Anson’s Cruise (1740–1744)

George Anson’s capture of a Manila galleon by Samuel Scott.


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): West coast of Spanish America and Manila, Philippines

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Britain hoped to launch a preemptive strike against Spain in anticipation of the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe by cutting off Spain’s supply of wealth from the Americas.

OUTCOME: Britain failed to prevent Spain from entering the European war or to do much damage at all strategically, though Commodore George Anson’s diminished fleet did manage to harass Spain’s West Coast outposts in America, to capture one treasure-laden Spanish galleon, and to pave the way for British expansion in the Pacific.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Britain, slightly in excess of 1,000; Spain, unknown

CASUALTIES: Britain, around 1,000 dead, mostly from illness and shipwreck

When the tangled web of European alliances appeared to be leading Britain into what would become the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION in 1740, the English Crown dispatched Commodore George Anson (1697–1762) to raid Spain’s Pacific coast possessions—Chile, Peru, and Mexico— and to attack Spanish galleons on the high seas. Embroiled in the machinations of Prussia’s Frederick the Great (1712–86) against the presumptive heir to the Austrian throne, Maria Theresa (1717–80), Britain’s royal command hoped to avoid a head-to-head conflict with Spain on the Continent by cutting off its supply of income at the source, Spain’s American colonies.

Given the commission in 1739, Anson was unable actually to begin his mission until mid-September of 1740 because of compounded delays in provisioning and in finding enough men—the mission, after all, required by its very nature that he circumnavigate the world. The tardy departure, however, cost Anson the element of surprise on which he had counted. Though the Spanish had become aware of British intentions and Spain’s colonies had been warned to prepare for attack, Anson nevertheless set sail with a fleet of six warships—his flagship Centurion, plus Gloucester, Severn, Pearl, Wager, Tyral—and one supply vessel, Anna Pink. All were poorly manned, since the entire squadron boasted only 977 sailors, mostly untrained. There were some 200-plus marines among them, but they were fresh recruits with only minimal knowledge of the sea. Anson was lucky to have even them—an urgent request from Anson for more soldiers before shipping out had netted him a contingent of patients from a local hospital. Leading an ill-trained force in a late start against a ready enemy made many, including Anson himself, believe the mission was doomed from the start.

Once at sea, matters only grew worse. Another effect of starting in September was that Anson would have to approach Cape Horn in the autumn, when the westerlies were at their peak. By the time Anson’s fleet began to be battered by gale-force winds, the ships’ crews were all suffering from a severe outbreak of scurvy. Whipped about by storms and manned by sailors debilitated with scurvy, only three ships in Anson’s fleet—Centurion, Gloucester, and Tyral—survived the passage round the Horn. Anson’s fleet was cut in half, his fighting force, such as it was, reduced by some two-thirds, and his original mission effectively dead in the water. But Anson was a capable and imaginative commander, and he simply redefined his objectives. He set sail for Acapulco, fighting his way up the coast and hoping to ambush the famed “Manila Galleon,” a Spanish treasure ship—the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga—before it left the Mexican port homeward bound to Manila. Anson missed the Spanish ship by two weeks, arriving at Acapulco in September 1741.

For two years after rounding the Horn, Anson ravaged the western shores of the Americas, working his way up the coast first to Mexico and then beyond. After he had lost two more ships, Anson, determined to continue around the globe, decided to make a north Pacific crossing to China. When he reached the Portuguese settlement of Macao (near modern-day Hong Kong) on November 13, 1742, he arrived only with his flagship and some 210 men. Nevertheless, the Centurion was the first British warship to sail into Chinese waters, and its arrival created an uproar. The Portuguese, worried about the precarious trade agreements and protocol arrangements they had made with Chinese leaders in Canton, initially refused Anson’s request for provisions and repairs despite pressure from Britain’s East India Company. After careful negotiations with the Chinese, Anson secured his provisions and— recruiting more men—set sail in the spring of 1743, once again hoping to intercept and capture the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga.

Sailing with a reinforced crew fueled by dreams of immense wealth, Anson departed Macao heading south toward the Philippines. In the South China Sea Anson lay in wait for the Manila-bound treasure ship. Greatly outnumbered but with superior weaponry and a greedy crew hungry for loot, the Centurion captured the Cavadonga after a fierce battle on June 20, 1743. Victory was sweet for the beleaguered Englishman. The booty came to somewhat more than 1.3 million pieces of eight and some 35,000 ounces of silver, worth a total of about £400,000. Thus fortified, Anson and his crew continued on their voyage around the world, arriving in London in June 1744 to a conqueror’s welcome as the treasure they had captured was paraded through the streets in 32 wagons.

Anson may have failed at his mission, meeting none of the objectives set for him by the Royal Navy command, but his world cruise, highlighted by the sailing of the first British warship into Chinese waters and by the capture of the Manila galleon, became one of the more famous voyages in naval history. Despite the loss of all but one ship and more than 1,000 men, Anson returned a national hero, and his cruise sparked a wave of British expansion into the Pacific. Anson, a man of some imagination and initiative at a time when the Royal Navy was known for anything but the vision and pluck of its officers, not only became George, Lord Anson, the leading admiral of his day, but also went down in history as the “Father of the Modern British Navy.”

Further reading: W. V. Anson, Life of Admiral Lord Anson, the Father of the British Navy, 1697–1762 (London: J. Murray, 1912); S. W. C. Pack, Admiral Lord Anson: The Story of Anson’s Voyage and Naval Events of His Day (London: Cassell, 1960); L. A. Wilcox, Anson’s Voyage (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970).


American Privateer George Coggeshall

American sea captain George Coggeshall tells of his experiences evading the British navy during the War of 1812 and spending over half a century at sea.

George Coggeshall of Milford, Connecticut, was a sea captain in the great Yankee tradition. His father had been a successful shipmaster but was ruined by repeated confiscations of his cargoes by British and French vessels in the years after the Revolution. Young George, too poor to attend school, had been sent to sea as soon as he was old enough to carry a message from the quarter-deck to the forecastle. In 1809, when he was only 25, he received his first command and altogether spent some sixty years of his life at sea.

Like so many American shipmasters, Coggeshall turned to privateering after the War of 1812 began. It was a risky business, but a profitable one if managed right. With regular channels of trade closed by hostilities, it was a financial necessity for most shipowners. During the war years American privateers ranged the oceans of the world from the Bay of Biscay to the China Sea and captured some 1,350 prizes. By 1814 privateers were bagging an average of three merchantmen a day. In fact, they did more actual damage to British shipping than the much-publicized American Navy.

The two vessels which Coggeshall commanded in these troubled times, the David Porter and the Leo, were known as letter-of-marque schooners. While armed and commissioned to capture and destroy enemy commerce, they differed from conventional privateers in the respect that they carried cargoes and sailed for more or less set destinations.

Thirty years after the war, Captain Coggeshall, who had a lively pen and an eye for interesting detail, put his memories and old logbooks together in book form. AMERICAN HERITAGE is happy to be able to print here certain of the more exciting portions of his wartime adventures, taken directly, with very slight modernizations in the text, from the original Coggeshall manuscript, now in the possession of Colonel A.C.M. Azoy of Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York.

At this period of the war [the fall of 1813] there were but three ways for captains of merchant ships to find employment in their ordinary vocations: namely, enter the United States Navy as sailing masters, go privateering, or command a letter-of-marque—carry a cargo and, as it were, force trade and fight their way or run, as the case might be; and thus, as the last alternative I chose the latter.

I gave myself some weeks of leisure, and then consulted a few friends on the subject of purchasing a pilot-boat schooner and going into the French trade. After looking about for a suitable vessel, I at length met with a fine schooner of about 200 tons burthen, called the David Porter. She was built in Milford, my native town, and had made but one voyage, namely, from New York to St. Jean de Luz, France, from thence to St. Bartholomew, and from that place to Providence, R.I., where she then lay. She was a fine, fast-sailing vessel, and tolerably well armed, namely, a long 18-pounder on a pivot amidships, four 6-pounders, with muskets, pistols, etc. I purchased one half of this schooner for $6,000 from the former owners in Milford, Connecticut. They retained the other half for their own account. My New York friends, Messrs. Lawrence and Whitney, and James Lovett, Esq., bought one quarter, and I retained the other quarter for my own account.

We finally decided on a voyage from Providence to Charleston, S.C., and from thence to France under my command. I forthwith proceeded to Providence and arrived at that place on the 21st of October, 1813. Here I purchased 1,500 bushels of salt, and after getting the salt on board we filled up the vessel with potatoes, butter, cheese, etc., the whole cargo amounting to $3,500. I took with me as first lieutenant my former mate in the Canton, Mr. Samuel Nichols, Joseph Anthony 2nd lieutenant and Charles Coggeshall 3rd lieutenant, with a complement of about 30 petty officers and men. My boatswain, carpenter and gunner, with several of the men, had just been discharged from the frigate President and were very efficient and good men.

I left Providence on the 10th of November with a fine fresh gale from the N.N.W., and in a few hours got down to Newport, there to lie a few days to get ready for sea and wait a favorable time to go out the harbor, that is to say, a dark night and a N.E. snow storm; for in these days to avoid the vigilance of the enemy we were obliged to wait for dark stormy nights to leave or enter our ports. On the morning of the 14th I met with a New York friend, and to this gentleman I committed what little treasure I had left after getting ready for sea. The whole consisted of 30 gold guineas, sundry bank notes and my gold watch, with a request that he would stop at Stamford, Connecticut, on his way to New York, and leave the above-mentioned articles with my sister.

At this time there was a British 74 and a frigate cruising off the harbor of Newport to blockade the port and watch the movements of the United States frigate President, which ship was then lying at Providence.

Towards evening on the 16th of November, I got under weigh, with the wind at E.N.E. At this time no vessel was permitted to go to sea without first presenting a clearance to the commanding officer at the outer fort, at the entrance to the harbor. Consequently, I ran down near the fort just before dark and, for fear of any mistake or detention, took my papers and went myself to the commanding officer and got permission to pass the fort by exhibiting a lantern in the main shrouds for a few minutes. It soon commenced snowing, with a fresh gale at N.E. We ran rapidly out of the harbor and soon got outside of the blockading squadron, and now my greatest fear was running on to Block Island. Fortunately, however, at daylight we saw no land; neither was there a single sail in sight.

On the 17th of November was chased by a man-of-war brig. He being to windward, I hove off, and soon had the pleasure to run him out of sight. On the 24th off Georgetown, was chased all day by a man-of-war brig, with a schooner in company. They being to leeward, consequently I tacked and plied to windward and made good my retreat before night. I could have got into Georgetown the next day, but fearing my cargo would not sell as well as at Charleston, I stood on for that port.

November the 26th, at six o’clock, daylight, in 10 fathoms of water off Cape Romain, saw a man-of-war brig on our weather quarter [that is, to windward], distant about three miles. He soon made sail in chase; I kept wide off to leeward in hopes of drawing him down, so that I could weather him on the opposite tack. This manoeuvre did not succeed, as the enemy only kept off about four points. We both therefore maintained our relative positions, and the chase continued for four hours. I had determined not to run to leeward for fear of coming in contact with another foe, but to hug the wind and run in shore. At 10 A.M. I saw Charleston Lighthouse, bearing north, about ten miles distant. I set my ensign and hauled close upon the wind. This brought the enemy on my starboard beam at long gun-shot distance. I then fired my center gun but could not quite reach him, the wind being light from the northward. At half past ten, I gave him another shot, and though it did not take effect, with a spyglass I saw the shot dash water on his quarter.

I suppose the reason he did not fire was that he could not reach me with his carronades. At eleven, within five miles from Charleston Bar, I saw two schooners coming over the bar and bearing directly down upon the brig, when he squared his yards and ran away to leeward. The two schooners were the famous privateer Decatur of Charleston, with 7 guns, and a complement of over a hundred men; and the other schooner was the letter-of-marque Adaline, Capt. Craycroft of Philadelphia, bound to France. The schooners took no notice of the brig, hauled to the eastward and were soon out of sight. I crossed the bar and got up to Charleston without any further difficulty; and then I was told that the man-of-war brig was the Dotterall, carrying 18 guns.

[Coggeshall remained in Charleston for three weeks. There he disposed of the salt and foodstuffs at a good profit and took on a fresh cargo consisting of 331 bales of compressed cotton, 16 kegs of potash, and 25 tons of pig iron for ballast.]

The Congress of the United States had lately assembled at Washington, and great fears were entertained by many that an embargo would soon be laid. I was of course extremely anxious to get out of port, as such a measure would have been ruinous to myself and the other owners of my vessel and as it was impossible to get out over the bar while the wind was blowing strong directly into the harbor. I therefore, to avoid being stopped by an embargo and to keep my men on board, judged it best to drop as low down the harbor as possible and watch the first favorable moment to proceed to sea. Fortunately the weather cleared up the next day, and with a favorable breeze and fine weather I left the port of Charleston on the 20th of December, 1813, bound to Bordeaux.

I had a good run off the coast and met with nothing worth remarking until the 27th, namely about a week after leaving port, when I fell in with a small English brig from Jamaica, bound for Nova Scotia.

As it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and at this time blowing a strong gale from the N.W. with a high sea running, I did not think it safe to board him until the gale should moderate and the sea became smoother, and therefore ordered him to carry as much sail as possible and follow me on our course to the eastward until better weather. He reluctantly followed, and once before dark I was obliged to hail and give him to understand that if he shewed too great a disposition to lag behind or did not carry all the sail his brig could bear, he would probably feel the effect of one of my stern guns. This had the desired effect and he followed kindly at a convenient distance until midnight, when it became very dark and squally and we soon after lost sight of our first prize, which I did not much regret, as I could not conveniently spare men enough to send him into port.

From this period until we got near the European coast, we scarcely saw a sail and did not meet with a single man-of-war. Thus while the whole coast of the United States was literally lined with English cruisers, on the broad ocean there were very few to be seen; a clear proof that the risk of capture between Newport and Charleston was infinitely greater than going to France.

At this period we were not obliged to deliver the goods on freight at any particular place or port, but to some port in France, even from one extreme of the empire to the other: as for example, anywhere on the western coast from St. Jean de Luz to Ostend.

My bills of lading were filled up upon this principle to Bordeaux or a port in France, and so that on the arrival of the goods, the owners or agents were bound to receive them at any port or place where the vessel was fortunate enough to enter. My object was to get as near Bordeaux as possible; still I did not like to attempt entering the Garonne, as the English generally kept stationed several frigates and smaller vessels directly off the Cordovan Light, which rendered it extremely difficult and hazardous to enter. I therefore decided to run for the harbor of Lateste.

About a week before we got into port, while in the Bay of Biscay, namely on the 19th and 20th of January, we encountered one of the most severe gales from the westward that I have ever experienced. It commenced early on the morning of the 19th and blew a perfect hurricane, which soon raised a high, cross sea. At 8 A.M., I hove the schooner to under a double reefed foresail, lowered down the foreyard near the deck and got everything as snug as possible. At 12 o’clock noon a tremendous sea struck her in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds. The force of the sea broke one of the toptimbers or stanchions [uprights which support a ship’s deck] and split open the planksheer [the heavy plank forming the outer edge of the deck] so that I could see directly into the hold. The force of the sea and the weight of the water that came on board threw the vessel nearly on her beam ends. Fortunately the weight of water that fell into the foresail split the sail and tore away the bulwarks; and being thus relieved, she gradually righted.

We then threw overboard two of the lee guns, water casks, etc., and after nailing tarred canvas and leather over the broken plank-sheer, got ready to wear ship [to change course by turning the stern to windward], fearing the injury received in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds would endanger the foremast. We accordingly got ready to hoist a small piece of the mainsail, and thus kept her off before the wind for a few minutes, and watched a favorable smooth time to bring her to the wind on the other tack. During the time that the schooner ran before the wind she appeared literally to leap from one sea to another. We soon, however, brought her up to the wind on the other tack without accident, and thus under a small piece of the mainsail she lay to pretty well. But as the gale continued to rage violently, I feared we might ship another sea, and therefore prepared, as it were, to anchor the vessel head to the wind.

For this purpose we took a square sail boom, spanned it at each end with a new four-inch rope and made our small bower cable fast to the bight of the span; and with the other end fastened to the foremast, threw it overboard and payed out about 60 fathoms of cable. She then rode like a gull on the water, and I was absolutely astonished to see the good effect of this experiment. The spar broke the sea and kept the schooner nearly head to the wind until the gale subsided.

The next day in the afternoon, January 20th, we again made sail, and on the 26th, six days after this dreadful tempest, got safe into Lateste, 37 days from Charleston.

While we providentially escaped destruction, other ships were not so fortunate; many were wrecked and stranded along the coast, and five sail of English transports were thrown on shore near Lateste, and most of their crews perished in the same gale. On my arrival at Lateste, all my papers were sent up to Paris; and although we were all well, still we were compelled by the government to ride quarantine for six days.

Lateste is a poor little village principally supported by fish and oysters taken in its waters and sold in Bordeaux, from which city it is distant 30 miles and 56 miles from the mouth of the Garonne. With a bad sand bar at the mouth of the harbor, it is only a fit entrance for small vessels of a light draft of water, and even for small vessels it is dangerous to approach in bad weather.

[Coggeshall landed to find Napoleon’s empire on the verge of collapse as the Allied Armies pressed in on France from all sides. Austrian and Russian troops were advancing on Paris and Wellington’s British army was moving up from Spain. For the moment, however, Coggeshall was more concerned about his business difficulties with the Bordeaux merchants to whom his cargo was consigned. They flatly refused to handle it; although after much bickering they did advance him enough money to purchase a small cargo of wine and brandy. Coggeshall’s plan was to send the Porter and her new cargo back to America, while he remained to look after the cotton. He knew that the sooner his ship set sail the better, for detachments of Wellington’s forces were already reported close to Bordeaux.]

