Privateering

Jersey privateers in the 18th century

It was not until 1689 that Privateering became internationally recognised when William III repudiated the neutral status of the Channel Islands which had been conferred by a Papal Bull of Sixtus IV in 1483 and allowed Letters of Marque to be issued to any person whose property had been seized by an enemy in order that they might have some chance of recouping their losses. Prizes had to be brought back to the privateer's port of registration where they were the subject of an Admiralty Prize Court where an Admiralty judge decided whether the boat and its cargo were lawful prizes. The Old Court House in St Aubin is generally thought to be the venue for this court. Later on commissions were issued to vessels authorising their owners to attack and plunder the King's enemies during wartime. A phrase typical of letters of marque was "to set forth in a warlike manner . . . with force of arms to apprehend, seize and take the ships, vessels and goods belonging to France and our other enemies . . . " Any prize was sold and the profit was divided amongst the State, the shipowners and the crew. By the end of the eighteenth century this was usually 20% to the Crown and the rest was divided between the shipowners who received two thirds (53%) and the crew who received the rest (27%). Each of the crew members received a predetermined number of shares in the prize money depending on their role and their position in the ship. Good captains were often part owners of ships as well. The return of a privateer from a successful voyage was greeted by much excitement with the crowds flocking to the shore to get all the news and to gossip. Bells were rung, drums were beaten flags were flown and guns fired as salutes. In 1779 the States even tried to prevent these tumultuous receptions by forbidding them. They must have failed because in 1793 the firing of cannon on the arrival or departure of a privateer was made punishable by a fine of 100 livres.

Once legalised, Jersey shipowners were quick to take up the chance and during the French wars 1692 - 1697 there were eight Jersey vessels engaged in privateering and between them captured they 46 prizes. It must have appeared as if they had been given a licence to print money. The oldest recorded Letter of Marque referring to Jersey was granted to Jean Mauger in 1692 for his 30-ton boat Jersey Sloop. However, it must be said that Guernsey with its deep-water harbour and its wealthier merchants had twenty-two privateering vessels at the same time. During the war of 1703 - 1711 the number of Jersey privateers had risen to 38 and between them they captured 151 prizes. In the same period the more numerous Guernsey privateers took 608 prizes. Guernsey was always able to produce more privateers than Jersey due to its deep-water harbour and its richer merchant class.

The Jersey privateer Pitt flying the union flag upside down indicating distress or the fact that she had been captured.  The Pitt was captured by the French frigate L'Amazone in 1781

The heyday of the Jersey privateers was the eighteenth century for during the century Britain was at war for 48 years with various European maritime nations, 36 of them with the French. Of course, we should not see the Jersey privateers as setting sail specifically on privateering voyages; while this did happen in certain years, for many, privateering was an opportunist activity carried out whilst on normal trading voyages. This would also imply that the hunter could sometimes be the hunted for while privateering was a legitimate activity for Jerseyman the same was true of the French and St Malo was also renowned as a privateering centre although they were usually referred to as Corsairs and, no doubt, many Jerseymen ended up as prisoners-of-war of the Breton corsairs. In the first two years of the French Revolutionary Wars (1793 - 1795), forty-two local boats and 900 Jerseymen were captured by the French. This represented two thirds of the Island's shipping and about 4% of the Island's population. Therefore, we must remember that while some people were fortunate and made fortunes, others were no doubt, bankrupted by the practice. In the course of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (between 1793 and 1814) 10,871 British vessels were captured by French Corsairs. The most successful was Surcouf from St Malo who in two months in 1807 took prizes valued at 29,1250 livres or in modern day terms about 300,000.

The average local privateering operation must have involved armed merchantmen with virtually double crews, which would be needed to man the "prize". However, some privateering was carried out by what we would consider ludicrously small boats. In 1759 Captain Peter Labey was granted a Letter of marque for a ship called the Fox; a nine ton row boat that could carry a lug sail which was armed with two swivel guns and crewed by twenty men. We have no records of the activities of the Fox but it must have been an interesting spectacle to watch it go into action. While many of the privateers were only lightly armed the crews were usually well equipped with firearms and because of their militia training were well versed in their use. Swivel guns were a popular form of armament because they were relatively light and could be hidden until needed thus providing an element of surprise.

Not all privateering action took place in local waters or in the Channel although when it did the sound of gunfire could occasionally be heard in the Island. Local privateers were in action off the coast of America, Captain Duval in the hundred ton lugger Vulture crewed by 27 men and armed with four guns did considerable damage to French trade out of Bayonne and Bordeaux, Jersey privateers cruised off the coasts of Spain and the Cape Verde Islands and in 1798 Captain Thomas Pickstock and his brig the Herald was engaged by three French ships (feluccas) in the Bay of Naples.

Not all privateering operations were carried out on the sea either, in 1744 two Jersey privateers carried out an attack on the guardhouse on Chaussey. In 1778 Jersey privateers landed near Caen and stole some livestock as well as the priest's washing and kidnapped his two housekeepers. It must have been interesting to hear the captain of the privateers plead his case in the Admiralty Prize Court. In the winter of the same year there were reported to be over 150 prizes in the roads and over 1,500 seamen held prisoner although this is undoubtedly a gross exaggeration. Because of its position it is no wonder that the island's privateers proved to be such a nuisance to the French at the outbreak of each war. Just as Nino had invaded the Island in 1406 as punishment for attacks on merchant shipping the French made many plans for the capture of the Island as reprisal and to prevent any further activity of this sort. Plans were laid for 1748, 1756, 1758 and throughout the 1760s and 1770s, however, there were only two that actually got off the ground or should it be got afloat. This was the attempted landing by the Prince of Nassau in 1779 that was thwarted by the militia and the 78th Regiment of Foot, and, the invasion of 1781 under de Rullecourt which so very nearly succeeded.

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