Chapter 8 – The Privateers | France in the Revolution


    About the author

    James Breck Perkins headshot.
    James Breck Perkins

    James Breck Perkins (1847–1910) was an American historian notable for his works on French history. Educated at the University of Rochester, he initially practiced law before shifting to writing and public service. Perkins is best known for his comprehensive studies on the French Regency period, particularly in “France Under the Regency,” which examined Philippe d’Orléans’ governance post-Louis XIV. His other significant works include “France Under Louis XV” and “France in the American Revolution.”



      It was not only by assisting the enterprising house of Roderigue Hortalez and Company that the French government sought to help the colonists: it rendered aid quite as important to the Americans, and quite as inconsistent with the neutrality towards England which was steadfastly proclaimed, in furnishing refuge and shelter to American privateers. The treatment of American privateers in France excited the just complaints of the English, and Americans can excuse it only by the reflection that it was for their benefit. International law was indeed in a very primitive condition, and England had been so persistent a violator of all principles of neutrality, that her complaints came with a poor grace when she was herself a sufferer from their infraction.

      No sooner had war broken out, than the equipment of privateers became a favorite industry in the colonies. The hardy New England sailors were admirably fitted for such work; and privateering not only inflicted great injury on English commerce, but furnished the foundation of many a snug American fortune. The industry had much fascination; there was the possibility of greater gain than in whaling, and not much more danger; a good prize might turn the captain into a well-to-do man, and furnish the sailor with the wherewithal for a month’s steady debauch when he landed at Newport or Boston. There was less everyday hardship than on a merchantman or a fishing boat, more leisure, and better food. The bill of fare as given in the log of one of these privateers is not unattractive. Breakfast was served at eight and dinner at noon. Each man had six pounds of bread per week, butter for breakfast, a pound of beef at dinner three days in the week, and on the other three a pound of pork with pulse, while on Sunday there was rice and molasses for breakfast, and bread and beef for dinner. When to this was added a half pint of rum per day, the sailor should have been contented with his lot, though his grog was stopped for wrangling, quarrelling, or getting drunk. Of course, supplies sometimes failed on a long cruise. “I am afraid I shall be obliged to get a puncheon of rum, although dear,” writes a captain to the owner; “there is no doing without it. We were once entirely out for eight days, but, to do our people justice, I never heard the least murmur on that account, as they knew it could not be had.”

      While the exploits of these cruisers were confined to our side of the Atlantic, their prizes could be taken into American ports, and there was no fear of international complications; but they soon extended their field of operations to the English Channel and the Irish Sea. It was impracticable to sail across the Atlantic with their prizes, and they sought shelter in the friendly ports of France. The American navy came into existence as a result of these enterprises, and it then consisted of a few ships commanded by enterprising and daring captains, who devoted themselves to the capture of English merchantmen. They probably did more harm to the enemy than a larger and more formidable fleet, which would have occupied its energies in fighting men-of-war. John Paul Jones was the best known of those freebooters, but the names of Wickes and Nicholson and Conyngham were almost as much dreaded by the British merchant and shipper.

      The field of operations furnished rich profits. Here is the record of Captain Wickes, who brought Franklin to France, and then turned his energies to cruising along the British coast. It reads like the record of Don Juan’s triumphs when sung by Leporello: –

      “June 19, when we took two brigs and two sloops; … 20th, took the sloop Jassans from White Haven; . . . 21st, took Scotch ship from Prussia . . . loaded with wheat; took a small Scotch smuggler and sunk her; 22nd, took the John and Thomas from Norway … loaded with deals, the brig Jenny and Sallie from Glasgow … in ballast; . . . 22nd, took a brig from Dublin . . . sunk her. Took three large brigs loaded with coals . . . bound for Dublin, sunk them in sight of that port … Took the brig Crawford from Glasgow, . . . in ballast; 23rd, took the ship Grace from Jamaica … loaded with sugar, rum, cotton, and tobacco, and the brig Peggy from Cork … loaded with butter and hides … ; 25th, took the sloop John and Peter from Havre de Grace . . . ; 26th . . . took a skow . . . from Gibraltar . . . loaded with cork.”

