Friday, 4 October 2013

The Privateers – Part 2

Something historical today. Here is an extract from "Jersey in the 17th century" (1931), by A.C. Saunders. The depiction of the Admiralty Court is especially vivid in details.
The Privateers – Part 2
By A.C. Saunders
The Admiralty Court sat at Elizabeth Castle where the masters as they arrived, sought the confirmation of their prizes. After a sufficient tithe had been obtained, the vessel and cargo was taken to St. Aubin and a man, beating a drum, was sent through the town advising the inhabitants that there was to be a sale of a prize vessel and her cargo. The vessel was lying for inspection on the beach and people flocked to examine the condition of the vessel, her stores and cargo, all keenly anxious to pick up the best bargain possible.
Then at 2 p.m. a man began beating a drum to attract the attention of the crowd, and they gathered round the Denonciateur who was to conduct the sale. A table was fixed in the middle of the road and there sat a number of men interested in the venture. Apart from the Denonciateur, there was the Admiralty Judge who acted as auctioneer's clerk and wrote down the names of the buyers and the prices. Next to him sat Sir George's representative who took notes as to the amount due to the Lieut. Governor as King's representative. There was also someone taking notes on behalf of the captain who stood by and tried to look as if he were not interested in the matter, except as an onlooker. It was always a day of great excitement, and intending buyers and non buyers vied with each other in making as much noise as possible. The Denonciateur, when he could make himself heard, offered the first lot of four barrels of oil and these were all sold for fifteen ecus each, and so on until he came to the sale of the vessel seized.
The number of vessels captured by Sir George's fleet was very considerable for there are many complaints, given by Whitlock, from merchants and shipowners to the English Government that " Jersey Pyrates were very bold upon the Western coast " and that Jersey sailors would board vessels supposed to be in safe anchorage and sail them away as prizes before those on shore could take any action.
So bold did these privateers become that in 1646 the French authorities began to get anxious and forbade them to capture any prizes in the neighbourhood of their Ports. This regulation they applied to English vessels as well, and we hear of a Parliamentary vessel being arrested and the crew imprisoned for having attacked a Jersey vessel off St.-Malo.
Chevalier tells us that between 1649 and         1651 seventy-nine prizes were captured by Jersey vessels, and, apart from those captured and sold at foreign ports, Sir George's fleet managed to make no fewer than one hundred and twenty-five prizes-a very creditable record. English shipping during Sir George's Governorship in Jersey had a very bad time. What with the Dunkirk Pirates at the east end of the channel, and the Jersey Privateers at the west, the Parliamentarian vessels were afraid to leave port except under convoy
Sometimes the vessels from Guernsey made reprisals on our fishing vessels but they were not always successful.
Mr. G. T. Messervy, Past President of the Société Jersiaise, has been good enough to call my attention to an incident well worth recording.
" Clement de Quetteville of St. Martin's Parish, with five or six others, was gathering wrack at Chausee, at that time a no man's land. They and their boats were seized by a Parliamentarian vessel from Guernsey and they were taken off to the neighbourhood of Cap Frehel where a squadron was assembled to convoy vessels from St.-Malo to England. The next day,     12th July 1657, the boats with their crews were sent off to Guernsey and two or three sailors placed on board each boat. De Quetteville, who was sailing his craft, managed to lose sight of the rest during the night and quickly steered for Jersey and at daybreak was off the Corbiere Rocks telling the soldiers that they were the Hanois, which are to the south west of Guernsey. When however Elizabeth Castle shortly came in sight the fat was in the fire, and the irate soldiers up and smote Clement full sore and made him put about for Cap Frehel again. Watching his opportunity, however, while one of the men was changing his jacket he wrenched out the tiller and dealt him a hefty blow on the nape of the neck and then tackled the other men and disarmed them. He then cut down the sail and with pistol in one hand and the helm in the other, he made the unwilling soldiers take the oars while he steered the craft for home and grounded at St. Clement. Here the Constable, Helier Dumaresq, and police came on the scene and took the prisoners to Mont Orgueil into the custody of Philip de Carteret, brother of Sir George, who was in command there. The next day, when he had recovered from the effects of his wounds and exertions he related his story to Sir George who praised him for his valour, gave him half a crown and promised him further rewards, while Lady de Carteret bathed his wounds.
He apologised for not throwing the men overboard but he was afraid of the possible consequence, viz Martial Law and the Gibbet, but Sir George assured him he need have no fear as all's fair in war."
Is it any wonder that, with such men, Jersey privateers were so much feared ?
Frequently the English owner would buy back his vessel from the captors, risking the journey to Jersey for the purpose, but Jersey captains were very smart men and one captain hit upon the following plan to save the expense of going through the Admiralty Court. He would lie off the English coast and when he captured a vessel would send the master ashore to get money to buy back the vessel, keeping the rest of the crew as hostages until the sale was completed. Thus many sales were effected without the knowledge of those in Jersey, for the spoil thus obtained was divided in proper shares among the crew and it paid them well to keep their mouths shut.
In 1646 there was a check on Jersey privateering and all the letters of marque were withdrawn as the King of France refused entry of ships of either party into his ports, or the sale there of any prizes or prize goods on pain of confiscation. It was a great blow to Jersey privateers, for their exciting and remunerative occupation was gone, and we hear of Captain Smith and three other captains of Sir George's fleet, taking out Spanish letters of Marque and going to fight their former friends the French.
But after the execution of Charles I the privateers came to their own again and one of the largest of the Parliamentarian vessels " The Heart " joined Sir George's fleet as the crew were furious at the cruel treatment of the King they had sworn to obey. Charles II sent them the necessary letters of Marque and although many sailors had left the Island, many of the royalists took to manning the vessels. They knew little about the sea but could fight well when it came to taking a prize.
