Commodore Porter: Empire Builder

I wrote this research paper in the Fall of 2016 for my HIST 481 class. It is a profile of Commodore David Porter of the U.S. Navy, and an argument as to why he should be considered one of the nation’s first imperialists.

“The history of a nation is the history of its distinguished men,” wrote Admiral David D. Porter, in the introduction of his biography of his father, “and we neglect a duty, if we fail to do justice to the memory of those, who, either in peace or war, have done honor to the country.”[1]

The United States has more than its share of national heroes: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Ulysses S. Grant, George Patton, and Commodore Perry, among many others. All of them live on in posterity through film, books, historians, and the national mythology. There is one man, however, whom history has incorrectly forgotten. His name is Commodore David Porter.

Commodore Porter, through his life and decisions made along the way, did much to form the nation that we know today. Through Porter, one can see the beginnings of the age of imperialism and Manifest Destiny that swept the country later in the nineteenth century. In short, he was among the first American imperialists.

Signs of imperialist leanings can be seen throughout Porter’s life. His entire career can be examined to show that, no matter the consequences of his actions, his love of country and belief in its greatness was his guiding light. In Porter’s eyes, what he saw as the right decision had to be in the best interest of America. It did not matter that his actions rarely demonstrated his country’s anti-imperial leanings. In his mind, the United States, by right of its very existence, deserved to have and expand its influence. This paper will mainly take a look at Porter’s career during and immediately after the War of 1812, where his leanings towards imperialism can be best witnessed.

David Porter joined the navy at nineteen years of age on April 16, 1798. His first position was as a midshipman aboard the USS Constitution, one of only two American warships in operation at the time. He saw action in the Quasi War with France, the West Indies against pirates, and in the Mediterranean against Barbary corsairs.[2] Throughout this period of time his reputation and rank began to rise. Soon he was a captain, even briefly commanding the famed USS Constitution.[3] Porter’s legend, as well as his belief that America should influence the world in the way empires do, truly begins with the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 was one of the young America’s first wars as a real nation. While it was against their former rulers, the British empire, this was not a war for the nation’s survival. Instead, this war could be defined as an imperialist war. The United States went to war to stretch its muscles and expand influence, especially on the British-dominated ocean. In fact, it was Porter himself who defined the nation’s war aims in a single phrase. Sailing out of New York harbor on July 2, 1812, Porter had his ship, the Essex fly a banner from the topmast. This banner held the single phrase, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”[4]

Great Britain, like many other empires, operated under mercantilism. With mercantilism, an empire’s colonies are geared towards benefitting only the mother country. The economy was designed to send money back across the sea, and trade with neighboring nations was often strictly forbidden. The United States, in part, fought its Revolutionary War over this issue. The thirteen colonies resisted having their taxes and trade being funneled towards Britain. They wanted self-determination, something strictly prohibited under mercantilism. After winning their independence, opening commerce with every nation possible and protecting neutral rights were the main goals of American foreign policy in the 1790s.[5] As the young nation had no colonies to speak of, it had no reason for mercantilism, even if their national ideology would allow such a thing. Instead, free trade and capitalism expanded American interests the most. Americans such as Porter touted it as among the nation’s most sacred and important rights. Without colonies to reign over, the United States could only grow in influence through commerce. Therefore, it had to be protected and expanded by any means necessary. It could be seen as a beginning of the Manifest Destiny line of thought.

Secondly, the War of 1812 began because of infringements on sailors’ rights. The British navy “recruited” through a system known as impressment. A British ship could, and often would, stop a passing ship, board her, and at gunpoint welcomed new sailors into the Royal Navy. Relations between Great Britain and the United States had never been particularly good in this time period, but when several Americans were impressed into the Royal Navy they quickly worsened. Impressment is seen by many as the leading cause of the War of 1812. Between 1789 and 1815 almost 10,000 American sailors had been forced into the Royal Navy.[6] Impressment robbed American sailors of their rights, and also hurt American shipping interests. Could trade really be free if the Royal Navy could stop and board any ship it desired? War was declared on June 18, 1812.

