Providence Merchant John Brown Gets Rich Privateering.

Christian McBurney

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John Brown by Edward Greene Malone, 1794. (New-York Historical Society)

Throughout the churning tides of 1776 and 1777, John Brown, a prominent merchant from Providence, Rhode Island, amassed a fortune by investing in privateers. Through reviewing a comprehensive list of his privateers and their values, along with a list of the captures made by some of his privateers, and the values of the captured prize ships and their cargoes, it is possible to begin to determine just how profitable privateering was for Brown.

America’s most effective weapon at sea, by far, was privateering—the operation of privately owned commerce raiders. While the primary incentive for investors such as Brown was private gain, privateering also harmed Britain’s economy and war effort, while advancing the American war effort. From British ships, Americans captured gunpowder, weapons, food, blankets, cloth for uniforms, and other supplies desperately needed, not only by the Continental Army and Navy, but also by state militias and state navies.

Privateers were sanctioned by a government to attack enemy shipping and were required to be loyal to the country that commissioned them. Once an enemy vessel was captured, the captain of the privateer would typically select from his ship a prize master and a small prize crew with orders to sail the captured vessel, typically, to a safe U.S. port, so the prize could be adjudicated by an admiralty court. The admiralty court would conduct a trial by jury to determine whether the prize was lawfully taken. If it was, it would be sold at public auction. After deductions for court costs, the net proceeds would be divided typically fifty percent to the privateer’s owners (the investors) and fifty percent to the officers and crew.

One significant source relating to Brown’s holdings, which had previously received scant consideration by historians, can be found in “An Account of all the Rateable Estate belonging To John Brown, this 10th of January 1778, Exclusive of Lands not in this Town.”[1] This document lists the assets that Brown owned in Providence on January 10, 1778. He also ascribed values to many of the assets, including to privateers. This list is a key aide to understanding just how profitable privateering could be in the heady days of 1776 and 1777; in addition, the list also shows the type of investments a wealthy American merchant owned at this time. Brown provided his list to the Providence tax assessors, who used it to impose a property tax on him.

At the time Brown provided this list, the 250-ton, twenty-gun privateer brig Marlborough was on its first mission, eight days into its extraordinary voyage to Africa with the goal of attacking British slave trade forts and ships on the coast of West Africa. Brown had built and outfitted the Marlborough from Providence in late 1777. His spectacular privateering profits earned in 1776 and 1777 had enabled him to mount his largest and strongest privateer expedition up to that point. With it, he hoped to strike a blow at British slave trading, while at the same time enriching himself. Brown was the fifty percent investor and the mastermind behind this daring voyage, which is the subject of a recently released book by the author of this article.[2]

John Brown House. Historic building in Providence, Rhode Island, on the National Register of Historic Places. (National Park Service)

Set forth below is Brown’s list of his taxable estate that he provided to Providence tax assessors. Commentary on the listed assets is provided in italics.

“The house, store and wharf of where I now dwell.” These were located at the southern end of South Main Street in Providence fronting the Providence River.

“The lot 67 feet [illegible] with the store and wharf between Caleb Tillinghast’s Distillery House and Thomas Sabine’s.” Thomas Sabine’s is the famous tavern where Brown and other leading Providence maritime men planned the attack on the British revenue cutter Gaspee in 1772.

“7 acres land adjoining Powers Lane, now let to be for leasing, had no manure for 3 or 4 years 1/4 part of a six-acre lot at Tockquattan with the remains of the building and materials of the spermaceti works and the whole now let out for 25 dollars to my quarter.” Tockwotton is in the India Point area of Providence. The spermaceti candle and whale oil operations had been profitable for the Browns, but the Revolutionary War put a halt to the business.

“A house lot on the back street formerly bought of Wm Proud
2/10 part of a lot of 100 feet square bought of Col. Matthewson’s with the air [illegible] thereon but partly yet paid for 5 horses, 1 cow, two Negro men, 3 carriages[?], and 1/4 part of 3 other Negroes.” John Brown held two enslaved men and owned one-quarter of three other enslaved people. The other “part owners” of the three men likely included two of John’s brothers, Nicholas and Joseph (his brother Moses by this time had emancipated his enslaved people and was a committed abolitionist).[3] Shockingly to a contemporary reader, John Brown listed the enslaved people without providing their names and in the same sentence as his horses and carriages. (Only a handful of Rhode Islanders were wealthy enough to own a carriage at that time.)

