Privateers and Navies versus Merchants

“USS Bon Homme Richard vs. HMS Serapis on 23 September 1779,” by Anton Otto Fischer

After the declaration of war by the French, matters grew worse increasing the losses of ship-owners, freighters and consignees. The Lydia, Captain Dean, from Jamaica to Liverpool, serves as an example, for she was seized, taken to Maryland and sold with her cargo for £20,400. British privateers were also captured, as we shall see, but typical was the capture of Warren & Co.’s Dragon which, under Captain Briggs, had herself seized a number of rebel American and French ships. One of the latter, taken in February 1779 was La Modeste and she had been secured by members of the Dragon’s crew swimming across to her to take possession, since a the sea was running too high to launch a boat. The Dragon did equally well under Captain Reed the following year but in September 1781, Captain Gardner was obliged to strike her colours to a French frigate and submit to being taken in to Brest.

French frigates were particularly dangerous, often sailing as fast as a privateer, particularly as wind and sea rose, and usually of far greater fire-power. The 32-gun British frigate Minerva, having been captured and commissioned by the French in 1778, fell in with the Belcour of Liverpool, Captain Moore, in May 1779. Moore bore a Letter-of-Marque and had the previous year taken a schooner worth £1,000 and a French brig valued at £2,500. Now, on a passage from Halifax to Jamaica, the tables were turned and Moore found himself fighting for his life.

We engaged [the Minerva]…full two hours and a half, the furthest distance she was off was not more than pistol shot, a great part of the time yard arm and yard arm, as we term it, but that you may better understand it, her sides and ours touched each other, so that sometimes we could not [with]draw our rammers. The French, I assure you, we drove twice from their quarters, but unluckily their wads set us on fire in several places, and then we were obliged to strike. You may consider our condition, our ship on fire, our sails, masts and rigging being all cut to pieces, several of our men severely mangled. The French seeing our ship on fire, would not come to our assistance for fear of the ship blowing up, as soon as the fire reached the magazine, which it did five minutes after I was out of her. The sight was dreadful, as there was(sic) many poor souls on board. You will be anxious to know how we that were saved got out of her. We hove the small boat overboard in a shattered condition…and made two or three trips on board the frigate before she [the Belcour] blew up. The next morning, we picked up four men that were on pieces of the wreck…

Moore goes on to list the dead: the third mate, the surgeon and his mate, eleven seamen, ‘three Negroes and a child, passengers’.

Another successful French frigate was the 28-gun L’Aigle which, in the spring of 1780 took the Liverpool privateer Tartar, Captain Butler, ‘after a chase of eight hours and an engagement on one hour and a quarter’. In three weeks L’Aigle seized nine prizes, a fact lamented by Butler from prison in Bayonne in a letter to his ship’s owners. A heavier French cruiser, the Fripon of 44-guns, took the privateer Patsey off the Hebrides on 31 May 1781. During a fight lasting ninety minutes before her colours came down, Captain Dooling, his sailing master and six of the Patsey’s crew were killed and a number wounded. That October a French 44-gun frigate engaged the merchantman Quaker off Newfoundland. Despite her pacifist name, the Quaker’s master, Captain Evans, had furnished her with a Letter-of-Marque and in the autumn of 1781 she had arrived at Halifax with a 13-gun American privateer as her prize. Early the following year she took three prizes in to Antigua where they realised £21,000 and it was while returning north that, again on the Grand Banks, she fell in with the French frigate in a fog. Undaunted, Evans exchanged a broadside – in which one of the ship’s boys was killed and another wounded – then made all sail. After a chase of twelve hours Evans threw his pursuer off and got clear away and in the New Year of 1783 he captured another prize, a Letter-of-Marque brig from Martinique to France with a cargo of sugar, coffee and cocoa worth £10,000. Such men were redoubtable and one of the most renowned was Nehemiah Holland.

