Tag Archives: timber trade

Causing “a good deal of mischief” – An American privateer in the North Atlantic

U.S. privateer Warrior capturing British merchant ship Hope. Detail of a painting by Thomas Birch. Smithsonian Institution I.D. #2005.0279.021

In a recent posting I noted the story of a French privateer which had captured a vessel from P.E.I. and the details suggested a measure of “fair play” in the conduct of the French commander. That was not always the case and when the Americans joined the fray the actions became more heated.  During the three years of the war the American privateers may have captured as many as 2000 British vessels, almost ten times the number captured by the U.S. Navy! The privateers sank or stole one in every fifteen merchant vessels in the British merchant marine.

The targets were not just heavily laden vessels with valuable cargos. At the time of the timber boom  many ships came out to Prince Edward Island and other timber ports carrying emigrants to the new land but more often they were in ballast – empty ships hoping to come back with valuable masts, deals, square timber and lathwood crammed into their holds and on deck. One such vessel was the ship Royal Bounty which came out from the Scots port of Leith in the summer of 1812. The ship had spent much of its life as a whaling ship exploiting the rich Davis Strait off the west coast of Greenland although in 1811 it had carried at least one cargo of timber from Quebec to Leith. Whaling ships were stoutly built and had a larger carrying capacity than ordinary merchant vessels. Earlier in that year it had been advertised for sale after some repairs and the sale notice stated “The ship stows an uncommonly large cargo for her tonnage, and would suit well for a Greenlandman, or Mast Ship.”

Caledonian Mercury 26 January 1811 p.1

She was so well suited as a “Mast Ship” that at the beginning of August 1812 she found herself just off the south coast of Newfoundland heading for Prince Edward Island to be loaded with timber.  She never arrived. Instead, she became one of the first vessels captured by privateers in a war which had broken out after her departure and of which the captain and crew were unaware.


St. John’s Aug 13

On Monday evening last arrived here, Capt. Henry Gamble, with part of his crew and passengers, belonging to the the Royal Bounty of Leith. This vessel on her voyage from Hull to Prince Edward’s Island, in ballast, was attacked on the 1st instant, four or five leagues to the southward of St. Peters,[most likely the island of St. Pierre, off the Burin Peninsula]  by the Yankee, brigantine privateer, of 18 guns and 120 men.

Captain Gamble, being unapprised of the war, was in some degree unprepared fo the attack of the Americans, who chased him under English colours, but, on coming near, hoisted the American flag, and commenced the engagement.

The Royal Bounty had 10 guns, 18 men, and four passengers — one a female. Captain G. sustained the unequal conflict for an hour and a quarter, when having the boy that was on the helm killed, himself wounded, together with his second mate, boatswain, and cook, the colours were struck; several shots were fired afterwards, one of which wounded the chief mate. The Americans then took possession, and ordered all the people on board the privateer, where the wounded received surgical assistance, but the others were treated very harshly, having their clothes, some of which they wore, taken from them.

Two Americans were badly wounded, and it is supposed some were killed, but this was not acknowledged. The American master was quite enraged at the resistance he had met with from Captain Gamble, whose conduct on this occasion, as well as his gallant associates, deserves the approbation of every brave man.

The privateer, shortly after, boarded the Thetis, of Poole, Captain Pack from Sydney, with coals, which was set fire to, as well as the Royal Bounty. The crew of the former escaped. At 11 at night, Captain Gamble, with his crew were set adrift in the boat. They reached the land of Placentia Bay the next morning — after receiving the most hospitable treatment at Lamallin,  [Lamaline is at the southern tip of Newfoundland’s  Burin Peninsula] they were conveyed from thence to Burin …..

The privateer, we are led to believe, has done a good deal of mischief on the south-west coast, but we hope Captain Cooksesley of the Hazard, who must have been near that part of the coast, will put a stop to his career.

Caledonian Mercury 19 September 1812 p.3

In spite of the hopes of the newspaper His Majesty’s sloop-of-war, HMS Hazard which was indeed on the Newfoundland station in 1812 never did encounter the Yankee as the warship had been sent back to England before the Royal Bounty left Leith. The Royal Bounty had been particularly unlucky. The Yankee was to go on to be the most successful American privateer of the short war, sinking or capturing more than five million dollars of British property and pumping more than a million dollars of profit into the economy of her home port of Bristol Rhode Island. Details of her six cruises with more than twenty prize vessels to her credit can be found in an American Antiquarian Society article published in 1913 and found here. The article provides interesting details of the articles of agreement between the owners and crew including the split of the profits and a kind of insurance so that anyone who lost an eye or a joint would get fifty dollars, for loss of a leg or arm the payment would be three hundred dollars – but only if the voyage was profitable!