“7/16thof the sugar house and lot laying entirely useless”
The sugar business had also largely ceased during the Revolutionary War, as most of the molasses to make sugar prior to the war had come from Caribbean islands controlled by Great Britain.

“131 ounces wrought plate mostly in the counter[illegible]” This was likely mostly silverware made by skilled silversmiths.

A shop on Arthur Fenner Esq.’s land which I pay ground rent for the [illegible, probably means land], nothing for the rent of shop. Cash now by me, 423 dollars, £126.18 Due to me on Continental Notes and other security and book debts more than I owe, £10,734. Continental notes were issued by the Continental Congress. In 2022 dollrs, this amount is $2,045,458.[4]
“Goods and merchandise of various kinds belonging to me in this state and the Massachusetts state, £9,197.10” In 2022 dollars, this amount is $1,752,569. During the war years, Brown removed much of his merchandise, especially whale oil and sugar, to Attleborough, Mansfield, and Rehoboth, Massachusetts, to avoid the risk of it being plundered or destroyed in Providence by a British raid from Newport.[5]

“Vessels, Stores and Cargos now at Sea, Viz:” The list below indicates that Brown had ownership interests in ten vessels that were sailing on the seas as of January 10, 1778.

“Sloop [illegible;Defiance?], Captain [Thureson] from Boston to Carolina, £1,450” This appears to be a cargo vessel.

“Sloop Polly, Captain Smith from Bedford to Carolina, £2,625” This sloop carried cargo but was also commissioned as a privateer. Such a privateer was called a letter of marque.[6]

“1/2 the ship Marlborough, Captain Babcock, with her guns and stores, £5,000” This was the privateer brig then underway to West Africa. This item indicates that the brig, along with its rigging, sails, arms and gunpowder, barrels of foodstuffs, rum and water, and the twenty cannon, had a total value of £10,000. Brown owned fifty percent so his share was £5,000.

“3/16ths of the ship Blaze Castle, Capt. [Hammond], with her guns and stores, at £13,500 for the whole, £2,535.5” This is another interesting item, which indicates that the privateer Blaze-Castle, along with its rigging, sails, arms and gunpowder, barrels of foodstuffs, rum and water, and eighteen cannon and four howitzers, had a total value of £13,000, making it probably the most valuable privateer to sail out of Rhode Island up to that time. It had been captured as a prize by a Providence privateer in 1776.[7]Brown had a small partial ownership share in it.

“7/8 of sloop Retaliation and cargo, now at sea from Bedford [New Bedford, Massachusetts], £2,625” This 90-ton sloop was a letter of marque that carried twelve cannon.[8]

“Sloop Favourite, Capt. Sheldon, gone to Carolina, £2,400” This 74-ton privateer was wholly-owned by Brown.[9]

“1/2 of schooner Sally and cargo, Captain [illegible], £630” This vessel carried cargo.[10]

“3/16ths of brig Industryand cargo, Captain [illegible], £650” This vessel was a letter of marque.[11]

“1/2 the sloop Diamond, Captain Stacey, on a cruise, £1,500” This privateer had stunning success in the second half of 1776, as detailed further in this article. It carried just six 4-pounder cannons and ten swivel guns (small caliber guns affixed to the railing on the privateer’s top deck), and had a crew of thirty to forty men.[12] Merchants ships, which were typically much larger than the Diamond, surrendered because they carried fewer cannon and, more importantly, had much smaller crews that were not as experienced in handling guns than did the Diamond.

“2/16 of schooner [unnamed], Captain Ripley, gone to Gottenbourg, £1,050” This schooner was a cargo vessel bound for Gothenburg, Sweden.

