During the American Revolution, Capt. Jonathan Haraden captured dozens of British merchant ships at sea. Most people could only hear of the privateer’s bold exploits, but on June 4, 1780, thousands had a ringside seat for one of the most dramatic engagements of the war.
Haraden preyed on British fears of Yankee privateers, outmaneuvering larger foes and often capturing them through sheer nerve — without firing a shot. If he ordered his helmsman to steer for a vessel, his crew assumed they had their prize in the bag.
Privateers were crucial to the American war effort.
They commanded 1,697 ships – 26 times as many as the continental navy’s 64 vessels. It was a risky business. Seventy-eight percent of privateer ships were captured or sunk by the Royal Navy.
John Adams was a fan:
This is a short, easy, and infallible method of humbling the English, preventing the effusion of an ocean of blood, and bringing the way to a conclusion … it is by cutting off supplies, not by attacks, sieges, or assaults, that I expect deliverance from [our] enemies.
Jonathan Haraden Takes Everything
Haraden’s exploits on the sea put him alongside John Paul Jones as an American naval hero.
According to one story, an American ship’s boy imprisoned on a British brig-o’-war spied a sail on the horizon. He began to sing and dance. The sailors asked him why. “My master is in that ship and I shall soon be with him,” the boy said. The sailors asked him who his master was. “Captain Haraden,” the boy said. “He takes everything he goes alongside of, and he will soon take you.”
The boy was correct.
When the Revolution broke out, he was commissioned lieutenant of the Tyrranicide, a brigantine in the Massachusetts State Navy. The ship was destroyed in the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition, and Harden took command of the General Pickering. The vessel was a Letter of Marque ship, a merchant ship with official permission to sail as a privateer when the occasion warranted. It was a smallish frigate, with 14 six-inch guns and 45 men and boys.
The General Pickering carried weapons and cognac from France and rum, sugar, chocolate and molasses from the Caribbean. Along the way Haraden captured a number of enemy merchant ships, making himself and the ship owners rich.
In April of 1780, Haraden set sail on the General Pickering with a cargo of sugar, bound for Bilbao, Spain, a favorite rendezvous for privateers. In the Bay of Biscay, the General Pickering overtook the British privateer Golden Eagle, which had 22 guns and 60 men.
It was dark, and Haraden decided to bluff. “This is an American frigate, sir,” he shouted through the speaking trumpet. “Surrender, or I will strike you with a broadside.”
The Golden Eagle, a victim of outsized fears of American privateers, fell for the ruse and surrendered. Haraden put 15 of his men onto the Golden Eagle and sailed into Bilbao Harbor with his prize sailing alongside. Another ship was sailing out. It was the Achilles, a British privateer with 42 guns and 140 men. It recaptured the Golden Eagle at dusk, but the battle would soon begin.
The Spanish Flotilla
By morning, word broke out that a British and an American privateer were about to do battle– within sight of land. Thousands flocked to the coast and got closer to the action in fishing boats, cutters, rowboats and sailing vessels.
Haraden maneuvered the General Pickering between the Achilles and a line of shoals and raked the British vessel with a broadside fire. The wind died down, and it took two hours for the Achilles to work herself into position and escape the American fire. The General Pickering, with her cargo of sugar, sat so low in the water the larger ship couldn’t rake her. A witness said the General Pickering looked like a longboat next to a ship. Another said Haraden stood exposed as shot flew around him – as if he were amid a shower of snowflakes.
Cheers rose from the flotilla of boats and the spectators on shore as the General Pickering raked the Achilles. Finally the Achilles captain was able to bring the ship about and open fire on the General Pickering.
After three hours, the General Pickering ran short of ammunition. Haraden ordered his men to load the cannons with crowbars. They flew like iron arrows, tore through the Achilles’ rigging, smashed the decks and sent the gun crews from their stations. The flight of crowbars persuaded the Achilles’ captain to retreat, and the General Pickering recaptured the Golden Eagle.
By then the flotilla of small boats had pressed in closer to the General Pickering. At the close of battle they escorted the victor into the harbor. The crowd swarmed to his landing place, caught up Captain Haraden and carried him through the streets on their shoulders.
Hot Chocolate Pot
The grateful owners of the General Pickering then gave Haraden an engraved silver hot-chocolate pot and two silver canns, now at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem.
Haraden continued capturing British merchant ships. Almost exactly two years after the battle with the Achilles, Haraden aboard the General Pickering encountered the Caesar. The two ships fought for two hours, but neither gained a decisive advantage. Said Haraden,
…both parties separated, sufficiently amused.
Finally his luck ran out, but only briefly. When he sailed into the Dutch Caribbean port of Sint Eustatius, British Admiral George Brydges Rodney’s fleet captured the General Pickering and her prizes. Haraden managed to escape, and he returned to privateering in command of the Julius Caesar.
Jonathan Haraden died in Salem on Nov. 23, 1803.
This story was updated in 2021.