Shipping Wonders of the World

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Once a legalized form of sea-roving and raiding, a voyage in a privateer offered a seafaring life full of adventure and excitement, with enormous profits for those who were successful

The famous privateers Prince Frederick and Duke in 1745

FRENCH AND BRITISH SHIPS IN ACTION. This illustration shows the capture of the Marquise d’Antin and the Louis Erasme by the famous privateers Prince Frederick and Duke in 1745. These two British vessels formed part of the privateering fleet raised by a syndicate of London merchants and commanded by George Walker.

WITH its splendid outlet for ambitious sea adventure, privateering exercised no small influence on British manhood through century after century. By the Declaration of Paris made in 1856 privateering was, however, rendered illegal, and thus passed away a unique form of activity that had afforded considerable profit to individuals and to the State.

Whereas a pirate or corsair is in the same category as a thief or a bandit, a privateer is one who has been authorized and commissioned to rove the seas subject to certain conditions. When Edward VI issued privateering licences, wealthy Devonshire gentlemen within a few years began to build ocean-going vessels and to get together crews from Plymouth, Dartmouth, Exmouth and elsewhere. Once he had been invited to cruise about, looking for Spanish and Portuguese treasure ships, it was worth a Devonshire squire’s while to go afloat himself in charge of the expedition, confident that he would return a few months later rich beyond the dreams of avarice. As a rule, he was neither navigator nor seaman, but that mattered little since he took with him a pilot and sailing master as technical officers, himself retaining full command and leadership. These organizers were scarcely captains in the maritime sense but rather warriors ready to fight, and the tactics consisted chiefly of laying one vessel alongside her rival, rushing on board, and capturing the enemy by sheer force rather than by skill.

One of the most amazing privateering expeditions was in 1592, partly subsidized by Queen Elizabeth personally. It was remarkable for the vast profits which accrued and for the size of the ship captured. The captured vessel was named the Madre de Dios, which had sailed from India on January 12, bound for Spain with a valuable cargo of precious stones, elephant tusks, quilts, Oriental carpets, spices and other commodities. This big carrack was made a prize one night during that summer in the Atlantic by an English privateering squadron, and in September she was brought safely to Dartmouth, where she created a sensation. Of 1,600 tons and carrying over 600 men, she measured 165 feet from beak-head to stern and 46 ft. 10 in. at extreme beam. She was 100 feet long on the keel and her mainmast was 121 feet high. Before being taken into the Dart, she was lightened, but even then she is said to have been drawing 26 feet.

The value of her cargo, reckoned in modern money, amounted to over £2,500,000, but the pilfering which soon began prevented the privateering syndicate from receiving anything approaching this sum. Rough, hearty, poor Devonshire mariners, whose greatest wealth had never been more than a few shillings, helped themselves to necklaces of Oriental pearls, chains of gold, single pearls of exceptional size, forks and spoons of crystal set with gold and stones, bracelets, diamonds by the hundred and other valuable articles.

Never again could privateering be expected to yield such remuneration, yet it still attracted adventurous characters. During the earlier part of the seventeenth century much vexation was caused by the delay in paying the crews’ wages in ships of the Navy. Many a fine sailor, therefore, preferred going to sea in a privateer, where the men could count on receiving one-third the value of any vessel captured. At that period “man-of-war” signified a privateering ship, and a “royal” ship connoted a war vessel of the King’s Navy. The commanding officer of a Caroline privateer, too, was often enough a better seaman than the captain of a naval unit.

During the time of Pepys those privateers who belonged to the port of Dunkirk used to be a source of no little anxiety to British merchant ships. Such privateers were fast vessels, not over-rigged, their masts stepped not too forward, and they were handled with great skill as well as daring.

The eighteenth century became the golden age for privateers of more than one nationality, because the political conditions of that time favoured such activities. As the French Navy during that century declined, so much the more did French privateers prosper, with the encouragement of the Government. Even at the close of the seventeenth century they used to cruise along the Gulf of Mexico, past the coasts of England’s new colonies — Virginia, Carolina and New England. The French ports of St. Malo, Dunkirk, Bayonne, St. Jean de Luz, Rochefort and Bordeaux developed into notorious nests for these adventurous fleets, which were financed by joint-stock companies. Some of the best houses still standing in St. Malo were built out of the proceeds obtained from English merchantmen.

