapeake Affair was the growth and development of the US Navy, that would be expanded with bigger and stronger ships, leading to the construction of its first 2nd and 1st-raters. Anti-British attitudes would prevail in America up to the British-American War of 1812, and the American navy would continue to grow to become one of the strongest in the world.

So Captains, while sailing in the Caribbean, be careful who you attack and board! Your actions may trigger a string of consequences that might lead to war, and your enemies will never forgive you!
Happy sailing captains!




Image: The USS Chesapeake in action. Source: open source/internet.

Farish A Noor