In following the career of Andrew Sherburne, a boy privateersman in the Revolution, the reader will become familiar with a phase of privateering of which too little is known. Sherburne began his sea life at the age of fourteen by entering the United States cruiser Ranger soon after her return from her celebrated cruise in the Irish Sea under Captain John Paul Jones. The Ranger sailed from Boston in June, 1779, under the command of Captain Simpson, one of her lieutenants in her fight with the Drake. After a successful career in the West Indies the Ranger returned to Boston in August refitted, and, getting to sea again, made a short cruise, and then put into Charleston, where she was captured by the British, together with several Continental cruisers.
As the Ranger had been built at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the patriotic citizens of that place, on learning of her loss, built another ship, which they called the Alexander, to be used as a privateersman, the command of her also being given to Captain Simpson. Young Sherburne, with most of the officers and men of the Ranger, enlisted in her. The Alexander got to sea in December, 1780, and returned to port after a profitless cruise of several weeks. Sherburne had intended to sail in her again, but he happened meet a stranger in the streets of Portsmouth one day who persuaded him to go aboard the fishing schooner Greyhound, that Captain Jacob Willis, of Kennebuuk, was fitting out as a privarteersman. Sailors at that time were very scarce, and peculiar methods were employed to fill out complements. Sherburne was taken into the cabin and introduced to the officers, who made themselves extremely agreeable to the budding privateersman, patting him on the head, saying that he was a fine-looking youngster, etc., and finally asking him to sing. Even this elaborate flattery did not secure the boy, who still held off, but promised to consider the offer.
He remained aboard the Greyhound while she ran down to Old York, a small port nine miles east of Portsmouth, in the hope of enticing more seamen aboard. The officers of the Greyhound went ashore, put up at a tavern, and gave what they called “jovial evening” to which all seafaring men were invited. When the company had become sufficiently “jolly,” the officers went among the men endeavouring to induce them to enlist.
Several were shipped in this manner. Stopping at several other ports for the same purpose the Greyhound put to sea and appeared off Halifax. Here, during a gale of wind, she was chased by a large schooner and overtaken, but the stranger proved to be an American privateer. Running close into Halifax harbour, Captain Willis discovered a ship that appeared to be in distress, and believing that she might prove a rich prize he ran down, and did not realise that she was a British cruiser until within gunshot. The Greyhound turned in flight, with the “crippled merchantman” in full chase. In a few minutes it was seen that the stranger was neither crippled nor a dull sailer, for she rapidly overhauled the American and would have captured her had not a heavy fog rolled over, completely enveloping both vessels and enabling the Greyhound, by changing her course, to escape.
After this adventure Captain Willis changed his cruising ground to the mouth of the St. Lawrence. A large number of sails were seen, but they all proved to be mericans on the same business as the Greyhound. Touching at a small group of islands, where the privateer took aboard several dozen bushels of wild bird eggs, Captain Willis fell in with “an independent English fisherman” – that is, one who was not in the employ of the British company that had a monopoly of fishing in those waters – from whom he learned that an English brig had recently entered Fortune Bay with supplies for the fishing stations. The Greyhound did not find the brig, but captured several fishing shallops, two of which were manned and ordered to the United States.
Young Sherburne was placed in one of these, the Greyhound meantime making for Salem. While endeavouring to cross the Gulf of St. Lawrence the shallop in which Sherburne had been placed met heavy weather, and in a few days sighted a strange vessel. Sherburne says: “We sometimes thought whether it might not be another prize that the privateer had taken. Shortly, however, most of us were rather inclined to think it was the enemy. She continued to gain upon us and we discovered that her crew were rowing. They soon began to fire upon us with long buccaneer pieces, into which they put eight or ten common musket balls for a charge. The first time they fired they did not strike us, but we heard their bullets whistle over our heads. The second time their charge went through the head of the mainsail, and the third time it went through the middle of our mainsail. We now heaved to. In a few minutes they were alongside of us and twenty men sprang aboard with these long guns in their hands, loaded, cocked, and primed, and presented two or three at each of our breasts without ceremony, cursing us bitterly and threatening our lives. We pleaded for quarter, but they, with violence, reprimanded us, and seemed determined to take our lives, after they had sufficiently gratified themselves with the most bitter imprecations that language could afford. There were one two who interceded for us. One of these was their commander, but their entreaties seemed to increase the rage of some of the others. We stood trembling and awaiting their decisions, not presuming to remonstrate, for some of them seemed to be perfect furies. At length their captain and several others, who seemed more rational, prevailed on those heady fellows to forbear their rashness.
