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  • Ken Levy

    Dr Goodall:

    I am a budding author writing a novel in the genre of mystery/historical fiction. Part of my story involves a small ship (single masted cutter) of the Revolutionary war which is used by the British navy for clandestine missions. It sails under a disguise as a merchantman. The prototype I am using for the ship is that documented in the book “The Naval Cutter Alert: 1777” by Peter Goodwin (part of Conway Maritime Press’ Anatomy of the Ship Series). These cutters were used in coastal Britain for customs enforcement, much as Coast Guard cutters are used today. They were also used for merchantmen for smuggling and general trading activities. My novel involves the discovery in contemporary times of a buried ship (along the Delaware River), its excavation and the mystery of its identity and mission.

    I am a long time amateur maritime history buff and have done extensive research for my story. There is one thing I have not been able to establish, though. Would a merchantmen, which my ship is sailing in the guise of, sail with a complement of guns (cannons) for self protection? My projection is the ship would sail as “meekly” as possible, playing possum if boarded by Patriots, either of the Continental Navy or the various state militias (like the Pennsylvania Navy). From Goodwin’s book, I know the naval version of theses cutters were traditionally equipped with 10 guns. I have found no information as to whether a civilian, merchantman version would also be so equipped.

    I know your book on Pirates of the Chesapeake address the issues of privateers and pirates, where the ships were definitely provisioned for fighting. From your research, have you come across any references on how a true merchant ship of the period would be equipped? Thanks for any assistance you might provide.

    PS: I saw a blurb about your book on Amazon and am currently waiting on it with baited from my library’s interlibrary loan facility. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • Jamie Goodall

      Hi Ken,

      Based on my research and the understanding of the era, it does appear that many merchantmen were equipped with guns, although how many really varied from ship to ship. Violet Barbour has a great article in the 1930 (yes, quite dated lol) issue of The Economic History Review titled “Dutch and English Merchant Shipping in the Seventeenth Century.” Your might also check out Phillip Reid’s book The Merchant Ship in the British Atlantic, 1600–1800: Continuity and Innovation in a Key Technology.



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