In July 1777 Captain Nehemiah Holland of the Sarah Goulburn, who had distinguished himself in the previous war, took the Sally of Charleston, South Carolina, when on her way to Nantes with rice and indigo. Throughout the war the trade between the rice plantations in North America and France was a rich hunting-ground for British privateers, capitalising on the rebel necessity to establish new markets for their produce. Tea, silk and wine went the other way and several privateers would form an ex officio squadron, agreeing to share prize money. In the winter of 1778/9 the Liverpoolmen Molly, Captain Woods, the Wasp, Captain Byrne, and the Bess took a number of prizes, though the Molly was, long afterwards, captured by a brace of French frigates. Captain Ash of the 20-gun Terrible seized two valuable prizes on a single day that spring, and also recaptured the Leinster Packet, which had been taken by the American privateer Rocket the previous day when bound from Bristol to Galway. A few days later, on 28 February, Captain Grimshaw, in command of Hall & Co.’s 14-gun Griffin, entered the Mersey with a French prize, Le Comte de St Germain which he had captured after a spirited running action lasting eight hours. The two vessels had been evenly matched in fire-power, though the Frenchman carried a smaller complement. The prize contained a cargo of tortoise-shell, indigo, sugar, molasses, coffee, cotton and cocoa. Other privateers profiting from this trade route were Wagner & Co.’s Dreadnought, Davenport’s Sturdy Beggar; and Captain Allanson’s aptly-named Vulture. However, success itself ran its own risk, as Captain Leigh of the Mary Ann discovered. Having taken thirteen prizes valued at £10,000, the Mary Ann was homeward-bound when she struck the Tusker Rock off the east coast of Ireland. Fortunately most of her cargo of indigo was salved and all her crew saved.

Many privateers, like the Griffin, performed a useful service in retaking captured vessels from the enemy. On 10 December 1778 the privateer Atalanta, 16-guns, Captain Collinson, recaptured the brig Eagle from Newfoundland to Cadiz with fish, and the following winter the Rawlinson and Clarendon, lying off Land’s End, retook the Weymouth Packet ‘which had sailed from Jamaica without convoy and had been taken by the General Sullivan privateer, of Portsmouth, New England’. The importance of recovering such a vessel, with mails, bills of exchange, currency and so forth is self-evident. Later, in May 1781, the 10-gun Ferret, Captain Archer, having been seized by a French corsair, was retaken by the privateer Vulture from Jersey. A few prizes were recovered by their own people, such as the Grace, Captain Wardley, seized in the Irish Sea by the privateer Lexington but carried to Torbay instead of France; and the Lively, which is discussed later. Such exertions were often risky. When in April 1781 the Balgrove was captured by a French corsair a prize-crew of sixteen men were put on board. The Balgrove’s mate was unwilling to submit and, with only four men to help him, overpowered the prize-crew and took the ship into the Cove of Cork.

Nor had the Royal Navy’s cruisers been idle; taking 203 American merchantmen between 11 July 1777 and I January 1778, and recapturing fifteen British vessels in rebel hands. Privateers from several British ports had also done their utmost to counter the enemy, but the anxieties and losses drove insurance rates inexorably upwards, a state of affairs only exacerbated by the entry of France into the war, along with her swarms of corsairs, and after her the other European maritime states. The American privateers, ‘though of limited naval value, certainly contributed to the Revolutionary cause, striking at the British merchant class, who, in turn, ventilated their opposition in Parliament’. This is a naval view, disparaging to the effort and effect of America’s private war on trade. The function of a nation’s maritime force, howsoever composed, is to destroy the enemy, attack his commerce and thereby ruin his economy. This was a view current at the time, for Thomas Jefferson considered that privateering was a national blessing ‘when a Country such as America then was, was at war with a commercial nation’. American analysis concludes that the 676 privateers commissioned under the new ensign of thirteen red stripes took ‘over 1,600’ British merchantmen. This, of course, excludes captures by the small but efficient Continental Navy and the very much greater impact of French corsairs, and of her men-of-war after 1778.

Such was the alarm in high places that all British merchant vessels were ordered to sail under convoy, though this was never fool-proof. When the man-of-war Falcon, the escort to a West India convoy, became separated from her charges, two of the merchant ship-masters, Captains William Buddecome and George Ross, undertook the defence, for which they received gifts of silver plate. Convoy, when carried out efficiently, proved its value.