In the midst of all my trouble and confusion, I will devote a few moments to relate some of the peculiarities of this part of France. The large tract of country lying between Bayonne and Bordeaux is familiarly called the Landes. It is bounded on the west by the Bay of Biscay and extends about 25 leagues east into France. The face of the country is generally low, flat, sandy and barren. Its forests consist principally of pine or fir trees, and the land is generally miserably cultivated. The peasantry are wretchedly poor and mostly clothed in sheep skins. The Basque is the language of the country, and it is only the upper classes or educated people that speak French.

In the summer season the sands are extremely hot, and in the spring and fall months the country being low is often wet and muddy, which I suppose is the cause of so many of the country people—particularly the peasants and shepherds—walking on stilts, a foot or two above the ground, with a long balance pole to support them and regulate their movements.

I have seen them walking in the morning at a distance when the weather was a little foggy, when they absolutely appeared like immense giants walking over the tall grass and small trees. I used frequently to ask them why they preferred walking on stilts; their answer generally was to keep their feet dry, and remarking also that they could travel much faster and with more ease than with their feet on the ground. This region is very unlike any other part of France, and should a stranger visit the Landes without seeing any other part of the kingdom, he would naturally conclude that the French nation was only about half-civilized.

The pilot that took my vessel into port came off in a boat rowed (I liked to have said manned) by four females; and after the schooner came to anchor, I took one of my sailors with me and returned to the shore in the pilot’s boat. We landed on a sand beach where the water was too shallow for the boat to come to the beach, when one of the women immediately jumped into the water, took the huge pilot on her back and carried him some distance to the dry land. Another female offered to carry me in the same way; to this I would not consent. The sailor, like myself, appeared ashamed to see a female carry a man on her back through the surf and instantly jumped out and took me on his back to the dry beach.

It is true, these women were coarse and rough, but still they were females and clad in petticoats, and it appeared wrong to my mind thus to degrade and debase the female character. All along the road from Lateste to Bordeaux I rarely saw a man at work in the fields. Nearly all the labor of cultivating the lands at that time was performed by females; now and then, it is true, I saw an old man and perhaps a boy, but this did not often occur. All the men from sixteen to sixty were pressed into the military service. It was often a melancholy sight, when passing through the towns and villages, to see mere boys forced from their parents and taken to some military depot, there to be drilled for a few weeks and then sent to some of the numerous armies to be slaughtered like so many sheep and cattle.

Although at this period the Austrian and Russian armies were in the neighborhood of Paris, and Lord Wellington was marching at the head of his victorious army, overrunning the south of France, it was astonishing to see how little was known to the country people in this region about the military state of the kingdom. Perhaps not a man in a thousand knew that there was a Russian or an English soldier within a hundred leagues of France.

I recollect one day, passing through a small village, I stopped at a house to get some water. There I saw a poor woman wringing her hands and weeping ready to break her heart. I could not refrain from enquiring the cause of her grief, when she said: “Sir, they have just taken away my son to join the army, and I have already lost two of my children in the same way. Oh! I shall never see him again!”

Although at some hazard for my own safety, I voluntarily offered the poor woman all the consolation I could. I told her I was a stranger and had no right to interfere with the affairs of another nation, but at the same time, if she would keep quiet, I could assure her that there was no danger of losing her son; that the wars were nearly at an end, and that peace, in all human probability, would be concluded in a few weeks, when her son would be restored to her again. At these words the poor creature was completely overjoyed. She blessed me a thousand times over, and when I mounted my horse and rode off, I was filled with indignation at what men call military glory; but at the next moment I felt self-reproved that I too commanded an armed vessel and was perhaps going out in a few days to distress the enemies of my country. Oh! then, how strange and inconsistent is poor short-sighted man, always condemning others, when often committing the same crime that he would fain fasten on his neighbor.

I soon saw that the French ladies and the working women are removed an immeasurable distance from each other, almost as much so as though they did not belong to the same species. I used often to pass a social evening at the hospitable mansion of my worthy consignee, Madame Campos, and frequently saw there assembled some fifteen or twenty young ladies and generally not more than three or four gentlemen, and these were military officers who had been wounded and disabled in the wars and were now here attached to the custom house. This was certainly a sad state of society in a national point of view, when there were no young men to marry the fair daughters of France.

[As the British approached, Coggeshall hastened to Bordeaux to prevent the landing of the wine shipment at Lateste. He ordered it sent instead to the heavily fortified port of La Rochelle, which was not yet in danger. Then he made ready to sail—and got away just in time, for the British occupied Lateste the day after he left.]

On my arrival at Lateste, I lost no time in preparing for sea. There was no other ship or vessel lying here, and no stone ballast. I was therefore compelled to take in sand ballast in my own boat and fill up our water casks. We had no biscuit on board and there was but one baker of any consequence in the whole town. I hastened to this important character and agreed to take all the bread he could make in two days, and thus by hurrying and driving I got ready for sea on the 11th of March. At the end of two days I called on the baker for my supply of bread, when to my great mortification and disappointment I could get only loaves enough to fill two bags, and this for a vessel bound to La Rochelle with a crew of thirty-five in number was certainly a very small allowance. It is true I had salt beef and pork enough on board, but no vegetables or rice.

On the 11th in the evening, by letters from Bordeaux, I learned that the day before, on the 10th, the town had surrendered by capitulation to a portion of Lord Wellington’s army, that no person had been molested, and that perfect good order was observed throughout the city.

All this appeared very well with respect to Bordeaux, but still I was fearful that the English would come down and take Lateste before I could get to sea. The next day, March 12th, the wind was from the westward and the pilot would not take my vessel to sea. He said that it was impossible to get out, that there was too great a swell on the bar, etc. The next day, the 13th, the weather was clear and the wind fresh at N.N.E. In the morning I prevailed on the pilot to come on board. He told me that the tide would suit at five o’clock in the afternoon, and if there should not be too much sea on the bar at that hour, he would take the vessel out. Accordingly, at four o’clock I requested him to get under weigh and be ready to pass the bar at five. I now found he was unwilling to go out at all.

He said, “Captain, if we should succeed in getting out, it would be impossible to land me.” I then offered him double pilotage, told him I was fearful the English would come down in the morning and make a prize of my vessel, and that I would treble his pilotage, and pledged him my honor that if I waited a week outside, I would land him in safety. At last my patience was exhausted, and I found the more I coaxed and strove to persuade him to go, the more obstinate he became. At length I said, “If you will not go to sea, pilot, just get the schooner under weigh, and go down below the fort and anchor there within the bar.” To this proposition he consented.

While getting under weigh, I went below and put into my pocket a loaded pistol and again returned on deck. We soon got below the fort, and it was five o’clock, precisely the hour he had named as the most suitable to safe out over the bar. I then placed the pistol to his ear and told him to proceed to sea, or he was a dead man, and that if the schooner took the ground his life should pay the forfeit. The poor fellow was terribly frightened and said he would do his best; and thus, in less than fifteen minutes from the time we filled away, we were fairly over and outside of this dreadful bar. I then discharged the pistol and assured the pilot I would do him no harm, and that I would wait a week if it was necessary for good weather to land him in safety. He now appeared more tranquil and composed but could not refrain from talking occasionally of his poor wife and children and seemed to have a lurking fear that I would carry him to America.

I stood off and on during the night and in the morning, March 14th. The wind was light off shore from the eastward. As the sea was smooth I stood close in to the beach and got our boat ready to land the pilot. I gave him several letters to my friends and an order for a considerable sum over and above his regular pilotage, notwithstanding I had compelled him to take my vessel to sea. At eight o’clock in the morning, my second officer with four men took Mr. Pilot on shore. I gave the officer of the boat positive orders to back the boat, stern on to the shore, and let the pilot jump out whenever he could do so with safety. I took a spyglass and soon had the pleasure to see the man land and scamper up the beach.

The boat soon returned and was hoisted on board when we made sail and stood off in a N.W. direction. The wind was light from the eastward and the weather fine and clear. During the night we had not much wind and of course made but little progress. At daylight, March 15th, 1814, saw a large ship on our weather quarter. I soon made her out to be a frigate, distant about two miles. We were now in a very unpleasant position: early in the morning, with a frigate dead to windward. I manoeuvred for some ten or fifteen minutes in hopes of drawing him down to leeward so that I should be able to weather him on one tack or the other. (This was often done at the commencement of the war, with American schooners, for if the pilot boats could succeed in getting the enemy under their lee, they would laugh at their adversary.) This manoeuvre, however, did not succeed. He only kept off about 4 or 6 points, and I have no doubt he thought it impossible for me to elude his grasp. All this time I was losing ground, and the ship not more than two gun shots to windward.

I held a short consultation with my officers on the subject of attempting to get to windward, namely by receiving a broadside, or by running off to leeward. They all thought it best to ply the windward and receive his fire. I stated that we should have to pass him within pistol shot, and the probability was that he would shoot away some of our spars, in which case we should inevitably be captured. I knew the schooner sailed very fast off the wind, and I thought the chance of escape better to run to leeward. I accordingly gave orders to get the square sail and studding-sails all ready to run up at the same moment. The frigate, not dreaming of my running to leeward, was unprepared to chase off the wind, and I should think it was at least five minutes before he had a studding-sail set, so that I gained about a mile at the commencement of the chase.

The wind was light from the E.N.E. and the weather very fine. I ordered holes bored in all the water casks except four and the water pumped into buckets to wet the sails, also to throw overboard sand ballast to lighten the schooner. After this was done we began to draw away from the frigate, so that at noon I had gained eight or ten miles on the chase. At four in the afternoon he was nearly out of sight and appeared like a speck on the water.

We had now time to look into our own situation, when to my great regret, in lieu of leaving four casks of water, the carpenter in the confusion had only left two, and as the wind freshened I found the schooner so light that it was unsafe to haul upon the wind [to turn the ship to windward].

And now I will leave the seafaring men to judge of my unfortunate situation: Thus, wide off to sea in the Bay of Biscay, with a light vessel with scarcely ballast enough to stand upon her bottom, with a crew of thirty-five men and only two casks of fresh water and a few loaves of soft bread.

The wind was light during the night, and towards morning it became almost calm. At daylight, to our unspeakable joy, we were in the midst of a small fleet of merchant ships. They had left England under convoy of a frigate and a sloop-of-war, and had separated in a gale of wind a few days before I fell in with them, and were now like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. This little fleet was bound to St. Sebastian, and many of them were loaded with provisions for the British Army. The first one I captured was a brig, principally laden with provision. After taking possession, I agreed with the captain that if he would assist me with his boats and men to transport his cargo from his vessel to my schooner, I would let him go; otherwise I would take what I wanted and destroy his brig. Of course he was glad to make the best of a bad bargain, and thus, with the boats of both vessels, in two hours we had provisions enough for three months’ cruise. His cabin was filled with bags of hard biscuit, and as this is considered the staff of life we took it first and then got a fine supply of butter, hams, cheese, potatoes, porter, etc., etc., and last, though not least, six casks of fresh water.

After this was done the captain asked me if I would make him a present of the brig and the residue of the cargo for his own private account, which I willingly agreed to in consideration of the assistance I had received from him and his men.

I showed him my commission from the Government of the United States, authorizing me to take, burn, sink, and destroy our common enemy, and satisfied him that he was a lawful prize to my vessel. I then gave him a certificate stating that though his brig was a lawful prize, I voluntarily gave her to him as a present. (This, of course, was only a piece of foolery, but it pleased the captain, and we parted good friends.)

This was on the 16th of March, the day after my escape from the British frigate.

I had now got as much water and provisions as I wanted, and made sail for a ship and two brigs, a mile or two off on our lee beam. Although the wind was very light, I soon took all three of them and made the same agreement with them as with the other captain, that if they would assist me with all their boats and help me to load my schooner with such part of their cargo as suited me, I would let them go; otherwise I would send them into port as prizes or destroy their vessels. This was a bitter pill, but they had the choice of two evils and of course complied with my request.

After having taken out a considerable quantity of merchandise, a fresh breeze sprang up from the S.W. and the weather became dark and rainy, which rendered it difficult to continue transporting any more goods from the prizes to our schooner.

At five o’clock in the afternoon a large ship hove in sight to windward. From aloft, with a spyglass, I clearly made her to be the same frigate that had chased me the day before. I recognized her from the circumstance of her having a white jib; all the sails were dark colored except this jib, and this was bleached. From this remarkable fact I was quite sure it was the same ship.

We of course cleared the decks and got ready for another trial of speed; but as my schooner was now in good trim, and night coming on, I had no doubt of dodging him in the dark. He came rapidly down within five or six miles of us when I ran near my prizes and ordered them all to hoist lanterns. Neither of them up to this time had seen the frigate; and thus while the lanterns showed their positions, I hauled off silently in the dark. Very soon after this I heard the frigate firing at his unfortunate countrymen, while we were partaking of an excellent supper at their expense.

The next day, March 17th, it was dark, rainy weather, with strong gales from the S.W. Saw nothing. Stood to the northward under easy sail, waiting for better weather to complete loading my little schooner with something valuable from another prize.

I would here remark that small guns, that is to say, 6- or 9-pounders, are of little or no use on board of small vessels, for if the sea is rough they cannot be used at all; in a word, I have found them of no service but rather in the way. My only dépendance was on my 18-pounder, mounted amidships on a pivot. This gun I could use in almost any weather.

With this gun and forty small arms, I found no difficulty in capturing merchant ships. I selected ten of the largest and strongest of the men I had on board to work the center gun. One of these was a huge black man, about six feet six inches in height and large in proportion. To him I gave the command of the gun. Although so powerful a man, he was the best-natured fellow in the world and a general favorite with both officers and men.

March the 18th, still a continuation of bad weather with a strong gale from the westward. At 4 P.M. saw a frigate and a brig-of-war off my lee beam, distant about five miles. They made sail in chase, but under my three lower sails, namely mainsail, foresail and jib, I had no fear of them. I showed my ensign for a few moments and then plied to windward, taking short tacks; and in a few hours they gave up the chase, when I again pursued my course to the northward under easy sail. Next day, March 19th, the wind moderated, but still there was a very high sea and very unpleasant weather.

March 20th, moderate breezes from the westward and unpleasant weather. This day I came to the conclusion to land myself somewhere on the coast of France and to send my vessel home under the command of my first officer, Mr. Samuel Nichols; and on an examination of a chart of the coast, I concluded to run for l’Ile d’Yeu [an island lying below the mouth of the Loire River] and land there. Accordingly I shaped my course for the island, and without meeting with any incident worth relating made the land on the 23rd of March at four o’clock in the afternoon, and at six landed on the island in my own boat. It soon became dark and I was obliged to remain on shore with my boat’s crew all night.

I took with me my clearance and other papers from Bordeaux, with sundry newspapers, and was well received by the governor and commissary of Marine.

March 24th at six o’clock in the morning, although the weather was thick and rainy and a strong breeze from the S.W., I sent my boat on board the schooner with a pilot, with orders to get the vessel into the roads near the town, which is situated on the N.E. end of the island. At two o’clock in the afternoon the schooner came directly off the town, close in with the fort, where with our own boat we took on board six casks of fresh water, some fresh provisions, and sundry small stores. I then obtained liberty from the public authorities to dispatch my vessel to the United States.

When I landed at l’Ile d’Yeu, I took with me as one of the boat’s crew the large black man Philip, and I was astonished to see the curiosity expressed here at the sight of a Negro. He was followed at every step by a crowd of men, women and children, all desirous to see a black man; and I soon received a pressing message from the governor’s lady to see him. I accordingly took Philip with me and repaired to the residence of the governor, where were assembled all the first ladies of the island. They had a great many questions to ask about him respecting the place of his birth, whether he was kind and good-natured, etc. When their curiosity was gratified, the fellow begged of me as a favor to be allowed to go on board, as he did not like to be exhibited as a show. This request I readily granted, telling the ladies and gentlemen that I had an Indian on board, and that I would send for him. The Indian came directly on shore, but to my surprise there appeared but little curiosity on the part of the inhabitants to see the savage.

When I came to reflect a little on the subject, I was not at all surprised at the novelty of seeing a black man. This island had been, as it were, shut out from the rest of the world for twenty-five or thirty years with little or no commerce or communication with other nations, and it is therefore highly probable that very few of its inhabitants had ever seen a Negro, and they were, of course, eager to behold one.

At five o’clock in the afternoon of March 24th, 1814, I repaired on board in a shore boat, and after writing a few hasty letters to my friends in the United States and making a short address to my officers and men, I resigned the command to my first lieutenant, Mr. Samuel Nichols, and returned on shore with a heavy heart at parting with my little band of faithful followers.

The schooner was soon out of sight as she stood round the south end of the islands, and here I should be doing injustice to the memory of these brave men did I not give my feeble testimony to their good conduct from the time we left Charleston until parting with them at l’Ile d’Yeu. I never saw one of them intoxicated in the slightest manner, nor did I ever see one of them ill-treat a prisoner or attempt to plunder the smallest article. In a word, from the first lieutenant to the smallest boy on board, they were faithful, good and true men, and to the best of my knowledge and belief were all born and bred in the United States.

[Coggeshall proceeded to La Rochelle. While arranging for the transportation of his wine cargo on another letter-of-marque schooner, the Ida, he heard of the capture of Paris and the fall of Napoleon and his subsequent exile to Elba. The Ida and Coggeshall’s uninsured property barely escaped capture. The schooner had to make a dash through a squadron of British men-of-war stationed at the mouth of the harbor; and though some of her rigging was shot away by cannon fire, she managed to outdistance her pursuers.

When Coggeshall returned to Bordeaux, he was gratified to learn that most of his cotton had been sold. Next he journeyed to La Rochelle, Nantes, and finally. Paris, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure passage home. Nantes he found “the most moral town of its size in the kingdom”—but perhaps the reason was that “there appeared to be about three women to one man. …” Paris was, in his opinion, “astonishing,” a city of “astounding sublimity.” There Coggeshall purchased 5,000 francs worth of French silks, shawls, and silk stockings, which he sent to Bordeaux for shipment to the United States. Then he went sight-seeing.

Back in Bordeaux in September, he was informed that both the Porter and the Ida had reached America safely. The Porter had captured several British prizes and arrived at Gloucester with considerable booty and several prisoners. Meanwhile Coggeshall decided not to take immediate passage home, and instead assumed command of the American schooner Leo.]

