Dec 20

The Challenges of Fighting Piracy

Monday, December 20, 2010 12:01 AM


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.

  • Jim Valle

    Commodore Porter’s pirate hunting was complicated by the fact that there were several categories of corsairs active in the Caribbean due to the Latin American Wars of Independence. For expamle there were privateers carrying letters of marque issued by the rebel governments of Argentina and Columbia who were supposed to prey only on Spanish shipping but often interpreted their mandate very liberally. There were the Barataria Bay pirates who were American citizens enjoying political protection because they fenced their stolen goods in New Orleans to the profit of many influential businessmen. There were also picaroons or longboat pirates who infested the coasts of Cuba and Santo Domingo and colluded with the Spanish authorities to land their booty and sell it. Finally there were traditional pirates taking advantage of all the confusion and political corruption to prey on shipping as complete freelancers. Piracy continued throughout the Caribbean until the mid 1830’s providing the Navy’s smaller warships and junior officers with plenty of combat action.