      After so active a cruise, it is not strange that the captain went to St. Malo to refit, and he was certainly justified in asking Franklin for a credit of money as soon as possible(Wickes to the Commissioners, June 28,1777; Hale, Franklin in France, i, 122.)

      When Paul Jones became famous, France was the ally of the United States, there was war with England, the French ports stood open for American ships of war with their prizes, as did those of their own land. But the hardy pirates who carried devastation to British commerce, while France still professed to be at peace with England, found some embarrassment in the successful prosecution of their trade. They recognized the principles of international law only when they could be applied in their own behalf. It is pleasant to note the rigid views of Captain Wickes in this respect, for when returning from his cruise, he fell in with an English ship of war, and forthwith ran for St. Malo in order to find a safe harbor. The English ship chased him all day; he escaped, but he says indignantly: “They pay very little regard to the laws of neutrality, as they chased me and fired as long as they dared stand in for fear of running ashore.” (Hale, Franklin in France, i, 124.) If the English men-of-war did not regard the laws of neutrality when pursuing these piratical craft, the French observed them no more when the privateers had escaped into port. The Americans expected the same facilities which they would have found at Gloucester or Boston, opportunities to refit their ships, to buy ammunition and supplies, and sell their prizes, and they received very nearly what they desired.

      It was plainly the duty of the French to refuse these cruisers any shelter, except in stress of weather or urgent need. Apart from the general principles of international law, the Treaty of Utrecht between France and England provided that privateers should not fit out their ships nor sell their prizes in ports of either country, nor even purchase victuals except such as would enable them to get “to the next port of the Prince from whom they have their commission.”

      The French were willing to see any harm done to England, but they did not wish to be forced into a war. Therefore they closed their eyes to infractions of neutrality until a complaint was lodged, and then made much ado, with the purpose of accomplishing the smallest possible result. But even Vergennes dared not violate all laws of propriety, and the conduct of these freebooters was so shameless that at times he took, or at least threatened, sharp action.

      In addition to his other duties, Franklin was practically secretary for the incipient American navy; he had to do with the purchasing of boats, the payment of men, and the complications which constantly resulted from the actions of these buccaneers. It was his own theory that all privateering should be abolished. He urged not only that free ships should make free goods, but that unarmed trading vessels should be undisturbed in time of war, and an article to that effect he endeavored, without success, to have inserted in the treaty of peace between England and the United States. But no such principles had been adopted, and the doctor’s abstract views did not prevent his assisting the American cruisers to do the greatest possible harm to English commerce. He had constantly to make excuses of questionable truth, and more questionable validity, for the conduct of American ships that were refitting in French ports. Such action was forbidden, the ships were sometimes seized, and the officers imprisoned; but these troubles were sure to be adjusted, and in due time the cruiser, again in good order, with a fresh supply of powder and her money-bags well fllled from the sale of prizes, sailed out from a French port to carry destruction to English shipping.

      The English, in justifying their conduct during our Civil War in reference to the Florida and the Alabama, could have found precedents in the action of France in the time of our Revolution. Their attempts to prevent Confederate cruisers sailing from English ports were marked by the utmost good faith, when compared with the procedure of France at that period; if there had then been a Geneva Commission, acting on the principles established at the Alabama Arbitration, France would have been unanimously condemned to pay many millions of indemnity for damages to English commerce, caused by a reckless disregard of the obligations of international law.

      Franklin came over in the Reprisal, commanded by Captain Wickes. So well was the time employed during the voyage, that the captain sailed into the harbor at Nantes, carrying not only the American t minister, but two prizes in tow. These he proposed to sell in order to equip his boat for a protracted cruise of privateering, but the English officials stoutly remonstrated. Vergennes replied in the tone which must have become very wearisome to the English before open war was at last declared two years later. “Though a faithful execution of
      the treaties,” he wrote, “was strictly commanded, infractions would occur. If prizes taken by the Reprisal had been sold, and French merchants had purchased them, nothing could be more irregular, but he felt sure that the owners would find redress if they brought action in the courts.” (Doniol, ii, 334.)