The Leo was a fine Baltimore-built vessel of 320 tons burthen, sailed remarkably fast, and was in every respect a very superior vessel. This schooner was lying in L’Orient on the first of November, 1814, and then belonged to Thomas Lewis, Esq., an American gentleman residing in Bordeaux. She was purchased on the 2nd of November by an association of American gentlemen from Mr. Lewis and placed under my command. The commission of this vessel was endorsed over to me, and the whole transaction acknowledged and ratified by our Minister at Paris, the Honorable Wm. H. Crawford.

The object of the voyage was to make a little cruise and, if possible, take and man a few prizes, then proceed to Charleston for a cargo of cotton, and return from thence as soon as possible to France; and, as there was quite a number of American seamen in Bordeaux, Nantes, and L’Orient, supported by the Government of the United States through the consuls at the before-mentioned ports, it was desirable to take home as many as the vessel could conveniently accommodate.

After the arrangement was made to perform the voyage, I took with me as first officer Mr. Pierre G. de Peyster, and left Bordeaux for L’Orient. On our way we stopped a day or two at Nantes, where I agreed with forty seamen and two petty officers to go with me in the Leo on our intended voyage. The arrangement with these men was made with the consent and sanction of our resident consul at that place.

Mr. Azor O. Lewis, a fine young gentleman, brother to the former owner of the Leo, was one of my prizemasters, and to him I committed the charge of bringing about forty seamen from Bordeaux to this place. The residue of the officers and men were picked up at L’Orient, with the exception of four or five of my officers who came from Bordeaux and joined the vessel at this place.

Early in November we commenced fitting the Leo for sea. We found her hull in pretty good order, but her sails and rigging in rather a bad state. I, however, set everything in motion, namely sailmakers to repair the sails, block-makers, blacksmiths, etc., etc., while others were employed taking in ballast, filling up water casks, etc., in fine, hurrying on as fast as possible before we should be stopped. The English had so much interference with the new government of Louis XVIII that we, as Americans, felt extremely anxious to get out on the broad ocean as soon as possible, and therefore drove on almost night and day. After ballasting, we took on board 3 tons of bread, 30 barrels of beef, 15 ditto of pork and other stores to correspond; in short, I ordered stores enough for fifty days.

Our crew including the officers and mariners numbered about one hundred souls, and a better set of officers and men never left the port of L’Orient. But we were miserably armed. We had, when I first took the command of this schooner, one long brass 12-pounder and four small 4-pounders, with some fifty or sixty poor muskets. Those concerned in the vessel seemed to think we ought with so many men to capture prizes enough even without guns. With this miserable armament, while I was lying at anchor at the mouth of the harbor, waiting only for my papers from Paris, I was ordered by the public authorities to return to port and disarm the vessel. I was compelled to obey, and accordingly waited on the commanding officer and told him it was a cruel case that I should not be allowed arms enough to defend the vessel. He politely told me he was sorry, but that he must obey the orders of the government and that I must take out all the guns except one; and at the same time laughingly observed that one gun was enough to take a dozen English ships before I got to Charleston. I of course kept the long 12-pounder, and during the night we smuggled on board some twenty or thirty muskets. In this situation I left the port of L’Orient on the 8th of November, 1814, and stood out to sea in hopes of capturing a few prizes.

After getting to sea we rubbed up the muskets, and with this feeble armament steered for the chops of the British Channel. We soon found that when the weather was good and the sea smooth we could take merchantmen enough by boarding, but in rough weather our travelling 12-pounder was but a poor reliance and not to be depended upon, like the long counter gun that I had on board the David Porter. It is true, my officers and men were always ready to board an enemy of three times our force, but in a high sea if one of these delicately Baltimore-built vessels should come in contact with a large, strong ship, the schooner would inevitably be crushed and knocked to pieces.

[At this point in his narrative, Coggeshall introduces several weeks of entries from the log of the Leo. Entries of weather, latitude and longitude have been omitted here .]

SUNDAY NOV. 13TH. At 6 A.M. saw a brig to windward. At seven she set English colors—gave her a gun when she struck her flag. She proved to be the English brig Alexander, Captain Grain, from Leghorn bound up the Channel. It now commenced blowing a strong breeze from the N.W. and soon there was a high sea running. Saw a large ship steering up the Channel; left the prize, made sail in chase of her. At 10 A.M. she set English colors and fired a gun. Had the weather been smooth, I think we could have carried her by boarding in fifteen minutes, or had I met her at sea I would have followed her until the weather was better and the sea smooth; but being now in the English Channel, with a high sea, it would have destroyed our schooner if she had come in contact with this wall-sided ship. He showed six long nines on each side. Thus after exchanging a few shot I hauled and let him go, and then returned to our prize. Fresh gales and cloudy weather.

MONDAY NOV. 14TH. At 2 P.M., the weather moderated, when I took out of the Alexander the captain, mate and crew, and put on board of her Mr. Turner as prize-master and seven men, with orders to proceed to a port in the United States.

TUESDAY NOV. 15TH. As it was now the middle of November and no prospect of much fine weather, and my schooner so badly armed, I concluded to leave this rough cruising ground and run to the southward in hopes of finding better weather.

WEDNESDAY NOV. 16TH. Saw a sail to the eastward, made sail in chase; at 9 A.M. boarded her. She proved to be the Spanish brig Diligent, Captain José Antonio de Bard, from Bilbao bound to London—put eight English prisoners on board of her with a tolerable supply of provisions, and let him proceed on his course. At 10 A.M. saw two sail to the westward when we made sail in chase.

THURSDAY NOV. 17TH. Four sail in sight, light airs and fine weather. Made sail in chase of the nearest vessel at noon. The chase hove to and hoisted Spanish colors. When about to board this brig we discovered an English man-of-war very near, in full chase of us.

FRIDAY NOV. 18TH. The man-of-war brig still in chase of us about two miles distant at 8 P.M. Passed near a brig standing to the eastward. Had not time to board her, as the man-of-war was still in chase. At midnight the wind became fresh from the W.S.W. with dark rainy weather. Took in all the light sails, and hauled close upon the wind to W.N.W. At 7 A.M. saw a small sail on our weather bow, made sail in chase. At ten, came up with the chase, found it was the English sloop Brilliant, Captain John Pétrie, from Teneriffe bound to London with a cargo of wine.

SATURDAY NOV. 19TH. At meridian took out of the prize twenty quarter-casks of wine, together with her sails, cables, rigging blocks, etc., and after removing the prisoners, scuttled her. At 1 P.M. she sank. Strong gales from the northward and rainy weather during the night.

SUNDAY NOV. 20TH. At 7 A.M. saw a sail to windward, tacked ship to get the weather gage [that is, to get the advantage of the windward position]. At eleven, got her on our lee beam when we made her out to be an English brig-of-war of 16 guns. I commenced firing my long 12. At noon, after receiving about thirty or forty shot from this brig without any material damage, I hauled off. Some of his shot passed over us, some fell short; and only one of his shot hulled us; this shot passed through our bands amidships and lodged in the hold. I could outsail him with the greatest ease and if I had had a long, well-mounted centre gun, I could have annoyed him without receiving any injury by just keeping out of the reach of his cannonades.

MONDAY NOV. 21ST. At meridian saw a sail bearing W.S.W. Made sail in chase. At 4 P.M. , she being directly to leeward, I ran down to discover the character of the chase. I soon made her out to be a frigate. When within three miles distance I hoisted an English ensign. The frigate showed Portuguese colors and resorted to every stratagem in his power to decoy us down within the range of his shot. Finding I could outsail him with ease, I hauled down the English colors, set an American ensign, and hauled close upon the wind, and soon lost sight of him. During the night we had fresh gales at E.N.E. and squally weather.

TUESDAY NOV. 22ND. At 7 A.M. made a small sail bearing S.S.W.; made sail in chase. We soon came up with and boarded the English schooner Hannah, Patrick Hodge, master, from Malaga bound to Dublin with a cargo of fruit. Took out the prisoners and a supply of fruit and then manned her and gave orders to the prize-master to make the best of his way to the United States of America. At 3 P.M. came up with and boarded a Danish galliot; at midnight put ten English prisoners on board of this galliot. I supplied them with provisions and a quarter-cask of wine and allowed him to proceed on his voyage. She was from Marseilles bound to Hamburg, with a cargo of wine and oil. At 8 A.M. saw a sail bearing N.N.E. Made sail in chase; at eleven boarded her. She proved to be a Swedish barque from St. Ubes bound to Stockholm.

WEDNESDAY NOV. 23RD. At 1 P.M. wore ship to the S.E. in chase of a brig. She proved to be a Russian from Oporto bound to Hamburg, with a cargo of wine and fruit. At noon discovered two frigates to leeward. They both made sail in chase of us. I plied to windward, tacking every hour, and beat them with great ease, but as there were two of them I was not quite at ease until I had got out of their neighborhood.

THURSDAY NOV. 24TH. Showers of rain and a high head sea running—the two frigates still in chase of us. At 5 P.M. the weathermost frigate was about ten or twelve miles distant to leeward. Finding I could beat them with so much ease, I reefed the sails and plied to windward. Towards morning the wind moderated and at daylight there was nothing in sight.

FRIDAY NOV. 25TH. At 3 P.M. discovered a sail bearing about S.E. Made sail and bore easy in chase. At half past three, made her out to be a frigate, when I hauled upon the wind. At four, she fired a gun and showed American colors. I set an American ensign for a few minutes, and then hauled it down and hoisted a large English ensign. He fired three or four shot, but finding they fell short, stopped firing and crowded all sail in chase. Night coming on, I soon lost sight of him. During the night we had fresh breezes and cloudy weather. At daylight there was nothing in sight; took in sail.

SATURDAY NOV. 26TH. At 1 P.M. discovered a sail to windward bearing N.W. Made sail in chase, tacking every hour. At five made him out to be a ship standing upon the wind to the N.E. At half past nine o’clock, after getting on his weather quarter, ran up alongside, hailed him, and ordered him to heave to, which order was immediately obeyed. I sent my boat on board and found her to be the English ship Speed, burthen about 200 tons. Captain John Brown, from Palermo bound to London with a cargo of brimstone, rags, mats, etc., etc. She mounted six guns with a crew of about twenty men. We kept company through the night.

SUNDAY NOV. 27TH. In the forenoon of this day removed the prisoners from the ship Speed and put Mr. Azor O. Lewis on board as prize-master, and a crew of ten men. I also took out his guns, powder, shot, and some fruit and then ordered Mr. Lewis to proceed to the United States. At 2 P.M. made sail and steered to the S.W. and at five lost sight of the prize.

THURSDAY DEC. 1ST. At 1 P.M. saw a ship on our weather quarter coming up with us very fast. I made sail upon the wind to the westward, to get to windward of the ship in order to ascertain her character.

It was then blowing a strong breeze from the N.N.W. and was somewhat squally with a head sea running. About half past two our schooner gave a sudden pitch, when to the astonishment of every person on board the foremast broke about one third part of the way below the head, and in a moment after it broke again, close to the deck. While in this situation I had the mortification to see the other ship pass within pistol shot, without being able to pursue her. I believe she was an English packet just out of Lisbon and bound for England, and I have not the smallest doubt, if it had not been for this dreadful accident, we should have captured her in less than one hour from the time we first saw her. At this time the packets transported large quantities of specie to England, and this ship would, in all human probability, have proved a rich prize to us.

[Here Captain Coggeshall resumes his narrative.]

I have no doubt the mast was defective and that it should have been renewed before leaving port; and to this circumstance I attribute all the misfortune attending the cruise. I cannot express the disappointment and mortification I now felt, not so much on my own account as on account of the loss incurred by the worthy gentlemen who planned and fitted out the expedition. Our only hope was to get into Lisbon or St. Ubes before daylight the next morning, and thus escape capture. We accordingly cleared away the wreck, rigged a jury-foremast and bore away for Lisbon. At 4 P.M., an hour after the accident occurred, we were going at the rate of seven knots, and had the breeze continued through the night we should have got into port by daylight next morning. But unfortunately the wind became light during the night and we made but little progress. At 5 A.M., daylight, made Cape Espartel and the Rock of Lisbon, when it became almost calm. We then commenced sweeping and towing with two boats ahead until 1 P.M., when a light air sprung up from the westward and I had strong hopes that we should be able to get into port or run the vessel on shore and destroy her, and thus escape capture.

At 2 P.M., being about four miles from the land, received a Lisbon pilot on board. At this time the ebb tide commenced running out the Tagus, when I had the mortification to see a frigate coming out with the first of the ebb, with a light air of wind from off land. Soon we were under her guns. She proved to be the Granicus, 38 guns, Captain W. F. Wise. We were all removed to the frigate and the schooner taken in tow for Gibraltar.

Two days after our capture, namely, the 3rd of December, we arrived at Gibraltar. All my officers and men were distributed and sent to England in different ships; myself and the first and second lieutenants were retained on board the Granicus to undergo an examination at the Admiralty Court at Gibraltar. The next day after our arrival the frigate left port for Tetuan Bay, Morocco, opposite Gibraltar, to water and paint the ship. We were taken on this little voyage, and had I not been a prisoner I should have enjoyed very much the novelty of this excursion, which occupied three or four days, after which time we again returned to Gibraltar.

Capt. Wise was a fine gentlemanly man and always treated me and my officers with great respect and kindness; we messed in the wardroom, and I had a stateroom to myself and was as comfortable and happy as I could be in the circumstances in which I was placed. I used to dine with Capt. W. almost daily; he frequently said to me, “Don’t feel depressed by captivity, but strive to forget that you are a prisoner and imagine that you are only a passenger.” He also invited my first lieutenant, Mr. de Peyster, occasionally to dine with him, and said he would endeavor to get us paroled and thus prevent our being sent to England.

We stated to him that we had voluntarily released more than thirty British prisoners, notwithstanding that the American government gave a bounty (to letters-of-marque and privateers) of one hundred dollars per head for British prisoners brought into the United States. These facts Capt. Wise represented to the governor and also added that the five English prisoners found on board the Leo said they had been very kindly treated, and he hoped his Excellency would release me and my two lieutenants upon our parole and let us return to the United States. The governor refused to comply with the kind request of Capt. Wise and said he had positive orders from the British government to send every American prisoner brought to that port to England.

When Capt. Wise informed us that he was unable to obtain our liberty on parole, he gave me a letter of introduction to a friend in England, requesting him to use his best interest to get myself and my first and second lieutenants released on parole and thus enable us to return forthwith to the United States.

Mr. Daly, an Irish gentleman, second lieutenant of the Granicus and a fine fellow, who was connected with several persons of distinction in England, also gave me a letter to a noble lady of great influence at Court. I regret I do not recollect her name but I clearly recollect the emphatic expression of the kindhearted and generous Daly when he handed me the letter to his noble friend. “Cause this letter to be presented,” said he, “and upon it this lady will never allow you or your two friends to be sent to prison in England.”

Mr. de Peyster was a high-spirited man, and when he learned that we could not obtain our liberty on parole, he became extremely vexed and excited and told the wardroom officers that, if it should ever please God to place him in command of a letter-of-marque or privateer during the war, he would never again release one English prisoner, but would have a place built in the vessel to confine them until he should arrive in the United States—that the bounty of $100 given by the United States government was nearly equal in value to an African slave, and therefore it became an object to carry them into port; but from motives of humanity we had released many of their countrymen and now they refused to parole three unfortunate men who were in their power. I said but little on the subject but from that moment resolved to make my escape the first opportunity.

The next day after this conversation, namely December 8th, Capt. Wise said, “Captain Coggeshall, it is necessary that you and your officers should go on shore to the Admiralty Office, there be examined with respect to the condemnation of your schooner, your late cruise, etc., and if you will pledge me your word and honor that you and your officers will not attempt to make your escape, I will permit you and the other two gentlemen to go on shore without a guard.” I told him at once that I would pledge myself not to attempt in any way to make my escape and would also be answerable for Mr. de Peyster and Mr. Allen. This ready compliance on my part was only a ruse to gain an opportunity to reconnoitre the garrison or, in seamen’s phrase, “to see how the land lay,” in order to profit by the first chance to make my escape.

We accordingly went on shore without a guard and were conducted to the Admiralty Office. I was first examined and was asked a great many questions, the greatest part of which were printed; the answers were written down opposite the questions. It seemed to me to be more a matter of form than for any other purpose. By the by, many of the enquiries appeared to me very silly.

After they had finished with me they commenced with Mr. de Peyster, and after asking him a few questions the court of enquiry was adjourned until the next morning at ten o’clock; and after notifying us to be there precisely at the time appointed they dismissed us. We then took a stroll about the town for an hour or two, returned on board and reported ourselves to Capt. Wise. Up to this time not a shadow of suspicion was visible on the countenance of Capt. Wise or his officers that either of us would attempt to make our escape.

In the evening I consulted with Messrs, de Peyster and Allen on the subject of giving them the dodge the very first opportunity. I told them that if the Captain required my parole the next morning I would not give it, neither would I advise them to pledge their word and honor that they would not make their escape. I told them further that I was resolved to decamp the first moment I saw a favorable opportunity and would advise them to do the same, and not, from any motives of delicacy, to wait a moment for me.

The next morning when I dressed myself, I put all the money I had, say about 100 twenty-franc gold pieces, in a belt around my person, and some 15 or 20 Spanish dollars in my pocket with some other little relics and trifling keepsakes, and being thus prepared went to breakfast in the wardroom. About nine o’clock Capt. Wise sent for me into his cabin, when the following dialogue ensued: “Well, Coggeshall, I understand you and your officers are required at the Admiralty Office at ten o’clock, and, if you will pledge your honor as you did yesterday that you will neither of you attempt to make your escape, you may go ashore without a guard; otherwise I shall be obliged to send one with you.” I watched his countenance closely for a moment to ascertain his real meaning and whether he was determined to adhere strictly to the words he had just uttered, and then replied, “Captain Wise, I am surprised that you should think it possible for anyone to make his escape from Gibraltar.” He instantly saw I was sounding him, when he pleasantly but firmly said, “Come, come, it won’t do. You must either pledge your word and honor that neither you nor your officers will attempt to make your escape, or I shall be compelled to send a guard with you.” I felt a little touched, and promptly replied, “You had better send a guard, sir.”