The Dunkirkers were such a scourge in the English Channel that vessels homeward-bound from the Cape of Good Hope sometimes preferred to go northabout round the boisterous Scottish coasts, only to be waylaid in the North Sea. But the privateers from Bayonne, St. Jean de Luz and Bordeaux were so active in the Atlantic that their exploits would fill a book.

45 Privateers from Two Ports

The men were hand - picked for their daring and sailor-like skill. Their ships were fast, good sea-keepers, stoutly built, well armed and well found. Such vessels, for example, as L’Aigle and La Diane used to leave Bayonne for a three-months’ cruise to lie in wait for English merchantmen sailing home from Philadelphia, Virginia and Carolina. La Diane was a frigate which had been built by a company to the designs of M. Geoffroy, royal shipbuilder at Bayonne. Nothing was stinted, everything of the best went into her, from timber to arms, guns, cordage, provisions and medical comforts. The Anglo-French wars, year after year, afforded immense encouragement for privateering, and whenever hostilities broke out with England the Bayonne crews would, with those from St. Jean, be among the first to sally forth. These two ports alone were able to muster forty-five privateer vessels, armed with 552 guns, and carrying 7,100 tough men. Bordeaux is situated sixty miles from the sea, and is reached after a dangerous entrance where tides are strong and fogs are frequent. All the way up from the river mouth to the city it is difficult and anxious work for any ship relying on sail, and even to-day, where the River Gironde flows out past Pointe de la Coubre lighthouse, there exists a veritable graveyard of unlucky steamers.

GEORGE WALKER’S FLAGSHIP in October 1747 was the King George

GEORGE WALKER’S FLAGSHIP in October 1747 was the King George, a 32-gun ship. The famous privateersman was daring enough to tackle a Spanish 74-gun man-of-war, the Glorioso. The King George’s speed brought her into a single-handed action with the Glorioso, and the outcome was uncertain until the privateer Prince Frederick came up and forced the Spaniard to flee.

Eighteenth-century privateers, however, used to work their way in or out, making voyage after voyage. Many were wrecked or captured, but others were fortunate alike in their navigation and in their fighting, to the great profit of their owners. Thus did these commercial enterprises prosper till privateering degenerated into a wild frenzy, and presently its interests clashed with those of the French Government. When so much adventure, such a free life, and such rich rewards could be obtained simultaneously, it was most difficult to exercise any restraining influence.

One Bordeaux private ship, called La Gironde, armed with sixteen guns and manned by a crew of 126, made two long Atlantic cruises between Christmas 1797 and the following November. During that period she captured no fewer than fifty brigs, as well as other vessels. Then there was Le Vaillant, of 700 tons, having twenty guns, with 105 men. She sailed across the Atlantic in 1801, and in seventy - five days captured eleven ships, including one English whaler. It must not be imagined that the privateer skipper was always a roisterous, boastful, bullying sort of pirate. By this date the fighting had become too keen for mere swagger or any suspicion of inefficiency. Captain Darrigrand, master of La Gironde, rose from poverty to wealth simply because he carried out his ambitions on a sober business basis.

This sort of venture had its risks and even its reverses. No one but a genuinely courageous fellow would embark on such voyages. One day a French privateer sloop working the English Channel came upon a small hoy from Poole. The fight went on with great determination, and with bravery on either side, but the English skipper, William Thomson, with only one man, a boy, and two small guns, was eventually so successful as to wound half the French crew and then to capture the privateer, with eight prisoners. For this brilliant bit of work the Admiralty presented Thomson with

a gold medal and chain valued at £50. Certainly in those days there was plenty of excitement in voyaging. During the autumn of 1702 the Bristol galley Charles, 100 tons, mounting ten guns, and with a crew of fourteen, set out from Bristol bound for the West Indies.

Most of the galleys of the eighteenth century were built either on the Thames or at Bristol, being ship-rigged, flushdecked, three-masted and double-ended. A galley was an ocean-going species, and might even be as big as 140 tons, but her essential galley characteristic lay in her capacity for speed. Easily driven by the wind, these vessels were fitted with auxiliary sweeps for use when the breeze fell light.