In the third week in September, 1778, it was announced that all the principal fleets [i.e. mercantile convoys] had arrived safely, namely, The Jamaica fleet at Liverpool and Bristol; the Leeward Islands fleet at Plymouth, and the Lisbon and Spanish fleets in the Downs. The arrivals that week were the largest that had been known for many years. In October the London underwriters calculated that the losses sustained by the French since the proclamation of reprisals amounted to upwards of £1,200,000.

When the outward-bound West India convoy sailed in March 1779 it did so under the not inconsiderable escort of two 74-gun line-of-battle-ships, a 50-gun ship and two frigates. This was not the case in August the following year when, as will shortly be related in relation to the East India Company, the combined convoys bound to the East and West Indies were abandoned by their naval escort commanded by Captain John Moutray and captured by Admiral Cordoba’s squadrons. Significant among the fifty-two vessels taken by the Spanish were the Government-chartered victuallers and store-ships, four of which – the Lord Sandwich, Eliza, Friendship and Brilliant – carried stores for the army in the Leeward Islands; eleven of them – the Sisters, Nereus, John, Susannah, Jupiter, Lord North, Eagle, Hambro’ Merchant, Charming Sally, Charlotte and James and Jane – bore provisions for the naval squadrons in the West Indies, while the Arwin Galley and Hercules were loaded with ‘camp equipage and naval stores’. Excepting the five Indiamen captured by Cordoba and mentioned in Chapter Two, the remaining twenty-nine of his prizes consisted of ‘the trade’.

What made the commander of the escort’s conduct so reprehensible was that shortly before falling in with Cordoba, Captain Moutray had met a north-bound convoy under Captain George Johnstone in the Romney, man-of-war. Johnstone, an unpleasant man and afterwards an outspoken MP, commanded a heavy escort covering ‘forty sail, carrying 10,463 pipes of wine’ homeward from Oporto and it seems he warned Moutray of the activity of enemy squadrons. Even when he was apprised of enemy ships in the offing on the 8th, Moutray dismissed them as ‘nothing but Dutchmen’. However, in mitigation, it should be noted that when Moutray belatedly discovered his error and hoisted the signal for the convoy to tack and stand to the northward, most of the merchantmen failed to see or to obey the order and only those that did, the British Queen, the brig Rodney ‘and two others’, escaped Cordoba. However, nightfall and a hazy dawn combined with light winds probably prevented most of the convoy from being aware of Moutray’s signals, an opinion given in evidence at Moutray’s court-martial by Captain William Garnier of H.M. Frigate Southampton. Damningly, Moutray did not send either of his two frigates to recall the convoy, standing away to the north as disaster overtook his charges.

Indeed, between the Spring of 1779 and the late summer of 1780, the enemy struck at British merchantmen with near-catastrophic results. ‘It was,’ according to Gibb in his official history of Lloyd’s, ‘the heaviest blow that British commerce had received in living memory, the downfall of many respectable firms and the direct cause of half the underwriters in Lloyd’s Coffee-House failing to meet their obligations’, a summation Gibb attributes to one of them, John Walter, who afterwards founded The Times newspaper. A consequence of this turmoil on the insurance market was that the underwriters, of whom there were then less than one hundred and who now owned Lloyd’s Coffee House and had formed the Society of Lloyd’s, revised their standard marine insurance policy with three enduring additional clauses – waiver, war risks and frustration.

Further destruction of shipping contributing to the general air of ruin was caused by one man in a remarkable twenty-eight day cruise round the British Isles. Captain John Paul Jones was an unsavoury character, a renegade Scot who was disliked by his peers, but who possessed a savage fighting instinct. Born in 1747 in Kirkudbrightshire, he began his career in the British mercantile marine apprenticed to a Whitehaven ship-owner. On his first voyage Jones visited his elder brother who had emigrated to take up tailoring in Fredericksburg, Virginia, opening Jones’s eyes to possibilities in the colonies. When Jones’s employer went bankrupt his indentures were broken and Jones shipped in a slaver. By the age of nineteen he had risen to chief mate but he then gave the trade up in the West Indies. Taking passage home from Jamaica, Jones took command of the vessel when the master and mate both died. The ship’s owners granted him and the crew ten percent of the freight and offered Jones the position of master of the John of Dumfries.

