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A Rogue Captain and America’s 1st Pacific Pivot


David Porter should have been the commander of Starship Enterprise “going where no [American naval captain] had gone” before when he set off to round Cape Horn.  Yep, there had been American whalers and merchantmen who rounded Cape Horn seeking fortune, if not fame; but Porter, a Navy veteran of the Barbary Wars, wanted both in the second war with Great Britain. He remains one of the most controversial figures in early American naval history. The same could be said about his nineteenth century service commanding the  Mexican

and Ottoman navies.

Don’t point fingers now.  Think John Paul Jones and Catherine the Great.  A man’s gotta do what ….

Two new books examine  Porter through different lenses, and both are well worth reading.

Here’s my thoughts on both’s take on this seagoing wild thing and a link to Porter’s own writings on his most famous scheme in his checkered career.

Having mentioned to his senior squadron commander that he “might” look to the Pacific to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting and barely armed British whalers and merchantmen there in this new conflict.  After all, the Royal Navy was busy blockading Europe and the coastal United States and hunting for French warships in the Caribbean, so its ships of the line would be far, far away.  Leaving port later than expected and “missing” several rendezvous with the small American flotilla in the South Atlantic, surprise, surprise, with charts packed from the Royal Navy on rounding Cape Horn and the Pacific, he’s on his merry way.

The enterprise did not go well — to say the least. His frigate Essex was sunk off the Chilean coast with a great loss of life, and survivors, including Porter, became prisoners of war.

Yet needing a hero to add to its pantheon of naval giants in a losing war, the Madison administration dubs him just that when Porter made it back to the United States on a parole that he broke.

Porter’s legacy is broad in two ways.

* His son David Dixon Porter and his foster child David Glasgow Farragut, both of Civil War fame and Union victory, come immediately to mind. This is without mentioning John Downes, who served under Porter in the Pacific and circumnavigated the globe for the Navy; John Maury, who chased pirates in the Caribbean with Porter, and dozens of other officers.

* His Journal of the Pacific exploit is self-serving to the nth degree, rival bashing to at least the same degree, and immensely informative about the islands he visited [claimed Nuka Hiva for the United States], the state of fisheries in those water, and politics in South America.

For audiences then, it was, not to mention, very titillating about sexual mores and practices and revealing in bringing sustained European style warfare to the other side of the world and suffering qualms about doing so.

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