      In the mean time, Wickes peacefully pursued his illegal courses, and made strenuous protest when he was disturbed. “I have this day,” he writes, “very extraordinary orders from the intendant of this port, demanding me to leave the port in twenty-four hours. I shall run into Nantes and there enter a protest . . . though I am ordered not to go into any port in France. These are very extraordinary orders, such as I little expected to receive in France.” (Wickes to the Commissioners, Feb. 20, 1777; Hale, Franklin in France, i, 115.) Three weeks later, writing from the same place, having remained there notwithstanding all orders to quit, he complains: the commissary of the port ” still continues to threaten to drive me out immediately … It vexes me very much to be treated in this manner, and I would not submit to it elsewhere.” (Same to Same, March 15,1777; lbid., 119.)

      A few months later, having returned from a successful cruise and taken refuge in St. Malo, he writes in great distress that the authorities there would not allow him to take on board cannon, powder or military stores. “I am told they have wrote [sic] to the minister informing of my having taken my cannon on board clandestinely at the night . . . If so,” says the captain, and doubtless with truth, “you may safely deny the charge, as I took them on board at noonday publickly.” (Same to Same, Aug. 12,1777; Ibid., 126.)

      In fact, these freebooters made no concealment, and when upon complaint of the British minister an order came down from Paris stopping their proceedings, they wrote to Franklin and he, in due time, got the order modified, or else the local authorities decided that they could safely wink at its infraction. Even this was very galling to men like Captain Wickes. “I am heartily tired of France,” he writes. “I can only say I am sorry our situation is such as puts us under the disagreeable necessity of submitting to such indignities as are exercised over us in the ports of France.” (Wickes to the Commissioners, Aug. 12, 1777; Hale, Franklin in France, i, 128.)

      Franklin did all he could to assist the success of these enterprises, although he deemed them so reprehensible. He wrote a French merchant, who doubtless wished to pick up some of the good bargains furnished by the sale of these prizes: “The prize cannot, as you observe, be sold and delivered in your port, it being contrary to treaties . . . But I suppose it may be done in the road without the port, or in some convenient place on the coast where the business may be transacted and conducted with discretion, so as to occasion no trouble to the ministers by applications from the English Ambassador . . . But a formal order from the minister to permit such a sale and delivery in any port of France is not to be expected while the peace continues.” (lbid., 134.)

      Some of the documents in the French Foreign Office read curiously like those of the English law officers, when our minister was endeavoring to stop the Alabama. “We must admit,” wrote Maurepas, speaking of the complaints of selling prizes in French ports, “that means have been found to avoid the prohibitions . . . but it is necessary to apply to the Admiralty to obtain legal proof and we will not fail to send them there.” (Doniol, ii, 335.) If Wickes was disturbed by orders that wounded his feelings but did not hinder his enterprise, Lord Stormont, with better reason, was angered because the American cruisers sold their prizes and refitted their ships with almost as much impunity as if they were in their own land, instead of in a country which professed to be at peace with England.

      Vergennes wrote in July, 1777, that Lord Stormont had called, complaining of the action of the three American cruisers, Reprisal, Lexington, and Dolphin, that were then ravaging the British coast. “I will not endeavor,” says the minister, “to report to you the warmth of his expressions. It was extreme.” (Vergennes to Noailles, July 19, 1777; Doniol, ii, 514.) To such complaints Vergennes replied, complaining of the heat of his adversary’s remarks: “We do not use a tone of arrogance,” he wrote; “our style is simple, honest, and firm. The King does not seek to justify wrongs; he fears the less to do justice because that is in his character, and he regards the exercise of this as one of the fairest jewels of his crown, one of the most sacred duties of his office.” (Doniol, ii, 515.) After this outburst of eloquence, he continues: “The position we take of holding these corsairs until we can have security that they will return to their own country without again infesting the waters of Europe, is all the satisfaction we can give.”

