Every Spring in Baltimore, flowers bloom, the birds begin chirping, and Privateers invade Fells Point.
Fells Point is one of the most infamous neighborhoods in Baltimore, and was established many years before Baltimore became a city! It is also the location of Bite of Baltimore's flagship food tour. The neighborhood itself has its own identity that started in 1730, when a Quaker from England purchased the property. You can read about it in our Fells Point blog entry, and learn all about it in our Fells Point Food Tour.
So back to the invasion! Privateers?? What is happening?!?
Fells Point, being the shipyard and port town that it was, had a fearsome reputation as a den of thieves for many years. The British especially would come to loathe the city of Baltimore for the fact that Fells Point, and the Privateers that launched from it's docks, resided here. What in the world is a Privateer, you might ask? Let me explain.
Hi, I'm Zack. I started Bite of Baltimore with my wife Jenny as a way to spread our love of eating, history, and culture here in Baltimore. This city has a strong and vibrant history, which has been attenuated for many years, but which we (and many others!) are eager to bring back. One of the fascinating elements of Baltimore is it's history of Privateering, which would be closely likened to a maritime militia. During war, but especially the War of 1812, merchant ships that were aligned with the newly established United States were privately captained, and rigged with armaments, and held commissions and letters of marque (certificate or license) that would allow them to engage the enemy of the country, and harass their trade.
Pirate or Privateer?
Basically, piracy. Not entirely piracy, due to the policies and legalities that surrounded the practice, but in a time of war there is no doubt that a blind eye was turned in many instances. Privateers were commissioned to attack enemy trade, and harass the merchants. Steal the trade goods and cargo; steal the ships; or burn and sink the prize.
Baltimore was immensely successful in their Privateering. Due to our unique design of a Pilot Schooner (a schooner body, with a sloop rigging that was "leaned" back a few degrees to add agility and speed) which was known as a Baltimore Clipper, we produced the lions share of versatile, fast, and maneuverable ships that dogged the merchant system of England. The effect? Catastrophic for the financial institutions of Britain. Our fast and nimble Clippers wrought unimaginable damage to the trade that held the Kingdom afloat, and without the stability of their fundamental trade routes, there is a very good chance that the war of 1812 (the Forgotten War - read about it in an upcoming blog post!) would have been lost by our fledgling country.
During the war, we also found a few hero's and hometown champions. Thomas Boyle and Sam Smith are two that will be featured in upcoming blogs, but we can quickly mention them as they fit in the timeline of Privateers.
George Washington had Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson had Sam Smith. Smith was a prominent figure in the founding of our country, and led many actions in key battles during our War of Independence. He was a part of the famed Maryland Line, that held the retreat so Washington could escape numerous engagements. When he decided to settle in Baltimore, I'm sure Smith thought his wartime efforts behind him, but he would be called again. This time, when the British burned newly established capitol of D.C. in the Battle of Bladensburg, they had their eyes set on razing Baltimore to the ground. The years of watching as Baltimore Privateers harassed their trade had left them with a taste for vengeance. Sam Smith was the organizer and voice behind the defense of Baltimore. His work, along with some luck, would allow Baltimore to survive the attack from the most fearsome navy in the world, and the General who had just defeated Napoleon. This was no small feat.
The Chasseur: The "Pride of Baltimore"
Thomas Boyle was a merchant captain, who took fast to Privateering. His ship, the Chasseur, was one of hundreds that harassed the British during the War of 1812. When the British blockaded our shores, they claimed that every inlet, outlet, bay and harbor was the property of the British Navy, and that they would enforce ownership by means of naval might. This was to stop our trade, and to prevent our small navy from mobilizing and threatening their troop and military actions. Thomas Boyle hatched a mad scheme, and broke the lines of the British blockade. He sailed directly to Britain, where he delivered an infamous letter to Lloyd's of London, the financial backing of the shipping and commerce around the world. He said, in no uncertain terms, that every inlet, outlet, bay and harbor surround Great Britain was his by right, and he would enforce his right through naval blockade and strength of ship. He burned, sank, and stole 11 ships directly off the coast of Britain, and sent the shipping underwriters into a frenzy. Immediately, all commerce practically ceased, and his ship escaped back to Baltimore, to be proclaimed as The Pride of Baltimore upon her return. This was no small feat.
This is a glimpse into the history of our Privateering, and our fair city. After the War of 1812 ended, the Privateers dumped their cannons for cargo. In some cases, right off the side of the ship, while docked at the pier! Want to see an example of an 1812 Privateer cannon? The new Pendry Hotel has 2 on display, dug up directly off the pier when the renovations were underway. They had been sitting in the mud, just waiting to be unearthed. The history, literally, is all around you in Baltimore.
Want To Join In The Fun?
In Baltimore, the Fells Point Privateer Festival is a celebration of our city. It is a celebration of accomplishing what others would deem nearly impossible. It harkens back to our roots and speaks to the defiance we showed the British. Follow Fells Point Main Street on Facebook (here) and bookmark their website (here) to keep track of the next Fells Point Privateer Festival.
This, and more, is covered in our food tours in the city. A food tour is about WAY more than just food, especially in a city like Baltimore--which is rich in history and old world charm. Join us, and learn more of the history and intrigue that makes Baltimore such an amazing city.