“1/3rdpart of which is taxable by law: £20,461.50” This amount was intended to measure the total value of all the assets listed above, including his real estate, Continental notes, and ownership shares in vessels. If £20,461.50 represented one-third of the value of the above assets, then the full value of them was £61,384.50. In 2022 dollars, that amount is about $11,700,000. Brown provided above the value of his privateers, cash, Continental notes, and merchandise in warehouses, which in the aggregate totaled £30,32.28. This meant that the aggregate value of the assets listed above that did not have a value associated with them, including his residence, shop, wharf, other real estate, silverware, and other tangible personal property (including the enslaved people) was £31,022.22.

Brown then listed his ships that were not then sailing at sea:

“The ship Friendship, as she now lays at Tockquotton with her cargo, £800” This vessel was a cargo ship. Tockwatton was a point of land near India Point.

“1/2 the ship Star and Garter, at my wharf, £350” This ship had been captured by Brown’s privateer Diamond and brought into Providence in early August 1776.[13] Brown purchased a fifty percent interest in it when the Star and Garter went up for public auction. It was primarily a cargo ship.

“1/8 of the sloop Sally and stores, £400” This vessel was a letter of marque.[14]

“The brig Bess[?] now laying at my wharf, with all her stores, £900” This vessel likely primarily carried cargo. It was the second vessel listed as parked at Brown’s wharf on South Main Street.

“The ship Peggy in flats[?] with all belonging to her, £850” This cargo vessel was apparently undergoing repairs.

“5/16 of the ship Betsy, without rigging and sails, they being used for ship Oliver Cromwell, £125” This vessel was likely primarily a cargo ship. Note that the value of this vessel, described as a ship, which was larger than a brig, was quite small without its rigging and sails.

“January 10, 1778, £30,303.16/4” This was the taxable portion of Brown’s property in Providence. The total value of his Providence property was £71,226.10. In 2022 dollars, it converts to about $13,500,000. Brown held property in other towns too, including in Scituate, Rhode Island, where he held an interest in the Hope Furnace iron foundry works that made cannon for privateers and Continental navy ships,[15] and in Freetown, Massachusetts, where with his privateering profits he built a salt works.

“I being willing of paying my equal proportion of the taxes of this state according to my abilities, I now [illegible] a true account of my rateable estate and which to this day I am to attest to [illegible] Gentlemen, you may have first thought it strange that my rateable estate is not so much now by £4,878 Sterling as it was in May last when you observe I had £16,128 Sterling now at sea more than I had that time, 1/3 only of which is by law taxable and beside this I have lost at sea since May last £9,983 Sterling as [accounted?] below, and that I have laid out in land on [illegible] and in salt works at Freetown £4,300 Sterling, which is not taxable here, you must at once be cognizant of the reason thereof, I am gentlemen your humble servant.”

Brown here was being proactive, wanting to avoid a tax audit, by explaining why the value of his taxable estate at that time was substantially less than it was in the last valuation on May 12, 1777. One of the main reasons was that he had several more ships at sea in May 1777 than on January 10, 1778. This may indicate that Brown had rising concern around the start of 1778 of his privateers being captured by Royal Navy warships than he had in May 1777. In addition, Brown explained that he had lost several of his ships in 1778. Finally, Brown explained that he invested some of his profits from 1777 in a salt business in Freetown, Massachusetts, which was not taxable in Providence.

“*and also that at my last tax [illegible] . . . N.B. I have lost 6 vessels, most of which I owned when I last gave in the 12th of May last [that is, in 1777]: The ra[illegible] and cargo of brig Sallyat Hispaniola, the captain made all [illegible] and run off, £500” This entry shows the importance of selecting a commander of a ship. This commander apparently abandoned Brown’s vessel and may have taken property from it as well.

“2/9 of sloop America, Captain Dimswell[?] [condemned?], £183” This former privateer may have been determined to be no longer seaworthy and was therefore abandoned.

“The whole of brigRhode, Captain Holland, which being supposed lost before war carried out, £100…Total: £783 7/8 of the sloop Retaliation, Captain Joseph [John?] Tillinghast, was fitted out in June last in the best manner but in a few days after sailing being chased by several frigates, she flung over 8 caissons [cannon], the greatest part of his provisions and other stores, stove his water overboard, sawed and cut down the sloop’s mast, to my real damages at least £2,400, reckoning everything at the price of cash” In order to gain speed and avoid being caught by powerful Royal Navy frigates chasing the privateer sloop Retaliation, its captain threw overboard its cannon, stores, and fresh water barrels. It apparently ran ashore to escape and cut down its mast, probably to discourage the British from seizing it.