Accordingly he ordered the 3rd lieutenant to take a sergeant and four marines with him and conduct us to the Admiralty Office to finish our examination.

At the hour appointed they commenced where they had left off the day before with Mr. de Peyster. I was sitting in the courtroom and Mr. Allen standing at the door, when he beckoned to me. I instantly went to the door and found the lieutenant had left his post and was not in sight. I then asked the sergeant whether he would go with us a short distance up the street to take a glass of wine. He readily complied with my request, leaving the marines at the door to watch Mr. de Peyster, and walked along respectfully a few paces behind us up the street.

We soon came to a wine shop on a corner with a door opening on each street. While the soldier was standing at the door, Mr. A. and myself entered and called for a glass of wine. I drank a glass in haste but unfortunately had no small change, and this circumstance alone prevented my worthy friend from going with me. I hastily told him I would cross the little square in front, turn the first corner, and there wait for him to join me. I then slipped out of the shop, passed quickly over the little park, and turned the corner agreed upon, without being seen by the sergeant while he was watching at the opposite door. I waited some minutes on the corner for Mr. Allen and was sadly disappointed that he did not make his appearance.

I had now fairly committed myself and found I had not a moment to spare. I therefore walked with a quick step towards the Land-Port-Gate, not the one leading to the peninsula, but the gate situated at the N.W. extremity of the town. My dress was a blue coat, black stock, and black cockade with an eagle in the centre. The eagle I took care to remove and then it was tout à fait an English cockade, and I had altogether very much the appearance of an English naval officer. I said to myself when approaching the guard at the gate, now is the critical moment, and the most perfect composure and consummate impudence is necessary to a successful result. I therefore gave a severe look at the sentinel when he returned me a respectful salute, and I was, in another moment, without the walls of the garrison.

I walked deliberately down on the mole or quay, where I was accosted by a great number of watermen, offering to convey me on board of my vessel. I employed one, and after getting off in the bay, he said, “Captain, which is your vessel?” Here again I was at a loss to decide on an answer, but after gazing for a few moments on the different ships and the flags of different nations, my eye caught sight of a galliot with a Norwegian ensign flying, and I said to myself, “The Norwegians are a virtuous, honest people and I am not afraid to trust them.” I had been in Sweden and understood the character of these hardy, honest-hearted sons of the North; and thus, after a moment’s hesitation, I replied to the boatman, “That is my vessel,” pointing to the friendly galliot, and we were soon alongside.

I jumped on board and enquired for the captain, who soon made his appearance. I told him I had something to communicate to him. He told me to follow him into the cabin. I immediately asked him whether he was willing to befriend a man in distress. He said, “Tell me your story, and I will try to serve you.” I frankly told him I was the captain of the American letter-of-marque schooner lately sent into port by the frigate Granicus, and that I had made my escape from the garrison and desired to get over to Algeciras as soon as possible, that I had money enough, but still I wanted his friendship, confidence and protection.

The good old gentleman had scarcely waited to hear my story to the end, before he grasped me by the hand and said in a kind, feeling manner, “I will be your friend, I will protect you. I was once a prisoner in England, I know what it is to be a prisoner. Rest assured, my dear sir, I will do all I can to assist you.” I offered him a dollar to pay and discharge the boatman and remained myself below in the cabin. He said, “Put up your money, I have small change and will pay him what is just and right.”

After dispatching the boatman he returned below and said, “Now take off your coat—put on this large pea-jacket and fur cap.” In this costume, and with a large pipe in my mouth, I was in less than two minutes transformed into a regular Norwegian. Returning again on deck, I asked my good friend the captain whether I could rely on his mate and sailors not to betray me. He said, “They are honest and perfectly trustworthy, and you need be under no apprehension on their account.” We took a social dinner together, when he observed, “I will now go on shore for an hour or two and hear all I can about your escape, and will come back early in the evening and relate to you all I can collect.”

In the evening the old captain returned pleased and delighted. He said he never saw such a hubbub as there was about town: that the whole garrison seemed to be on the lookout—that the town major with the military and civil police were searching every hole and corner in Gibraltar for the captain of the American privateer—that both of my officers were put in confinement, and that the lieutenant of the frigate who had the charge of us had been arrested; in short, there was the devil to pay, all because the captain of the privateer could not be found.

The next morning I stated to my worthy friend how extremely anxious I was to go over to Algeciras, and how mortified I should be to be taken again on board the Granicus. He answered, “Leave that to me—I am well acquainted with a gang of smugglers that belong to Algeciras and often sell them gin, tobacco and other articles of trade. They will be here on board of my galliot at nine o’clock this evening and will probably start for Algeciras about midnight after they have made all their purchases. When they come, I will arrange with them to take you as a passenger.”

About nine o’clock that evening a long, fast-rowing boat came silently alongside filled with men, and certainly a more desperate, villainous looking set were never seen. Their leader and several of his men came on board the galliot, and, after having purchased several articles and taken a glass of gin all round, the old captain enquired of the patroon of the boat what hour he intended to start for Algeciras, and said that the reason of his asking the question was that his brother wanted to go to that place for a few days upon business, and wished to engage a passage for him, and that he should be glad if his brother could lodge for a few days with his family. He answered that he should return again about midnight and would willingly take his brother, and that if he would put up with common rough fare, he was welcome to stay at his house as long as he pleased.

I accordingly got ready my little bundle which consisted of a few little things such as a shirt or two (for I did not forget to wear three at the time I left the Granicus ) stowed away in my hat, and then tied up in a handkerchief, and this constituted the whole of my wardrobe. I agreed with my friend the Norwegian to leave the cap and pea-jacket with the American consul at Algeciras, to be returned to him by some safe conveyance in the course of a few days. Agreeable to promise, the boat came on board precisely at twelve o’clock, and after my friend the captain had again cautioned the patroon of the boat to take good care of his brother, we started.

The water in the bay was smooth, though the night was dark and favorable to the safe prosecution of the passage across the bay. The distance is about 8 or 10 miles from Gibraltar, and after rowing about two hours we arrived near the harbor, when we showed a light in a lantern for a minute or two and then covered it with a jacket. This signal was repeated two or three times until it was answered in the same way from the shore. We approached the port cautiously and landed in silence. The patroon took me by the arm and led me through many a dark winding passage.

On our way we passed by several sentinels and were frequently hailed with the shrill sound of “Quien viva?” To these salutations some friendly answer returned, and thus everything passed smoothly on, until at length we arrived at the humble dwelling of the smugglers.

In Spain the contrabandistas are a desperate class of men and often spread dread and fear through a wide region of the country. In many instances, they are so numerous and strong that they often put the whole power of the government at defiance. The gang that brought me to Algeciras was about twenty in number, all armed to the teeth with long knives, pistols, swords, etc., and had no doubt made their arrangements during the day with the officers and sentinels that were to mount guard that night. They, of course, made them a compensation in some way or other, in order that they should meet with nothing to interfere with or obstruct their nocturnal enterprises.

Early in life I had made several voyages to Spain and its colonies in America and had thus acquired a pretty good knowledge of the Spanish character. I had also picked up enough of the language to enable me to make my way among them without difficulty.

There is something about the Spaniard that immediately inspires confidence, so much so, that although surrounded by this desperate and daring gang of smugglers, I had not the smallest fear for my safety. It was now near three o’clock in the morning when we entered the small, low cabin of the patroon. The interior consisted of one tolerable size room with a mat hung up to serve as a partition to separate the different members of the family, which consisted of the patroon, Antonio, his wife and two children.

With this family I was soon placed upon the most friendly and intimate footing: a straw bed was prepared for me behind the neat screen. Before saying good night, Antonio told me he should leave the house very early in the morning to look after his boat and smuggled goods, and should not return until noon next day. He said his wife and little daughter would provide breakfast for me and would purchase whatever I wished at any time. After these preliminaries were settled, we all said “ Buenos noches ” and dropped asleep. About seven o’clock the next morning I furnished the smuggler’s wife with money to purchase bread, butter, eggs and coffee; and when breakfast was prepared we all ate our social meal together, that is to say, the mother, the two children and myself. I then took a stroll about the town of Algeciras in my Norwegian costume and silently observed what was going on, without conversing with any person; and when I entered a coffee house, I took a newspaper and, as I said nothing, no one appeared to notice me. I had broken the quarantine laws and therefore deemed it prudent to keep on my disguise for a few days and continue to live in perfect seclusion.

Antonio was absent almost all the time during the three days I remained in his family. I furnished money for every meal, and the good Maria purchased and prepared our frugal meals. When I returned from a stroll about the town I always took care to provide cakes and bonbons for the children, so that we soon became good friends and all lived very happily together and upon terms of the most perfect equality.

After remaining here for a period of three days, I began to tire of this mode of life and was now determined to ascertain how I should proceed to get to Cadiz, where I knew I should find friends and be farther removed from the mortifying scenes through which I had so lately passed. Accordingly, on the morning of the fourth day after my landing at Algeciras, I repaired to a café and enquired of one of the servants whether there was an American consul residing in the city. The boy seemed intelligent and instantly replied that Don Horatio Sprague, the former consul at Gibraltar, was residing here, and that he was “un hombre de bien.” I asked for his address when he called a boy to show me the house, so that in fifteen minutes after I was knocking on Mr. Sprague’s door.

He was of course surprised to see a man of my appearance walk boldly into his parlor. I soon however explained that I was not exactly what I appeared to be, that I was an American in distress, and throwing off my great fur cap and pea-jacket, looked somewhat more like an American. I told my story and was received and treated like a brother. He was just going to take breakfast and said, “You will breakfast with us, and then I will send my nephew, Mr. Leach, with you for your bundle, and you will then return and take up your abode with me during your stay at Algeciras.”

After a social breakfast, I doffed my cap and peajacket, and being supplied with a hat and other articles of dress to correspond, Mr. Leach kindly accompanied me to the humble dwelling of Maria. To my great surprise, on entering the cabin, the poor woman was very distant, curtseying with profound respect, and appeared altogether like another person. The children were shy and appeared to avoid me. At first, I felt hurt at the alteration, but a moment’s reflection convinced me that the scene was quite natural, and I loved them not the less for their distant behavior. While in my disguise they looked upon me as one of the family, and now that the scene was changed, they looked upon me in quite another light; and I felt for a moment that the artificial rules of society were chilling to a generous heart. Maria told Mr. Leach that she always thought I was a gentleman, and that she was quite happy to serve me. After making the family suitable presents I took my leave, promising that they should frequently see me while I remained in Algeciras, which promise I took care rigidly to fulfill.

I had now entered as it were upon a new life, was quite at home with one of the best of men whose greatest pleasure has ever been to make others happy. His excellent nephew, William Leach, Esq., was also a fine young gentleman, and as we were all Americans together the most perfect confidence reigned throughout this delightful family.

During my stay here I was exceedingly amused with a little incident that occurred while at dinner at Mr. Sprague’s table. A young English friend came over one Sunday to dine with Mr. S. During the dinner, Mr. S. asked the young man what was said in Gibraltar about the captain of the American letter-of-marque making his escape from the garrison. He said that it caused a great deal of excitement and speculation. Some said the lieutenant that had charge of him was very culpable and even insinuated that there must have been bribery connected with the business, that it was altogether a very strange affair that a man should be able in open daylight to make his escape from Gibraltar; and thus, after answering many questions on the subject, he wound up by saying that the captain must be a very clever man, and for his part he wished him God-speed. The young man had not the least suspicion that I was an American or had any connection with the business. During the conversation, whenever I caught the eye of Mr. Leach, it was with the greatest difficulty I could command my countenance. Everything, however, passed off very well, and we often joked on the subject of the honest simplicity of their young English friend.

I remained from day to day at Algeciras, anxiously waiting to hear from my two lieutenants, Messrs. de Peyster and Allen, in hopes by some means they would be able to make their escape and not be sent prisoners to England.

I used frequently to ride in the country with Mr. Sprague in the evening, and we frequently made up an agreeable whist party, and among other social enjoyments my young friend Leach introduced me to two or three respectable and very agreeable Spanish families. In these families I spent many pleasant evenings in the society of several young ladies and gentlemen, and had my officers and crew been at liberty, I should have been quite contented and happy. At length, after waiting here about ten days, I learned with pain and sincere regret that all my officers and men had been sent prisoners to England, and I now seriously began to think of leaving this place for Cadiz.

There are but two ways of travelling with safety in Spain: one way is genteel and expensive, namely, with a strong guard of soldiers. The other is in simple disguise, so that no robber can feel any interest in molesting you on the road. This mode I determined to adopt.

After remaining in Algeciras about a fortnight, I hired a mule and a guide (through Mr. Sprague) to Cadiz. My kind friends furnished me with provisions and stores for a journey of two days. I procured a dress such as the peasants wear in this part of Andalusia, and thus equipped, on the morning of the 25th of December, 1814, I bade adieu to my two excellent friends from whom I had received so many disinterested favors.

After leaving the town, we travelled about a league on a tolerable smooth road and then turned off into a winding footpath, myself on the mule, and my guide, a merry fellow, trudging along on foot, sometimes by my side, sometimes a few yards ahead, and when we came to a smooth path I allowed him to ride on the mule behind me. The distance from Algeciras to Cadiz is about 40 miles, and I soon found we had a very intricate and difficult journey to perform. The whole country had a most wild and desolate appearance. In fact it seemed to me that there could have been little or no change in this part of Spain for the last five or six centuries. There were no public roads, a very thin and scattered population, and these living in a wretched state of poverty. Sometimes we travelled through deep and dark ravines, overgrown with trees and bushes; and after passing through a deep and gloomy dell, where we lost sight of the sun at times for a space of half an hour, we would then commence ascending a high mountain. We generally found a time-worn footpath running in a zigzag direction up these dreary mountains. This mode of ascending would, in seaman’s phrase, be called “beating up.” It certainly is a slow and fatiguing mode of ascent, but the traveller is richly rewarded for all his toil when once on the top of one of these stupendous mountains. Here he has a splendid view of the Strait of Gibraltar and the broad Atlantic, on the south and east, while the wild and unbroken scenery of the surrounding country is truly magnificent.

I will here remark that the people of the United States can scarcely believe that an old country like Spain should be in such a wretched condition as I found this part of the country, without roads, the land generally uncultivated, no hotels or taverns to accommodate strangers, and infested with robbers and banditti. Even in the vicinity of cities and towns, there is no safety in travelling without a military guard. This is certainly a dark and gloomy picture of poor Spain, once so great and powerful, now distracted by factions and civil war, divested of the greatest part of her once rich colonies, her government weak, without money and without credit.

If asked what is the cause of her degradation and dreadful downfall, I answer, there are many, but the principal ones are ignorance, idleness, superstition, priestcraft and bad government. I here involuntarily exclaim, oh! happy America! how glorious art thou among the nations of the earth! Long may an all-wise Being shower His benign blessings upon thee!

Postscript: Coggeshall arrived safely in Cadiz after an uneventful trip. Two months later he sailed to Lisbon and there embarked for America on a Portuguese brig. “On the 19th of May [1815],” he wrote, “we got a Sandy Hook pilot on board and the same day arrived in New York, and I was rejoiced to land once more in the United States after an absence of sixteen months and twenty-one days.” During that time he could boast of the capture of nine British prize ships. To be sure, the Leo had been lost, but the ship itself was to blame. The warrior merchant Coggeshall had also made a small but respectable profit, for he had not forgotten what Calvin Coolidge would remind the nation of over a hundred years later—that the business of America is business.

After a long, arduous, and reasonably successful career at sea, Coggeshall retired in 1841. Always an avid reader and an indefatigable journal-keeper, he turned to writing in his declining years. Among his published works are Voyages to Various Parts of the World and History of American Privateers. Coggeshall died in Milford on August 6, 1861, at the age of 77.

A History of American Privateers and Letters of Marque Interspersed with Several Naval Battles Between American and British Ships of War


The 10 Lion’s Whelps built by the 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1628 are exemplars of the ‘war’ pinnace, a war ship that was built for several European navies for more than two centuries (c.1550-c.1750). The Whelps had sweeps (propelling oars) as well as sails (G R Balleine, All for the King, The Life Story of Sir George Carteret, Societe Jersiase, 1976, p10). England, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland deployed the war pinnace on a regular basis. The largest war pinnaces, also known as frigates, approximated England’s fifth rate and sixth rate small warships. A few war pinnaces were built to fourth-rate hull dimensions. However, these war pinnaces carried fewer cannon and had smaller crews than English fourth, fifth, and sixth rates. Fast and maneuverable when compared to a typical ship of the line, when they were under the command of an experienced captain with a crew that retained discipline during battle, many war pinnaces compiled impressive fighting and espionage records.

Capture of Kent by Confiance. Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

In international law, privateers are defined as “vessels belonging to private owners, and sailing under a commission of war empowering the person to whom it is granted to carry on all forms of hostility which are permissible at sea by the usages of war.” Privateers are usually required to post a bond to ensure their compliance with the government’s instructions, and their commissions are subject to inspection by public warships. In contrast, “piracy may be said to consist in acts of violence done upon the ocean or unappropriated lands, or within the territory of a state through descent from the sea, by a body of men acting independently of any politically organized society.”

Acts of piracy are distinguished from other acts of violence on or emanating from the high seas by the fact that the former “are done under conditions which render it impossible or unfair to hold any state responsible for their commission.” Though “the absence of competent authority is the test of piracy, its essence consists in the pursuit of private, as contrasted with public, ends.” Thus, the distinction between a privateer and a pirate is that the former acts under the authority of a state that accepts or is charged with responsibility for his acts, while the latter acts in his own interests and on his own authority. “Most acts of war which become piratical through being done without due authority are acts of war when done under the authority of a state.”

English privateering apparently began in the 1200s, when the king ordered vessels of the Cinque Ports (Hastings, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich, and Romney) to attack France. In 1243, Henry III issued the first privateer commissions, which provided that the king would receive half the proceeds. The English monarchy was also the first to issue a letter of marque, which was directed against Portugal, in 1295.