The Value of Speed

London merchants at that time imported many a cargo by galleys to Bristol to avoid the English Channel privateers. The galleys unloaded their goods at Gloucester, whence the commodities travelled by land to Lechlade, Gloucestershire, after which they were transported by barge down the Thames to London in safety. The reverse process was adopted when the galley voyaged outward-bound with cargoes.

The Charles sheltered a while in Cork Harbour and then set out to cross the Atlantic, but within six hours was being chased by a French privateer which was waiting off the Old Head of Kinsale. The Frenchman, on closing the Charles, met with such a furious reception for an hour that she sheered off and preferred attack on a brigantine named Logwood. Night came on, the Charles escaped, and sailed south to the Azores. Here she was again surprised. This time the privateer hung on to her for three days, when the galley’s superior speed allowed evasion and, steering a westerly course, the Bristol vessel made the best of fair trade winds till some thirty miles short of Barbados.

Then came another unpleasant surprise. At seven in the morning up sailed a French privateer, armed with six guns and seventy-five men, commanded by a skipper who had previously captured two other British traders. On this occasion the threat was more serious for the Charles, since she now had under her care a lightly armed brigantine that belonged to the New England colonists. A hot engagement ensued lasting eight hours, during which the Charles had two men killed and the French captured the brigantine. This was a sad blow, yet it served only to quicken energies anew, so that the galley recaptured the New Englander.

The French vessel was driven off, but little did she know that the Charles had expended all her shot save three, having been even compelled to cut up her bolts, besides collecting all the spike-nails and any bits of iron in the ship. She did not ultimately save the brigantine, however, which, being a

slow sailer, again fell into the enemy’s hands, though her crew got away and was brought by the Charles into Barbados.

The engagement between the brig Observer and the American privateer Jack

AN AMERICAN PRIVATEER IN ACTION off Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia, on May 29, 1782. The illustration shows the engagement between H.M. brig Observer (left) and the American privateer Jack. The Americans were among the most successful of all privateers. They were particularly successful in intercepting British supplies.

Such incidents emphasized the great value of speed. For this reason privateers and merchant skippers used all sorts of dodges for getting the best out of their ships, making them sail closer to the wind. They would paint the underwater portion of the hull with a mixture of tallow, resin and sulphur to prevent fouling from the tepid waters. The stately East Indiaman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, if not in convoy, was always a most tempting bait for any powerful French privateer. On the other hand the East Indiaman used to keep a smart look out and suspect any strange vessel on the horizon. Not infrequently the East Indiaman so impressed the privateer as to make her decide to clear off.

Legally there was no difference between a “letter of marque ship” and “privateer”, and “privateer” came to be used for both. Originally a letter of marque, mart, or reprisal, was a licence authorizing subjects to make reprisals for certain losses sustained at sea against the enemy. That is to say, the injured merchantmen were allowed to recoup themselves and to state the amount before the Admiralty Court, though after about the middle of the seventeenth century letters of marque were given to vessels not for particular, but for “general” reprisals. During the following century we find this distinction — a letter of marque ship was a vessel engaged on a trading voyage, with permission to make prizes if chance should offer, but a privateer was a private merchantman fitted out by her owners as a temporary man-of-war for the purpose of cruising about and looking for the enemy. No cargo was carried, and an exceptionally large crew was put on board, who were remunerated on the share system just, as many fishing craft work to-day.

Need of Extra Hands

The privateer needed these extra hands not merely for the guns and close fighting, but also for sending into harbour any captured prize. Either of these licences was much to be desired, for two additional reasons. First, it exempted the cargo vessel from convoy. Thus, if she were a fast sailer and her captain one who delighted in risks, he could avoid much delay and arrive home long before other vessels. Secondly, this document nominally exempted the crew from being impressed. During

the war with France and. Spain (1625-30) Bristol privateers varied in size from the 15-tons Scout Pinnace to the Endeavour of 50 tons and the Bristol Merchant of 250 tons, but there were even slightly larger units. That long series of hostilities, usually known as the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14), gave a tremendous encouragement to English privateers and galleys. Of the former the best knowm were the Duke (320 tons, 30 guns, 117 men) and the Duchess (260 tons, 26 guns, 108 men). Already English oceangoing cargo carriers were being built of greater size.

