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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. 



Portsmouth NH in the Age of Sail /

Cruise to disaster 

Soon the Ranger was ready to sail again and Andrew rejoined Captain Simpson and the crew. This time they prowled the waters around Spanish Florida. Although the Ranger was drawn into battle at Charleston, SC, young Andrew, at first, led a charmed life. A 24-pound cannon ball narrowly missed him. Two bombs exploded nearby without harming him. While he was ashore at Charleston, the armory blew up and a number of men were "instantly hurried into eternity without a moment’s notice". The outline of the exploded men was still visible on the brick armory wall. 

In May 1780 the Ranger crew surrendered to the British at Charleston. Because so many enemy soldiers had contracted smallpox, Andrew decided to be inoculated, which meant being purposely infected by the ship’s doctor. Partially recovered and released from captivity, he and other members of the crew caught a small ship to Providence, RI. Before entering the city, the infected men and boys were "smoked" to guard against contagion. While washing up in the river, Andrew caught his leg in some eelgrass and nearly drowned.

Things now grew worse. At Boston, the officer whom Andrew attended suddenly died, leaving him alone. Still weak from the smallpox cure, he began walking toward Portsmouth, but was too weak and in pain to continue. In his memoir, Andrew wrote:

"I felt great difficulty in attempting to walk again, and feared I should never get home. A train of melancholy reflections overwhelmed my mind; I wept, I wept bitterly." 

Through the kindness of strangers, the young privateer finally arrived home to find his father dead, his brothers lost at sea, and his mother taking in sewing to make ends meet. Andrew then joined Capt. Simpson in a failed attempt to retake the Ranger (renamed Halifax) from the British, but without luck. After three totally fruitless months at sea, Andrew returned home again. 


More Memoirs of Privateer Andrew Sherburne

He should have stayed in Portsmouth. But the war was still raging, privateersmen were in high demand, and his family needed money. So Andrew Sherburne shipped out once more. This time he was enticed to serve aboard the privateer Greyhound headed to Canadian waters that swarmed with British merchant ships. His captain, Andrew writes, was so fearful of being captured that he became deranged and had to be locked in his cabin when the Greyhound was taken by the British at Newfoundland. 

From bad to worse 

Unlike so many masculine memoirs of the era, Andrew Sherburne’s tale is rich with emotion and detail. He frequently weeps, falls into a dark depression, and is swallowed up by fear. 

Woodcut of solider from 1777 Portsmouth, NH receruitment poster / SeacaostNH.comIn September 1781, while taking Andrew and four other Yankees to prison, the British ship Duchess of Cumberland struck a rock and was torn to pieces. After a harrowing escape, instead of being returned to Boston as planned, Andrew and a mate were impressed onto a British naval vessel en route to England. Assigned as Yankee prisoners of war, they were sent to rot aboard a docked prison ship that the author calls "a floating hell". 

But they had not yet hit bottom. The two American revolutionaries were judged guilty of piracy and high treason and tossed into the infamous Mill Prison near Plymouth, England. Yet here, in the darkest of places, Andrew found light. He immediately encountered a dozen other POWs from the Piscataqua region. When not working as an imprisoned shipbuilder for the British navy, the illiterate cabin boy taught himself to read and do math. 

The prisoners were allowed 12 ounces of bread – which they called "Broken George" after King George III – and 12 ounces of beef per day, plus beer. They formed their own prison government. Gov. John Wentworth, recently kicked out of his Portsmouth home by the patriot mob, was then in England, and loaned some money to the prisoners. Benjamin Franklin, then in France, negotiated to set them free. A few men escaped. Others died. Andrew became deathly ill in prison, but he prayed for deliverance, and again miraculously survived. 

Home Sweet Home 

Arriving back in Portsmouth toward the end of the Revolution, Andrew Sherburne’s family felt he had risen from the dead. The house where he lived, and to which he returned still stands at the end of Islington Street near the baseball diamond. The land was purchased by the Sherburne family in the 1640s. An earlier house there was burned during the Indian raid on "The Plains" later that century. Three Native Americans are reportedly buried just outside the Sherburne family graveyard on the property. The current house was built on the same site prior to 1750. 

That information comes from the current owner – one Andrew Sherburne – who Is today a contractor in Bow, NH. The old Sherborne House once sat on a farm of hundreds of acres. Today the house on six acres is rented, but the latest Andrew Sherburne says. "It will never leave the family." 

No portraits or artifacts remain from privateer Andrew Sherburne, whose amazing story goes on an on. He returned to the sea, became a teacher and a census taker in Maine, worked as a surveyor in the Mt. Washington region, and married twice. As an itinerant Baptist preacher, Andrew traveled to the Midwest. Twenty years ago, according to his 21st century namesake, a woman from Minnesota wrote to say she had the old preacher’s coat and cane. But that letter has gone missing, and Portsmouth’s little-known privateer still waits to be rediscovered by history. 


Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the history web site

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