Geography in the American Quasi-War with France

After an AHA in which I heard a lot about how digital history needs to be about results as well as methodology, I decided to write up a post about the results I gained from mapping the Quasi-War. Special h/t to Cameron Blevins and Yoni Appelbaum for inspiring me to write about my research. I’m also using Yoni’s hyperlink-style citations.

For my seminar in Empires and Colonialism this past semester, I wrote about the United States’ Quasi-War with France. The paper argues that the Quasi-War was one of the United States’ first chances to engage with international law on a broad scale, and that the conflicting legal realities of an undeclared war helped to destabilize the French empire in the Caribbean to the breaking point. As part of that seminar paper, I mapped encounters between the French and the Americans (with a few British encounters) from 1797 to 1800. This map proved to be more illuminating than I expected, and it became an integral part of my argument about the primacy of prize courts in the Quasi-War. The map has clickable points where encounters occurred, as well as a fuller explanation of the judgments I made in creating it. You can see the map here. What follows is my explanation of what the map does.

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From 1798 to 1800, the United States waged an undeclared maritime war with France. Though this conflict is often described as a naval war, it was not a traditional one. Almost no French naval vessels entered the Caribbean, and the hostile encounters between the French and the Americans were almost all battles between privateers and merchant vessels.

This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.
This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.

Why were there so many privateers in the Caribbean? Geographically, the islands had always been prime areas for piratical types—lots of inlets and tiny islands for staging. In addition, the privateers served an important role in providing for the colonies. The dominance of the sugar industry had restricted the colonies’ ability to provide basic foodstuffs for their people, both white and black. Previous to this conflict, the United States had provided a large portion of the colonies’ food for the sugar workers—one scholar states that St. Domingue relied on the commerce of at least 600 American ships for basic supplies during 1796 alone. But as a result of the non-intercourse act, the supply had dried up. Consul Turell Tufts wrote in despair to President Adams about the port of Cayenne: “Every exertion is making there in Privateering, as they consider it the very harvest of Plunder; and besides, they have no other means of procuring Supplies.” 

Constant war with Britain meant that supplies from elsewhere in the empire were difficult to come by, so taking supplies that were already present made perfect sense. When the privateers captured merchant vessels in the Caribbean, they were able to bring in both the money from the sale of the vessel and cargo, and also parts of the cargo itself. The colonial governments had a vested interest in the actions of the privateers as well—not just because of the food itself, but also because of the “consequent discontent” if food was not available. In an already volatile political environment, maintaining order sometimes meant encouraging the privateers.

It’s not surprising that the United States government decided that the French were a threat enough to build a navy. Compared to the number of captures by Barbary corsairs, the French threat was immense and widespread. There’s no way to know with any certainty how many captures actually occurred, but given the number of captures that we do have information about (more than 250 captures with enough spatial information to be plotted on a map, and hundreds more with no spatial data), the total number of captures could easily range over a thousand. When the navy did finally make it to the Caribbean, its commanders adopted strategies that helped them to deal with the huge numbers of privateers in the area. Recognizing how privateers operated, the commanders planned their locations and logistics accordingly.

At the heart of both the privateers’ and the navy’s strategy was the prize court. International maritime law had established the prize court as the appropriate way to adjudicate the legal claims of captor and captured alike. 1 Privateers, by and large, adhered to the prize-court structure; at least, the claims of piratical behavior were much less frequent than accounts of lawful prize-taking. This is not to say that every prize brought into a prize court was fairly and impartially adjudicated: privateers could count on certain ports as friendly to their causes, where the commissioners would declare captures lawful prize on the slightest provocation.

Though French privateers made captures all across the world, they found the greatest success in the Caribbean. Privateers could use some of the same tactics as the famed pirates of the Caribbean, using sheltered harbors and small islands as protection and cover. But privateers differed from pirates in that privateers needed to stay close to the ports where they could send in prizes, whereas pirates tended to plunder their captures. The abundance of colonial governments in the Caribbean meant an abundance of prize courts.

Privateers’ vessels weren’t large enough to sustain long periods at sea, and captures only reduced the time they could spend at sea. Privateers elongated their time at sea by placing prize crews on board captures and sending the prizes unaccompanied into port. These prizes were less likely to actually bring the captors their prize money, since the chances of the prize making it unscathed into port decreased when the privateer did not escort the prize back. In addition, the prize crew was taken from the crew of the privateer, which meant that even this solution would eventually leave the privateer with too few men to maneuver effectively.