The Windsor Castle was attacked off Barbados by the French privateer La Genii on October 4, 1807

A HAND-TO-HAND FIGHT took place when H.M. packet Windsor Castle, armed with eight 6-pdrs., was attacked off Barbados by the French privateer schooner La Genii on October 4, 1807. After a fierce engagement which went on for two hours and a half, the enemy made a desperate attempt to board the Windsor Castle. The attempt was repulsed and the Windsor Castle’s commander and five men succeeded in boarding the French vessel.

An English privateer of the mid-eighteenth century, just before she had completed her fitting out, would advertise in the local newspaper for a crew, and give sufficient details as to her character. The following advertisement appeared in a Bristol journal during September 1756, and created unusual attention among mariners.

“The Caesar privateer. A prime sailor and built for that purpose, with the best accommodation, Ezekiel Nash, Commander. Burthen 360 tons, 20 nine- and six-pounders, and 200 men. Will sail in thirty days, having a protection for the ship’s company. All officers, sailors, and able-bodied landsmen who are disposed to enter on board the said privateer, let them repair to [the tavern] where they shall meet with aii proper encouragement.”

Nash can have had slight difficulty in finding a crew, for before the month was out the Caesar put to sea with the London privateers Defiance and Boscawen. On April 12, 1757, the Caesar was cruising about the Bay of Biscay, forty-two miles south of Bordeaux, when she sighted late in the evening a large ship on her weather quarter steering the same course. The night passed without event, and next morning at 4.15 the stranger appeared two miles ahead, but before noon the Caesar had come up with her. She hoisted the French ensign with pendant, and fired a gun. Having hauled up her courses, she prepared to engage, and at 11.40 the Caesar hoisted her colours, sent all hands to quarters and fired a broadside. So the fight began.

The French privateer was nearly twice her opponent’s size, being of 700 tons, with twenty-eight guns on deck, eight on the quarter-deck and four on the fo’c’sle. The ships were now so close that blunderbusses and small arms also were used, and a real ding-dong duel began. At first the enemy sought to make the best use of her size and weight by trying to run the Caesar down, but the Englishmen avoided this, raked her fore and aft, and thus managed to shatter their rival’s rigging, bringing down the enemy’s mainmast as well as her fore-yard.

For two hours and forty minutes the fierce engagement continued, but the Caesar herself had suffered such damage that she was compelled to bear up before the wind and stop some of her leaks. Already the ship had 7 or 8 feet of water in her hold, her masts were injured and part of her rigging had been shot away.

An Indecisive Contest

All hands were needed for pumping and bailing, and carpenters were slung over the side to plug the shot holes. By 5 p.m. so much progress had been made that there were now only 4½ feet of water in the hold, and the ship was ready to renew the fight.

So the Caesar then ran down under her opponent’s lee quarter, rounded under the stern, and once more fired a broadside. The Caesar once more suffered some ugly holes in her hull, having received two just above the water-line. Then night followed, when the contest had to halt. The Caesar,

being too near a lee shore, stood out seaward. Her crew spent the dark hours stopping leaks and working the pumps. By 9 o’clock next morning, with rigging set up and everything in readiness, she sailed alongside the Frenchman and hailed the vessel to surrender.

The French ship’s name was Robuste, and she carried an exceptionally large crew of seventy-four, in addition to 150 foreign volunteers. Still she did not, as might have been expected, overcome the Caesar, but after three days’ intermittent engagement escaped to the north, and ran into Rochefort on April 18, having lost twenty-nine killed and forty-two wounded. The Caesar therefore profited nothing, and was sold during the summer of 1757. She continued her cruising, but after six more years foundered at sea on passage between Havana and New York.


ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS PRIVATEERS was the 30-gun Duke. A vessel of 320 tons, she carried 117 men. With the Duchess (shown in the background) Captain Woodes Rogers in 1708-11 took the Duke on one of the most remarkable privateering voyages on record. The Duchess, 260 tons, 26 guns and 108 men, had a length of approximately 80 feet on the keel and a beam of 25 feet. The illustration shows three men being ducked from the Duke's yardarm, as a disciplinary measure.