By waving the flag “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” as he sailed off to war, Porter went to carry out his own form of Manifest Destiny. The young nation was fighting for its right to trade with anyone it chose, and the laws and military of the United States protected its sailors. Looking at it from any angle, this was a war to expand America’s influence. Not over the rest of the continent, but on the waves that were owned by Britain. David Porter believed in the war’s goals so strongly that he literally carried its banner.

Porter’s first voyage against the British was short but highly successful. In only seventy days he captured ten prizes.[7] One of these, the HMS Alert, was the first ship captured by the Americans in the entire war. The British criticized him for his underhanded tactics, as he “had disguised the Essex as a merchantman and lured the inferior twenty-gun Alert into range.”[8]

“I took one sloop of war and one transport, burnt two merchantmen, liberated one, and sent in four,” said Porter. “My prisoers amount to four hundred and twenty… My next cruise I hope will prove more profitable to self and agents.”[9]

Though American citizens cheered him as a national hero when he returned, fame was not Porter’s goal. While tactically sound, disguise and trickery were considered “ungentlemanly” at the time. Had Porter been on the hunt for fame, he would have made it obvious that the Essex was an American ship in search of a fight. Instead, the tactics he employed suggest that he had only a single goal: victory over the British. The Americans had to win, no matter the tactics used. It is a mindset like this that again demonstrates the imperialism of David Porter.

Riding on this success, Porter and the Essex soon set sail again. Their orders this time were to meet in the South Atlantic with the USS Hornet and the USS Constitution to harass British shipping. Before even reaching their destination they found a target.

“On December 11, Essex lookouts spotted a small British ship. All day and throughout the night, Essex pursued the ship, finally coming within hailing distance. The vessel, a mail packet christened Nocton, tried to come around Essex’s stern, probably intending to rake the frigate, then run for it again. Porter ordered a musket volley that killed one of Nocton’s crew and forced her to surrender. To Porter’s delight, Nocton was found to be carrying $55,000 in gold bullion.”[10]

A problem arose, however, when the Hornet and Constitution failed to arrive at any of their pre-arranged meeting points. Unable to carry out his original mission, and being a very long way from home, Porter was left to his own devices. He could turn for home, which carried risks of running into the British Navy. He could remain in the South Atlantic, but doubted that he could find any friendly ports on the Atlantic side of South America. A third option was also available: the Pacific.

The Pacific Ocean was sure to contain many British ships that could be harassed with relative impunity, as well as some ports that would be friendly to America. His recently captured $55,000 would also make for some decent expense money.

Porter’s notice to his men perfectly summarizes his reasoning:

“We will… proceed to annoy them, where we are least expected. What was never performed, we will attempt. The Pacific Ocean affords us many friendly ports. The unprotected British commerce, on the coast of Chili, Peru, and Mexico, will give you an abundant supply of wealth; and the girls of the Sandwich Islands, shall reward you for your sufferings during the passage around Cape Horn.”[11]

So, persuading his crew with stories of glory and money just waiting to be had, the Essex made for Cape Horn in early 1813.[12]

As was fitting for someone like Porter, his ship became the first American warship to be active in the Pacific Ocean upon crossing Cape Horn.[13] One must remember that at the time, the United States was relegated to only the Atlantic seaboard. It would be a long time before the nation stretched “from sea to shining sea.” Aside from civilian merchants and whalers, the United States had no claim to authority in the Pacific Ocean. This did not matter to Porter. As far as he was concerned, wherever he sailed American power sailed with him. He and his ship were American power, in a sense. Now that America was in the Pacific, the Pacific would play by America’s rules.

Evidence of this way of thinking can be seen almost as soon as Porter reached the Pacific Ocean. Sailing into the port of Valparasio, Chile, to resupply, the crew of the Essex was unsure of what greeting they could expect from a Spanish colony. However, they quickly discovered that Chile was in open rebellion against Spain, and welcomed the Americans with open arms. Porter and the Chileans quickly established a friendship, and the Essex could expect to find safe ports up and down the Chilean coast. Chile was rebelling against their European masters in hopes of establishing a republic, similar to that of the United States. Now with a haven to resupply, Porter, and thus American influence, were established in the Pacific.[14]

Upon establishing relations with Chile, the Essex left the port with a 21-gun salute to begin hunting. In the Pacific, as well as the Atlantic, Porter used false flags and trickery to disguise his ship. It would soon pay off.