Jones made several voyages to the West Indies in the John, on one of which he flogged the ship’s carpenter for neglect of duty. The man afterwards died and Jones was accused of murder by the carpenter’s father and consequently arrested. Tried in Dumfries, he was acquitted, found employment as master of the Betsy of London and by 1773 was back in the Antilles. Jones’s conduct towards his men provoked a mutiny when the Betsy lay off Tobago, evidence that Jones was typical of the harsher master of his day. His later apologists claim that in the confrontation the ring-leader of the mutineers ran upon Jones’s sword but among the seamen of the islands his name stank, particularly as he avoided facing charges by escaping to lie low in America. Here he was unemployed until the outbreak of the rebellion, when he went to Philadelphia to help fit-out the first Congressional man-of-war, the Alfred. Ingratiating himself with two congressmen involved with establishing what became the Continental Navy, Jones was offered a commission as lieutenant in December 1775 and served in the Alfred without distinction until, in 1776, he was given command of the Providence. It was now that he began to take prizes with the dash and élan that ultimately ensured his place in the pantheon of American naval heroes. As a consequence of his success he was given a small squadron, promoted to captain and repaid the confidence by taking sixteen prizes.

However, Jones was a man of touchy pride and a notion of his own superior abilities. His placing as 18th on the seniority list of the Continental Navy irked him and he began to make himself unpopular until Congress gave him command of the Ranger and sent him to France. Here he was to have assumed command of a larger, Dutch-built man-of-war, but found the ship had been given to the French by the American Commissioners in Paris so, leaving Brest in disgust, he headed for the Irish Sea, landing and raiding Whitehaven on 27-28 April 1778, burning the shipping in the harbour before crossing the Solway in an attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk. The earl was disobligingly absent, so Jones and his crew helped themselves to what they wanted before heading for the Irish coast. Off Carrickfergus the Ranger fell in with HM Sloop-of-war Drake. In a furious action in which Jones lost eight killed and wounded to his opponent’s forty, he took the Drake and returned triumphantly to Brest on 8 May with another seven prizes. The alarm his raid – particularly that upon Whitehaven – caused along the British coast was augmented by reports of sightings of other rebel vessels. Jones’s presence with his prizes in Brest, demonstrating weaknesses in Britain’s seaward defences as it did, occurred as the French ministry were meditating revenge upon Britain for her victories of 1759 by a declaration of war. Jones was summoned to Paris for consultations. On 4 February 1779 he was informed that he would be put in charge of a former French East Indiaman fitting out as a man-of-war which Jones renamed as the Bonhomme Richard, a tribute to the American envoy in Paris, Benjamin Franklin who had once edited a New England periodical called Poor Richard’s Almanac.

In addition to the Bonhomme Richard, Jones was given a small squadron of French officered, manned and financed vessels with which to repeat his raid upon the British coast. His French colleagues – officers of the ancien régime – disliked Jones for his ill-bred manners, regarding him as a parvenu, but his successes spoke for themselves. Leaving L’Orient on 14 August 1779, Jones’s squadron returned to the Irish Sea, striking terror by the seizures of coasting vessels, rumours of which exaggerated the effects of his raid so that Jones’s successful cruise against merchant shipping around the British Isles added to the unsettlement of the entire British countryside for the whole of that summer.

[I]t was announced in the newspapers that the Duchess of Devonshire, and Lord and Lady Spencer, on their return from taking the waters at Spa, had arrived safe and sound at Harwich, although their ship had been attacked on the passage by two French cutters. The enemy had been beaten off by the Fly sloop, under the command of Captain Garner, after a long engagement in which an officer of the British vessel had been shot dead, and several of her crew killed and wounded; and it was allowed on all hands that the ladies had behaved admirably.

