So first things first. I thought that a privateer was a genteel word for pirate, but no, not at all! Here is what I learned, but I will let Wiki tell you because my laziness knows no bounds:
A privateer was a private person or ship that engaged in maritime warfare under a commission of war. The commission (also known as a letter of marque) empowered the person to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war, including attacking foreign vessels during wartime and taking them as prizes. Captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under prize law, with the proceeds divided between the privateer sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew. A percentage share usually went to the issuer of the commission. Since robbery under arms was common to seaborne trade, all merchant ships were already armed. During war, naval resources were auxiliary to operations on land so privateering was a way of subsidizing state power by mobilizing armed ships and sailors.
So you can see that privateering was a darn fine way to earn a living, if you didn’t mind getting shot at, stabbed at, dodging swords, cannonballs, and all manner of mayhem.
This story is set in the time of the American Revolutionary war. Our boy Tom, whom we meet when he was merely 16, worked with his father, smuggling on the coast, when his dad was killed. On the run, Tom makes his way to the opposite coast where he is shanghaied onto a privateer ship owned and operated by a captain dedicated to the bottle. Tom distinguishes himself, makes a bunch of money, makes friends with a freed slave from the Caribbean, goes to New York with his new companion, gets involved in tobacco smuggling, makes a bunch more money, then returns to England where he turns himself into a iron manufacturer by way of dubious deals and other not-exactly-kosher activities, then buys a mine to supply his factory, while his friend gets into the spinning industry. He makes a bunch more money, and it is suggested he buy a large estate in some remote area of England, which he sets himself to making beautiful and prosperous once again.
Horatio Hornblower, Anthony Adverse, you know, those cool rags to riches stories. It was fun, and I enjoyed it. And I learned something about privateering.