Initially there was a strong distinction between private reprisals and privateering. Letters of marque, which were issued in peacetime, allowed individuals to seek redress for depredations they suffered at the hands of foreigners on the high seas. For example, if an Englishman’s vessel were attacked by a Frenchman, a letter of marque would authorize the Englishman to seize something of equal value from any French vessel he encountered. This practice was an old one, dating back to well before the thirteenth century, and was based upon “the early theory that the group was responsible for the wrongs of each of its members.” It also reflected the absence of permanent embassies as a mechanism for resolving private international disputes on a regular basis.

Privateering, on the other hand, was a strictly wartime practice in which states authorized individuals to attack enemy commerce and to keep some portion of what they captured as their pay. Early on, however, the two practices became confused, apparently because “whenever a war broke out each party always claimed to be the party aggrieved, and when it justified its acts of hostility at all, it did so by connecting them in some way with the notion of reprisals.” Already boundaries between the legitimate and illegitimate were under practical challenge.

Adding a further complication to these practices was piracy. In 1413 England defined piracy as high treason. For over a century, the English king had turned a blind eye to the piracy of the Cinque Ports, probably because their piratical activities honed the skills sailors needed when serving as the king’s wartime privateers. As the Cinque Ports’ depredations escalated, however, the English passed an antipiracy statute. Nevertheless, because the ports were accustomed to engaging in piracy and because the well-born earned a good income by investing in piracy, English piracy was not suppressed.

In 1544 Henry VIII, in his war with France, gave blanket authorization for privateering and allowed the privateers to keep all the loot they seized. With the gradual crackdown on piracy and the requirement that privateers share their prizes with a host of public officials, the privateers’ contribution to British naval capacity had declined. Henry VIII’s action was designed to increase the incentives for privateering.

England gained naval superiority over Spain largely through the action of the Elizabethan Sea Dogs. These private adventurers, in collusion with the English Crown, engaged in all kinds of violent activities directed against Spain in the New World. Besides plundering Spanish ships and settlements, such Sea Dogs as Drake, Cavendish, Clifford (the third earl of Cumberland), and Raleigh engaged in what might be termed statesponsored terrorism. For example, Drake extorted large ransoms from two Spanish colonial cities by threatening to burn them to the ground. He actually destroyed three other cities. His sack of Peru netted him and his backers £2.5 million and repaid his backers, including Elizabeth, “47 for 1.” Cumberland, leading a purely private expedition, captured Puerto Rico in 1598.17 Other Sea Dogs behaved similarly, plundering, destroying, and extorting their way to fame and fortune in England and sharing their loot with the English Crown. Drake and Raleigh, of course, were knighted for their achievements.

The execution of Raleigh in 1618 marked the beginning of a temporary decline in English privateering. Though the Stuarts had made peace with Spain, Raleigh continued his depredations in Spanish America, assuming that the English monarchs “would secretly connive at violations of the treaty with Spain.” He was wrong.

A new English prize act, passed in 1708, produced the highest level of privateering activity to date. With this act, the privateer was allowed to retain all his prizes and was paid a bounty based on the number of prisoners he took. Moreover, in 1744 the king granted pardons to all criminals who would serve as privateers. By 1757, privateering had become something of a craze in England. During the eighteenth century, “political lobbies formed which defended and promoted the concerns of the `privateering interest.'” The year 1803 was the most violent and lawless period of maritime warfare in modern history, in part because England and France “were unable, even if willing, to control the hordes of desperate privateers and quasi-privateers who were nominally subject to them.”

French privateering differed from its British counterpart in two respects. First, while England allowed privateers to attack neutral commerce, France did not. Second, for England, privateers were auxiliaries to the navy; for France, they were the navy. France in 1400 required privateers to obtain prior consent and in 1398 and 1498 required them to post bond. Sixteenth-century French “privateers” were largely individuals acting on their own initiative. One French merchant, for example, sent seventeen ships to blockade a Portuguese port when one of his ships was seized by a Portuguese vessel. When Spaniards killed the leader of a French colonizing expedition in 1562, a French “gentleman” sent three vessels that made bloody reprisals against Spain.

Like their British counterparts, French privateers committed great depredations in the New World during the seventeenth century and were rewarded with letters of nobility. French filibustiers, under the direction of Santo Domingo’s governor, ransomed and pillaged Spanish towns. They also drove the English out of Hudson Bay.

The golden age of French privateering occurred after Colbert became secretary of state, despite France’s imposition in 1681 of onerous regulations on privateering. These included the requirement that a privateer post a fifteen-thousand livre bond and carry at least six guns, as well as a prohibition on ransoming prizes above a certain value. Apparently it was Colbert’s enthusiasm for expanding France’s commerce and building its navy that stimulated a heightened interest in maritime activities in general. At any rate, “the principal threat to British trade in the wars between 1689 and 1815 came from a large number of French privateers that put to sea from St. Malo, Dunkirk, and other ports along the French coast.” French privateering was greatly stimulated by the wars between 1689 and 1713, which disrupted the ports’ normally lucrative trade in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, leaving merchants with little other than privateering in which to invest.

The peak of French privateering occurred during the years 1689 to 1697. Both the number of French privateers and their success declined in subsequent wars. In the American War for Independence (1778-82), French privateers took about four prizes per vessel, while in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, they took only about one prize per vessel.

Privateers played a significant role in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13). British and American privateers seized more than 2,000 prizes, 30 with one New York group alone destroying fifty-four French and Spanish vessels. French privateers attacked Dutch, Venetian, and Portuguese ships and towns. In 1711, “a colossal [French] private expedition . . . defeated an entire Portuguese fleet and captured Rio de Janeiro.” In the mid-eighteenth century, French privateers nearly put an end to the slave trade between Africa and the British colonies in the Americas.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1739-48) saw another surge in privateering. Wishing to keep France out of the war, Britain initially discouraged privateering, which was always a potential threat to neutral commerce. 34 Between 1739 and 1741 only 30 prizes were taken by privateers. Once France entered the war, however, English privateering increased in importance. Between 1739 and 1748, New York privateers captured more than 240 prizes worth nearly £620,000. By the final years of the war, “French shipping had been largely driven from the sea lanes.” French and Spanish vulnerability to privateering attacks led them to ship their goods in Dutch vessels. The English Crown then turned privateers loose on the Dutch, who lost nearly £1.3 million in the course of the war. Besides attacking enemy shipping, English privateers “acted as auxiliary vessels, carrying troops, scouting, and on occasion even blockading enemy ports.” They also convoyed British merchant ships and served as a coast guard for the North American colonies. It is estimated that privateers took about 3,500 prizes during the war.

Privateering reached new heights in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), particularly after England announced its Rule of 1756. With this rule “neutrals were prohibited from carrying on any trade, directly or indirectly, with the French colonies, which trade was not guaranteed to them in time of peace.” This struck a “death-blow to the Dutch commerce, which had been growing rich on the French colonial trade for many years.” Though the rule brought French trade to a standstill, reprisals against England by other neutrals produced an alarming increase in insurance rates for English merchants, whose complaints led the Crown to tighten control over its privateers. Nevertheless, during the first four years of the war, it is estimated that English vessels took 1,000 French prizes. New York privateers were responsible for more than 300 of these, enjoying a profit of £1.5 million. Despite the English privateers’ success, French privateers took more than 300 English prizes. Nevertheless, the “Peace of Paris demonstrated forcibly how little influence privateering usually exercises on the result of a war; the losses of the English shipping were more than double those of the French, yet the treaty of peace was the most disgraceful, perhaps, that France ever signed.”

American privateers served both sides in the U. S. War for Independence. In the rebel cause, some 792 privateers captured or destroyed 600 British vessels worth an estimated $18 million. They took a total of 16,000 British prisoners. According to one report, insurance rates for convoyed vessels reached 30 percent and for unconvoyed, 50 percent. Losses to the West Indian trade are estimated at 66 percent. American privateers even operated in British waters so that Britain had to provide naval escort for shipping between Ireland and England. The Armed Neutrality of 1780 prevented any significant privateering activity against anyone but the belligerents. Evaluations of the effects of American privateering on the outcome of the war vary enormously. At one extreme is Maclay, who concludes that “it was this attack on England’s commerce that struck the mortal blows to British supremacy in America-not Saratoga nor Yorktown.” At the other is Sherry, who writes that

Yet as effective as the privateers may have been against commerce, they were all but useless against the Royal Navy. As a consequence, the British had no trouble controlling major colonial ports such as New York, Boston, and Charleston. Control of the ports by the Royal Navy meant that the British could move troops as they chose, could resupply easily, and could bring military pressure to bear where and when they chose. It was only when a French fleet blocked the British from relieving Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown that the Americans won their war for independence.

During the French Revolutionary wars, French privateers took 2,100 British vessels. In the War of 1812, 517 American privateers captured 1,300 prizes worth an estimated $39 million. They also took many of the 30,000 prisoners captured by American naval forces during the war. One American privateer ship, the Yankee, in six cruises captured 40 British vessels and captured or destroyed $5 million of British property.

Up through the first decade of the nineteenth century, privateering was a prominent feature of interstate conflict and war. It was effective as both a substitute and a foundation for state naval power. Privateering evolved into a weapon of the weak against the strong, as in the case of the United States and Britain during the War of 1812. However, it was invented and encouraged by the “strong” states of Europe, whose naval power was largely an outgrowth of privateering.

American Privateers

A view of New Amsterdam (New York) in 1673.

Port Royal as it appeared before the earthquake in 1692. The outer edges of the map are the borders of the old Port Royal, while the darkly shaded area toward the bottom and middle depicts the boundary of the city after the earthquake. The rest of the city was consumed by the sea.

In the summer of 1690, three French privateers appeared off the coast of New England, panicking the region. This was in the midst of the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), known as King William’s War in the colonies, which arrayed most of Europe against the French. The privateers had already attacked Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Fishers Island, and Block Island, where they ransacked houses, killed livestock, commandeered vessels, and whipped residents to get them to divulge where they had hidden their valuables. Word of the atrocities soon spread to the mainland, where the people of Newport, Rhode Island, were sure they would be next. The governor’s council met in emergency session and commandeered the Loyal Stede, a Barbadian sloop‡ moored in Newport Harbor, with ten cannons and a crew of sixty. All they needed was someone to captain the vessel, and since there was no one in the colony who knew more about naval warfare than Captain Thomas Paine, he was chosen to lead.

Along with another sloop manned by thirty men, Paine sailed out of Newport Harbor, heading toward Block Island. Upon learning from the locals that the French had set off for New London, Paine went in pursuit, sighting the enemy vessels soon thereafter. For two-and-a-half hours the battle raged. Early on, the captain of one of the French sloops, “a very violent, resolute fellow,” poured himself a glass of wine, and declared that it would “be his damnation if he did not board” one of the English vessels immediately. It proved a hollow boast. As he raised the glass to his lips, a bullet ripped into his neck, killing him instantly. Before darkness brought an end to the fighting, another Frenchman lay dead, along with an Indian who had fought with the English.

The contestants anchored for the night a short distance apart. Paine was sure that the fight would recommence in the morning, but shortly before dawn, the French vessels sailed away. A contemporary account claims that the Frenchman in charge of the fleet had been a privateer with Paine in an earlier war, and when he learned “by some means” that he was up against his old captain, he said that he “would as soon choose to fight with the devil as with him.” Whether he fled for this reason or some other, the French were gone, and Paine and his men returned to a hero’s welcome in Newport.

Although the number of pirates visiting and settling in the colonies was relatively small, they had an outsized impact on colonial life because the colonies themselves were sparsely populated. In 1690 there were just over 190,000 American colonists, along with about 17,000 slaves, thinly spread out along the eastern edge of the continent, with most people living within a few miles of the coast. Even the largest port in the colonies, Boston, had only 7,000 residents. Consequently, the considerable amount of money, goods, and muscle provided by the pirates was enough to make them a significant economic, social, and military force.

Just as pirates benefited the colonies, the colonies offered pirates valuable resources and opportunities in return. Colonial ports were places where pirates purchased supplies, sold stolen goods, recruited men, sought medical help, enjoyed liquid and libidinous entertainment, and settled down at the end of their piratical career, assuming they survived long enough to enjoy retirement. As important was the chance for pirates to careen their vessels.

Over time a vessel’s hull became fouled with all manner of organisms, from seaweed to barnacles, which not only increased drag and slowed the vessel down, but also caused serious damage. The worst were the Teredo worms (Teredo navalis), a form of mollusk that burrows into wood, creating tunnels and turning it into a pulpy mess that has a passing resemblance to Swiss cheese. Careening—essentially tipping the vessel on its side with the help of ropes to expose parts of the hull that are usually underwater—allowed the men to scrape the hull clean, replace rotted or riddled wood, recaulk leaky seams with oakum, and recoat the hull with an oily mixture of tar, sulfur, and tallow, thereby extending the life and improving the performance of the vessel. Specialized wharves in larger ports enabled pirates to careen their vessels, and if such wharves were lacking, careening could be done in sheltered coves or embayments along the coast.

By offering all of these benefits, the colonies provided pirates with a beachhead that enabled them to pursue their disreputable designs. Without such support, pirates couldn’t have survived, much less thrived. Therefore, the colonies were, in a very real sense, the pirates’ partners in crime.

The acceptance and support of pirates by the colonies was not absolute. While pirates were welcomed when they provided money, goods, and protection, they were not embraced when they practiced their “profession” in coastal waters, as the case of Thomas Pound reveals.

In the early morning of August 9, 1689, Pound and twelve armed associates sailed a small sloop out of Boston Harbor, their ultimate goal being to reach the Caribbean and prey on the French. But first they needed a better vessel, and more men, food, arms, and ammunition. The next day, they overpowered a fishing ketch§ called Mary out of Salem, captained by Halling Chard. Pound’s men took the ketch, thereby officially launching their piratical voyage, and sent Chard and two of his crew away on the sloop, while another of Chard’s men, John Darby, voluntarily remained behind—a rather strange, selfish, and rash decision, as he was leaving behind his wife and five children in Marblehead. Pound and his men next headed to Casco Bay, where they stole a calf and three sheep from one of the bay’s many islands, and then moored off Fort Loyal, a small garrison located in what is today Portland, Maine.

Darby went ashore with two other men. While the men got water, Darby introduced himself to Silvanus Davis, the garrison’s commander, who asked where they had come from. Darby said they had been fishing off Cape Sable when a French privateer attacked them, stealing their bread and water before letting them go. Being familiar with the Mary, Davis asked why Captain Chard hadn’t come to the fort. He hurt his foot, Darby responded, adding that all they wanted was water, and for the local doctor to visit the ketch to tend to the captain. That, of course, was a lie. Pound’s real intention was to convince the doctor to join his southern venture, since medical expertise was in high demand on pirate ships, where injury was an occupational hazard, and going ashore to find a willing practitioner was rarely an option.

Darby’s answers put Davis on alert. His suspicions heightened when his men visited the Mary and reported that it contained a far larger crew than a typical fishing vessel, and Captain Chard was nowhere to be seen. Davis began to fear that the visitors might be “rogues.” Nevertheless, Davis allowed the doctor to be ferried to the ketch, but when he returned to shore—unconvinced by Pound’s pleadings to sign on—the mystery deepened. The doctor seemed nervous, and kept changing his story about how many men were on the ketch, causing Davis to think that the doctor was involved in some wicked plot. Most likely shaken from the encounter with Pound, it wasn’t the doctor that Davis should have been worried about. Unbeknownst to him, two of the soldiers who had visited the Mary earlier that day had agreed to join Pound, promising to enlist other soldiers as well.

That evening, Davis set armed guards around the fort and told them to keep a “good watch” on the “water side.” At midnight, seven soldiers who had decided to cast their lot with Pound rose up and trained their guns on their fellows. Gathering all the arms, ammunition, and clothes that they could carry, the traitors took the fort’s boat out to the Mary, and soon thereafter Pound set a course for Cape Cod.

A day later, off the highlands of the Cape (modern-day Truro), Pound captured the sloop Goodspeed and traded up once again, transferring his men, and sending off the Goodspeed’s crew in the Mary. He also sent a message. Pound told the Goodspeed’s crew to tell the authorities in Boston that if the government’s sloop “came out after them,” it would “find hot work,” for every last one of his men would die “before they would be taken.”

As it turned out, acting on intelligence provided by Captain Chard, the colonial government had already sent out an armed vessel to search for the pirates, and it would send out another after the Mary sailed into Boston Harbor. Both ultimately came up empty. Meantime, Pound and his men traced a circuitous route. They stopped on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard to get more livestock and water, and on August 27 at Holmes Hole (modern-day Vineyard Haven), they robbed a brigantine¶ of food, rum, and tobacco, and then released it. Next, a ferocious storm forced them to Virginia, where they sheltered in the York River for eight days, picking up two more men and a slave. When calm seas returned, they headed back to Tarpaulin Cove, on Naushon Island, just off Martha’s Vineyard. Over the next few weeks, Pound sailed between the Cape and the Vineyard, unsuccessfully chasing one vessel, and capturing two, one of which was plundered for food. At the end of September, the peripatetic pirates returned to Tarpaulin Cove to wait for good weather to sail to Curaçao.

Massachusetts governor Simon Bradstreet, alarmed by these continued depredations, ordered Pound’s former ketch, the Mary, to be manned by twenty soldiers and sent to bring the “pirates” to Boston to face justice, using deadly force to “subdue” them if necessary. Captain Samuel Pease was put in charge, and he embarked on his mission from Boston Harbor on September 30, looping around the outstretched forearm of Cape Cod, then heading west toward Vineyard Sound. On October 4, Pease spied a canoe coming from Woods Hole into the channel. A man in the canoe said that “there was a pirate in Tarpaulin Cove,” and upon hearing that, Pease’s men “gave a great shout” and made ready for battle.

