Piracy in the Service of the State

Engagement between a French privateer and an armed merchant ship

Although I seem to have unaccountably missed International Talk Like a Pirate Day on 19 September I was reminded of it in reading British newspapers from the early 1800s. There are few pirate tales relating to Prince Edward Island and the closest we come are brief encounters with privateers during times or war.  The best known is the invasion of Charlotte Town by American privateers in the American Revolution when colonial officials were taken from the Island by New Englanders – an episode that resulted in an apology from George Washington (back in the days when U.S. presidents were still folks who could acknowledge that they were sometimes wrong). 

Many more lesser-known privateer episodes took place in later years when the British were pitted against the French and later the Americans in the Napoleonic era and extending to the War of 1812-14.  The continental blockade of European shipping resulted in a boom in the Atlantic timber trade and Prince Edward Island harbours were suddenly busy ports with dozens of timber ships visiting the colony. In addition to the inherent dangers of crossing the North Atlantic where hundreds of ships were lost by shipwreck, fire, collision and storms, the conflict with France, and later the United States, introduced a new hazard as privateers sought to disrupt British shipping.  The unarmed and sparsely-crewed slow-moving timber ships laden with timber, sawn deals (planks), lathwood, masts and spars were easy pickings for the vessels given letters of marque by governments. It was these letters of marque that differentiated the privateers from pirates for they set out a legal process concerning the control and management of the captured vessels and their crews. 

A captured vessel could meet with several fates. Most preferable for the privateer was to send the ship to their home port with a prize crew where the ship and cargo would be sold and the proceeds divided amongst the privateer owners and crew. In other cases the ship would be plundered and then scuttled or burnt.  Crews of captured ships would be put into longboats if near the shore or kept on the privateer if on the high seas. If the privateer became overcrowded through successful captures the crews of captured vessels might be put on one of the captured vessels and released.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser [London] 23 August 1810 p.3

Some privateers were extremely successful, others were themselves captured or sunk, especially after the British began to use convoys with merchantmen protected by the Royal Navy. By 1810 some of the vessels sent out to Prince Edward Island and other timber ports began to advertise that they were armed. The Sir Sidney Smith, for example, soon to leave for Prince Edward Island  was announced as a “fast-sailing cutter” with “eight carriage guns.” The vessel was named for an English admiral who just happened to be brother of Charles Douglas Smith who was shortly to become Governor of Prince Edward Island. The capture by privateers was so common during the 1812-14 war that some newspapers carried dedicated columns with news of vessels encountering privateers. A taste of the intensity of the privateer’s activities (and a degree of honour and trust) can be seen in a note in the London Globe in February 1811 when the conflict with the French was at its peak. Ironically this action involved the Sir Sidney Smith noted earlier.

The Invincible Bonaparte, French Corvette privateer of 18 gun, on Friday, se’nnight, in long. 30 lat. 47, captured the smack Sir Sidney Smith of Portsmouth with a cargo of timber from Prince Edward’s Island, which she kept in possession one day, and then put the crews of the following vessels, which she had captured, on board the Sir Sydney Smith, and liberated her, viz. brig Princess, of Portsmouth, which she burnt; Clyde of Leith, which she burnt: l’Amitie of Jersey, from Honduras with mahogany , which she sent to France; brig Hope of Poole, from Newfoundland, which she sent to France; ship Bellona from Plymouth for Boston, with wine and brandy, which she burnt. The Captain  of the privateer gave the Sir Sydney Smith and her cargo to the Captains of the six vessel; previously condemning her under his own seal, which he said he had authority to do; and he delivered the documents to the Masters, with a muster roll of the crews, for whom French prisoners, are to be released and sent to France. He put 39 persons on board the Sir Sidney Smith, and the crew of that vessel consisted of eight; all of whom for the last nine days, were living upon a biscuit and 2 oz. of meat each a day;  part of which they were indebted to the Master of the Invincible Bonaparte for who gave them three barrels of bread when he left them. The Sir Sydney Smith arrived in this port [Portsmouth] yesterday.                        

Globe [London] 4 February 1811 p.3

The Invincible Bonaparte had a remarkable war history being captured herself a total of five times between 1812 and 1814 serving as a privateer for both the French and Americans at various times throughout the period and capturing at least 20 vessels. At the war’s end she was under British command.


2 thoughts on “Piracy in the Service of the State

  1. Dianne

    I so much enjoy the Sailstraight posts. Thank you for writing them and please don’t ever consider stopping! ⛵️🛥🚤⛴🛳🚣🏼🌎🌊🌊🌊🌊

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Pingback: Causing “a good deal of mischief” – An American privateer in the North Atlantic | Sailstrait

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