The English Privateersmen

The first and greatest element of success with a privateersman was audacity. Without that, above all other things, he was doomed to ignominious failure. The regular man-of-warsman might go and come on his cruises without meeting an enemy or taking a prize and yet suffer little in the estimation of the department. In fact, in our first essays against the mistress of the ocean, both at the time of the Revolution and in the War of 1812, the naval commander who put to sea and regained port with a whole skin was regarded, by our then over timid naval administrators, as being a singularly fortunate and capable officer. Not so with a privateersman. To return to port empty-handed was to commit the greatest sin of the profession. Hence we find that the privateersman was preëminently a bold and daring man, and when such qualities were combined with skillful seamanship we have the ideal privateersman.

A good illustration of the “audacious impudence ” of our privateersmen is had in the case of the Paul Jones, of New York. This vessel put to sea at the outbreak of the War of 1812 with a complement of one hundred and twenty men, but with only three guns. Almost her first prize was the heavily armed British merchantman Hassan, carrying fourteen guns and a crew of twenty men, while her cargo was worth some two hundred thousand dollars. The Paul Jones, though carrying only three guns, was pierced for seventeen. It is said that the commander of the Paul Jones sawed off some spare masts to the length of guns, painted them black, and, being mounted on buckets, rolled them out of his empty ports as effective imitations of heavy ordnance. Then filling his rigging with his superfluous force of men, so far overawed the enemy that they surrendered as soon as the privateer, with her dummy guns, got fairly alongside. The Americans then helped themselves to such of the Hassans guns and ammunition as they needed and went on their way rejoicing.

The English privateersmen of 1778 are described by one of their countrymen of that period as “ reckless, dreadnaught, dare-devil collection of human beings, half disciplined, but yet ready to obey every order. The service was popular; the men shipping in privateers, being safe from impressment, the most dashing and daring of the sailors came out of their hiding holes to enter in them. Your true privateersman was a sort of half horse, half alligator, with a streak of lightning in his composition – something like a man-of-warsman, but much more like a pirate – with a superabundance of whisker, as if he held, with Samson, that his strength was in the quantity of his hair”. 

So far as the “dare-devil” and “dreadnaught” qualities of this description go, they fit the American privateersmen well enough; but so far as the “whisker”, “half horse”, “half alligator” and “pirate” parts of it are concerned the author is satisfied that they are widely shy of the mark. We can readily believe, however, after reading the following account of a battle between an English and a French privateer, published over a century ago, that the fore-going description of the British privateersman is not overdrawn: 

“December 23, 1756, Captain Death, of the privateer Terrible, of London, was killed in an engagement with the Vengeance, a privateer of St. Malo. The annals of mankind can not show an effort of more desperate courage than was exerted under the command of Captain Death. He had in the beginning of his cruise made a prize of a rich merchantman with which he was returning to England in triumph when he had the fortune to fall in with the Vengeance, much his superior in force, thirty-six to twenty-six guns. The Terrible’s prize was soon taken and converted against her; but so unequally matched, Captain Death maintained a furious engagement. The French captain and his second in command were killed with two thirds of his company, but much more dreadful was the slaughter on board the Terrible. When the enemy boarded they only found one scene of slaughter, silence and desolation. Of two hundred men only sixteen were found remaining, and the ship so shattered as scarcely to be kept above water. The following are the remarkable names of the officers of the Terrible: Captain Death, Lieutenants Spirit and Ghost, Boatswain Butcher, Quartermaster Debble; launched out of Execution Dock, London”.

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