There seems to be much confusion in the minds of some people as to what a privateer is. With many, Government cruisers, privateers, and even pirates, have been classed under one head namely, a vessel intended for fighting; and, as will be seen in the chapter on Colonial Privateers, there was a time when there was little to distinguish the privateer from the rover of the sea. In some instances, notably that of Captain Kidd, officers of the Royal Navy turned to piracy. In one of the first records we have of privateering, that in which a ship belonging to Sir Thomas Stanley, son of the Earl of Derby, brought a prize into the Mersey amid “great rejoicing”, the opinion was expressed that, after all, the capture might have been an act of piracy.
Mr. Pepys, who is a recognized authority on matters pertaining to the early history of the British navy, notes: “The Constant- Warwick was the first frigate built in England. She was built in 1649 by Mr. Peter Pett for a privateer for the Earl of Warwick, and was sold by him to the States. Mr. Pett took his model of a frigate from a French frigate which he had seen in the Thames; as his son, Sir Phineas Pett, acknowledged”. This admission, taken in connection with the fact just noted – namely, that the son of the Earl of Derby owned a privateer – would seem to indicate that the British peerage, if not the originators of the practice of privateering, were at least deeply engaged in it at this time. The Constant-Warwick was a formidable craft for her day. She measured about four hundred tons and carried twenty-six guns.
It was not very long before the American colonies had secured their independence of Great Britain that privateering had come into vogue as a recognized profession. During the reign of George II privateers began to play a prominent part in the sea power of England, and then the Britons seem to have been driven to it only because of the disastrous activity displayed by their Continental rivals. On the outbreak of the Seven-Years War, 1756, French privateers hovered about the coasts of Great Britain and almost annihilated her commerce, that of Liverpool being especially exposed. French privateers found their way into the Irish Sea, and at one time actually blockaded the port of Liverpool, then England’s greatest shipping centre. Insurance rose to prohibitive rates, while trade was at a standstill. The British merchant had the alternative of sitting idly with folded hands or engaging in the same amateur warfare that his French brother was so vigorously waging. Acting with his usual energy, when once the plan was decided upon, the British merchant not only equipped his useless traders as armed cruisers, but began the construction of many swift-sailing vessels designed especially for privateering. These craft were sent out, and not only succeeded in making it dangerous for the enemy to venture near the coast, but captured a large number of merchantmen.
One of the first of these privateers to leave Liverpool returned in a few weeks with a French West Indiaman as a prize, which was computed to be worth twenty thousand pounds. Other captures of equal value quickly followed; and “then” records an English writer, “the whole country became mad after privateering and the mania even spread to the colonies” – meaning America. Certain it is that about this time privateering became extremely active in these colonies. On the whole, however, the Liverpool merchant was opposed to this kind of warfare. It was strictly as a business venture that he was induced to engage in it, in the first instance; for, notwithstanding the fact that his privateersmen were eminently successful, having taken in the first four years one hundred and forty-three prizes, he found that the final results were disastrous to trade. When the war with the American colonies broke out the British merchant was loath to resort to privateering, and while the Americans were sending out dozens of these craft the Liverpool people did little. In fact, it was not till the French had joined in the war that the Liverpool merchant bestirred himself in this line – the only paying occupation left to him.
One of the most celebrated of Liverpool’s privateersmen was Captain Fortunatus Wright. As early as 1744, shortly after the outbreak of the war with France, this man, with the assistance of some English merchants residing in Leghorn, fitted out a privateer, which they called the Fame, for the purpose of preying on the enemy’s commerce. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1776 the Fame, while under the command of Captain Wright, captured sixteen French ships in the Levant, the cargoes and craft being valued at four hundred thousand pounds.
When, in 1756, the merchants of Liverpool determined to go into privateering on their own account, Wright was again at Leghorn. Believing a renewal of hostilities with France to be inevitable, he caused a small vessel, which he called the St. George, to be built and fitted out for the express purpose of cruising against the enemy. His plans became known to the French, and a xebec mounting sixteen guns was stationed at the entrance of the harbour to nip his mischievous project in the bud. As the xebec carried a complement of two hundred and eighty men, which was more than Wright could hope to bring together, the chances of his getting to sea were small, especially as it was well known that the French king had promised a reward of three thousand livres a year for life, the honour of knighthood, and the command of a sloop of war to whomsoever brought this particular Wright, dead or alive, into France. The prodigality of these offers for the head of the doughty Englishman is sufficient evidence of the vast amount of harm he had occasioned French commerce.
Stimulated by the prospect of these glittering rewards, the people in the xebec maintained a successful watch on the St. George. At that time the Tuscan Government was in sympathy with that of France, and it added to the critical position of Wright by insisting that he must leave port with no more than four guns and twenty-five men. In keeping with these instructions Wright sailed from Leghorn, July 25, 1756, in the St. George, having in company three small merchantmen. When clear of the harbour he took on board eight guns which he had concealed in his convoys. Wright also had induced some fifty-five volunteers, consisting for the most part of Slavonians, Venetians, Italians, Swiss, and a few Englishmen, to enter his convoys in the same way, and they also were transferred to the St. George. With this armament and complement he awaited the attack of the xebec.
The action was begun about noon in full view of thousands of spectators, nearly all of them sympathisers of the French. In three quarters of an hour the xebec had her commander, lieutenant, and eighty; eight men killed, some seventy more wounded, and the ship herself was so cut up that the survivors were glad to make their escape toward the shore. Wright had only five men killed, one of them his lieutenant, and eight wounded. The result of this action angered the Tuscan authorities that they seized the St. George, and in all probability would have detained her indefinitely had not Admiral Hawke, with two ships of the line, appeared off Leghorn shortly afterward and brought them into a more friendly state of mind. In March of the following year Wright was lost at sea while on a voyage from Leghorn to Malta.
The privateer, as understood at the outbreak of the war for American independence, was a ship armed and fitted out at private expense for the purpose of preying on the enemy’s commerce to the profit of her owners, and bearing a commission, or letter of marque, authorising her to do so, from the Govern- ment. Usually the Government claimed a portion of the money realised from the sales of prizes and their cargoes. The owners, of course, had the lion’s share, though a considerable portion was divided among the officers and crew as an additional incentive to securing prizes. In fact, it was this division of the spoils, rather than the wages, that induced many of our best seamen to enter this peculiarly dangerous service. It frequently happened that even the common sailors received as their share, in one cruise, over and above their wages, one thousand dollars – a small fortune in those days for a mariner.
This opportunity to get rich suddenly gave rise to a peculiar class of seamen, who became known as “gentlemen sailors”. All seaports sending out privateers were thronged with these individuals of exalted degree, and, in many cases, of long pedigree. Usually they were of highly respectable parentage, and in some instances belonged to well-known families. They went to sea, not as common seamen, but as adventurers to whom the chances of making prize money were sufficient inducement to undergo the hardships and perils of the sea. Being better educated and well trained to the use of arms – especially excelling the ordinary sailor in the latter accomplishment – they were welcomed in the privateer, and the commander was glad to give them unusual privileges. They were not assigned to the ordinary work of the seaman, but formed a sort of a marine guard, standing between the officers and the regular crew. This arrangement came to be understood when the “gentleman sailor” shipped. The common seamen were to do the real drudgery of ship work, while these privileged sailors were to be on hand when fighting was to be done.
It seems that the “gentlemen sailors”, were not confined to the male sex, for when our schooner Revenge was captured by the British privateer Belle Poole the American prisoners were ordered to Portsmouth prison, upon which one of the prisoners announced “himself” to be a woman. Her love for adventure had induced her to don male attire, and she had been serving many months without her sex having been known.