On March 26, 1813, the Essex came across the Peruvian privateer Neyreda. Porter recognized this ship as one that had been harassing American commerce. Flying under the Union Jack, Porter sailed his ship close to its target. The Neyreda’s first lieutenant came aboard, believing the Essex to be a British ship, to file a complaint. A British privateer, the Nimrod, had commandeered the Neyreda’s most recent prizes: two American whalers. The lieutenant’s complaints, one can imagine, were silenced when Porter ordered the British flag struck and the Stars and Stripes raised.[15]

“Twenty-three American prisoners were released. Neyreda was stripped of weapons, ammunition and most of her sails, then was dispatched to Lima, Peru, carrying a letter from Porter to the viceroy that protested the seizure of American vessels and stressed the point that Peru was supposed to be a neutral county.”[16]

The letter read:

“…On examination of said ship, I found on board her, as prisoners, the officers and crew of two vessels belonging to the United States of America, employed solely if the whale-fishery of the seas… I have, therefore, to preserve the good understanding which should ever exist between the government of the United States and the provinces of South America… deprived the Neyreda of the means of doing the American commerce any farther injury for the present, and have sent her to Lima in order that her commander may meet with such punishment from your excellency as his offense may deserve.”[17]

Porter sailed into the Pacific to hunt British ships. What he found instead, initially, was a serious infringement on sacred “free trade and sailors’ rights.” It did not matter that the Essex was only a single American warship, one far away from home, at that. Peru had become an obstacle, albeit a minor one, to expanding American authority. As such, Porter sent the Neyreda back home unarmed and prize-less, carrying a letter that, all things considered, cordially warned Peru to not try anything like that again.

The Essex went on to have some good success in the Pacific. Porter and his crew liberated one of the captured American whalers. In late April they were also able to capture three British whale ships, the Montezuma, the Georgiana, and the Policy. These prizes were all together worth half a million dollars.[18] Several other ships were captured, and Porter soon found himself in command of an impromptu navy, earning his honorary title of “commodore.”

While this in itself should have been enough to cement Porter’s legacy as an exceptional (or exceptionally lucky) naval commander, he then attempted something that no other American had yet even dreamed of. In no other point in his life would Porter’s vision of an American empire be more obvious. In true fashion of a nation looking to expand its power, Commodore Porter attempted to establish one of the first American overseas colonies.

The Marquesas Islands sit two and a half thousand miles southeast of Hawaii. Some of the islands that make up the Marquesas were discovered in the late 1500s by the Spanish, and were briefly explored by Captain James Cook in 1774. Captain Joseph Ingraham, an American who was attempting a voyage from Boston to China, landed at the Marquesas and discovered several new islands in 1791. He patriotically named these the “Washington Islands” and unofficially claimed them for the United States. Porter’s attempted establishment of a colony was his way of making the “unofficial” claim official American territory.[19]

Porter himself wrote in his own autobiography of his first landing at the Marquesas: “After passing the island I hove to for the night, and directed my prizes, as they came up, to do the same… and at daylight next morning I bore up for the island of Nooaheevah (Nuka Hiva) which I shall hereafter call Madison’s Island.”[20]

The simple act of renaming the island in such a way is an act of imperialism. “Madison’s Island” was a much more fitting name, in the eyes of Porter, as the island was now American territory. The indigenous name just wasn’t good enough, under the circumstances.

Porter set up shop in the Marquesas in October 1813 to give the Essex and its prize-fleet a much-needed overhaul, and the sailors an even more needed rest. Of course, rest and relaxation are foreign words to the likes of David Porter. Almost as soon as he sailed into port at Nuka Hiva he was pulled into native politics.

Speaking through white interpreters found on the island, American John Maury and British citizen Wilson, Porter made contact with local chieftain Gattenewa, of the Taeeh tribe. Gattenewa wanted to pull Porter, his sailors, and most importantly their weapons, into a conflict against the Happahs, a hostile hill tribe. Porter tried to play a trick on Gattenewa and avoid getting involved in the fight by agreeing to help the Taeeh. If they could pull one of the Essex’s six-pounder cannons to a certain mountaintop, they would lend aid. Unexpectedly, the natives accomplished this feat through sheer manpower, and Porter was forced to get involved.[21]

Thanks to the firepower of the sailors, the conflict was quickly brought to an end. The Happah’s promptly sought an alliance with Porter, who also promptly accepted. Several other tribes quickly followed suit and paid tribute to the men of the Essex. However, conflict soon arose again, this time with the Typee tribe. The Typees were a more distant tribe who were interfering with another friendly tribe.