“Their first business was to get the prizes under way for their own port, which was called Grand Bank. By this time, say two or three o’clock, there was quite a pleasant breeze. The Newfoundlanders (for I am inclined, for the present, to forbear calling them English or the Irish) made it their business to go into particular inquiries as to what had transpired with us since we left the bay. One of us had a copy of the Greyhounds commission as a privateer. The wind being fair, we arrived at Grand Bank before night, and almost the whole village were collected to see the Yankee prisoners. We were taken on shore and soon surrounded, perhaps by a hundred people. Among them was an old English lady of distinction who appeared to have an excellent education, and to whose opinion and instructions they all seemed to pay an especial deference. She was the only person among them who inquired after papers. I presented the commissions. This lady took them and commenced reading them audibly and without interruption until she came to the clause in the privateer’s letter of marque and reprisal which authorised to “burn, sink, or destroy” ete. Many of the people became so exceedingly exasperated that they swore that we ought to be killed outright. They were chiefly west countrymen and Irishmen, rough and quite uncultivated, and were in a state of complete anarchy. There was neither magistrate nor minister among them. They appeared very loyal, however, to his majesty. The old lady interposed, and soon called them to order. She informed them that we were prisoners of war and ought to be treated with humanity and conveyed to a British armed station. She then went on with her reading, and closed with-out further interruption. This good woman gave directions, and they began to prepare some refreshment for us. They hung on a pot and boiled some corned codfish and salted pork. When it was boiled sufficiently, they took the pot out of doors, where there was a square piece of board which had a cleat on each edge, the corners being open. They then turned the pot upside down upon the board, and when the water was sufficiently drained away the board was set on a table, or rather a bench, something higher than a common table, and the company stood around this table without plates or forks. They had fish knives to cut their pork, but generally picked up the fish with their fingers, and had hard baked biscuit for bread. Having taken our refreshment, we were conducted into a cooper shop and locked up, the windows secured, and a guard placed outside”.
On the following morning the prisoners were placed aboard a shallop and locked in the fish room – a dark, noisome place, where they had everything taken from them except the clothes they wore. Even their shoes were appropriated. In this filthy hole they were conveyed to a little harbour called Cornish, where they found the owner of the “independent fishing boat” who treated them kindly, offering them a loaf of bread and a plate of butter. The Americans were locked up overnight in this place in the warehouse, and on the following morning they were taken six miles up the river and landed so as to strike across the land to Cape Placentia Bay. In this march of twenty miles the privateersmen suffered greatly, as, being without shoes, their feet soon became lacerated. About five miles from their destination they met an old Jersey man who owned a number of shallops, several of which had been captured by American privateers. When the old man discovered who the prisoners were, he became highly exasperated, and insisted that they ought to be put to death, and, had it not been for the guard of seven sturdy men, he might have carried out his wishes with his own hands. Refusing to give food or shelter to the prisoners overnight, the irascible Jerseyman slammed the door in the faces of the travellers and went into the house. Thereupon the guard took possession of his brewhouse, which, although wet and muddy, made a fairly good shelter for the night.
Arriving at a small port called Morteer, where the inhabitants fired a gun in celebration of the advent of “Yankee prisoners” our adventurers were placed aboard a fishing boat and taken to Placentia, the largest fishing station in that part of Newfoundland. It was now May, 1781, and in September the British sloop of war Duchess of Cumberland, Captain Samuel Marsh- formerly the American privateer Congress, built at Beverly, Massachusetts, which had recently been captured and taken into the English service – came into port, and, taking the Americans aboard, sailed for St. John’s, Newfoundland, where there was a prison ship in which a number of our seamen had been confined.
On the night of September 19th, while the Duchess of Cumberland was on her passage to St. John’s, she was wrecked on a desert island, and twenty of her one hundred and seventy people were lost. After enduring great hardships, the survivors regained Placentia, where our privateersmen were again placed in the garrison house. the following October the British sloop of war Fairy, Captain Yeo, came into the harbour, and, taking the Americans aboard, carried them to Plymouth, England, where they were confined in Old Mill Prison.