The majority of captures were within a few days’ sail of a prize court. For French privateers, French ports were the ideal, but other neutral ports (such as Curacao) would do in a pinch. British ports were, of course, out of the question, as the British were at war with the French. At the beginning of the war, ports in Guadeloupe (particularly Basseterre) and Saint-Domingue were most likely to condemn American prizes. As the war progressed, and the Americans negotiated trade agreements with Toussaint separate from the French government, Guadeloupe became the primary port where American prizes would likely be condemned.

Prize courts—or rather, accessibility to prize courts—also dictated American strategy against the privateers. For a navy being literally built ship by ship, one-on-one pitched battles against the privateers could never be a feasible strategy. Instead, the naval commanders focused their attention on the prize court ports: places they could be sure to encounter privateers, and even more frequently, their prizes. This strategy had two strengths: first, it gave the navy a better chance of actually capturing privateers, and thus removing their threat. But second, it also made privateering less profitable even for the privateers who eluded capture. Prizes were relatively easy to capture, since they had a skeleton crew of belligerents along with the original crew, who were all too willing to rise up against the prize crew. And if those prizes never made it into port, all the cost in munitions, time, and crew members that the privateer had expended was meaningless. No prize court, no matter how lenient, would condemn a vessel whose papers never made it to port. Though these reasons were never spelled out in so many words, they must have occurred to at least some of those men who handed down orders.

The Americans adopted a strategy, then, that kept them very close to enemy ports. They targeted Guadeloupe specifically—a whole squadron was ordered to stay “in the neighborhood of Guadeloupe,” as the secretary of the navy had put it. They were then able to capture ships in neutral waters as they came in and out of those ports. On occasion, American naval vessels came very close to violating neutral waters: international law declared that water within a cannon-shot of land was the territory of the nation that held the land. But no one ever objected to their captures on those grounds. The naval vessels maintained an even smaller range than the privateers. Privateers usually made their captures within two or three days’ sail of a prize court; the navy maintained a distance of one day or less.

This screenshot shows the encounters between American and French vessels around Guadeloupe.
This screenshot shows the encounters between American and French vessels around Guadeloupe.

The number of naval vessels on the Guadeloupe station at any one time vacillated wildly. The secretary of the navy attempted to keep at least half a dozen ships there, but maintenance needs, expiration of terms of enlistment, sickness, or any number of other factors could pull ships off their patrolling grounds. Once Toussaint began to request the use of American naval vessels to help his cause in Saint-Domingue, the number of ships at Guadeloupe was even more unpredictable. And of course, individual captains sometimes took their ships off to places outside the strategic area for convoy duty or by sheer incompetence.

American naval vessels could not maintain perpetual patrols off Guadeloupe, no matter how ideal the circumstances. Just like the privateers, they needed a safe place to go for supplies, maintenance, and prize adjudication (they too operated on the prize system). They primarily used St. Kitts, to the north of Guadeloupe, as a base for resupply. However, prices in the islands were exorbitant, so the secretary of the navy sent supply vessels from the United States as well.

These geographical constraints did not preclude the navy’s sailing elsewhere—far from it. But the number of captures very near to enemy ports indicates that the navy’s strategy was effective. By the end of the year 1800, Thomas Truxtun, who was cruising off Guadeloupe, wrote to Thomas Tingey, “With all this cruising my success has been very limited indeed, for the french have become scarce, so much so, that what I formerly found (chasing) an amusement, and pastime, is now insiped, Urksome & tiresome.”

In fact, by this time the treaty had already been signed to reestablish commercial relations between the United States and France, though it would be another several months before the terms were ratified by all parties. Michael Palmer estimates that U.S. naval forces, averaging 16 ships at any given time between 1798 and 1800, captured 86 privateers over the course of the war. 2 This number is impressive for such a small force, but it still doesn’t come even close to an annihilation of the privateer forces. Many factors contributed to the eventual decline of French privateering, but it does seem that targeting the prize courts was one of those factors.The American naval strategy had succeeded.

Notes:

  1. For more about prize law and its relationship to empire, see chapter 3 of Lauren A. Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  2. Just as we don’t have enough spatial data to map all of the French victories over American shipping, we also don’t have enough spatial data to map these American victories completely—again, the map shows about ¼ of these victories.

2 thoughts on “Geography in the American Quasi-War with France

  1. Abby:

    I think this looks fascinating, and I look forward to studying your post in detail. I am a huge advocate for the importance of maps and charts in naval and maritime history, so I can only say: Three hearty cheers!

    Are you proposing a paper or session for Annapolis in September?

    Christopher

    1. Yes! In fact, it’s on this very topic. (Sorry to take so long to reply to this–the comment got caught in my spam filter.)

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