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Privateers of the Napoleonic Wars

Updated on May 23, 2017

During the Napoleonic Wars, the armies of France crushed the forces of the ancien régime time and time again, bringing sweeping French victories across the continent that would place much of it under either outright French control, or indirect domination. At sea meanwhile, the navies of France's enemies - constituted principally of the Royal Navy - would win control of the sea, severing French access to sea lanes and blockading France. Thus emerged a stalemate; France could not strike at Britain, which continually funded coalitions against France and ensured that France could never fully vanquish her enemies, while the British and their allies on the continent were unable to stand against French armies, until the cataclysmic defeats in Spain and Russia of French troops altered the balance of forces. Thus, an indirect battle between the French and the British was waged to attempt to weaken the other to the point where ultimate victory could be attained, and a principal agent in this vicious war at sea would be privateers.

Hundreds of thousands of men fought for decades at sea, crammed into rolling wooden warships, to attempt to achieve supremacy of the waves. Pictured, the Battle of Trafalgar.
Hundreds of thousands of men fought for decades at sea, crammed into rolling wooden warships, to attempt to achieve supremacy of the waves. Pictured, the Battle of Trafalgar.
The Battle of Beachy Head showed the French Navy at its finest, defeating the combined might of the Dutch and British fleets. A century later, odds would be longer.
The Battle of Beachy Head showed the French Navy at its finest, defeating the combined might of the Dutch and British fleets. A century later, odds would be longer.

The general situation and history

The war at sea between France and Britain was not something which grew out of new developments, but instead represented a century of warfare between the French and the British, and the reflective strategy, tactics, and resources that the two sides commanded. At the end of the 17th century, the French navy, after meteoric growth under Richelieu and particularly Colbert, had sustained perhaps the largest and most capable battle fleet in Europe, which had proved capable of confronting the combined might of its English and Dutch adversaries on even terms. This situation did not last, and administrative and bureaucratic problems in the navy, the need to focus on the land army in response to tremendous growth in army expenditures, and the growth of the Royal Navy meant that for much of the 18th century, the French navy would find itself outmatched in size compared to its ultimate primary adversary, the Royal Navy.

The result was that the French fleet had to find innovative tactics to sustain a war against its British-Dutch (and later principally British) counterparts. This came to be the guerre de course, emphasizing utilizing privateers and commerce raiding to engage enemy commerce, while avoiding large fleet battles. With the British dependent upon maritime trade, by destroying it, the French would be able to weaken the British. This strategy, after the heady days of the 18th century, was never as successful as the French might have hoped, but represented a reasonable and logical policy in response to France's naval weaknesses, and one which during wars would at times inflict terrible losses upon British shipping. It was furthermore not an absolute policy, and at times when the French Navy had a position of strength against its British counterparts - such as during the American revolution, when the French, Spanish, American, and Dutch fleets proved capable of matching their British opponents - the French fleet would operate more aggressively, fighting the guerre d'escadre (focused upon conventional fleet battles), as compared to the guerre de course. The American Revolution would be a high point of the French navy of the late ancien regime, which won the naval war against England, capturing territories, enabling the independence of the American colonies, and humbling its opponent.

The French Revolutionary Wars would not be so auspicious. The French Navy at the start of the war started out with around 75 ships of the line compared to 150 British counterparts, and also faced the formidable Spanish, Dutch, and Russian navies who were allied to the British fleet. Furthermore, the French fleet was both internally divided with royalist sympathizers (especially in the officer corps), and would face a brutal winnowing of nobles and officers who failed by the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror, or who simply emigrated and left. This heavily attrited it, and while it was able to fight in pitched battles with the British for a period of time and achieve some limited objectives - such as at the battle of prairial / glorious first of june, where a strategic victory enabled vital grain convoy to reach French ports from the US to hold off an impending famine, but at the cost of a tactical defeat - it ultimately ended this lonely struggle largely blockaded in port and with heavy losses. Spain's defection to the French side brought about a temporary reprieve, but defeats at the Nile and Cape St. Vincent were blows to French and French allied seapower. Peace at Amiens did not restore French fortunes, and ultimately the Battle of Trafalgar removed the Franco-Spanish capability to engage in conventional fleet battles. The French fleet would, in a largely forgotten development, re-build its strength from this nadir and in time might have been able to engage in conventional naval warfare again (indeed, it is not especially implausible to hypothesize that without defeat in Russia, within a short period of time France might have gained a commanding position once more in the Mediterranean), but the defeat of the French Empire would occur on land before its plans were complete.

Thus unable to fight against the British in pitched battles on the sea, the French used the power that French armies commanded over other continental states to create the continental system. The continental system was a response to the British blockade of French coasts enacted in 1806, creating an embargo against British goods in France and French allied/dominated states.

And at sea, the French would organize their fleets of corsairs and light ships to attempt to stamp out British commerce.

Auction of an English ship captured by a French privateer
Auction of an English ship captured by a French privateer

Privateers were not pirates, although they could come close to crossing this line and many privateers would become pirates themselves. Privateers were instead issued with lettres de marque, which granted them legitimate ability to raid enemy shipping, and their captured ships - prizes - would be auctioned off and determined to be legitimate or not in prize ports.