Even the sight of the homeward Jamaica convoy caused confusion in Brighton, where ‘the quality’ took it for an invasion fleet. The actual and imminent descent of a combined fleet of French and Spanish men-of-war had been reported, Spain having opportunistically joined the war in meditation of recovering Minorca and Gibraltar, and avenging herself for the loss of Florida and the coast of Honduras. This enemy fleet in the Channel was, in fact, a more significant threat than that of John Paul Jones (or indeed the Spanish Armada of 1588) and was aimed at Britain’s naval heart: Portsmouth, but the Combined Fleet dithered, so it was August before the twin forces of the fleets of France and Spain, along with Jones’s little squadron, were at large. The British Channel Fleet under Sir Charles Hardy, operating in misty weather, caught sight only once of their enemy as they slipped past, and the allies might have affected the landing so anxiously desired by Choiseul and Vergennes, had not a lack of supplies exacerbated by outbreaks of scurvy and disagreement between the French and Spanish commanders forced them to retire. Thus did inefficiency snatch defeat from the jaws of possible victory.

John Paul Jones had better luck. His ships worked north, through the Hebrides, where: ‘Our Northern sea-board was everywhere exposed to insult. The packet which plied from Tarbet to the Western parts of Argyllshire was captured in the Sound of Islay’. After his appearance before Leith, which he unsuccessfully attempted to ‘lay under contribution’, townsfolk all along the coast feared his coming. A public assembly was called in Kingston-upon-Hull to arrange defences for the River Humber and the Marquis of Rockingham promised to ‘treat the town with a battery of eighteen-pounders’.

Jones’s presence was an affront to the Royal Navy, particularly when on 23 September 1779 he fell upon a Baltic convoy off Flamborough Head. Jones’s ships succeeded in defeating the escort, H.M. Frigate Serapis and her consort, a sloop-of-war, in a fierce, celebrated and bloody action which ended in the surrender of Captain Pearson and the sinking of the Serapis. Within hours the shot-battered Bonhomme Richard also foundered, drawing Jones’s teeth, but he escaped with his prizes to reach the Texel. While Jones had established a legend, Pearson had at least largely succeeded in defending his convoy and, at terrible cost, ended Jones’s cruise.

The day after Jones’s victory the French corsair Dunkerque, Capitaine J.B.Royer, took the merchantman Three Friends of Liverpool, Captain Samuel Maine, who was caught off the Island of Jura. Not only the French and the Americans, but the Irish were active, the Black Prince taking the Lively, Captain Watts, in the English Channel in January 1780. However, a high sea was running and the prize-crew was unable to board, so Watts was ordered to follow his captor. He did this until darkness enabled him to run, but two days later the Lively had the misfortune to be captured by a 44-gun French frigate. Watts and most of his crew were removed and an officer and twelve seamen were placed on board, joining three of the ship’s boys who had been left behind. The Lively now grew leaky and the prize-crew tired of incessant pumping, fell asleep, whereupon the three boys seized some cutlasses, repossessed themselves of their ship and, shortly afterwards arriving off Kinsale, making a signal of distress. This was seen by the local population who opportunistically boarded the Lively and began plundering her but, with the help of local pilots, the Lively was brought into port where Captain M’Arthur of the Hercules, a Letter-of-Marque, took her over and beat off the looters.

The appearance of rebel Irish on their doorstep prompted the Liverpool merchants to petition the Admiralty for better protection and Their Lordships responded by increasing the number of cruisers in the Irish Sea by two frigates and a brace of cutters. There was much need for this. The scandal of enemy privateers operating in home waters with impunity was bad enough, but greater opprobrium attached to a navy that failed to protect tax-paying merchants from a home-grown menace. Although Edward Macartney had lived in France for some years and his ship, the Black Princess, flew the Bourbon ensign and carried a French Letter-of-Marque, her commander had been born in Ireland. Macartney’s Black Princess seized the John of Newcastle off the Mull of Galloway in July 1780 despite a spirited defence by Captain Rawson and his crew. Badly hurt and with his second mate also wounded and one man dead, Rawson hauled down his colours. Taking possession of his prize, Macartney agreed to the John’s release upon a surety for a ransom of £1,000, a sum which Rawson considered rapacious, refusing to sign the requisite documents. At this opposition Macartney withheld the services of a surgeon from the wounded and, on Rawson’s further protestations, gave the intimidating order to burn the John and her crew with her. Rawson capitulated. Some time later Macartney was captured and imprisoned at Plymouth.

