Monday, February 1, 2010

History: The Mosquito Fleet

The United States President sent [David] Porter to Key West off the southern tip of Florida to establish an anti-piracy base. A skilled strategist with an uncanny ability to outguess his opponents, he proved to be the ideal man for the job. Within two years his "Mosquito Fleet" had swept the waters of the Caribbean.

With this summation, Angus Konstam begins his entry on David Porter in his History of Pirates. Porter was, of course, far more than those few words can ever tell and I hope I did the Commodore a bit of justice here. Today is the 230th anniversary of the birth of one of America's greatest naval heroes so, with your permission Brethren, a few words about his Mosquito Fleet.

In 1821 the citizens of the U.S. were up in arms about the aggressive acts of piracy being committed in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1820 alone 27 American ships had been raided by the privateers-turned-pirate who had been abandoned by the South American states at the end of the previous decade. Insurance premiums had gone through the roof and many merchants were forced to sail without any insurance at all. Appeals to President Monroe finally yielded results, and the President hand picked David Porter to command the fleet that would deal with the problem.

Porter was sitting on the Board of Naval Commissioners at the time and I've no doubt that he was more than happy to be called back into action. As a Lieutenant aboard USS Philadelphia, Porter had been in the vanguard of the fight against the Barbary pirates in 1801. He was also the first Commodore of the U.S. Naval station in New Orleans, established in 1809, so he knew a thing or two about dealing with pirates and smugglers. Add to that his command of USS Essex - the first U.S. navy ship to enter the Pacific - during the War of 1812 and his impressive resume made him the perfect man for the job.

Key West - then known as Thompson's Island - was chosen as a base of operation and the development of the little island at the southern most tip of the U.S. owes a lot to Porter's choice. The location gave him easy access to the Gulf and the Caribbean with Cuba - a known pirate hotbed - being of particular concern. Porter put together his Mosquito Fleet, so named because the majority of the ships were small with shallow drafts that allowed them access to rivers and inlets, fairly quickly. By 1823 he had 16 vessels including brigs, Baltimore schooners, one of the first paddle steamboats and a converted merchant used as a decoy.

Porter was charged with a daunting task. He and his men were to not only suppress piracy in a vast stretch of ocean but to transport American monies when necessary, protect U.S. citizens and property in the Caribbean and the Gulf and to stop the illegal slave trade. For another commander, this might have seemed like more than any human could tackle but the Commodore went at it with gusto. At the age of 43, he felt like he was finally doing what he was born to do.

The Mosquito Fleet literally shut down piratical activity within it's purview. Porter overcame notorious pirates like Diabolito who was based in Cuba. Despite complaints from the Cuban government that all this suppression of piracy by sea just meant that the brigands set up shop on land, Porter cleaned up the Caribbean. Charles Gibbs also fell victim to the Commodore and some historians claim that it was an engagement with Porter that killed Jean Laffite. I am not one of those historians, but we'll talk more about that on Friday.

By 1825 the job had been accomplished and Porter was ordered to disband his fleet. The unfortunate side effect of all this time in the tropics was a number of U.S. sailors dead or ill from yellow fever and malaria. As many writers point out, the moniker "Mosquito Fleet" had more than one meaning. Porter, "a six foot bull of a man" who seems to have lived a life free of disease, returned to his seat on the Naval Commission and was eventually appointed America's first ambassador to Turkey.

In my opinion, the modern U.S. Navy could learn a thing or two about pirate hunting from Commodore David Porter. Strike first and strike fast, boys. Save the rumination for later.

Happy Birthday, Commodore. You'll always be an American hero.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And happy 230th, Commodore Porter. An admirable man if ever there was one. And one who plays a prominent role in your books. I'm looking forward to hearing more about Porter and Laffite this week, Pirate Queen.

Mike Burleson said...

Pauline, I am a recent fan of your site. You have no idea how much I appreciate this particular article, but I hope you soon will. Very well done!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! What's more fun than David Porter. And yes, we will be seeing my cousin Laffite of Friday. Something to look forward to.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Mike and thankee for your kind words. I'm glad to have you aboard; feel free to join up with the Brethren. I hope you'll stop by and leave me a comment often.

Ozarklorian said...

Hi Pauline, still keeping tabs on your blog, nice job as always. I think I might have an inkling where you're going with the Friday blog :) Did you know an American captain named Levy was chasing Laffite in the Bay of Honduras that same time as the reported sea battle, yet never saw him?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Ozarklorian! I'm pretty sure that you - of all people - know what anniversary Friday marks. I did not know about Levy; thanks for the tip. And thank you too for your kind words.