In a bold effort to end piracy and the illegal slave trade, the U.S. Congress adopted An Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy, in May 1820. The legislation explicitly spelled out that the crime of piracy and the slave trade shall be punishable by death. It also stated that any person of any nation, any U.S. citizen on a foreign ship, or any U.S. citizen on a U.S.-owned ship engaged in piracy or the slave trade will be held accountable under this law, adjudged a pirate, and “on conviction … shall suffer death.” Click image for larger view and image credit.
The U.S. Navy and the Anti-Piracy Patrol in the Caribbean
Toni L. Carrell, PhD
Co-principal Investigator — The Search for the Slave Ship Trouvadore and the U.S. Navy Ships Chippewa, and Onkahye
Ships of Discovery
At 10 minutes past 7 whilst steering the latter course heard the Noise of breakers on the larboard beam, when the helm was ordered up but Scarcely had the order been issued when She Struck with much violence upon a rocky bottom.
Thus did Master Commandant George C. Read describe the fate of the U.S. Navy brig Chippewa which, while attempting to enter the Caicos Pass, slammed into an uncharted reef off the northwest point of “Providence or Blue Caycos” and became a total loss. The date was two weeks before Christmas, 1816. Having departed Boston on November 27 for the Gulf of Mexico, with orders to rendezvous with the United States Navy frigate Congress and participate in anti-piracy patrols in the Caribbean Sea, Read’s mission was what we would today call a “policing action” in a lawless region. An incident reported on January 15, 1806, in The London Times conveys the magnitude of the problem:
New York Dec. 10
Captain Luckett, arrived at Alexandria from Cap Francois, says, “that three days before he saw a boat belonging to one of the British frigates cruising off there, came in, and the Purser informed him, that a brig, of 14 guns, from Goncalves, supposed to be the Owen, of Baltimore, had fallen in with two French privateers in the Caicos passage, and, after a desperate engagement, had been captured, and every person on board massacred.”
After 1798, the fledgling U.S. Navy was battling piracy and slavery in its own territory, in the Caribbean, and on the high seas. In terms of design, speed, and firepower, the brigs and schooners used by pirates and smugglers rivaled the best American privateers then in service. According to the noted historian Howard Chapelle in The History of the American Sailing Navy (1949:321):
. . . all kinds of craft were fitted out for preying on unprotected merchantmen — rowboats, barges, sloops, schooners, and larger vessels when possible. Many of the schooners were vessels captured by the pirates, but a great many were purchased craft. The . . . schooners used by the West Indian pirates were American-built of the pilot-boat model; many were on the shoal-draft Norfolk design. The small size and light draft of the freebooters' craft enabled them to hide, and to retire when chased, in shoal water out of reach of larger deep-draft naval brigs, sloops, and frigates.
The distractions of the American Revolutionary War, the long Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812 left the Caribbean virtually un-policed. Privateering, encouraged by the warring nations, gradually descended into outright piracy. As a result, small, well-armed enclaves in Cuba and other Spanish and French colonies routinely preyed on American merchantmen. Regular visits by merchant ships, with their precious cargos of food, lumber, clothing, and other goods, were vital to the survival of the many settlements throughout the Caribbean and the Turks and Caicos Islands. This brisk trade in American goods was also vital to the economy of the fledgling republic.
The U.S. Navy’s presence in the Caribbean and the island chains that run in a long arc from Florida south toward Brazil began in earnest in 1816 in response to the necessity of maintaining order, protecting legal commerce, and interdicting illegal trade. The lawlessness in the region became so dire that in 1820 piracy and slave trading were equated under U.S. law and made punishable by death. It was abundantly clear that many of the perpetrators engaged in piracy were also involved in the slave trade. However, such action did not come without cost. Providenciales’ Northwest Reef claimed not only the brig Chippewa on anti-piracy patrol, but 32 years later the U.S. Navy schooner Onkahye went down nearby, while engaged in slave trade interdiction.
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