“1/2 of the brig Live Oak, which went from Nantucket to Charleston, South Carolina, and there loaded with rice and indigo, my half lost, £3,700” The Live Oak had been seized as a prize vessel by Brown’s privateer Diamond and brought into Providence for admiralty court proceedings.[16] John and Nicholas Brown each purchased a fifty percent interest in the brig at auction. The Live Oak, after trading for rice and indigo at Charleston, South Carolina, and while on its way for France, was taken by a Royal Navy ship in the Fall of 1777.[17]

“5/16 of the new ship Oliver Cromwell, Captain Samuel Chace, with all her stores put overboard, my loss exclusive of what was saved, £1,400” The 20-gun privateer Oliver Cromwell, after sailing from Providence in November 1777, was fired at while sailing down the Sakonnet River and attempting to escape the British blockade of Narragansett Bay. It ran aground and was later burned by British sailors.[18] Because Captain Chace and his crew were able to save and bring to the Tiverton shoreline much of the stores and some of the rigging of the Oliver Cromwell, Brown’s loss was less than it otherwise could have been.

“The whole brig John and 10 hogshead sugar bound to North Carolina, and was captured at sea in May last, £700” The brig John primarily carried cargo; it was seized off the New Jersey coast near Sandy Hook by the Royal Navy warship Galatea on April 26, 1777.[19]

“Sloop Dove, Captain Swan, after laying 8 months with his men on expenses in Delaware was at last [illegible], £1,000” Captain Swan may have been trapped by the Royal Navy in the Delaware River, which the Royal Navy entered and dominated in the early Fall of 1777 and took total control of it on November 16, 1777, and either had his ship captured by the enemy or abandoned it.

Total, £9,983
I have built a salt works at Freetown [illegible] since May, £700
and laid out 12,000 dollars on [illegible] in land [at Freetown], £3,600
Total: £14,282

This represents a combination of the losses Brown suffered since May 12, 1777 (in 2022 dollars, amounting to about $2,700,000), and his investments in Freetown, in an effort to explain to Providence tax assessors why the total value of his Providence property had declined.

For purposes of learning more about Brown’s privateering success, the most valuable part of Brown’s list can be found in the values that he ascribed to each of his privateers. From his list, it can be determined that the sloop Diamond had a total value of £3,000. This privateer at the time was at sea on a cruise. Thus, this value likely included not only the value of the vessel, but also of the six cannon and ten swivel guns, small arms and gunpowder, the rigging and sails, and the foodstuffs, rum and fresh water barrels on board the vessel.[20]

The Diamond, on two cruises in the second half of 1776, captured an astounding twelve vessels, many of them large merchant ships.[21] We know the values of some of the captures and their cargoes. In August, three of the ships captured by the Diamond, each weighing two-hundred tons or more, and their cargoes, were subjected to admiralty court procedures in Providence and sold, fetching £7,907, £8,188, and £10,191, respectively.[22] In 2022 dollars, the total haul from just these three prizes had a value of almost $5,000,000.

On the average, the three prize ships and their cargoes had a value of £8,762. Taking into account fifty percent of that amount, the share of the investors, on the average for each of the three prizes, the investors took home £4,381.

Accordingly, while the sloop Diamond and its outfitting for a privateering voyage had cost Brown and the other investors about £3,000, with a single capture, the investors could collect one and one-half times that amount. A second or third capture would be all profit. The Diamond, on its first voyage, had captured eight enemy vessels, and on its second voyage, five.