To the Yankee the Royal Bounty was of little value. Instead of a rich cargo its hold was empty and the dispatch of crew to sail it back to Bristol would weaken the fighting strength of the privateer. Even getting the Royal Bounty back to an American port was a problem as it was not uncommon for prizes to be re-captured and in some cases re-re-captured. Small wonder then that the ship was burnt and the crew put over the side in a crowded ship’s boat to find their way to the barren coast of Newfoundland in the dark.

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.

“A voyage most disasterous” – The loss of the sailing ship Alfred

A court case on the extent of liability in an insurance claim which was heard in the Court of King’s Bench in London is one of the last places one might expect to learn of the human details of what was termed “a voyage most disastrous.” However the reporting in the London Chronicle in August 1811 allowed a brief glimpse of the perils of the sea.  In an earlier posting I reflected on the danger for vessels of being frozen into P.E.I. harbours by leaving sailing too late in the season. However besides the economic loss there could be a very real danger as recounted in the sparse details in the case of Welsford v. Tunno.

Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall in 1808

Samuel Welsford was an English merchant, probably from Bristol,  who was active in the timber and shipping trades in Prince Edward Island in the early 1800s. He was later a partner with shipbuilder Lemuel Cambridge in several shipbuilding and ship-owning activities. John Tunno was an insurer and a member of the Lloyd’s organization who had sold insurance on a ship owned by Welsford.

As the tale unfolded through court testimony  the ship Alfred left England in April 1809 for Prince Edward’s Island to take on cargo, almost certainly timber which was a boom export in the early 1800s. The vessel had been here before and the owners thought with an expected departure from the Island in June or July she might even be able to make two round trips before the ice closed in.  That was not to be. By the time she arrived in the colony several of the crew had become indebted to the captain and deserted the ship. The owner’s brother, who was resident on the Island, tried to replace them but the timber boom had created a labour shortage.  He secured a crew on Cape Breton but they too, deserted. Others were brought from Newfoundland but the boat on which they were travelling was upset and four men drowned.  He then went to Halifax and managed to attract additional men but some of them also deserted. The search for willing crew took months but on the 18th of January 1810 the vessel finally departed the Island.

On the homeward journey at last the vessel carried a pilot, 12 men and an unspecified number of ships boys.  Slipping out of the harbour under a favourable breeze and “with every prospect of a prosperous voyage”, it seemed that the ship had managed to avoid the ice which threatened to close navigation. However, on the first night the wind shifted bringing a gale with snow and intense frost which combined to “render it impossible to guard the ship against the islands of ice which the winds drove from the shore and which rendered it hardly possible for the crew to keep the ship above water.” The pumps froze and could not be worked so the inflow could not be stemmed.  All aboard took to the ship’s boat and eventually made it to shore, totally exhausted and having lost all their belongings. Frostbite took its toll; the court report noting “the captain being in such a condition that his fingers and toes had completely rotted off.” It does not seem that any of the crew lost their lives but by the time of the court hearing in August 1811 they were scattered across the world, working on other ships and the sole eye-witness produced for the court was James Pilchard, a man who had lost a leg in the service of his country, and was engaged on the Alfred as a cook.  The one-legged man spoke to the jury of the dedication of the other crew members in ensuring his safety to their own peril. He had broken his wooden leg while struggling to abandon ship and “such was the humanity and feeling of his honest-hearted companions, in this his calamitous situation, though their own distress was so excessive that two of the most hale among them carried him along…” It was reported that the insurance underwriters had been advised of these circumstances “but they were too cold calculators to be moved by them.”

These details were, of course, superfluous to the court case which was about the insurance for the ship and cargo. Tunno, the insurer, had denied coverage arguing that in delaying departure the captain had placed the vessel in a situation that no ordinary man would consider safe. By delaying the sailing while searching for a crew the ship had been effectively rendered unseaworthy.  Pilchard’s evidence however was that inspite of the late departure they had every prospect of a successful voyage when they left the Island. Had the favourable wind lasted for a day longer they would have been completely clear of the ice danger. He stated that had there been any danger they would not have gone to lose their lives.

The insurers tried to introduce evidence of the dangers of late departure but their witnesses had no experience of Prince Edward Island waters, conceding that the situation in Quebec and Newfoundland might be very different from the Gulf and Northumberland Strait.  Lord Ellenborough reviewed the law and concluded that in order for the insurer to succeed in refusing payment he would have evidence “so strong and cogent as to show it to be madness on the part of the Captain to set out.” It appeared to him that this was not the case as regards the voyage of the Alfred.

The jury, following direction from the judge found that Welsford was entitled to the insurance proceeds and was awarded £250. These funds were for the ship and cargo and unless the owner was moved by the testimony at the court hearing it is unlikely that any of the proceeds were paid to the crew or captain for their losses or suffering . Such was the perilous nature of the employment of seamen in 1811.