Patriots with Benefits: Eric Jay Dolin’s Rebels at Sea

Dolin, Eric Jay. Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution. New York: Liveright, 2022.

From numerous paintings to anchor-relief shower curtain hangers to the spyglass on my bookshelf, It’s clear almost immediately upon entering my apartment that I have a bit of a love affair with the age of sail. Yet for all this, I’ve never read much history of America’s naval exploits during this period (the atrocious Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates excluded). It thus wasn’t hard for me to pick up Eric Jay Dolin’s work on specifically privateering during the American Revolution, and not only on account of its lovely cover art.

Even surrounded by my nautical ambience and Mark Knopfler at full blast, I wasn’t prepared for just how delightful Rebels at Sea would turn out to be. Dolin does an admirable job of summarizing the historiography and contemporary opinion of his subject, both in general and specifically in America during its revolution, before breaking down the organization, function, experience, and impact of privateering between 1775 and 1783. His arguments that it provided more benefit than harm to the Patriot war effort through damaging Britain’s shipping while providing necessary supplies, morale, and foreign support for the colonists are compelling, while the sheer scale and profitability of the enterprise may astound even those familiar with the era already. Similarly, this is the first time I’ve read devoted coverage of British prison hulks that contextualized them in terms of other wars’ prisons–a comparison that goes far in supporting Patriot claims to war crimes on the part of the British. In grand strategic terms, the comparison of privateers to militia or other irregular forces that allow martially and financially weaker combatants to punch above their weight is not necessarily groundbreaking, but still a cogent framing of the topic that offers fruitful analysis for other conflicts, as well.

Only a handful of imperfections mar Dolin’s otherwise tight narrative, but none are what I would consider major. Rebels at Sea is clear on the legal landscape that late eighteenth-century privateers worked within, demonstrating that they were much more than the seaborne brigands of the previous century. Yet Dolin’s insistence that privateering should not be considered state-sponsored piracy is at times a bit too strong, especially considering privateering was soon outlawed by the major states of Europe as something akin to a war crime itself. This does not have any bearing on the rest of the narrative, however, and so can be set aside relatively easily. Similarly, the choice of devoting an entire chapter (nearly double the length of the others) in the middle of Dolin’s work solely to episodic anecdotes of different privateers outside of the rest of Rebels at Sea’s historical context is an odd one that, for me, broke up Dolin’s narrative to its detriment, but for other readers might in fact make it more interesting. To each their own.

Whether engrossed in nautical history or a newcomer to the topic, any interested reader should ultimately find much to enjoy in Rebels at Sea’s accessable and eminently readable history. Responsible yet assertive in his arguments and engaging in his prose, Dollin delivers a thoroughly enjoyable narrative for all comers. It may not have any truly revolutionary things to say (no pun intended), but it is well worth a read to explore a lesser-known aspect of our nation’s foundational struggle–and founding military philospohies.

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