To prepare for this conflict, Porter ordered a fort to be built. Fort Madison had been built of water-casks and mud, with emplacements for sixteen guns. With a fleet, a fort, and an army of loyal natives, Porter felt he could safely declare ownership of Nuku Hiva.

“Our rights to this island being founded on priority of discovery, conquest, and possession cannot be disputed; but the natives to secure to themselves that friendly protection which their defenseless situation so much required, have requested to be admitted into the great American family, whose pure republican policy approaches so near their own…”[22]

It was not only the political policies of the natives that Porter found close to America’s. He also commented on the appearance of the natives, saying that some of the men were “as fair as the generality of white people working in the sun,” and the women had “complexions no darker than many brunettes in America celebrated for their beauty.”[23] As far as the natives that they had “conquered,” went, saw the Americans as nothing more than powerful allies in their tribal conflicts.

Once repairs to the Essex and other ships were done, Porter disengaged himself from the various local conflicts but left some of his fleet behind, sailing back for Chile in mid-December. Shortly after his departure, members of the remaining fleet mutinied and attacked the fort, which was abandoned shortly after.[24] While Porter would petition the government to acknowledge the annexation of “Madison’s Island,” nothing would ever come of it.[25] Though the colony could be considered a failure, the fact that Porter would even attempt such a thing shows his imperialist character.

On March 26, after being blockaded in the port of Valparasio by British ships Phoebe and Cherub, Porter prepared to try and fight his way free. What happened next would be the bloodiest single-ship battle of the entire war. A sudden storm crippled the Essex, making her impossible to maneuver. Still, he attempted to fight. Porter was forced to surrender after 89 of his crew were killed.[26] His decision to try and fight while crippled was controversial, but it also demonstrated Porter’s willingness to battle tooth and nail for even a modicum of American influence in the Pacific Ocean. While this was the end of Porter’s adventures in the Pacific, it was in no way the end of his attempts to expand America’s influence across the seas.

After the war ended, Porter had returned to America a hero. He was considered as much a hero as Commodore Perry, another naval officer well known for making imperialist maneuvers and opening trade with Japan. Neither the navy nor the government, however, received Porter’s imperialist moves as well as they did Perry’s.

In 1823 the Secretary of the Navy sent a squadron our into the Caribbean to hunt pirates, putting Porter in charge and making his War of 1812 honorary title of “commodore” official. Commodore Porter tackled the job with as much enthusiasm as he did everything in his career. That is to say, he may have taken things a little too far. If Porter could not catch pirates out in the ocean he would follow them back to their base of operations and sack the place. One case, the one fated to bring him trouble, led him to Puerto Rico. Then a Spanish colony, Porter followed the trail of pirates to the coastal town of Fajardo. A captain and first officer under Porter landed at the town to inquire about the pirate trail, and were promptly thrown into prison. In response, Porter landed two hundred marines on the beach and threatened to shell the city.

The local authorities quickly complied and released the prisoners, but for obvious reasons this stunt caused tensions between the Spanish Empire and the United States. The government inquiry and court-martial of Porter led to a six-month suspension. In protest, Porter resigned from the US navy in 1826.[27]

Porter defended his actions by sending his version of the story to the Navy Department shortly after the fiasco:

“Indignant at the outrages which have so repeatedly been heaped on by the authorities of Porto Rico, [I went to Fajardo and] found them prepared for defense… I sent in a flag requiring the principal offenders come to me to make atonement for the outrage. They appeared accordingly and after begging pardon… I permitted them to return to the town, on their promising to respect all American officers who may visit them hereafter.”[28]

The imperialism here is obvious. It did not matter to Porter that he may have caused a war with Spain over a relatively minor misunderstanding. American sailors were being disrespected, and therefore American influence was being disrespected. If Porter had not taken a stand, the United States would have lost face and influence in the West Indies. The Caribbean was, in Porter’s eyes, America’s sphere of influence that Spain was actually the one interfering in. His resignation shows his disgust at his own people for not seeing things his way.