In July 1649 Captain Collins commanded " The Heart" and when cruising off the English coast he captured two prizes and put them in charge of prize crews. Unfortunately a large English vessel recaptured the prize and then went in search of " The Heart." They soon came in sight of their prey and made preparations to capture her, first by removing all good sails and replacing them with old sails and tarred canvas ; then they carefully covered up their guns with more canvas, towed warps over the stern to check the speed of the vessel and most of the crew went below to await the arrival of the " Heart."
The " Heart " seeing what appeared to be a very good prize, probably a collier badly armed, came alongside to board her, but at a signal from the captain, the crew of the Dragon " left their hiding places and promptly fired seventeen cannon at the Jersey vessel. Collins saw that he had caught a tartar and after firing seven guns turned about his vessel to get away. The " Dragon " pulled in their warps and hoisted all sail and followed the " Heart " which was then some distance away. For two hours the two vessels fought without any apparent advantage on either side and the master of the " Dragon," seeing that the " Heart " was manoeuvring to get away, was so angry with his gunners that he took charge of one of the guns, and aiming at the " Heart " struck her mainmast and left her helpless. Even then the Jerseymen were not beaten and they repelled all attempts to board her but Collins saw that with his broken mainmast, it was only a matter of time and determined to make the prize as valueless as possible. He first divided all the prize money he had on board among the crew, and then threw everything of value overboard, including all arms and ammunition. So that when the crew of the " Dragon " came on board they found themselves in possession of a battered wreck with splintered bulwarks, broken mast and torn sails and nothing of value on board.
Collins and his crew were taken to London and imprisoned in Newgate. Collins evidently had a wife as brave as himself and she determined to get her husband out of prison. She obtained permission of Sir George to barter the exchange of her husband for one of the Parliamentarian captains, then prisoner in Jersey. With this she decided to go over to England and chartering a French barque for eighteen pounds plus the provisions for the voyage, she was landed at Southampton and made her way to London and so persuaded the authorities, that, as Chevalier says-" Captain Collins' wife did so much in London that she delivered her husband from Newgate prison where he was he was released under promise of sending over Captain Ashe, a parliamentarian who was a prisoner in Jersey."
Then there was that plucky little fight between the Pastris " one of Sir George's vessels of fourteen guns against the Parliamentarian frigate of thirty-six guns. It took place on the 26th June1650 and the " Patris " had just captured a prize off Alderney and placed a prize crew on board when they saw the English vessel in the distance. The " Patris " was commanded by a Captain Corneille who had come to Jersey to join Sir George's fleet. As soon as Corneille saw that the English vessel was so much more powerful than his own he recalled the prize crew except two and prepared to meet the enemy. For five hours the two vessels fought and the fight continued as the vessels sailed from Alderney to the coast of Jersey where the inhabitants watched the fight from the shore. The big ship was the faster of the two and tried to board the " Pastris " but Corneille and his men were ready for the boarders and while half the crew repelled the English the other half moved some guns to the side so they could fire at the enemy's vessel.
It was a glorious little fight all dependent on the determination and bravery of the Master who, clad in doublet and hose without hat or coat and armed with a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other, encouraged his crew by his superb example. Some of the crew seeing the odds against them wished to capitulate but Corneille told them they were cowards and threatened to run his sword through any man who talked of surrender, and when he suspected some of the crew of hiding below he followed them and threatened to kill them unless they returned to the fight. He told them he would never give in to the English.
And so for five hours the two ships fought and Corneille lost four men killed and twelve wounded and the stock of powder was running short. They had during the fight fired 234 shots from their guns and used 750 lbs. of powder, and just when they had 1 ½ lbs. of powder left the English vessel turned tail and fled from their plucky little enemy. The Jerseymen cheered lustily as they saw their enemy disappear and Corneille ordered them a salute of three guns but they had not the politeness to reply.
The " Pastris " then entered St. Aubin's bay to the salute of the guns from the Castle and vessels, and the crew were given a most enthusiastic reception as they landed. Next clay two of the wounded died and the dead were given a public funeral in St. Helier's cemetery as befitting the heroes of so great a fight, with coffins covered with the frigate's ensign and escorted by a guard of sailors four of whom carried a reversed ensign spread out.
But the parliamentarian party was getting more settled and they were able to give more attention to the affairs of Jersey. In September 1650, they sent out two well-armed frigates to Newfoundland where they captured the entire fishing fleet of ten ships. To add to their misfortunes the fishermen were directed to fish for their captors. After having filled the vessels with a plentiful cargo, all the crews of the vessels were placed on board the smallest ship and sent back to Jersey, to tell the tale, facing the journey in a vessel ill provided with provisions and stores. When they arrived in Jersey they had a very bad reception from the owners of the vessels, who took away ' from the men what little had been left them by the parliamentarians, to recoup themselves for the loss of their vessel.
Several privateers were captured by the English and the fleet of Sir George had by September 1651 dwindled to four in number and we hear little more of the success of Jersey privateers of this period. But when we consider this small Island fighting against English shipping for nearly eight years with such continuous success, that English vessels dared not leave port without convoy, it says much for the skill and daring of those gallant sea dogs who loved a fight and did not fear a big opponent. No wonder that Cromwell and his friends determined to put down this Sir George and his party, whom they pretended to treat with contempt. And so we come to October 20th, 1651, when Admiral Blake and his ships were seen to arrive off the coast of Jersey, and the days of Sir George's Privateers were over.

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