Not long thereafter, Pease saw the Goodspeed in the distance and ordered his men to bring their ketch in close. The pirates tried to flee but the Mary was a better sailer and quickly closed the gap. Once the Goodspeed was within range, the King’s Jack was raised up the Mary’s mainmast, and cannon and musket shots were sent across the Goodspeed’s bow as a warning. Defiant, Pound’s men raised their own “bloody [red] flag,” which signaled that no quarter would be given, and arrayed themselves on the main deck, ready to fight.

Pease demanded that the pirates “strike to [the] King of England,” but Pound was not cowed. Standing on his quarterdeck, he flourished his sword, and barked across the water, “Come aboard you dogs, and I will strike you presently.” No sooner had Pound issued this bellicose invitation than the shooting began. Pound took a ball to the arm, and one just under the ribs, while Pease was struck in the arm, the side, and the thigh. Both men were then taken below. The soldiers repeatedly implored the pirates to give up, telling them that they would be given “good quarter,” but the pirates scorned the offer. “Ye dogs,” they yelled, “we will give you quarter.” An hour after the first shots were fired, the soldiers swarmed onto the Goodspeed, getting off one good volley, and then using the butts of their muskets to mercilessly beat the pirates into bloodied submission. When the smoke cleared, four pirates were dead, and most of the rest were wounded, while five of the soldiers were injured. Among the dead pirates was John Darby, whose wife and children back in Marblehead were left to fend for themselves.

With the pirates secured, the Mary and the Goodspeed sailed to Rhode Island, where the wounded were taken to lodgings on the mainland and treated by doctors from Newport. But there was little they could do for Pease, who died of his wounds on October 12. A week later, the ships sailed into Boston, and the pirates were kept in the city jail under heavy lock and key.

The men of the Goodspeed were brought to trial in 1690 on charges of piracy and murder, and although fourteen of them were found guilty and sentenced to hang, that never happened. For reasons that are not entirely clear, a number of substantial citizens of the colony urged Governor Bradstreet to be lenient. Among the pleaders were a few “women of quality,” and Waitstill Winthrop, the grandson of former governor John Winthrop and one of the magistrates who conducted the pirates’ trial. Bradstreet complied, the result being that only a single pirate was hanged. The sentences for all of the rest, except for Pound, were remitted. For one of those set free, the pardon came at the penultimate moment, just as he was on the scaffold ready to swing. According to a member of the governor’s council, this sudden turn of events caused “great disgust to the people,” who were hoping for a show. As for Pound, his sentence was only reprieved, and he was sent back to England in the spring of 1690, where again, for reasons that remain unknown, all charges were dropped.

Around the time that Pound was on the loose, a dramatic shift was taking place in the annals of piracy. Although pirates continued to terrorize the Caribbean, their numbers were declining as tropical hunting grounds became far less attractive to would-be marauders. Spanish treasure fleets were being more heavily guarded to protect against attack. Government crackdowns on piracy in Jamaica and elsewhere in the region were making the lives of pirates more difficult as well. Furthermore, even though the flow of silver and gold coming from Spain’s possessions in the New World was still considerable, it was far less than it had been in former years.

As if to provide a fiery and dramatic symbol marking this decline, on June 7, 1692, just before the noon hour, a devastating earthquake struck Jamaica. In the pirate haven of Port Royal, buildings toppled and the streets were transformed into rolling rivers of liquefied earth that sucked people under and then crushed them to death when the shaking stopped and the soil solidified. Some of those trapped had only their heads sticking above ground, which roving packs of starving dogs gnawed upon in the ensuing days. When it was all over, nearly two-thirds of the landmass of Port Royal had slipped beneath the waves, and the death toll, including those who later succumbed to injuries and disease, approached five thousand—many of them buccaneers. In the gruesome aftermath, hundreds of dead and bloated bodies could be seen floating on the surface of the harbor, and washed up on the shore, where they became, according to one eyewitness, “meat for fish and fowls of the air.” A local minister who survived called the earthquake a “terrible judgment of God” that was brought down upon the heads of the “most ungodly debauched people” in the world.

John Oxenham, (c. 1535-1580)

John Oxenham is a prime example of the daring and courage with which Elizabethan seamen and adventurers assailed the Spanish empire. Other than a strong likelihood that he was born in Devonshire, Oxenham’s early life is almost completely unknown. In 1572, he sailed with Sir Francis Drake on an expedition that attacked Nombre de Dios on the isthmus of Panama. When the English raiders captured a mule train carrying silver up the isthmus from Peru, both Oxenham and Drake realized the advantages of gaining access to the Pacific. Because Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific felt safe from attack, they were virtually unarmed. Drake eventually devised a plan for a voyage of circumnavigation to raid the west coast of South America. Oxenham came to believe that a permanent English presence in Panama would allow privateers to intercept treasure as it came up from Peru. Once seized, the treasure could be transported across the narrow isthmus for quick shipment to England. He began making preparations for an expedition to seize Panama, convincing Drake, John Hawkins, and others to invest in the venture.

Oxenham left Plymouth on 19 April 1576 with a company of about 50 men. Traversing the Lesser Antilles, Oxenham, reaches the Spanish Main west of Cartagena with his 11- gun, 57-man, 100-ton frigate. Concealing it along this shoreline, he then strikes west-southwestward aboard a captured Spanish frigate and two pinnaces to intercept coastal traffic visiting the annual plate fleet fair at Nombre de Dios (Panama). In September Oxenham transfers his English frigate and two Spanish prizes with 18 prisoners to Pinos Island (north of Acla, Panama), leaving a 40-man anchor watch aboard while exploring inland with 12 men, guided by black cimarron allies. During his two-week absence, Oxenham’s vessels are surprised and captured by a Spanish frigate and brigantine bearing 20 soldiers out of Nombre de Dios. All his men except a young French page escape ashore.

Having established good relations with the local Cimaroons (Africans who had escaped from Spanish slavery and banded together against their former masters) during the 1572 expedition, Oxenham was depending on their assistance to capture the isthmus. The Cimaroons did not disappoint him, and the English raiders were able to hold Panama for most of 1577.

Oxenham in the Pacific. January 1577, after building a 24-oar launch, Oxenham rafts down the Chucunaque and Tuira rivers (eastern Panama) with 50 Englishmen and 10 cimarron allies to gain the Gulf of San Miguel. His expedition then falls upon the off shore Pearl Islands by February 20 (Ash Wednesday), pillaging them over the next three weeks, as well as intercepting Spanish coastal traffic between Peru and Panama.

Learning of this threat from two escapees who reach Panama by canoe on March 6, Gov. Dr. Gabriel de Loarte prepares his defenses, dissuading Oxenham from trying a surprise attack the next evening. As the English withdraw toward the Pearl Islands, they seize a rich bark arriving from Guayaquil, so they return into the Gulf of San Miguel with considerable booty. Meanwhile, de Loarte dispatches a 200-man counter-expedition under Pedro de Ortega Valencia aboard a half-dozen boats on March 13 to hunt down the intruders.

This Spanish contingent meets the rich Peruvian galleon Miguel Angel, a 50-man detachment guiding it safely into Panama by March 28. De Ortega in the meantime continues his search for the retiring Englishmen, while Vice Adm. Miguel de Eraso (Don Cristobal’s son) detaches two frigates from his plate fleet at Nombre de Dios-plus a Panamanian coastguard frigate and brigantine-to cut off Oxenham’s retreat on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus. De Eraso also personally leads 30 harquebusiers to reinforce Panama City.

After ascending the Tuira River for eight days, until his vessels can go no farther because of shallow water, de Ortega proceeds afoot along the Chucunaque’s banks with 60 soldiers. At 10:00 a. m. on April 2, after another four-day march, he overtakes 30 Englishmen and 80 Cimarrons eating near the “Piñas” confluence (possibly the modern Tupisca or Chico River), slaying nine Englishmen and capturing four-a wounded sailor and 3 boys-plus scattering the rest into the jungle. Oxenham’s 12-man party is also attacked two days later at the village of “Catalina” (possibly modern Yavisa), winning free after suffering 3 killed in an hour-long defense of their extemporized fort. The 4 English captives are then carried back to Panama by April 18, along with the bulk of their supplies and booty.

In May 1577, 40 Spanish soldiers under Capt. Luis Garcia de Melo travel from Panama City to Nombre de Dios with two English captives to destroy Oxenham’s launches, which are hidden underwater on the north coast. Instead, Adm. Cristobal de Eraso appropriates these prisoners, delegating Gabriel de Vera’s 80-man royal warship to carry out this mission. Eventually, both Spanish contingents unite and raise the prizes together, after which Garcia de Melo rampages south through cimarron territory with 60 soldiers in a punitive sweep, emerging into the Gulf of San Miguel, while de Vera gains Cartagena.

Deprived of all means of escape, the English survivors remain in mid-isthmus until late August, when they are surprised by another 120 Peruvian troops in two search columns under recently arrived Diego de Frias Trejo, who seizes Oxenham and 8 of his followers. Other captures follow in mid-December 1577 and early February 1578, until 13 Englishmen are executed in Panama by April. Oxenham and his officers were imprisoned in Lima (Peru), where they were executed in 1580.

Isthmus of Panama

Although the narrowest span between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Isthmus of Panama represented a formidable barrier. Convoys sailing out from Spain had to anchor at Nombre de Dios to discharge passengers and cargoes. People and light merchandise traveled overland by mule train, taking fve or six days to complete a crossing. Heavier goods were ferried 50 miles westward along the coast by hired boat to the port of Chagres. They then were lightered another 44 miles up the snaking Chagres River to a way station called Venta de Cruces. The last 18 tortuous miles up Obispo Valley, over the continental divide and down the Rio Grande Valley into Panama City, was completed by pack animals. Such trips could take three weeks or more to complete. If droughts dried up the river course, extra portages meant even slower progress.

South American produce, passengers, and bullion were brought back in the opposite direction, after which a commercial fair was held at Nombre de Dios, and the galleons finally weighed anchor. A system soon evolved whereby Spanish merchants avoided living in the torrid climate at Nombre de Dios during its tiempo muerto or “dead time”-before a plate fleet arrived in the spring. Instead, they lived more comfortably, and warehoused their goods more safely, in Panama City. Early each year, they began preshipping bulk items via the Chagres River to have an inventory on hand at Nombre de Dios. This route was two to three times less expensive than mule trains, despite being monopolized by a handful of boat owners. Heavier South American produce followed once the Peruvian silver convoy appeared, its royal bullion temporarily housed at Panama City.

Once a dispatch vessel brought word that a plate fleet had reached Cartagena (Colombia), trans-isthmian traffic began to accelerate. The 1,000-2,000 mules engaged in the trajin-literally “haulage”-were fully committed to shuttling private bullion and other high-value items directly overland to Nombre de Dios. Once the plate fleet dropped anchor there, Chagres boats began ferrying the first purchased Spanish goods along the coast and upriver to Venta de Cruces. Trading at Nombre de Dios ceased once the king’s Peruvian silver and dispatches were brought from Panama City, at which point the galleons left. With business at an end, the Panamanian mule teams-consisting on average of 30 mules and nine teamsters apiece- resumed servicing the bulk river traffic out of the Cruces way station, as local and South American traders brought their purchased goods back upriver. If it was too late in the year, such shipments could be held up by strong countercurrents in the river, which occurred every June through December during the rainy season (especially along the final four-and-a-half mile stretch between Gorgona and Venta de Cruces). Once the Peruvian convoy cleared Panama City for its homeward voyage to Callao, a sleepy calm descended on the Isthmus, until the next spring.

The End of Black Bart

As night fell on Saturday, 13 January 1722, the two pirate ships pulled away from Whydah, taking the French prize with them, leaving the Porcupine blazing in their wake. Captain Ogle arrived in HMS Swallow twenty-four hours later.

Bartholomew Roberts had got away with it again. He had sailed into the very jaws of two of the most powerful British warships ever sent in pursuit of pirates, and yet had managed to pillage shipping along a 500-mile stretch of coast, leaving them twisting and turning in his wake, bewildered by the speed of his movement, and sailed away unharmed having taken a total of nineteen prizes. For all the simmering tensions within his own crew, he must have felt invincible. There was even a bonus. As they pulled out into open sea the pirates came across the Whydah, the small Royal African Company sloop which had escaped them two days before, enabling them to indulge once more their detestation of the company and its ships. They plundered it and Miss Nanny was again given license to set it alight. Watching the flames take hold, one of the Liverpool men asked James Philips, an Old Stander, the ‘reason of such wicked practice that served no purpose among them’. ‘It was for fun,’ Philips replied.

The Whydah’s crew was loaded on to a slaver called the Neptune, which happened to be passing, but which the pirates decided not to plunder. The pirates then made their way to Cape Lopez where they set about converting the French prize into their new second ship, naming it, like its predecessor, the Ranger.

The plan now was to make for Brazil in the hope of repeating the capture of the Sagrada Familia over two years before. Since Kennedy’s desertion with their gold Roberts’ rampages had been confined to waters which, though rich in prizes, rarely yielded the sort of spectacular haul that would enable a pirate to retire. And retirement was what Roberts now had in mind. They planned to raid off Brazil for eight months, ‘share 600 or 700 pounds a man, and then break up’, Roberts’ confidant George Wilson told a new recruit. It was increasingly rare in this period for pirates to survive to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Shrewd operator that he was, Roberts sensed that he had pushed his luck for long enough, and was dreaming of a life of ease, free of the constant stress of having to keep control over an unruly crew of 250 men. He would probably have made the move earlier if the Good Fortune hadn’t deserted or the Puerto del Principe hadn’t been captured, which forced him to stay longer off Africa to build up his strength.

But Captain Ogle hadn’t finished with him yet. At Whydah he was told that Roberts was carrying substantial quantities of gold. If any extra incentive were needed he now had it, and he was determined not to let the pirates slip through his grasp. ‘I judged they must go to some place in the Bight [of Biafra] to clean and fit the French ship before they could think of cruising again,’ he wrote. There were only a limited number of places where this could be done. Ogle strengthened his crew with thirty recruits from the Porcupine and the French ship the pirates had seized. Then, on 19 January, he sailed out of Whydah planning to explore them one by one.

He went first to Princes Island, where he had buried so many of his men four months earlier. Finding no word of the pirates he hurried quickly away. He went next to the River Gabon, but, again, drew a blank. Then, as dawn broke on 5 February, he saw the outline of the three pirate ships, riding at anchor, framed against the headland of Cape Lopez.

He’d arrived just in time. The pirates had careened the Royal Fortune and had almost completed fitting out the new French ship. Two days later they’d have sailed for Brazil. But Ogle might be forgiven if at this moment he paused and drew breath. They’d loaded the new Ranger with 32 guns, giving Roberts 72 guns in total. The pirate crew now numbered 253 men, and Ogle believed it to be larger. Ships taken at the start of January had told him there were close to 300 men aboard the two pirate vessels, including ‘100 blacks, trained up’. Ogle had just 50 guns and a crew of no more than 250. He was confronting the most powerful, experienced pirate crew in the Atlantic and the outcome was by no means certain.

But, for once, Roberts’ luck deserted him. There was a sandbank between HMS Swallow and the three pirate ships. As Ogle approached from the north he was obliged to veer west, out into open sea, to avoid it. Seeing this, the pirates thought he had taken fright at the sight of them, and was trying to escape. They concluded that Swallow was a merchant ship, probably Portuguese and full of sugar.

Roberts now made a fateful decision. Sugar, of course, was one of the key ingredients of punch and they were running short. The men on the new Ranger, in particular, had had none for the past few days and this was adding to tension between the two crews. ‘There is sugar in the offing,’ he bellowed across to them. ‘Bring it in that we may have no more mumbling!’ He was handing the prize to the second ship. It was a sound piece of team management. But it meant that, from that moment, Roberts’ forces would be fatally divided.

The Ranger was ‘on the heel’ when HMS Swallow appeared, meaning its contents had been shifted to one side, tilting it so its hull could be scrubbed. Its crew quickly righted it and, while they were doing this, Roberts took the precaution of sending across twenty of his most loyal men to bolster its crew, including his boatswain, William Main, and John Walden – ‘Miss Nanny’. He had no faith at all that, having taken the prize, the Ranger wouldn’t simply desert. He’d also been careful to make sure it was carrying none of the crew’s gold.

With the additional men aboard, the Ranger set off in pursuit of its prize. Seeing this Captain Ogle immediately realised the pirates’ mistake. He continued out to sea, making sure he went slowly enough not to lose sight of the Ranger. Aboard the pirate ship there was wild excitement, the pirates brandishing their cutlasses and ‘swearing every minute at the wind or sails to expedite so sweet a chase’, according to Captain Johnson. One man was dancing manically around the deck. Its captain, the Welshman James Skyrm, ‘in the hurry and warmth of his passion’ slashed with his cutlass at a couple of the forced men whom he felt were showing less enthusiasm than the rest.

Amidst the mayhem one man aboard, peering closely at the prize, began to suspect its true identity. William Guinneys, who had been forced from the Porcupine in Whydah, mentioned his suspicion to a crewmate standing next to him. But the man ‘bid him hold his tongue’. He too was a forced man and both knew HMS Swallow represented their best chance of being freed.

Around 10.30 a.m. Ogle judged they were out of earshot of the ships back at Cape Lopez and allowed the Ranger to come within gunshot. The pirates immediately opened fire with four chase guns, simultaneously hoisting their black flag and preparing to board. At this, Ogle swung HMS Swallow around, across the Ranger’s path, opened the lower gunports and delivered a broadside.

The effect was devastating. The Ranger was caught head on and the fire from HMS Swallow raked its decks from bow to stern, ripping through flesh and tearing off arms and legs. Stunned, the Ranger wheeled away. In the confusion, a young pirate, David Littlejohn, lowered the black flag, signalling surrender. But immediately William Main, the Royal Fortune’s boatswain, and another man rushed at him, pistols drawn, and forced him to raise it again. It was only with difficulty that other pirates persuaded them not to shoot him.