Young Sherburne describes Captain Yeo as a “complete tyrant”. He writes: “Willis and myself were called upon the quarter-deck, and, after being asked a few questions by Captain Yeo, he turned to his officers and said: “They are a couple of fine lads for his majesty’s service. Mr. Gray, see that they do their duty, one in the foretop and the other in the maintop”. I said “that I was a prisoner of war, and that I could not consent to serve against my country. With very hard words and several threats we were ordered off the quarter-deck and commanded to do our duty in the waist. While lying at St. John’s we had an opportunity of seeing some of Captain Yeo’s character exhibited. It was contrary to orders to bring any spirituous liquors aboard. It was the custom to hoist in the boat at night, lest any of the men should elude the guard, steal the boat, and run away. One evening, as the boat was hoisted in, there was a bottle of rum discovered in the boat. No one of the boat’s crew would own the bottle, and the next morning the whole crew, six in number, were seized up to the gangway, with their shirts stripped off, and each received a dozen lashes. It was very common for this captain to have his men thus whipped for very trifling faults, and sometimes when faultless. At a certain hour the cook gives out word to the men and officers’ waiters that they may have hot water to wash their dishes, etc. One day a midshipman ‘s boy called on the cook for hot water. The cook had none, and reprimanded the lad for not coming in proper season. The boy complained to his master, whose rank on board was no higher than the cook’s, and who was himself but a boy. The midshipman came forward and began to reprimand the cook, who told him that had the boy come at the proper time he would have had hot water enough, but that he should not now furnish him or any one else. This young blood made his complaint to the captain that he was insulted by the cook, who was a man in years, and who for this affront, offered to a gentleman’s son, must be brought to the gangway and take his dozen lashes. I believe that the laws of the navy do not admit of a warrant officer being punished without he is first tried and condemned by a court martial. I under- stand that the captain had violated the laws of the He had a number of men in irons on the whole passage to England.”
On arrival in Plymouth, Captain Yeo was superseded in the command of the Fairy by a new captain. Young Sherburne notes the change of com- manders as follows : “Captain Yeo took leave of his ship without any ceremony of respect being shown him from the crew. Shortly after the new captain came on board, and was saluted with three cheers from the crew. In striking contrast to the brutal temperament of Captain Yeo, we have that of the Fairy’s carpenter. Two days after Yeo had compelled the two American lads to serve against their country all hands were called. Sherburne. and Willis went to the cable tier, the proper place for prisoners of war, and on the boatswain approaching them and demanding why they refused to obey the call for all hands the boys said that they considered themselves prisoners.
“Tell me nothing about prisoners” he said. “Upon deck immediately!” “We still kept our stations and remonstrated, records Sherburne. “He uttered a number of most horrid imprecations, and at the same time commenced a most furious attack upon us with his rattan. We for a while sternly adhered to our purpose, while he alternately thrashed the one and the other. He became more and more enraged, and we, not daring to resist, thought it best to clear out. We mounted the deck, with him at our heels repeating his strokes. The carpenter, whose name was Fox, was sitting in his berth looking on. After we returned from quarters Fox called me and said “I see, my lad, that you are obliged to do duty. It is wrong, but it would not do for me to interfere; yet I was thinking in your favour. His majesty allows me two boys. If you will come into my berth and take a little care here, I will excuse your keeping watch and all other duty. You will be much less exposed if you stay with me than you will be if you have to do your duty before the mast, and it is in vain for you to think to escape that, for Captain Yeo is a very arbitrary man; he is not liked by the crew, and his officers do not set much by him. I intend to leave the ship myself when we get home”.
Arriving at Plymouth, Fox gave further evidence of his kindness by offering to adopt the American boys. He said that he did not intend to follow the sea; that he had a wife, but no child. On the boys declining this generous offer, the carpenter took pains to put them in a way of becoming prisoners of war again.
“In a day or two after he [the new commander] had come on board, Mr. Fox came into his cabin where I was and said to me: ‘Sherburne, the captain is walking alone on the quarter-deck. I think it is a good time for you to speak to him. It may be that he will consider you as a prisoner war’ .The two boys timidly approached the new commander and stated their position, and in an hour they were sent aboard the prison ship Dunkirk.
From that place the boys were taken to Old Mill Prison, where they were confined several months, until exchanged and sent to America in a cartel. Young Sherburne had been in his native land only a few weeks when he entered a privateer – the Scorpion, Captain R. Salter- – and made a cruise in the West Indies. On the homeward passage the Scorpion was captured by the British frigate Amphion, and for a third time Sherburne found himself a prisoner of war. This time he was taken to New York and placed in the infamous ship Jersey, After an imprisonment of several weeks he was released in an exchange of prisoners, and made his way home, the war by that time having ended.