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Pauline’s Guide to Whipping the Pirates

February 3, 2010

Commodore David Porter of USS Essex fame.

I have a passion for history and it is very gratifying to know there are some naval history blogs out there where you can satisfy your desire for all things nostalgic. It is the examples of the past that New Wars derives much of its ideas for future conflict, as we don’t make this stuff up as we go along. A new site I have come across and been haunting lately is Pauline’s Pirates & Privateers, which provides info on the Great Buccaneers of yore, their tools and customs.

Eerily, the lessons gathered on this nautical tour appears strangely modern, with ongoing captures at sea, hijackings, lootings, and ransom demands that all seem very familiar to Pauline. The modern day fleets with their space age battleships, used to contending with one another, comfortable in their traditional dominance of the sealanes seem flustered and confused facing these most minor, yet surprisingly effective menaces on the high seas. When the low tech meets the high tech, old strategies must be relearned, but all is not lost. As proved from the example of one of our Great Naval Leaders,Commodore David Porter  USN, 1780-1843 (Not to be confused with the Civil War admiral, David Dixon Porter, the son), piracy can be defeated on the high seas BY THE NAVY ALONE IF NEED BE! Here is Pauline detailing the story of Porter’s The Mosquito Fleet:

In 1821 the citizens of the U.S. were up in arms about the aggressive acts of piracy being committed in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1820 alone 27 American ships had been raided by the privateers-turned-pirate who had been abandoned by the South American states at the end of the previous decade. Insurance premiums had gone through the roof and many merchants were forced to sail without any insurance at all. Appeals to President Monroe finally yielded results, and the President hand picked David Porter to command the fleet that would deal with the problem.

Other than the dates and names, this seems to fit well our modern problems of piracy.

As a Lieutenant aboard USS Philadelphia, Porter had been in the vanguard of the fight against the Barbary pirates in 1801. He was also the first Commodore of the U.S. Naval station in New Orleans, established in 1809, so he knew a thing or two about dealing with pirates and smugglers. Add to that his command of USS Essex – the first U.S. navy ship to enter the Pacific – during the War of 1812 and his impressive resume made him the perfect man for the job.

Experience counts!

Key West – then known as Thompson’s Island – was chosen as a base of operation and the development of the little island at the southern most tip of the U.S. owes a lot to Porter’s choice. The location gave him easy access to the Gulf and the Caribbean with Cuba – a known pirate hotbed – being of particular concern. Porter put together his Mosquito Fleet, so named because the majority of the ships were small with shallow drafts that allowed them access to rivers and inlets, fairly quickly. By 1823 he had 16 vessels including brigs, Baltimore schooners, one of the first paddle steamboats and a converted merchant used as a decoy.

Like all problems of sea control (anti-submarine warfare comes to mind), defeating piracy takes very careful planning. Also notice though Porter earned his claim for fame in larger warships, he wasn’t bias against smaller shallow water craft perfect for the type of waters the pirates were familiar with. Apparently he learned the lessons from the frigate Philadelphia, which ran aground after chasing one such ship into the narrow seas, with its entire crew captured.

The Mosquito Fleet literally shut down piratical activity within it’s purview. Porter overcame notorious pirates like Diabolito who was based in Cuba. Despite complaints from the Cuban government that all this suppression of piracy by sea just meant that the brigands set up shop on land, Porter cleaned up the Caribbean.

An interesting parallel with today, since “piracy can only be defeated on land” is a common mantra for those uninterested in seeing the demise of lawlessness in the Gulf of Aden. Porter let no such concerns deter him and quickly performed the mission set out by his superiors with his tiny Mosquito Fleet. Small warships versus small warship, plus the right person at the helm can make a difference.

The Navy too often sells itself too short. It is a very potent weapons for all exigencies of seapower, in the right hands. Pauline ends with this vital lesson:

In my opinion, the modern U.S. Navy could learn a thing or two about pirate hunting from Commodore David Porter. Strike first and strike fast, boys. Save the rumination for later.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2014 7:38 am

    Spot on with this write-up, I honestly feel this website
    needs far more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the information!