A more notorious Irish privateer was Patrick Dowling who cruised in the Western Approaches and among whose prizes was the Olive Branch outward-bound from Liverpool to Charleston in 1781. She was ransomed for 7,700 guineas but Dowling, like Macartney, appears to have adopted extreme measures, perhaps because unlike his countryman who flew the French flag, Dowling could not avail himself of the prize-system and was more pirate than privateer. At the time of his taking the Olive Branch he had on board his own ship some seventeen ‘ransomers’ out of a tally of twenty-two prizes. The five who would not – or could not – oblige Dowling, were sunk. Clearly Dowling found ransom satisfactory, restoring his captures to their owners – at a price – and banking large sums himself, presumably thereby avoiding attracting too much unwelcome attention. The William of Bristol was released for 900 guineas, the Elizabeth, bound for Cork raised 800, the Sally for Guernsey 700, and a Maryport vessel put another 750 guineas in Dowling’s pocket.

Dowling and Macartney were by no means the only Irish commerce-raiders attacking British shipping in those last years of war. Nor were the Irish the only practitioners of ransom: the French were equally good at it. When the corsair Le Comte de Guichen was taken by HM Frigate Aurora, Captain Collins recovered a sheaf of ransom documents: the Peace of Whitehaven, 2,000 guineas; the Spooner of Glasgow, 1,800; the Six Sisters from the Isle of Man and Fortitude of Greenock, 1,500 each; the Sally of Strangford, 500 guineas; the two Workington vessels Lark and Glory, 450 between them, with two other bottoms adding 1,610 guineas to the total.

It was a see-saw war on both sides, but despite the serious effect the enemy’s war on trade had upon the British economy – the aspect most emphasised in conventional assessments – the British privateering war on American trade was itself of some countervailing significance. Our old friend William Boats, in partnership with William Gregson, commissioned several privateers and employed a number of energetic and able captains. One of these was Captain Jolly who in early 1778 commanded the Ellis, in which he took the Endeavour and Nancy, both loaded with sugar and rum. Later, handing over the Ellis to Captain Washington, he transferred to the Gregson and then cruised in company with his old vessel. Both these privateers were substantial, the Ellis of 340 tons burthen, 28-guns and 130 men; the Gregson of 250 tons, 24-guns and 120 men. Between them they took La Ville du Cap, from St Domingo to Nantes with sugar, coffee, cotton, rum and indigo, and the L’Aigle from port-au-Prince to Nantes with a similar cargo. Separating, Jolly next took a small privateer which he disarmed and released, followed by the snow La Genevieve, outward from Nantes for St Domingo with flour, wines and a general cargo. Captain Washington, meanwhile, was busy seizing the snow Josephine, full of oil, soap, brimstone and straw hats destined for Dunkerque.

Curiously a reduced form of trade between the belligerent powers sometimes continued, so that a wine merchant in Manchester was able to learn from his shipper in Bordeaux that:

Very many rich and respectable merchants here, have been already ruined by the great success of your privateers and cruisers. Many more must fall soon. May God, of his mercy to us, put an end speedily to this destructive and ridiculous war.

This contribution of privateers to the general war-effort is largely ignored by the eulogist extolling the exploits of naval cruisers but the wine-merchant’s cri de coeur is eloquent enough. On the British side investment, in prospect of attractive return, was not confined to the usual ship-owning classes. Short of money, the Marquis and Marchioness of Granby had an interest in several privateers, including the Lady Granby and the Marchioness of Granby. Such was the impact of the enemy war on British trade on the one hand, and British retaliation in the same vein with prizes said to have been worth £100,000 coming into the Mersey alone.

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