Dec 20

The Challenges of Fighting Piracy

Monday, December 20, 2010 12:01 AM

By

Captain David Porter, U.S.N. (1780-1843)

On 20 December 1822, Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson appointed Captain David Porter to command the West India Squadron. A veteran combat officer whose bold 1812 exploits in the Pacific had earned him national fame, Porter seemed the ideal choice to lead American naval forces in a campaign to suppress piracy in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. To the Navy Department and the public, Porter embodied the warrior qualities (courage, aggressiveness, tenacity) necessary to hunt down and eradicate a murderous and elusive foe. On the eve of his departure for the West Indies, Porter vowed to seal “the pirates’ doom,” exterminating “those enemies of the human race.”

As Porter was to discover, this objective proved easier said than done. Disease, shortages of ships and men, and the arduous conditions of service in the West Indies severely hampered the Squadron’s day-to-day operations. But the greatest obstacle to Porter’s success lay in the fact that buccaneers enjoyed privileged sanctuary ashore on the Spanish-controlled islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The American commander was under strict orders to respect the sovereignty of Spanish soil when conducting antipiracy operations. But without the ability to pursue his quarry ashore, Porter stood little chance of permanently eliminating the pirate menace

The impatience and frustration Porter felt over such legal restrictions may have led him to act intemperately in November 1824, when he landed 200 Sailors and Marines at Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to avenge the rough handling of a Squadron officer by town officials. For this violation of Spanish sovereignty, Porter was court-martialed and suspended from duty for six months, upon which he resigned his commission. The experience of David Porter and the West India Squadron in the 1820s is a reminder of the complex political and legal challenges naval officers have had to face in fighting piracy for over two centuries.