A chaotic pursuit now ensued, the two ships exchanging cannon fire at distance. Captain Skyrm, Main and other hard-liners were all for pulling alongside HMS Swallow, throwing out grappling hooks and making a desperate bid to board. But it was clear the bulk of the crew were reluctant. At 2 p.m. the poor steering of the pirates enabled Swallow to draw close again and deliver another devastating broadside. The Ranger’s main-mast came crashing down. On the deck men slithered around in their own blood. By now nine were dead and around fourteen wounded. Captain Skyrm’s leg had been blown off, as had Miss Nanny’s. Skyrm continued to hop back and forth across the deck, screaming dementedly at his men to continue fighting. But it was clear all was lost. At 3 p.m. the Ranger struck its colours and surrendered, the men throwing their black flags overboard so they could not be displayed in triumph over them on the gallows.

So often the hardened pirates among the crew had said they would blow themselves up and ‘go all merrily to Hell together’ rather than be captured. Now they were true to their word. Half a dozen of the most desperate gathered around the gunpowder they had left in the steerage, and fired a pistol into it. But it was too little to do anything other than leave them hideously burned.

HMS Swallow’s surgeon, John Atkins, heard the explosion as he was being rowed across to the Ranger to treat the wounded. Climbing aboard, he encountered a bizarre scene. The pirates were as dandily dressed as ever ‘with white shirts, watches, and a deal of silk vests’. Those unhurt remained ‘gay and brisk’. But the ship was awash with blood, and dead and hideously injured men lay all about, victims both of the battle and the explosion afterwards.

Captain Skyrm was still raging and refused to allow Atkins to dress the stump of his leg. Atkins turned instead to William Main, whom he identified as a boatswain by the silver whistle hanging at his waist. ‘I presume you are the boatswain of this ship,’ he said. ‘Then you presume wrong,’ replied Main, ‘for I am the boatswain of the Royal Fortune, Captain Roberts commander.’

‘Then Mr. Boatswain you will be hanged I believe,’ Atkins retorted. ‘That is as your honour pleases,’ said Main. Main told him there were still 120 men (a figure which excluded slaves) aboard the Royal Fortune – ‘as clever fellows as ever trod shoe leather: would I were with them!’ But he denied responsibility for the explosion. The blast had blown him into the water and he complained he had ‘lost a good hat by it’.

Atkins turned next to a pirate called Roger Ball, whom he could see from his hideous burns had been close to the seat of the explosion. Ball was sitting in a corner ‘with a look as sullen as winter … bearing his pain without the least complaint’. He told him a pirate called John Morris had fired the pistol into the powder, but that ‘if he had not done it, I would’. Like Skyrm, Ball refused to allow Atkins to dress him. As evening fell he entered ‘a kind of delirium, and raved on the bravery of Roberts, saying, he should shortly be released, as soon as they should meet him’. Ogle’s men strapped him down upon the forecastle and he screamed and strained at the ropes all night, despite his appalling injuries. He died the following day.

There were over a hundred men still alive on board, including twenty-three slaves and sixteen Frenchmen, taken when the new Ranger was seized at Whydah and still being held prisoner. It was decided to leave the wounded pirates aboard, along with the Frenchman and a skeleton crew from HMS Swallow, and to dispatch the Ranger to Princes Island. The remaining pirates, numbering around sixty, were stripped naked and shackled below decks on HMS Swallow, along with the slaves. Ogle’s men spent a couple of days getting the Ranger in a fit state to sail. Then, on 7 February, the two ships parted company, Swallow heading back towards Cape Lopez where Ogle knew Roberts would be awaiting the return of his consort. Two days later, on 9 February, Captain Ogle caught sight of the Royal Fortune and the abandoned old Ranger, still riding at anchor just where he had left them.

Dusk was falling and Ogle, now confident of victory, decided to postpone his attack until the following day. The pirates had not spotted him. And he was delighted to note there were now three sails in the bay. This meant Roberts and his men had seized a prize, and would, at that moment, be plundering its liquor store.

In fact the vessel riding at anchor alongside the two pirate ships was the Neptune under Captain Thomas Hill – the same ship the pirates had encountered as they left Whydah, and onto which they had loaded the crew of the Whydah sloop. Its presence at Cape Lopez is suspicious. Hill was on his way to the port of Cabinda further south and later claimed he had simply put in to get water. But the pirates had not robbed Hill the first time they encountered him and it’s likely they had reached an arrangement. Hill may have been bringing them supplies. Either way, as Ogle suspected, they were enjoying a party and when dawn broke on 10 February most of the pirates were either still drunk or nursing ferocious hangovers.

This was the scenario that Roberts had always dreaded – an encounter with a powerful naval vessel when his crew was the worse for drink. They were in such a state that they didn’t see HMS Swallow initially as it began its approach that morning. They were ‘very easy in the bay’, recalled John Atkins, ‘and stayed so long that we doubted whether they would stir for us’.

Roberts was in his cabin when the cry of ‘Sail ahoy!’ finally came. With him was Captain Hill from the Neptune and they were enjoying a breakfast of weak beer and salmagundi – a pirate speciality that included chunks of meat, pickled herrings, hard-boiled eggs and vegetables. In their befuddled state his men again failed to identify HMS Swallow. Some thought it was Portuguese, others a French slaver. But most believed it was the returning Ranger. Roberts, unconcerned, continued his breakfast. His men were debating how many guns they should fire as a salute to their returning consort when suddenly a look of horror passed across the face of David Armstrong, the deserter from HMS Swallow whom they had taken at Axim six months previously. Armstrong had recognised his old ship. He dashed down to Roberts’ cabin.

It was probably at this moment, as Armstrong frantically gabbled the news, that Roberts realised he was going to die – if not that morning then on the gallows in the next few weeks. But if he felt fear he didn’t show it. Perhaps to displace his own tension, he cursed the trembling Armstrong for cowardice and, taking leave of Captain Hill, went up on deck. Hill took the opportunity to slip back quietly to his own ship.

Looking through his telescope Roberts saw it was flying French colours, which was clearly a ruse. He ordered his men to battle stations. Many were terrified. At least one would spend the battle hiding in the ‘heads’ – the enclosed toilets at the front of the ship – and Roberts almost came to blows with others. But he himself kept his composure. If this was the end then he was determined to go out in style. He went below and dressed in ‘a rich crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a gold chain round his neck, with a diamond cross hanging to it’, according to Johnson. He put on his sword and slung four pistols over his shoulders on a silk sling, in ‘the fashion of the pirates’. Then he went up on deck.

The strategy he devised was characteristically bold. Armstrong told him HMS Swallow sailed best ‘upon a wind’, that is, with the wind coming from the side. With the wind directly behind them the Royal Fortune might be able to outrun it. The wind at that moment was blowing from the south, in the face of the approaching man-of-war. Roberts decided to sail straight towards Ogle’s ship, exchange broadsides, and then shoot out into open sea and try and make a run for it with the wind behind him. If badly damaged the ship would ground itself on the headland ‘and everyone to shift for himself among the Negroes’. If the worst came to the worst they would come alongside and blow both ships up. Roberts knew it was a desperate gamble. And he knew most of his men were drunk and unfit for service – ‘passively courageous’, in Johnson’s words. But he had little option.

By mid-morning a thunderstorm was breaking around them. In the wind and driving rain the pirate ship sped towards HMS Swallow. At 11 a.m. the two ships closed, raised their true colours, and exchanged broadsides. HMS Swallow was almost untouched. The Royal Fortune lost its mizzen-mast and suffered damage to its rigging. But it was still sailing and was soon half a gunshot beyond HMS Swallow and heading out into open sea. Just for a moment it looked as if Roberts might have got away with it. But then the crew’s night of revelry took its toll. One man simply passed out on the deck having fired his gun. Many others were little better and the pirates’ steering was erratic. By now the storm was gaining in strength. One clap of thunder ‘seemed like the rattling of 10,000 small arms within three yards of our heads’, John Atkins later recalled, and the simultaneous bolt of lightening split the top of HMS Swallow’s main-mast. But, with the wind swirling around unpredictably, the warship was soon gaining ground once more on the Royal Fortune. At half past one, it came close enough to deliver another broadside. As the smoke cleared the men on HMS Swallow saw the pirate’s main-mast come crashing down. Shortly afterwards the pirates signalled surrender.

As on the Ranger, the crew of the Royal Fortune immediately divided between those who felt they might stand some chance of acquittal at trial and those who knew only the gallows awaited them. James Philips, one of the Old Standers, went down to the powder room with a lighted match, swearing ‘let’s all go to Hell together’. But there he encountered a sentry – Stephen Thomas – placed by Henry Glasby. Philips ‘throwed [me] against the ladder at the hatchway, wounding [my] hand as [we] were struggling about the match,’ Thomas later recalled. At that moment Glasby appeared and, together, they were able to subdue him.

Shortly afterwards HMS Swallow’s long boat arrived, commanded by Lieutenant Isaac Sun. Recalling the attempt to blow up the Ranger, Ogle had opted to keep his ship at a distance. Working with Glasby, whose ‘good character’ he’d been informed of beforehand, Sun quickly secured control of the Royal Fortune. But there was one final moment of farce as crewman Joseph Mansfield, the former highwayman, suddenly burst from the hold, blind drunk. ‘He came up vapouring with a cutlass to know who would go on board the prize,’ Glasby later recalled. ‘It was sometime before [we] could persuade him of the truth of [our] condition.’

By 7 p.m. the entire crew was secured below decks on HMS Swallow, side by side with their colleagues from the Ranger. The pirates had suffered three dead and ten injured in this second battle, while HMS Swallow hadn’t suffered a single casualty in either engagement. ‘Discipline is an excellent path to victory,’ Atkins commented in his memoir. ‘The pirates, though singly fellows of courage’, lacked ‘a tie of order, some director to unite that force’. Defeat and capture would always ‘be the fate of such rabble’, he concluded. Naval discipline had won out over pirate bravado. But it was a harsh verdict on Roberts’ leadership. This pirate crew, more than any other, had possessed a ‘director’ and ‘a tie of order’. The problem was the pirates themselves, and their reluctance to submit themselves to his will.

But Roberts himself was the one man Atkins was never able to speak to. As the Royal Fortune had sailed towards HMS Swallow that morning Roberts had taken his place close to the wheel ready to direct operations. But as the smoke cleared after the first broadside the helmsman, John Stephenson, had noticed him apparently resting on the tackles of a gun. He ran over and swore at his captain to get up and fight like a man. But Roberts’ throat had been ripped out by grapeshot. The greatest of all pirates, the ‘Admiral of the Leeward Islands’, the scourge of three continents, was dead.

At that moment they were within just a few miles of the spot where they had seized the Expectation back at the end of July 1719. Since then Roberts had taken around 400 ships – a figure which dwarfs that of any of his contemporaries. He had travelled around 35,000 miles. And he’d held together a larger crew for a longer period of time than any other pirate captain. But in the end he had lost his long battle with the anarchy of pirate life. For all the tensions within the crew Roberts was revered by his men and, although the battle raged on for three more hours, his death knocked the fight out of them. Ogle was in no doubt that, if he had been alive, Roberts would have blown up the Royal Fortune with everyone aboard rather than allow it to be taken.

Many times Roberts had sworn, ‘Damnation to him who ever lived to wear a halter!’ He, at least, had escaped hanging. He had left strict instructions that if he was killed at sea his body should be thrown overboard to prevent its being hung in chains. Stevenson wept over him for a time, as the pirates gathered round. And then they fulfilled their captain’s last wish, heaving his body over the rail and consigning it to the deep, still dressed in all its finery.


Robert Surcouf, ‘le Roi de Corsaires’

Capture of Kent by Confiance. Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

Robert Surcouf had made his name and fortune years in the East, capturing the 1,200-ton Indiaman Kent in 1800 and retiring to St Malo. At the Emperor Napoleon’s urging, he returned to Ile de France in 1807 in Revenant, an 18-gun sloop built to Surcouf’s design, her hull completely sheathed in copper, one of the fastest ships afloat. Over the past year, Revenant had become the bane of shipping in the Bay of Bengal, where she had taken more than thirty prizes. In one two-month spell alone, nineteen British vessels were captured by Revenant and two French frigates.

The losses produced squeals of outrage from the merchants of Calcutta who drafted a memorial to the Admiralty, pointing out that ‘the two small islands of Mauritias [sic] and Bourbon’ were the source of their ‘unprecedented suffering’. Surcouf’s activity had been conducted ‘within one hundred leagues of Madras roads, the principal Station of His Majesty’s ships, where at the same time the Flag of a British Rear-Admiral [was] displayed.’

The greatest Breton corsair base was the tidal island of Saint-Malo, on the border with Normandy, whose citizens declared an independent republic in 1490–93 and which remained a free port and a pirate haven until 1688. It was the home of René Duguay-Trouin, who ran a corsair fleet of 64 ships and in 1709 was made Lieutenant General of the Naval Armies by King Louis XIV after capturing more than 300 English and allied merchant ships. Saint-Malo also produced the last grand practitioner of the guerre de course, Robert Surcouf, who directed a fleet of corsairs against British shipping worldwide during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period with a success that shone by contrast with the debacles of the French Navy, and who died fabulously wealthy in 1827.

Robert Surcouf, ‘le Roi de Corsaires’, by drawing on the islands’ privateering tradition and setting aside foolish notions of gloire. When an English captive once challenged him with the words ‘You French fight for money while we fight for honour’, Surcouf shot back: ‘A man fights for what he lacks most.’

The appearance of numerous French privateers in the Indian Ocean had by now become a grave concern to the Indiamen. Earlier in the year of 1799, on 3 February, the small, Extra-ship Echo, Captain William Catline, which had made the round trip out to Botany Bay and then China, was homeward bound from the Cape of Good Hope to London when taken by La Confiance. This was commanded by Robert Surcouf who had been menacing British trade in the Indian Ocean for four years, having first arrived at Île de France on a slaving voyage in 1795. The Île de France’s Governor Malartic had despatched him in the Émilie to secure foodstuffs for the island, but Surcouf had other ideas. Although intending to load a cargo of rice on the Burmese coast, in December 1795 he had encountered the British Country-brig Penguin. The Émilie was not flying colours and the master of the Penguin had fired a shot intended to force the stranger to reveal her nationality, but this was just the notional provocation Surcouf wanted and he immediately engaged the astonished Penguin which was, with her cargo of timber, sent into Île de France as a prize. Emboldened by this success Surcouf now sailed to the head of the Bay of Bengal, rightly judging that off the Sand Heads at the mouth of the Hughli he would be able to prey on British shipping – inward or outward bound – around the pilot station there.

At first light on 19 January 1796 the 23-year old Surcouf had spotted the pilot brig leading two outward-bound and loaded Country-ships clear of the shoals. Within an hour all three were his prizes. The two Country-ships were sent on their way to Port Louis and since both were full of rice, Surcouf had the satisfaction of having fulfilled Malartic’s orders and saved the Île de France from starvation. His conscience thus clear, he transferred his crew into the pilot-brig Cartier and sent the Émilie back to Port Louis. He was now able to lie in wait in a vessel not only familiar to all regular traders in the Bay but actively sought out by them for pilots. Under this deception, on 28 January Surcouf took a third rice-carrying vessel, the Diana. Having dispersed several prize-crews and being now short of hands Surcouf accompanied his newest prize on her way south, only to find the HCS Triton lying in Balasore Roads near the mouths of the Hughli, awaiting a pilot.

On 29 January 1796 the watch aboard the Triton spotted the approaching pilot-vessel and soon afterwards she rounded-to and lowered a boat which, on approaching, hailed them in English. Naturally assuming the pilot was about to embark, the boat was allowed alongside and a moment later her crew were on the Triton’s deck, their weapons revealing them as French corsairs. Captain Philip Burnyeat was among those killed in the smart fight that followed between ‘full two hundred stout fellows’ taken by surprise by eighteen bold Frenchmen led by Surcouf himself. Although the Triton was later recaptured by the Royal Navy and arrived at Madras in June 1798 – whereupon her former mate, David Dunlop, assumed command – the initial loss of this ship and in such a manner was a major blow to the Company’s prestige.

Surcouf was now embarrassed by the number of prisoners on his hands and released the Diana in exchange for a ransom promissory-note guaranteed by her master. Sending the Diana into the Hughli full of news of the French corsair’s audacity, Surcouf took command of the Triton and arrived triumphantly at Port Louis, Île de France, only to learn that in his absence the Cartier had been captured by HMS Victorious. This was not the only bad news he received, for his daring exploits had been carried out without any Letter-of-Marque-and-Reprisal and Governor Malartic was furious. Unimpressed by the young man’s audacity, Malartic confiscated Surcouf’s prizes and initiated a legal wrangle which later continued in Paris. The beneficiaries of Malartic’s action were the British, for Surcouf took passage to France to fight his case with a claim of 1,700,000 livres against the Governor. This he won after a process lasting over a year, tactfully remitting two-thirds of his award into the coffers of the ruling French Directory. The case, however, had attracted the notice of an armateur at Nantes named Félix Cossin. Of the fifty-seven privateers sent out from Nantes in 1797, no less than ten belonged to Cossin, who had been successfully fitting-out and operating corsairs since the beginning of the war. Now he offered the 14-gun ship-rigged Clarisse to Surcouf, an offer that was accepted and Surcouf, accompanied by his older brother Nicolas as first lieutenant, travelled to Nantes. At the end of July 1797 the Clarisse slipped down the Loire and escaped to sea, evading the British blockade.

Cossin’s investment nearly ended three weeks later when, a little south of the equator, the Clarisse ran into a British slaver. In the sharp engagement which followed Surcouf received a superficial but painful wound in the face, but he shot the commander of the slaver only to be rewarded by having the Clarisse’s fore-topmast carried away. These two events terminated the engagement; the two ships drew apart to repair the damage. Surcouf now proceeded directly for Port Louis, securing one prize – a brig – which accompanied him to Île de France where the Clarisse arrived on 5 December.

Surcouf left again early in January 1799, heading first for the Sumatran coast. Off Benkulen he took two prizes following a savage action in which brother Nicolas led the boarders, but the loss of men and damage to the Clarisse persuaded Surcouf to accompany his prizes back to Port Louis where he refitted his ship and recruited his crew. He sailed next on 17 August, heading again for the Sunda Strait were he took a Danish interloper on charter to British merchants, along with a Portuguese merchantman. He now made for the Sand Heads and seized a large Country-ship, the Auspicious, which was bound for Bombay with a valuable cargo that realised, after condemnation as a lawful prize, over one million francs.