After such a long and incredible career, this seems like an inglorious ending for Commodore Porter. However, readers need not worry. After resigning, Porter went on to spend two years as supreme commander of the Mexican navy. Mexico was in rebellion against Spain, and since those with Porter’s personality tend to hold grudges, this was a great job for him. His heart still belonged to the United States, though, and he soon returned to work in Algiers and the Ottoman Empire as an ambassador. He died in Constantinople, working hard to build and expand American influence. Thus, Commodore David Porter died how he lived. Porter could be argued to be one of the first believers in Manifest Destiny on a global scale. He stands out among others of his time as one of the first American imperialists, and has a lifetime of work to show for it.


Deeban John P. “The War of 1812: Stoking the Fires,” National Archives. 2012,    accessed October 30, 2016.  

DeForest, Tom. “War of 1812: Commodore David Porter and the Essex in the South         Pacific,” HistoryNet. 2006, accessed October 30, 2016.  

Encyclopedia Brittanica, “David Porter, United States Naval Officer” Accessed     October 30, 2016.

Gilje, Paul A. Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights in the War of 1812. New York: Cambridge   University Press, 2013

Hearn, Chester G. The Illustrated Directory of the United States Navy. London,      Salamander Books, 2003

Long, David F. Nothing Too Daring, A Biography of Commodore David Porter, 1780       1845. Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute, 1970

Porter, David. Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean by Captain David Porter,     in the United States Frigate Essex, in the Years 1812, 1813, and 1814, Vol. II.   New Jersey, The Gregg Press, republished in 1970

Porter, David D. Memoir of Commodore David Porter, of the United States Navy  New    York: J. Munsell. 1875

Turnbull, Archibald Douglas. Commodore David Porter, 1780-1843, United States,          The Century Co, 1929

[1] David D. Porter, Memoir of Commodore David Porter, of the United States Navy (Albany, NY, J. Munsell, 1875), 1

[2] David F. Long, Nothing Too Daring, A Biography of Commodore David Porter, 1780-1845 (Annapolis, MD, U.S. Naval Institute, 1970), 8-17

[3] Long, Nothing Too Daring, 32

[4] Paul A. Gilje, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights in the War of 1812 (New York, NY, Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1

[5] Gilje, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights, 11

[6] John P. Deeban, “The War of 1812: Stoking the Fires,” National Archives (2012, accessed October 30, 2016.)

[7] Tom DeForest, “War of 1812: Commodore David Porter and the Essex in the South Pacific,” HistoryNet (2006, accessed October 30, 2016.)

[8] Gilje, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights, 1

[9] Long, Nothing Too Daring, 69

[10] Deforest, “Porter and Essex in the South Pacific”

[11] Long, Nothing Too Daring, 81

[12] Deforest, “Porter and Essex in the South Pacific”

[13] Encyclopedia Brittanica, “David Porter, United States Naval Officer,” (accessed October 30, 2016,)

[14] D. Porter, Memoir of Commodore David Porter, 119-120

[15] D. Porter, Memoir of Commodore David Porter, 124-125

[16] Deforest, “Porter and the Essex in the South Pacific”

[17] Archibald Douglas Turnbull, Commodore David Porter, 1780-1843, (USA, The Century Co.,1929), 150-151

[18] Turnbull, Commodore David Porter, 160

[19] Long, Nothing Too Daring, 109-110

[20] David Porter, Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean by Captain David Porter, in the United States Frigate Essex, in the Years 1812, 1813, and 1814, Vol. II, (Upper Saddle River, NJ, The Gregg Press, Republished in 1970), 15

[21] Turnbull, Commodore David Porter, 189-190

[22] Turnbull, Commodore David Porter, 192-194

[23] Turnbull, Commodore David Porter, 186

[24] Turnbull, Commodore David Porter, 210-212

[25] Deforest, “Porter and Essex in the South Pacific”

[26] Chester G. Hearn, The Illustrated Directory of the United States Navy, (London, Salamander Books, 2003), 60

[27] Hearn, Directory of the United States Navy, 64-65

[28] Long, Nothing Too Daring, 229


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