French corsairs with their English prisoneers
French corsairs with their English prisoneers

Surcouf

Privateers and corsairs have a reputation of dashing figures, and if perhaps this tends to obscure the fact that many were less than pleasant figures who committed atrocities against their targets, simply giving dry information about them would be a poor testament to their spirit. For the French, the most celebrated and renowned corsair - and arguably, perhaps the most celebrated naval figure of the war - would be Robert Surcouf. Surcouf started out from the ranks on merchant ships, working his way up to an officer on slave ships, and ultimately became a captain of one and then served as a naval auxiliary in the defense of Maritius. Soon afterwards in 1795, Surcouf would take command of a schooner renamed Émilie, raiding British commerce in the Indian Ocean and escaping British ships which attempted to pursue him - a dreadful risk, as although he had a congé de navigation authorizing self-defense, he had no lettre de marque, authorizing the taking of prizes. The most daring of this was the capture of the East Indiaman Triton, with 26 guns to Surcouf's 4, and bigger as well, and 150 men to Surcouf's bare 26. A violent assault by surprise, after approaching under a British flag, led to Surcoaf's crew taking the British ship after killing its captain, first officer, and 8 others and wounding 5 others. Along with Triton, Surcouf would capture 5 other ships, returning them, minus one re-captured by the Royal Navy, to Île de France. The prize court would seize his prizes as property of the state as he was fitted out as a merchantman and not as a privateer, although it did recognize them as legal. Surcouf returned to France to seek the rest, ultimately receiving only 80,000 francs out of a promised 660,000. More cruises came to follow on larger and more powerful ships, again in the Indian ocean, with the capture of the Triton being repeated with the capture of the Kent, another East Indiaman with an exceptionally large crew, which was defeated and captured by Surcouf's ship. Refusing introduction into the official French navy but accepting the Légion d'honneur, Surcouf's cruises ultimately captured over 40 ships.

Most famously, Surcouf when challenged by an English prisoner who declared "You French fight for money while we fight for honour", Surcouf would reply "Each of us fights for what he lacks most". Surcouf would himself have no lack of money in the end, gaining a huge fortune from his privateer activities then going into business as a ship-owner in 1809, arming additional privateers, dying peacefully in 1827. Since then five ships of the French navy would come to bear his name.

Au 31 du mois d'août, allegedly celebrating the capture of the Kent

For France, the principal privateer base was Saint-Malo. However, there were also bases like Dunkirk in the Channel (Dunkirk had long been the site for the Dunkirkers who had raided Dutch and English footing from Spanish or French protection), Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and the Basque country, (all of whom conducted deep water privateering against English ships in the Atlantic), and Marseille and Toulon in the Mediterranean. Other privateers, like the aforementioned Surcouf, fought from bases in the Indian Ocean. French allies would contribute as well, with Denmark, attacked in violation of her neutrality by the British, participating on the French side to raid English shipping in the Baltic. They would be unable to prevent British convoys from getting through, but individual ships would be fair game in the Gunboat War.

In the Caribbean, French privateers were a deadly threat under the command of Victor Hughes, as France utilized the energies of freed slaves for a liberating struggle against the British slaveholders. Twenty-six to thirty French privateers would operate from Guadeloupe in 1975, plus substantial numbers of lighter craft used for coastal operations. These would prey on both English and American shipping, as American freighters conducted much of the resupply of English garrisons in the West Indies - leading to significant tensions between France and the United States, escalating in the Quasi War. However, they did achieve significant disruption of British commerce in the region.

French privateers, with a brief pause at the Peace of Amiens, continued to operate throughout the war.
French privateers, with a brief pause at the Peace of Amiens, continued to operate throughout the war. | Source

General effect

The total effect of the French commerce raiding, while not driving English commerce from the seas as hoped, was still a great burden upon English shipping; between 1793-1800 some 4,314 English merchant ships were captured, of which 705 were recaptured, for a total of 3,639 ships lost. This exceeded the number lost to sea or driven onto land, which was 2,967. During the wars as a whole, up to 11,000 English merchant ships may have been lost to French privateers during the wars. Ultimately the Royal Navy was able to protect its commerce and neutralize the French privateering fleet to the extent that British commerce was able to survive, with up to 35% of French privateers from Saint Malo that were fitted out being captured.

English privateers

For the Royal Navy, there was much less incentive to use privateers than for its French counterpart. The British after all, were the ones who controlled the seas, not the French, and thus they could rely upon their conventional navy to deal with French shipping and commerce. This makes a contrast from previous wars, where from the years 1702-1783 the British had dispatched nearly 7,000 privateers. Despite this, English privateers did see action in some theaters. In the Adriatic, where the British fleet was relatively small and weak (although it did defeat its Franco-Italian counterpart), English privateers based themselves from Lissa, and contributed to the effective extermination of coastal trade and commerce in the region. In England, Bristol would continue to be the center of privateers.

British privateering did not exist at the same level as in previous wars
British privateering did not exist at the same level as in previous wars | Source

The Arrival of Peace

The war ended in 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. French hopes of destroying English commerce and driving it from the sea had not been fulfilled. For the sailors of the French fleet, and for the French privateers, it must have been a bitter blow. It would be another century before a new nation would challenge England on the seas, but the war fought by the Germans would not be one of sail driven frigates and privateers, but one of torpedoes and submarines who struck without warning from the deep.

Recommended reading

Napoleon's Shipbuilding Program at Venice and the Struggle for Naval Mastery in the Adriatic, 1806-1814, by Lawrence Sondhaus

The Forgotten Service: The French Navy of the Old Regime, 1650-1789, by Richard Brownlow Byington

Commerce and Crime: States, Property Rights, and the War on Trade, 1700-1815, by Christina Gathmann and Henning Hillmann

Guadeloupe, savagery and émancipation : British comment of 1794-1796, by H.J.K Jenkins

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