In the second-half of 1776, Brown invested as a part owner in three other privateers that brought into Providence as prizes seven commercial vessels that on average weighed 147 tons.[23] Brown also solely owned the Favourite, a seventy-four-ton sloop carrying ten four-pounder carriage guns and ten swivel guns and manned by eighty men. On a voyage starting in September, it captured two prizes, including the 230-ton ship Peggy, with rum and sugar in its holds.[24]

Needless to say, privateering made Brown rich. By March 1777, due in large part to his privateering success, Brown likely had become Rhode Island’s greatest ship owner, rivaled only by his brother Nicholas. From a list compiled by Brown in that month, he held interests in twenty-four vessels. He owned one-hundred percent of eleven of them, eighty-seven-and-a-half of a percent of one, and fifty percent of five, with the rest held in smaller percentages. Eight of them were ships, the largest vessels used by colonial merchants, with three square-rigged masts. Six were brigs, somewhat smaller vessels than ships that had two square-rigged masts. In addition to the foremast and mainmast, a brig often carried on its mainmast a lower fore-and-aft sail with a gaff and boom. Brown listed two schooners, which had two masts that were fore-and-aft rigged (that is, they were not square rigged). Brown owned eight sloops, the smallest of the oceangoing vessels. Nine of the vessels were privateers, and three had been taken as prizes by his privateers.[25]

However, warning signs for investors in privateers appeared by 1777. The heady days of easy conquests in 1776 were over. The Royal Navy frigates, typically carrying twenty-eight to thirty-two cannon and manned by 250 men or more, were faster and more powerful than any privateer. These frigates finally began protecting merchant ships in convoys and aggressively seeking and capturing American privateers.

John Brown, too, began to feel the pain of privateers and cargo vessels in which he was a partial or whole owner being captured by British warships. By the second half of 1777, he had reduced his ownership in privateers and cargo vessels. Moreover, in January 1778, looking back to the period from May 1777 to January 1778, he claimed that the Royal Navy had cost him most of his investments in two privateers (the Retaliation, of which he owned seven-eighths, and the expensive Oliver Cromwell, of which he owned three-sixteenths), as well as in three trading vessels (the commercial brig Live Oak, of which he owned one-half, and two smaller commercial vessels, of which he owned one-hundred percent). Brown computed his total loss at £9,200 ($1.75 million in 2022 dollars).

Financially, Brown was still way ahead. But when he completed his new twenty-gun brig in Providence, the Marlborough, he hesitated to send it to the Caribbean or up the coast of Canada, where Royal Navy frigates lay in wait for American privateers. Brown looked for and found one location where the British navy rarely patrolled—the coast of West Africa. Brown boldly and smartly decided to send his new privateer there to attack British slave trading forts and ships.

Sources and Citations.

[1]An Account of All the Rateable Estate Belonging to John Brown, this 10th Day of January 1778, John Brown Papers, MSS 312, ser. 1, box 1, folder 2, Rhode Island Historical Society.

[2]Christian McBurney, Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022).

[3]In the 1774 census of Rhode Island, each of John Brown and Nicholas Brown was reported as having two Black persons residing in their households, and Joseph Brown had four. Each of the Black persons was likely enslaved. Bartlett, John R., ed., Census of the Inhabitants of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Taken by the Order of the General Assembly, in the Year 1774 (Providence, RI: Knowles, Anthony, 1858), 38. Two of the Black persons in Joseph’s household could have been partially owned by the three brothers.

[4]For converting pounds sterling to U.S. dollars in this article, see Eric Ney’s website at:

[5]See James B. Hedges, The Browns of Providence Plantations: The Colonial Years (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1952), 268.

[6]See list of commissioned vessels from August 1, 1776, to December 13, 1777, in Maritime Papers, Bonds, Masters of Vessels, Aug. 1776–Dec. 1778, vol. 3, Rhode Island State Archives, nos. 3, 10 and 85.

[7]See ibid., no. 70; McBurney, Dark Voyage, 75 and 78-79.

[8]List of commissioned vessels from August 1, 1776, to December 13, 1777, in Maritime Papers, Bonds, Masters of Vessels, Aug. 1776–Dec. 1778, vol. 3, Rhode Island State Archives, nos. 57 and 91; John Brown and Thomas Greene to Robert Treat Paine, Feb. 7, 1777, in Michael J. Crawford, William B. Clark, William J. Morgan, et al., eds., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 13 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964–2019), 7:1135.