Privateering at the best of times could only be a great gamble, yet it did form a service valuable to a Government at war, especially during the American War of Independence (1775-83), the French Revolutionary Wars of 1793-1815 and the war of 1812. Ultimately rich noblemen even fitted out their yachts as privateers; but the most interesting privateering voyage of all centres round Woodes Rogers, a master mariner in the time of Queen Anne.

Rogers was born somewhere about the year 1679. The son of a Poole (Dorset) mariner he felt a natural inclination to the sea. In 1708, financed by sixteen Bristol merchants, he fitted out the two ships Duke and Duchess.

These sailed from Bristol on August 2, and anchored in Cork Harbour five days later, where Rogers promptly lost forty of his men by desertion. Here also he careened, scrubbed, and tallowed the hulls of both ships, so as to be ready for a long voyage. He obtained some men from the shore to replace the deserters, and doubled the number of his officers.

As master and pilot Rogers took with him William Dampier, one of the finest seamen that England has ever reared. Born in Somerset, Dampier had already had an amazing career. Having fought against the Dutch in 1673, he got a job as overseer of a Jamaica plantation, but a few years later went buccaneering, crossed the Isthmus of Darien, and captured more than one vessel in the Pacific. Then he sailed round the world and explored the coast of Australia. He was wrecked on Ascension Island, but finally reached home.

Having left Cork Harbour on September 1, 1708, the three-masted, frigate-built Duke and Duchess were lucky to carry a northerly wind across the Bay of Biscay, but trouble came quickly. On sighting a strange sail they gave chase over a heavy sea, only to discover that the stranger was a Swede, so they had to allow this neutral her freedom and the disappointed crew mutinied.

Having crossed the Atlantic, the Duke and the Duchess went south towards Cape Horn, sighting the Falklands two days before Christmas The usual fog and bad weather were experienced as they neared the Horn.

Original of Robinson Crusoe

On the last day of January 1709 the two frigates sighted the lonely island of Juan Fernandez, off the Chilean coast. A boat was lowered and returned with an abundance of crayfish, and also with a wild-looking man clothed in goatskins, who had been on the island four years and four months. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and this Scotsman had been in the ship Cinque Ports (Captain Stradling), which had belonged to Dampier’s earlier privateering expedition. Because of a personal quarrel with Stradling, Selkirk had asked to be put ashore and here he had lived as a recluse. Dampier told Rogers that Selkirk was the best man in the Cinque Ports, so now he was accepted as the Duke's mate. On the account of Selkirk’s experiences Defoe is said to have based his famous Robinson Crusoe.

Continuing his privateering voyage, Rogers captured a small prize which he fitted out as a man-of-war, sending her off privateering also. Rogers himself made additional captures, so that by April his squadron numbered eight. They even captured the town of Guayaquil (now in Ecuador), for which the Spaniards paid heavy ransom. Weary months were spent oft the Californian coast, fever brought death to some officers and men, but just before Christmas a Spanish galleon with 193 men was seized, though Rogers was wounded. A voyage of fifty-eight days, at a daily average of 108 miles, brought them to the Ladrones, in the Pacific, and in June, off the north coast of Java, they spoke a Dutchman.

Apart from the matter of fighting and capturing, this undertaking over uncharted oceans was invaluable to the English nation. On December 27, 1710, Rogers reached the Cape of Good Hope, remaining in Table Bay till the following April. Some of his spoil he sold to the Dutch settlers. Then he crossed the Equator for the eighth time since he had left Bristol. Finally he sailed for safety with a convoy outside Ireland, down the North Sea, and thus on October 14,1711, arrived in the Thames at Erith. With the Duke and the Duchess was the captured Spanish galleon whose name had been changed to Bachelor.

THE SINKING OF A BRITISH PRIVATEER by the privateer Vengeance in 1757

THE SINKING OF A BRITISH PRIVATEER by the St. Malo (France) privateer Vengeance in 1757. The 26-gun Terrible, commanded by Captain Death, had put a prize crew in a captured French merchantman when she was challenged by the 36-gun Vengeance. The French vessel recaptured the Terrible’s prize and, with her guns, succeeded in sinking the short-handed British privateer.

You can read more on “Chinese Piracy”, “Handling the Sailing Ship” and “Life in the East Indiamean”  on this website.