Privateers were used extensively by the United States during the War of 1812. The young American Navy did not have the money, resources, or manpower to conduct naval operations along the entirety of its vast coastline; it found it expedient to commission private parties to carry out some of its objectives.
The privateering tradition was an old and profitable one. By most estimates, American privateers brought back to port many hundreds of enemy prizes to New York, Baltimore, and Boston. The state of Maryland alone commissioned forty privateers just in the first year of the war. “They were the kestrels and game-cocks of the sea,” as one maritime historian wrote. Privateers were essentially buccaneers with a legal commission. Taking risks was their stock-in-trade. Used to operating alone and along the hazy boundaries of maritime law, they showed a surprising degree of fearlessness and aggressiveness, perhaps they did not have to answer to traditional military authorities.
We will narrate an incredible adventure of one privateering schooner, the Comet, out of Baltimore. She was commanded by Captain Thomas Boyle, a career Irish-American seaman from Marblehead, Massachusetts who had first gone to sea and tasted the ocean’s brine at the age of ten. When the War of 1812 broke out, he was thirty-seven years old. The Comet was crewed by 120 men, and carried six large guns. She was almost 91 feet in length and weighed in at 187 tons. On January 9, 1813, Boyle was cruising along the Brazilian coast, looking for British prizes rumored to be in the area. From locals he learned that several British vessels had docked at Pernambuco; Boyle resolved to ambush and plunder them. For five full days, he prowled the waters outside Pernambuco like a circling shark, waiting for the opportunity to pounce. On January 14th his lookouts spotted four enemy ships leaving the harbor; Boyle let them pass unmolested but then began to shadow them.
When the winds picked up, Boyle and his crew made their move. They made directly for the four British ships, which unfortunately clumped together instead of splitting up and taking evasive maneuvers. The Comet, as a schooner, was a much smaller craft, and perhaps Boyle’s prey underestimated his capabilities. It soon became apparent, however, that one of the ships was a Portuguese man-of-war that carried 20 thirty-two-pound guns and had a crew of 165. Boyle ordered his men to load the guns with grape and round shot, and had the decks cleared; he then hoisted the American flag. The Portuguese commander sought a parley, and came aboard the Comet. He told Boyle that the three other ships were British, and were under the protection of the Portuguese crown. He made it clear that, despite the state of war that existed between the United States and Britain, he as an escort could not allow the British ships to be attacked.
Boyle argued with the Portuguese captain, and told him that the high seas belonged exclusively to no one. He made it clear that he had every right to carry out his commission. Boyle recorded the heated exchange of words with the Portuguese commander in his logbook:
He [the Portuguese captain] said that he should be sorry if anything disagreeable took place; that they were ordered to protect them [the three British ships], and should do so. I answered him that I should equally feel regret that anything disagreeable should occur; that if it did he would be the aggressor, as I did not intend to fire upon him first; that if he did attempt to oppose me or to fire upon me when trying to take those English vessels, we must try our respective strengths, as I was well prepared for such an event and should not shrink from it. He then informed me that those vessels were armed and very strong. I told him that I valued their strength but little, and would very soon put it to the test.
Boyle’s confidence and mettle were incredible under the circumstances. Besides a Portuguese man-of-war, he was facing off against no less than three British ships, for a total of four armed opponents. The three smaller adversaries were as big as the Comet, and each had between ten and fourteen guns; Boyle’s larger adversary was nearly twice his size. By any rational measure, Boyle was both outgunned and outmanned. But he was aggressive, cunning, and confident, and he was willing to get in close and hit the enemy hard. When the conference came to nothing, the Portuguese captain rowed back to his ship. Daylight was waning, and Boyle decided the time had come for action. He sailed directly for the largest British vessel and began to maneuver for position to deliver a broadside.
Duels at sea in some ways resemble aerial dogfights, in that each belligerent tries to maneuver itself into an ideal position. The Portuguese ship opened fire on the Comet, and Boyle returned the favor. He then sailed for the British ships and raked them with fire to devastating effect. There then followed an amazing display of seamanship on Boyle’s part, as he turned and twisted repeatedly to fire at all his opponents, and then dodge their fusillades in return. By eleven o’clock the largest British ship was shot nearly to pieces and surrendered. Although the moon provided some light, Boyle’s concern now was to complete the operation before total darkness allowed the other ships to escape. He intensified his attack on another British brig, the Bowes from Liverpool, which soon struck her colors and gave up.
The Portuguese man-of-war was chased off, leaving the three British vessels to their fate. Soon Boyle had rendered all of them floating ruins. The two other prizes were identified as the George of Liverpool and the Gambier of Hull. Boyle ordered his men to keep the Comet close to his three paralyzed prizes until daylight. At first light the Portuguese man-of-war reappeared and moved to re-engage Boyle, but then turned and sailed away. The George and the Gambier, their rigging shattered and nearly sinking, were able to limp back to safety in Pernambuco. How many men were lost is not clear, but the casualties must have been high. Boyle escorted the captured Bowes back to Baltimore, and, as his final act of defiance and skill, slipped through the British blockade of Chesapeake Bay. His initiative, aggressiveness, and seamanship had enabled him to destroy three well-armed opponents and chase off a fourth that was twice his size.
Be sure to take a look at the new, annotated translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: