Friday, 27 September 2013

The Privateers – Part 1

Something historical today. Here is an extract from "Jersey in the 17th century" (1931), by A.C. Saunders.
What are we to make of the privateers? The Civil War provided an opportunity for patriots and unscrupulous men, and perhaps the privateers were something of both. It was evidently a pretty tough life – "food supplied consisted of biscuits, salt pork and dried fish with occasional dried peas washed down with cider or cheap wine."
But the rewards could make it all worthwhile. While the richest of the pickings went to people like Sir George Carteret, the crew could also grow rich:
"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." (1)
And Saunder's narrative reflects the ambiguity. At times he is fulsome in his praise of how Sir George Carteret's Privateers harried the Parliamentary shipping, but other times he sees them as unscrupulous.
I remember going on a "Petit Train" tour of St Malo, and the guide was very scathing about anyone who called the Corsairs of St Malo "pirates", yet like the Jersey privateers, these were legalised pirates, given the right to prey upon certain kinds of merchant ship.
And what they did amounted to legalised theft – they took from merchant vessels without payment, and sold the plunder. Sir George Carteret's name has been mooted for a statue in the space in front of St Aubin's Parish Hall. He is famous certainly, but I would not have thought he is exactly the right kind of role model to be immortalised in that way. It is an irony that the Old Court House at St Aubin's was the venue for the auction of stolen goods from these privateers, because St Aubin of Angers is the patron saint for protection from attack by pirates.
The Privateers – Part 1
By A.C. Saunders
We would know very little of the activities of Sir George's Privateers had it not been for the diary which Jean Chevalier left behind him.
Jean Chevalier was our Jersey Pepys, and in his diary, he gives us a wonderful, and detailed account, of life in Jersey, and the struggles between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. We learn it was from Elizabeth Castle that Sir George Carteret organised his famous fleet of Privateers, which did so much damage to English trading vessels, causing the owners to await convoys before they dared to sail from English Ports.
We have to thank the Société Jersiaise for the publication of this diary in 1906, under the Editorship of J. A. Messervy, a well known authority on Jersey history, for it allows us to get an insight into the manners and customs of our ancestors who lived in those days.
Of Chevalier himself little is known, except that he was born in 1589, and died in 1675, at the age of eighty-six. During his long life he seemed to have taken an active interest in the affairs of the Island. He did not rise to high rank being only a Vingtenier of the Town of St. Helier, but living in the Royal Square, then the market place, he was able to watch at close quarters the activities of his fellow Islanders, and listen to their gossip much of which he detailed in his diary, sometimes at great length. He had many relations in the Island, and was connected with the families de la Cloche and de Carteret. This probably explains how he obtained access to so many sources of information, which enabled him to give such a detailed and accurate account of the times in which he lived. He was an ardent Royalist and his diary covers the period from 1643 to 1651.
It tells us the story of the final struggle between Sir Philip de Carteret, and Lempriere, and his party, the two visits of Charles afterwards Charles II, and the capture of the Island and the surrender of Elizabeth Castle after Admiral Blake and the Parliamentarian army arrived in the Island.
After Sir George arrived in Jersey and took over the government of the Island in the name of his King, one of his first duties was to organise a fleet of privateers with Captain George Bowden as his Commodore. Bowden was a clever and daring sailor with few scruples to interfere with his personal activities. He was always very careful of his own interests, and avoided unnecessary danger, but when he had to fight he could do so as bravely as anyone. At first he was a Parliamentarian, and was employed in blockading Mont Orgueil Castle. He volunteered to capture the Castle if provided with sufficient men, and granted a sufficient reward. But either they had no men to spare or the Parliament did not believe that Bowden would succeed, so he was not granted the assistance required. Disgusted at their short-sightedness, he collected what was due to him, and sailed for England where he left the Parliamentary party, and obtained a letter of Marque from the King and, so armed, returned to Guernsey.
The people of Guernsey did not know of his change of sides, and pretending sickness he sent a note ashore addressed to the Parliamentarian Commissioners, inviting them to come to his ship as he had very important information to give them. The Commissioners, thinking that the matter was urgent, made haste to go to his ship, only to be arrested by Captain Bowden's men and sent by boat to the Governor of Castle Cornet who immediately imprisoned them in one of the darkest dungeons of the Castle. Later on they were better quartered, and one Sunday morning they managed to escape through a window on to the rocks below, and from there into the town and church, where the congregation was surprised by seeing the lost found, and there were great rejoicings.
Soon Sir George had a fleet of ten or twelve vessels which he used in capturing English ships, and harrying the English Coast. His fleet captured many vessels, but his ventures were not always successful. Sometimes a well known vessel arrived in Jersey waters, which had left as a friend, but returned as a well armed Parliamentarian frigate, to the annoyance of those who had ventured too near and had been welcomed by a warm if unfriendly reception.
Bowden's first adventure under his new commander was an attempt to capture some of the Guernsey ships. So he set out one fine morning in his patache well armed and with a crew of thirty men and sailed towards Guernsey. But the Guernsey men were on the look out and when they saw the Jersey vessel nearing the coast, two Guernsey vessels suddenly appeared about Herm and decided to force a battle. Bowden however was a cautious sailor and seeing the odds against him, he turned his vessel round and made for home, with the Guernsey vessels close behind.
Chevalier points out that " Not that he was in the least afraid of them for he knew that his ship was both faster and slighter than theirs. . Had there only been one ship he would of course have stopped to fight but really he could not be expected to fight two at once."
Bowden then sailed for the English coast where, with another vessel, he made five prizes in a very short time, all English vessels loaded with coal and other useful commodities. When he returned to Jersey he had a grand reception and with a Captain Baudains he arranged to go and meet some English vessels which were about to leave St. Malo for England. These ships consisted of a frigate of twenty-four guns and three or four armed barques.
They met them at the Minquiers and when Bowden saw how powerful they were, he decided that home was best place, so leaving Baudains to deal with the enemy, he returned to Jersey. Baudains however was a different man and he put up a brave fight and only left off after his vessel had been badly damaged, his sails and rigging shot away by cannon balls, two men killed and seven or eight wounded. He struggled back to Jersey without making any capture, but determined to get an explanation from his former ally. He went about the Island seeking his friend with determination to kill on sight, but Bowden was a cautious man and had left the Island before the return of the man he had left behind.
He returned from a cruise off Dover where he had captured a newly-built and fast vessel which had practically fallen into his hands. He had been anchored off Dover when this vessel, returning from the Bay of Biscay with a cargo of corn, and, little expecting they were in the neighbourhood of a noted privateer, lowered her sails and was drifting gently towards the harbour, when Bowden suddenly fired his gun at the unsuspecting vessel. The crew were terrified and rushed to the cabin for protection whilst Bowden and his men easily boarded the vessel, captured her and sailed away for Jersey, where Sir George added her to his fleet of Privateers.
He sometimes made a mistake and he found to his cost that other seamen were as wily as himself. On one occasion he boarded what he thought an easy capture but when he got on board he found a large and well armed crew, who had been hidden away down below awaiting him. He was only able to return to his own ship after five of his crew had been wounded.
The life of a privatersman in those days was never free from danger. He had to face the open sea in all kinds of weather, in small boats, with bad charts, no lighthouses, and very bad harbour accommodation. It was a wonderful period when we recognise that Sir George with his ten or twelve small vessels faced the whole naval and mercantile fleets of Great Britain, and did so successfully for so many years. Yet there were always plenty of volunteers to man the boats. They were well aware of the dangers they had to face and the discomforts they had to put up with. Very often there was little room for the number of men carried and the food supplied consisted of biscuits, salt pork and dried fish with occasional dried peas washed down with cider or cheap wine. They sometimes sailed away and did not return, and Chevalier tells us that " Sir George's brother sent out his three ton boat as a corsair with a crew of men armed with muskets. Failing to capture any prizes off the French coast, they crossed the channel, but were wrecked off Dover in a gale. The men were taken prisoners and nothing further was heard of them."
Nowadays rowing from Jersey to France, along the French coast and across the channel to the Downs would be considered quite a wonderful event, but in those days it was thought little of and only as part of the day's work. But they were all animated with adventurous spirit and cared little for the dangers they had to face, and these were many, for the Jersey privateers were well hated and a Jersey capture would have been welcomed in any English port.
Another of Carteret's captains was named Jelf. He had command of a gaily, armed with six cannons and carrying a crew of forty men. Once when off the French coast he came across the Dieppe mackerel fleet. Being short of provisions and anxious for a little fresh fish, Jelf steered his vessel towards the fishing fleet in order to buy some. But the Frenchmen did not like the cut of Jelf's vessel and mistook him for a notorious Dunkirk pirate, so they surrounded the Jersey. vessel, took Jelf and his crew prisoners and, notwithstanding their protests, took them to France, where they were put into prison and kept there for two months, until they could prove to the French authorities that they were friendly Jerseymen, when the court set them free, and made their captors pay them compensation. He was not a very successful privateer.
The Jersey privateers were very wide awake and they adopted many ruses in order to gain their ends. One of their favourite methods was to sail with two passports on board, so that the most suitable could be available when such documents had to be shown.
A Jersey barque with a cargo of corn was captured by pirates from the Bay of Biscay. The Master had on board two passports, one a Jersey one, suitable to present if captured by Dunkirk or Biscayan pirates, the other a French passport, suitable for use if the vessel were captured by a Parliamentarian vessel. Therefore the captain made no fuss when the Biscayan pirate came aboard his vessel, but before he could produce the proper passport, the Biscayans searched the vessel and unfortunately found the French passport. They were very angry with the Jerseymen for trying to impose upon their credulity. After beating, and otherwise ill treating the crew, they landed them in Brittany and took the vessel to Spain. The crew managed to return to Jersey and went to lodge their troubles before the Bailli, only to be told that they ought to have had sense enough to hide their French passport better " so it served them right to lose their ship and it would teach them to be more careful in future."
The Jersey Privateers were not very scrupulous about the division of the spoils they obtained, and the money thus obtained was soon spent. They frequently quarrelled over the division of the prize money. Chevalier tells us how two Jersey Privateers cruising along the coast of Brittany came to blows over a prize. The first vessel the " Iroise " captured an English vessel loaded with coal, and a prize crew having been put aboard, she sailed for Jersey. When on its way, the prize was met by the " Doggerbank," and although the prize was a Jersey capture and the crew were Jerseymen, the master of the " Doggerbank " took possession of it and making for a Brittany port sold the vessel and cargo at a very good price.
When the captain of the " Iroise " heard of the fate of the prize he immediately set out to find the " Doggerbank," and fortune favoured him, for cruising along the Welsh coast, they found the " Doggerbank " aground at low water in Penmarch Bay, with the master and most of the crew ashore. On the master's return to his ship he was exceedingly wroth at finding it in the hands of strangers. He pointed out that he had a commission as an authorised Privateer, but they assured him that exchange was no robbery, and, as he had seized and sold their prize, they proposed to keep his vessel and politely suggested that he and his crew should go ashore and spend the money they had received from the sale of the prize.
They were a bold, had, unscrupulous set of men and hesitated not in doing many foul things to gain their ends. If an unfortunate French vessel was captured, they did their best to persuade the Master to say that she was English, and if he hesitated, torture was often adopted to obtain satisfactory information. They did not mind using such effective methods as burning matches between the witnesses' fingers or placing the victim's fingers in the windlass, and so by one means and another many so called large prizes were obtained.

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