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The Perils of Privateer Andrew Sherburne

1777Naval recruitment poster graphic, Portsmouth, Nh / SeacoastNH.comHISTORY MATTERS

He went to sea at age 13 to fight in the American Revolution, and to make a profit in the bargain. His first voyage in the Ranger was fruitful, but each cruise that followed led to greater disaster for this Portsmouth, NH patriot. His memoir, published in 1828, offers a rare perspective on the life of a "legalized pirate".


Andrew Sherburne was nine years old when British troops occupied Boston, where they planned to quickly suppress the rebellious American colonists. While New England militiamen drilled on the town common, Andrew and his young patriotic friends put feathers in their caps and marched with wooden swords. By age 13 he was a privateer, looting enemy ships. Two years later he lay sick in a disease-ridden British prison. 

The patriotic fervor of the American Revolution was intoxicating to a country boy, born in Rye in 1765, the year of the Stamp Act rebellion. Living in the bustling Portsmouth seaport after a stint on a farm in Londonderry, Andrew was half-crazy to fight for his emerging country. He later wrote: 

"Ships were building, prizes taken from the enemy unloading, privateers fitting out, standards waved on the forts and batteries, the exercising of soldiers, the roar of cannon, the sound of martial music and the call for volunteers so infatuated me, that I was filled with anxiety to become an actor in the scene of war." 

On the Privateer Ranger 

Sherburne was an aging impoverished Baptist minister in his 60s when he finally published his dramatic life story, in hopes of making a few dollars. The Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne (1828) is now available free to readers on Google Books, adding one more figure to the pantheon of forgotten Portsmouth heroes.

Much against his father’s wishes, Andrew Sherburne shipped out on the privateer Ranger at age 13. Formerly captained by John Paul Jones, the Ranger cruised in search of British merchant ships under Thomas Simpson in 1779. Licensed by the fledgling American Congress, privateers were "legalized pirates" that harassed enemy vessels. With no navy of its own, America relied on private armed ships to disrupt enemy trade, take prisoners and drive up the cost of war. In exchange for their investment, privateers could keep a healthy portion of their booty. Many Portsmouth fortunes were made this way. 

Andrew was assigned as waiter to the ships boatswain as the Ranger cruised off Newfoundland. During battle the young "powder monkey" carried cartridges to the gunner. After taking 10 enemy cargo ships, Andrew’s portion of the loot included: a ton of sugar, 30-40 gallons of Jamaican rum, 25 pounds each of cotton, ginger, logwood and allspice, plus about 50 dollars. He returned to Portsmouth in triumph.

By 14, Andrew Sherburne was the breadwinner of a large Portsmouth family, although he regrets that, to survive among his peers, he learned a few bad habits. According to his memoir, Andrew swore and boxed during the day, then prayed for forgiveness at night. 


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