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 5, 2010 12:03 pm

    Gravy, we are familir with the exploits of the great Cochrane and you are right! Small warships to tackle other small warships is the only logical counter.

  3. February 5, 2010 11:34 am

    I to like Pauline believe we repeatedly fail to learn the lessons of history, Lord Cochrane Englands greatest Frigate captain said in 1826 and I quote, give me a small fast steamer with a heavy long range gun on the bow and another in the hold to fall back on and I would not hesitate to attack the largest ship afloat. His support for what he also called a Mosquito fleet was based on his experience of steamships like the Katrina in Greece. Small and manoeuverable vessels with well trained crews were the answer even though they only carried one or two guns.
    The RN like the USN is building 1 for 4 ships of all sizes I hate to think what happens once combat attrition takes place,I agree totally with you Mike we need corvettes and lots of them.
    If anyone is interested,the life of Thomas Lord Cochrane was more extraordinary than that of Nelson and was the basis for both Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey. He made his name battling Napoleons Navy in a series of outstanding actions, often fighting his ship against seemingly overwhelming odds. He campaigned agaist corruption was thrown in prison for alleged fraud after which he returned to sea and helped liberate Brazil Chile from colonial rule.
    Its a great read look him up if your not already familar with him!

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 3, 2010 10:32 pm

    Thank you Pauline and we will keep in touch. I enjoy all your posts, as I feel history keeps me straight in my writing. It is a great reminder of how our forebears solved their problems, and useful lessons for current generations.

  5. February 3, 2010 6:42 pm

    First off, thank you so much, Mike. I’m speechless, or nearly.

    Good question about what was done with the pirates. Porter’s orders were so broad and open ended that he had discretion as to the outcome on a case by case basis. Generally the pirates’ ships were confiscated or destroyed to prevent further trouble. Only Captains and some officers were considered dangerous enough to imprison and hanging was usually reserved – by the 1820’s anyway – for cases where repeated acts of piracy and/or murder could be proven. Trials were required in such cases. Pedro Gibert was the last man hanged for piracy in the U.S. in 1835, well past the disbanding of the Mosquito Fleet and long after the resurgency of privateering arising from the revolutions in South America.

    Porter was an unusually brilliant naval thinker. He was also quite controversial within the context of the Navy alone and the government at large. Porter rarely kept his thoughts to himself, and he was passed over for promotions because of it. He’s one of my favorite seafarers and he’ll keep showing up over at Triple P.

    Stay tuned and thanks again, Mike!

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 3, 2010 3:30 pm

    “Failure to deal with the piracy problem is rarely a naval failure.”

    Sure, but then, once they are called on to deal with the problem, it is up to the Navy to seek out the best tools, in this case warships to carry out the mission. Politicians can give direction, but its up to the sailors to figure how to to carry out their assigned function.

  7. Distiller permalink
    February 3, 2010 11:03 am

    Nice find! :)

  8. west_rhino permalink
    February 3, 2010 9:41 am

    “Despite complaints from the Cuban government that all this suppression of piracy by sea just meant that the brigands set up shop on land” The Somali brigands have few if any targets of opportunity ashore, other than each other. Faced with nothing to lose, countering them must be decisive and absolute and the penalties must be and harsh; not the politically correct, “civilized”, almost “don’t ask, don’t tell” response.

    Mayhaps an exclusion zone, banning trawlwers and the small boats of the pirates modus operandi, which actually would protect fish populations (at least convenient maskirovka), with a free, hot and red ROE could be effacacious.

  9. Jed permalink
    February 3, 2010 9:00 am

    But what did Commodore Porters fleet do with pirates ? Hang them from the yards ? Take them ashore and put them in prison ?

    Historical allegories can only be taken so far – sure the Navy’s present off the horn of Africa could deal with piracy more effectively – a dead pirate is an ex-pirate by definition. How navy’s are just instruments and politics gets in the way, whether its interpretation of international law, the fact that European nations don’t want to put captured pirates through their courts, or an ROE that ensures that innocent fishermen don’t get blown out of the water.

    Failure to deal with the piracy problem is rarely a naval failure.

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