      To the American commissioners he wrote at the same time: “I call your attention to the article of the treaty which forbids our allowing privateers free access into our ports, unless through pressing necessity . . . You promised, gentlemen, to conform thereto.” And he then related the trials he had experienced from the conduct of Captain Wickes and his consorts. “You are too well informed, gentlemen, and too acute not to see how far such conduct affects the dignity of the King, my master, and at the same time violates the neutrality which his Majesty professes. I expect, therefore, from your sense of justice, that you will be the first to condemn conduct so contrary to the laws of hospitality and of propriety.” (Vergennes to the Commissioners, July 16, 1777; Doniol, ii, 521.) The cruisers must, accordingly, said Vergennes, give bonds for their immediate return to their own country.

      In reply, the commissioners said that as soon as the ships had taken in sufficient provisions, they would sail for America, eschewing all privateering on the British coast. Nothing of the sort was done, nor was it probably expected or really desired on either side that any such thing should be done, but the official representatives of the two nations at least observed the proprieties.

      Sometimes the indignation of Vergennes, as well as of Stormont, was excited by the boundless audacity of the American freebooters. In the spring of 1777 a privateer was fitted out in the port of Dunkirk, with Deane, then one of our representatives, taking an active part in the enterprise. The cruiser set sail, under the command of Captain Conyngham, and at once captured the Harwich packet-boat, plying between England and Holland, and sailed back in triumph, bringing her prize, with all on board, into Dunkirk. But this was too flagrant an infraction of the law of decency as well as neutrality. The capture of the packet created a panic in England; rates of insurance went up, boats running between Dover and Calais had to pay ten per cent, travellers were afraid to go to sea. The English minister remonstrated with his usual vehemence, and even Vergennes was angry. The cruiser was seized, and Captain Conyngham, who seems to have expected a triumphant reception after his successful trip, was thrown into jail; the packet, and a brig that Conyngham had also captured, were returned to the English, much to the chagrin of the captors.

      Deane, who had taken an active part in this piratical enterprise, remarked sadly that this gave the English a temporary triumph. Their triumph was only temporary. A new and better ship was bought for Conyngham and equipped with thirty-six guns. The release of the captain and crew was obtained on the agreement that they would sail at once for America, and Mr. Hodge, who apparently was a partner in the enterprise, signed a bond to that effect. Conyngham then sailed out from Dunkirk, ostensibly on a trading expedition, and as soon as he was out of sight of land, began to pursue every English boat he saw, and captured all he could; he even endeavored to burn a few towns along the English coast. On hearing of this violation of the agreement, Vergennes had Hodge arrested and put in the Bastille, but the American commissioners applied for his release, protesting that they could not believe a man of Hodge’s standing capable of any willful offence against the laws of the nation. Upon this certificate of character, Hodge was released from prison, and Conyngham proceeded on his privateering cruise along the English coast (Deane Papers, ii, 108, 109.)

      A few months later, Captain Conyngham was unlucky enough to be made a prisoner, and the English proposed to hang him as both a rebel and a pirate. The specific act charged against him was capturing the Harwich packet, having, as was alleged, no commission from the United States government. Conyngham averred that he held a commission, which was probably true, but, unfortunately, this he had lost at the time the French government shut him up in jail at Dunkirk. Thus the capture of the packet, which had disturbed all England, very nearly cost the captain his neck. But Franklin and others asserted that be was a regularly commissioned officer, and the possibility of retaliation, more than any belief in the regularity of Conyngham’s status, saved his life. Congress held three English officers in close confinement, to abide the decision as to Conyngham’s fate. At last he made his escape from prison, and he wrote Franklin, dwelling upon his sufferings. “Irons, dungeons, hunger, the hangman’s cart, I have experienced . . . Sir George Collier ordered irons on my legs, with a sentry on board the ship. Mr. Collier, going on an expedition, ordered me to jaole, there put me into the condemned room. The first night a cold plank my bed, a stone for a pillow . . . Then, not contented, they manacled my hands with a new-fashioned pair of ruffels fitted very tite.” (Hale, Franklin in France, i, 347,349.) As Franklin said when Conyngham was captured, “He has done so much harm to the enemy that he can expect no mercy at their hands.”

      Early in 1778 France signed an alliance with the United States, and the English declared war. American cruisers enjoyed hardly more privileges in French ports after this than they had when France was at peace, but no one could longer complain that the hospitality thus extended was contrary to the laws of nations and the principles of neutrality.

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