[9]List of commissioned vessels from August 1, 1776, to December 13, 1777, in Maritime Papers, Bonds, Masters of Vessels, Aug. 1776–Dec. 1778, vol. 3, Rhode Island State Archives, nos. 42 and 69.

[10]Ibid., no. 85.

[11]Ibid., no. 41.

[12]Application for Commission for Rhode Island Privateer Sloop Diamond, July 6, 1776, in Crawford et al., eds., Naval Documents, 5:945 (signed by John Brown); Commission, July 6, 1776, in Maritime Papers, Bonds, Masters of Vessels, vol. 2, Jan.–June 1776, no. 125, Rhode Island State Archives.

[13]Interrogatory of George W. Babcock regarding the Prize Star and Garter, Aug. 12, 1776, in Admiralty Papers, 1776, vol. 9, no. 83, Rhode Island State Archives.

[14]List of commissioned vessels from August 1, 1776, to December 13, 1777, in Maritime Papers, Bonds, Masters of Vessels, Aug. 1776–Dec. 1778, vol. 3, Rhode Island State Archives, nos. 16 and 65.

[15]See McBurney, Dark Voyage, 25, 29, 38 and 61.

[16]Providence Gazette, Nov. 2, 1776; “List of All the Vessels and Cargoes etc. Brought into the Port of Providence,” in Crawford et al., eds., Navy Documents, 7:642.

[17]Nicholas and John Brown to Captain John Worth, June 10, 1777, in ibid., 9:81; The Daily Advertiser (London), Nov. 29, 1777 (list of prizes captured by Vice-Admiral Montague’s squadron), in ibid., 10:1044. Historian James Hedges claims that the loss of the Live Oak could have cost the Browns as much as £30,000. Hedges, Browns, 245-46.

[18]Application for a privateer commission for the Oliver Cromwell, Nov. 25, 1776, in Maritime Papers,Letters of Marque, 1776–1778, no. 55, Rhode Island State Archives; McBurney, Dark Voyage, 75-78.

[19]Journal of HMS Galatea, April 26, 1777, in Crawford et al., eds., Naval Documents, 8:439.

[20]An interesting comparison is to what New London, Connecticut, merchant Nathaniel Shaw spent in August 1776 on his privateer sloop, the American Revenue. Shaw spent about £3,100 for the sloop, its sails and rigging, and cannon. Shaw still had to outfit the privateer, as he would with any privateering voyage. He incurred another £1,100 on small arms and gunpowder; foodstuffs, rum and fresh water; and numerous other small items needed for a privateering voyage, including two “speaking trumpets” and one “spyglass.” See “Nathaniel Shaw, Jr.’s Account Against the Connecticut Privateer Sloop American Revenue,” in Crawford, et. al, Naval Documents, 6:80-84. The ratio is roughly 2 to 1, in terms of expenses of the vessel, with its cannon, sails and rigging, versus outfitting costs. The American Revenuecarried twelve guns and had a crew of about one hundred men. See Samuel Champlin to Nathaniel Shaw, March 9, 1776, in Crawford et al., eds., Naval Documents,8:68, 68nn1. Thus, it was larger than the Diamond and had a bigger crew, which would have increased expenses compared to the smaller Diamond.

[21]See McBurney, Dark Voyage, 35-36.

[22]“List of All the Vessels and Cargoes,” in Crawford et al., eds., Naval Documents, 7:642-43 (captures nos. 8, 10, and 11).

[23]Ibid., 42-47 (captures nos. 16, 21, 23, 28, 29, 31, and 41).

[24]Ibid., 644 (captures no. 30 and 32);Providence Gazette, Nov. 2, 1776 (advertising for sale at “Mr. John Brown’s Wharf” the Peggy and its cargo consisting of rum, sugar, and other goods on November 7); J. Brown to N. Cooke, Sept. 14, 1776, in Maritime Papers, Letters of Marque, Petitions and Instructions, 1776–1780, no. 28, Rhode Island State Archives.

[25]Vessels Owned by John Brown, March 13, 1777, John Brown Papers, MSS 312, series 1, box 1, folder 2, Rhode Island Historical Society.

This article first appeared in The Journal of American History ( and is reposted with permission.


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