Cruising in the offing the Clarisse encountered the Général Malartic, a French privateer owned in the Île de France and commanded by a Mascarene named Jean Dutertre. The two men dined together and in the course of an over-convivial evening fell out, starting a feud that was to have consequences of some moment. Having taken his departure of Dutertre, Surcouf watered off Mergui before approaching Balasore Road again on 30 December 1799. That night the Clarisse gave chase to a large merchant ship and almost ran down another vessel in the darkness; she was the British frigate Sybille and she now gave chase to the little Clarisse. Obliged to run, Surcouf knocked the wedges from his masts’ heels and threw all but six of his guns overboard: the Clarisse led the chase all night and all the following day. During the night, as the wind dropped and favoured the corsair, he was able to give the Sybille the slip.

On New Year’s Day 1800 Surcouf took the Country-ship Jane, owned by Bruce, Fawcett & Co. of Bombay, as she was outwards from Bengal laden with rice. Captain John Stewart had spoken to the American ship Mount Stewart and been warned by her master that a French corsair lay in the offing. Stewart had therefore prudently decided to keep company with the homeward-bound Indiamen Manship and Lansdowne and next day, the 31st, Stewart spoke with the Sybille which was returning to the Sand Heads from her fruitless chase of the Clarisse. This only confirmed the corsair’s presence. At daylight next morning the Jane lay 5 miles astern of the two Indiamen and at this moment

we saw a strange sail…who on perceiving us bore down with great caution, because, as Monsieur Surcouf afterward told me, he took one of the ships to be either Sybille or Nonsuch seeing the other two ships safe into the Sea.

Stewart himself was more certain of the situation.

When I saw the strange sail altered her course, I took it for granted that she was the privateer which the American had given intelligence of and immediately ordered a gun to be fired as a signal to the Indiamen. We continued the signal till about 8 o’clock when the privateer saw that the ships a-head paid no attention to our firing, she hoisted English colours – up studding-sails and royals and came on with more confidence – at ½ past 8 she gave us a shot, hauled down the English colours and hoisted the French national flag. We returned her fire from a 6-pounder which we got off the deck into a stern port in the great cabin, at the same time carrying every sail after the Indiamen, anxiously hoping that the constant firing would bring them to our assistance, but we looked in vain, for they never made the smallest movement to assist us. At 9 the privateer having got very near us, they began to fire grape shot from 2 brass 36-lb cohorns [small grenade-firing mortars] which they had mounted forward. At this time it came on a light squall from the southward which brought the Indiamen directly to windward of us. During the squall we carried on [a] press of sail and the firing ceased on both sides [but] the superior sailing of the privateer soon brought her up again when she commenced a smart fire from musketry and grape shot from one of the 36-lb cohorns – the other having been disabled early in the action; at 11 out powder was wholly expended, the last gun we fired being loaded with musket cartridges. The Frenchman then prepared to board us. They triced up grapnels to their main and fore yardarms, and Surcouf gave orders to board, animating his men with a promise of liberty to plunder. Seeing that we were incapable of resisting the force that was ready to be thrown on board of us, I was under the necessity of ordering the colours to be hauled down and we were taken possession of by an officer of the Clarissa (sic)…

On boarding his captor Stewart learned that the Clarisse’s armament had been much reduced by the necessity of throwing overboard seven of her carriage guns and all her spare spars in running from the Sybille. Her men had begun to cut away the upperworks when the wind fell light and enabled Surcouf to escape the Sybille. Stewart goes on to state what happened to his own ship and men after their capture.

Surcouf sent on board the…[Jane] one officer (by trade a tailor), sixteen Frenchmen, and ten lascars. They were employed until sunset shifting prisoners, and so refitting the rigging of the prize, which had been shot away during the action, and cutting out a double-headed shot which had entered near the stern post just above the waterline.

In his report Stewart records a further insight, inveighing with Surcouf against the Company commanders who had deserted him and pointing out the consequences.

All this time the Indiamen were in sight to the S.W. At sunset when Surcouf was viewing them from the poop thro’ a telescope he requested I would tell him upon my honour whether they were Indiamen or not. I repeated what I told him before that they were two Company’s ships with whom I had kept company ever since we left the pilot. He replied they were two Tritons, alluding to the easy capture which he made of that ship, and said that the commanders deserved to be shot. This was the universal opinion of the French officers. I fear their conduct will be attended with bad consequences to the Hon’ble Company’s ships as it has given the Frenchmen a very contemptible opinion of them and will subject them to many attacks which a spirited behaviour would have freed them from…

The senior of the officers concerned was John Altham Cumberledge of the Manship who subsequently became a principal managing owner and captain of the HCS Neptune as late as 1826. The other is less easy to identify, the Lansdown not being listed as a Company ship after 1788, though she was undoubtedly a chartered Extra-ship. However, it is inconceivable that they were ignorant of the Jane’s plight and one can only assume that if they were not cowards, their zeal to avoid risking their own ships was excessive. Clearly, a bold front would have rescued Stewart from his fate.

Happily, the worthy Stewart was not held long, being landed at Bemblepatam to report to Calcutta, revealing what he knew of Surcouf’s intentions – a good example of merchant masters contributing to the intelligence picture:

Surcouf does not mean to come any more near the Sand Heads, being very much afraid of the Sybille and the Nonesuch (sic), but intends to cruise in the latitude of 19 and 20 degrees…the trade of Bengal will be entirely cut off until they have surfeited themselves with prizes and returned to the Mauritius [as the Île de France was called by the British] to recruit their crews. I have written to Lord Mornington (the [new] Governor-General) a similar letter to this…

Three days after taking the Jane Surcouf ran across two American merchantmen, the Mercury and Louisa. At the time the United States and France were in a state of quasi-war (as a result of French seizures of American ships trading in defiance of the blockade declared by the French government’s First Consul Bonaparte). Surcouf immediately chased and engaged the Louisa, which fired back with her stern-chasers while the Mercury attempted to cross the Clarisse’s stern and rake her. Seeing himself overtaken, the master of the Louisa put his helm over and tried to cross Surcouf’s bow, intending to rake from ahead, but he failed to avoid a collision and as the Clarisse’s bowsprit rode over the Louisa’s deck and entangled in her rigging, over the battered bow of the French corsair swarmed a boarding party at the head of which were the Surcouf brothers. A bloody fight concluded in the capture of the Louisa. Putting Nicolas in command, Surcouf headed after the Mercury, but the Clarisse was so knocked about that he had to abandon the chase and follow his brother back to Port Louis.

On survey, the Clarisse was found to be both damaged and strained, requiring an extensive refit. Surcouf therefore accepted an offer to command La Confiance, a ship-rigged corvette with a fine reputation for speed. In raising a crew for her, however, he found himself in competitions with Dutertre, just then returned from a highly successful cruise and himself recruiting. The two men again fell out, this time over an escalation of bribes offered to likely seamen, and Surcouf challenged Dutertre to a duel. At this Malartic intervened and, after pointing out the only beneficiaries from the death of one of them would be the hated British, the two men embraced and decided to choose their crews by lot.

La Confiance sailed in mid-April 1800 but her cruise got off to a bad start, Surcouf sailing initially for the Sunda Strait where the convoy system denied him any prizes. He next made for the Seychelles, took aboard wood and water and headed for the east coast of Sri Lanka, where he arrived in August. Here he carried off several prizes before evading British cruisers by falling on the Coromandel coast until, at the end of September, he again met the Sybille. Some measures had been taken to disguise the frigate to look like a merchantman and a deceived Surcouf was unable to avoid a close encounter, though he approached her wearing a British red ensign and with a renegade Englishman standing alongside him masquerading as the ship’s master.

Through his ‘interpreter’ Surcouf began a complex explanation of his plight, sending a boat over with instructions to the young ensign in charge of the boat to pull out the plug when half-way between the two ships. As the boat sank Surcouf made sail, calling out to the Sybille that he had no other boat to pick up his men, a subterfuge that succeeded in giving him sufficient of a start to again throw off his pursuer. Having lost the Sybille, Surcouf headed north, capturing two vessels, one of which was the Calcutta Country-ship Armenia, Captain Thomas Meek, before La Confiance arrived off the Sand Heads in early in October. At daybreak on Tuesday the 7th Surcouf’s lookouts spotted a large Indiaman. Issuing a ration of spirits, he treated his men to an exhortation in which he reminded them of the horrors of a British prison-hulk and promised them the pillage of the ship in the offing. They then went to their stations and ran down on their quarry.

In May 1800 the HCS Queen had caught fire off Brazil. Her survivors were taken up by other Indiamen with which the Queen was in company, most of them – including several women and a detachment of troops – ending up aboard the Kent Owned by Henry Bonham, the Kent was commanded by Captain Robert Rivington and bound for Bengal and Benkulen. From Bahia Bay to Bengal her passage, though hampered by the numbers on board, had been untroubled. With its end in sight, she was making up for Balasore Roads when Rivington altered course towards what he took to be the pilot-vessel, hoisting the signal for a pilot. As the two ships closed one another, Rivington backed his main-topsail and lay-to in anticipation of the pilot’s arrival. Deceived to a point, Rivington now noticed the absence of colours flying from the approaching vessel which was not the expected schooner but a ship. He summoned his men to quarters, shotted his guns and fired a warning shot as the stranger passed on the opposite tack. Immediately, the other vessel’s helm went over and she came about to range up alongside the Kent, firing into the large, overcrowded Indiaman.

Rivington found himself embroiled with Robert Surcouf, commanding the frigate-sized corsair La Confiance which, according to the India Telegraph of 18 October 1800 then shot ahead, and passing round the bow of the Kent, renewed her engagement on the other side… She afterwards made sail ahead…of the Kent [when] she was…observed to haul her mainsail up and wear round for the Kent, and for the first time hoisted her national colours. La Confiance then fired a broadside and a volley of musketry from every part of the ship, which was returned by the Kent for as long as her guns would bear; the privateer then wearing around her stern, ranged close up alongside and received a full discharge from Kent’s starboard guns; at this moment the privateer fired a whole broadside and threw a number of hand-grenades from her tops…some of which penetrated the upper deck and burst on the gun deck, at the same time a fire of musketry was kept up from her tops, which killed and wounded a number of the passengers and recruits that were on the quarterdeck and poop; when the ships were completely locked…Captain Surcouf entered at the head of about one hundred and fifty men who ‘jumped by scores from their fore shrouds, fore yard and top, upon the poop and mizen of the Kent’. Surcouf, ‘in the dress of a seaman that he might not be distinguished, was one of the first that boarded’. Along with Rivington, twenty-one others died on the Kent’s bloody deck, including a wealthy passenger named William Cator who left a widow and an orphaned daughter, a young writer named Thomas Graham, an officer of the Bengal army, the Kent’s third and fourth mates and Mr Findlay, her carpenter. By the time the Indiaman’s colours came down concluding an action that lasted for about an hour and three-quarters, the last twenty minutes of which had been hand-to-hand on the Kent’s deck, forty-four persons had been wounded. Among these were Captain Pilkington, aide to General St John, and thirty-four of the Kent’s crew. William Hickey recounts the end of the affair:

Surcouf sent the whole of the surviving passengers, together with the wounded men, under the care of the surgeon of the Kent, to Bengal in a Country merchantman which he captured while conducting his prize to the Isle of France [Mauritius], about fourteen days after taking the Kent. He had behaved with the tenderest humanity to the wounded and with the utmost liberality to the British prisoners in general, especially the ladies whom he treated with every possible degree of respect and generosity.

The Country-ship was Arab-owned and Surcouf’s arrangements were under cartel, the passengers and wounded being exchanged on promise of the release of his own men that he had left in their scuttled boat to the Sybille’s tender mercies. Surcouf, meanwhile, retired with his immense prize to the Île de France. The news of this second major loss of an Indiamen to the charismatic corsair provoked the Governor-General to offer a lakh of rupees for the capture of Robert Surcouf.

In Port Louis Governor Malartic insisted on a consignment of gold dust and ingots in the Kent’s lazarette being a droit of the French state, a development that left the young Surcouf indignant with rage, so-much-so that he had the gold flung overboard. Surcouf was then ordered home, leaving in January 1801. After evading all British attempts to catch him La Confiance arrived at La Rochelle on 13 April and in the following month Surcouf – who appears to have avoided any consequences of his defiance of Malartic – married and settled down in St Malo to enjoy his wealth. Here he remained quiescent for six years.

Surcouf was lucky. His brother Nicolas less so, having been captured when emulating his sibling off the Sand Heads on 13 November 1800 when in command of the Adèle. Captain Webster of H.M. Sloop Albatross sent his captives up the Hughli to Fort William and Nicolas was afterwards sent to England to be incarcerated in the prison-hulk Hero at Chatham. That same month Surcouf’s old rival Dutertre attempted to seize the HCS Phoenix, Captain William Moffat, when the Indiaman was outward-bound. As the Phoenix approached the privateer a suspicious Moffat sent his men to quarters and, as the Général Malartic attempted to run alongside, her men swarming into her rigging to board the larger ship, Moffat’s gunners poured in a broadside and Dutertre was compelled to strike his colours. His ship was carried a prize, and he a prisoner, into the Hughli which, but a few days before, he had almost succeeded in blockading by capturing upwards of a dozen Country-ships.

Perraud was to be among the French corsairs to reappear in the Indian Ocean in the post-Trafalgar period and a brief notice must be taken of these events which affected both Indiamen and Country-ships. Perraud captured the Bombay Marine’s cruiser Viper and unsuccessfully fought the Teignmouth, Lieutenant Hewitson. Along with Perraud was Surcouf, whom we left in St Malo with his bride in 1801. There he might have remained, fitting out his own privateers as an armateur, had the fate of his brother Nicholas not reignited both his patriotism and his Anglophobia which, combined with his acumen and cupidity, was to prove potent. Nicholas Surcouf had endured his confinement amid the assorted horrors of the prison hulk Hero at Chatham and in August 1801 he had been exchanged by cartel. Having by his incarceration conceived such a hatred of the English, when hostilities were renewed in May 1803, Nicholas impetuously accepted a new command, the 38-gun corsair La Fortune. Reaching the Indian Ocean he made two successful cruises from Port Louis in one of which he captured the Company’s 14-gun brig Fly, Lieutenant Mainwaring. However, before the Company could retaliate, Nicholas Surcouf again fell into the hands of his enemy, La Fortune being taken by H.M. Frigate Concorde. Hearing of his brother’s fate Robert left his wife, threw up the business of an armateur – in which he was squandering his fortune – and returned to sea in a newly built vessel, the 18-gun Revenant. Robert had refused a commission as a commodore of a frigate-squadron offered by Napoleon himself, preferring profitably independent command on his own terms.

He arrived at Port Louis in June 1807 and left again in September to cruise off the Sand Heads and in the Bay of Bengal. Here he snapped up Country-shipping, preying upon the rice-trade between Bengal and Madras in order to keep the Île de France supplied with a staple. For part of the time he operated in company with the frigate Piémontaise prior to her capture while other corsairs were never far away, seeking rich pickings among the merchantmen traversing the bay. The Revenant proved exceptionally fast, enabling Surcouf to evade British cruisers sent against him and so successful was the combined effect of all of this enemy activity that after a loss estimated in excess of £300,000, trade was suspended and ‘an embargo of traffic in and out of Calcutta was maintained for sixty-seven days’.[158] In the end, however, Surcouf was obliged to return to his base on 31 January 1808 having dispersed so many of his men in prize-crews.

After refitting, Surcouf sent the Revenant to sea under his first lieutenant, Joseph Potier de la Houssaye. She had a specific mission: to intercept the large, 64-gun Portuguese man-of-war Concecão de Saõ Antonio. It was known that this ship had struck her lower deck guns into her hold and was loaded with a valuable cargo which she would bear home from Goa to Lisbon. While Surcouf remained in Île de France, De la Houssaye caught and fought the Concecão de Saõ Antonio in June, taking her after a bloody action. Despite the value of the Concecão de Saõ Antonio’s cargo, it was valueless in Port Louis and Surcouf was anxious to get it and what remained of his other captures – including the sums realised from the rice he had seized – through the British blockade of the Mascarene Islands and home to his bankers. However, in Port Louis Governor Decaen was an embittered man, jealous of Surcouf’s wealth and reputation, all of which he disapproved, and frustrated by his isolated post denying him the glories that his contemporaries had garnered during Napoleon’s dazzling campaigns in central Europe. But Decaen was a dutiful Governor and sought to strengthen the islands’ defences against the attack he felt certain would be mounted against them.[159] To this end he requisitioned Revenant on the French state’s behalf.[160] There was an ugly confrontation between the two men, the upshot of which was that Surcouf agreed to give up his ship if he took command of the frigate Sémillante which had been so damaged in an action with HMS Terpsichore that she had been condemned as a warship and bought by the merchants of Port Louis. Renamed the Charles, she would be loaded with the loot from the Concecão de Saõ Antonio and the proceeds of other seizures, including his own, and sailed home by Surcouf. Thus seduced by wealth Surcouf, the doyen of French corsairs whose croiserie en guerre et marchandise had been so troubling to Indian trade, withdrew from the Indian Ocean. After several narrow escapes from British cruisers, he reached France to enjoy a wealthy retirement. Fortunately the privateers Surcouf managed were far less successful than those he commanded and, by 1812, the Royal Navy had turned the tide against the armateurs and their investments. However, for some time yet French privateers cruised in the Bay of Bengal and its approaches: the L’Intreprenante took the Country-ship Clyde, Captain McGall, off Sumatra on 15 July 1809; the Gazelle was in the Indian Ocean twice, in 1807 returning to St Malo in 1808, and again in 1810; while the Général Junot and Fântome were also active, all of them making captures. But the threat was diminishing; resources at Port Louis dwindled while the burden of British and Indian prisoners increased and the French became victims of their own success, distant sufferers from the British blockade which prevented any relief sailing from the great French arsenals of Brest and Toulon.