Pirate or Privateer, Rogue or Hero?
By Mark M. McMillin
For thousands of years pirates and privateers have roamed the seven seas. A pirate, as we all know, is a villain, an outlaw, who cruises the oceans to plunder and kill for booty and, if caught, will dance at the end of a rope. A privateer, however, is a paid mercenary, licensed by a government to - lawfully - plunder and kill its enemies during times of war and, if caught, will end up as a prisoner-of-war. That sounds fairly cut and dry but the distinction between the two callings over the years has often been blurred beyond recognition.
In this article<strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;">,</strong> we will focus our attention on privateers. Or, more specifically, we will focus our attention on one particular privateer, on one little known hero, who operated out of Dunkirk during America’s War of Independence.
Modern day privateering can be traced back to 17th Century England when the Earl of Warwick in 1649 sent the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Constant</em>-<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Warwick</em> out to plunder Spanish galleons carrying New World gold. Spain was quick to retaliate by unleashing her own privateers against England and soon the other great super-power of the age, France, did the same.<strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"> </strong>
Privateering was a primarily a business, a very dangerous business certainly, but still a business. Privateering worked like so: an investor (or investors) would purchase a ship and obtain a commission, or letter of marque, from the government and then arm and provision the ship. The investors would then hire a crew to go out and raid enemy shipping (unarmed or lightly-armed merchantmen carrying rich cargos were the privateers’ prey of choice). The privateers would sail any prizes they caught back to a friendly port to be sold at public auction, along with the prize’s cargo. The proceeds from the sale would be split three ways: one-third went to the investors, one-third went to the host government and one-third went to the crew, to be divvied up in proportionate shares according to each man’s rank. Privateering could be very lucrative for all concerned and attracted thousands of sailors.
II. American Privateers during the War of Independence
The Colonies, as much a maritime nation as Great Britain, embraced privateers early on to augment their fledgling Continental Navy. America’s newly-minted Congress legalized privateering on April 3, 1776 (two months prior to the Declaration of Independence). During the war roughly 55,000 seamen served aboard nearly 1,700 American privateers at one time or another.<strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"> </strong>
Question: during America’s War of Independence who, among the Founding Fathers, formed his own private navy?
Answer: Benjamin Franklin.
Bonus Question: during American’s War of Independence, who was the most dangerous, the most successful privateer against Great Britain?
Answer: an Irish smuggler named Captain Luke Ryan.
Ben Franklin had his own private navy? Yes, it’s true. But first, who the devil was Captain Luke Ryan?
Most of us have heard of John Paul Jones, the father of the American navy, the hero of the Battle of Flamborough Head (who, when the British captain called for his surrender as his ship, the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Bonhomme Richard,</em> began to sink, famously replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!”), but few people have heard of Captain Luke Ryan and yet Ryan wreaked more havoc on Great Britain than Jones. So, if Ryan did so much damage, why isn’t he more famous? Well, regular navy men pretty much despised privateers, considered them to be an undisciplined lot, a collection of thieves, murders and rapists - the dregs of society - who enticed able bodied seaman away from the navy with promises of riches (leaving some ships so undermanned they could not put to sea and were stranded in port). The officers of the Continental Navy, including the great John Paul Johns, resented privateers and after the war it was these professional navy men wrote the history books and they choose to give the glory to themselves and to give the privateers scant attention and little credit.
Benjamin Franklin, the great scientist of his day and America’s Ambassador to the Court of Versailles, held a somewhat different opinion of privateers and did indeed form his own private navy around them, most them foreigners. Franklin wasn’t interested in raising money from the spoils privateers captured though. France, eager to avenge her humiliation at the hands of her hated rival Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War, was lavishing money on the American war effort (and eventually France spent so much on the Americans that she went bankrupt - sowing the seeds of discontent and revolution, the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">French Revolution</em>, and paving the way for the rise of despots and of Napoleon).
No, Franklin didn’t need money; he needed prisoners and the reason he needed prisoners was because Great Britain was holding thousands of Americans in brutal, barbaric conditions. The British military considered American prisoners to be rebels, traitors against the King, and men who would all hang after the rebellion was crushed. Captured rebels were not prisoners-of-war entitled to civil treatment and so the British military (and most in Parliament) had little concern for their welfare. American prisoners were starved, denied medicines, beaten and even killed.
Just how bad was the plight of American prisoners? Well, the simple statistics are startling. During the war, Americans suffered roughly 4,300 battlefield deaths compared to 13,000 Americans who died while in British custody.
Franklin agonized over the horrible mistreatment of his fellow countrymen and wanted to help ease their sufferings. But he needed leverage. He needed British prisoners to force Parliament into agreeing to prisoner-of-war exchanges.
III. Captain Luke Ryan
In the spring of 1779, the American’s were losing their life and death struggle against Great Britain for independence and were losing badly. Their rag-tag armies were in retreat. Their small navy had been swept from the seas. Congress was in a panic. The fate of a fragile nation, the fate of the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Revolution</em>, was hanging by a thread. Prospects looked very grim indeed for the rebels.
Meanwhile, across the ocean, the 25 (or so) year old Ryan and his Irishmen were indifferent to the war and running a very profitable smuggling operation, smuggling French brandy, Dutch tea, arms and other assorted materials between Dunkirk and Dublin (brandy and tea because the English had imposed hefty taxes these items, fetching handsome profits for the smugglers). Ryan was the master of the fastest ship on the water too (probably a forerunner of the Baltimore clipper class) named <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Friendship </em>and life was good until one day the British revenue service (the coast guard of the period) captured his vessel and crew off Dublin. The British impounded Ryan’s ship and cargo at Poolbeg and tossed his men into Dublin’s infamous Black Dog. Ryan, who had been in Dublin at the time and was still on the loose, refused to accept defeat though. He hired more men, broke his crew out of jail and then retook his ship in a daring midnight raid. But the Irishmen had committed an act of piracy now and they would all hang for it if caught. Their smuggling days were over. Ryan and his men needed sanctuary and set sail for France where, Ryan had heard, the Americans were looking to hire privateers...
Once they reached France, Ryan converted <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Friendship</em> from a smuggler into a warship, renamed her <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Black Prince, </em>and approached Franklin for a privateering commission. But Franklin didn’t trust the Irishman and sent him away empty-handed. Undeterred, Ryan next hired a down-on-his-luck, unemployed, American ship’s captain marooned in Paris named Stephan Marchant and then sent Marchant off to Franklin to apply for a commission in Marchant’s own name and as captain of the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Black Prince</em>. Unaware he is being duped by Ryan (Marchant was nothing more than a cat’s paw, Ryan would remain the true master of the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Prince</em>), Franklin reluctantly agreed to give Marchant and his mostly Irish crew a commission. And so an unlikely alliance is formed between the world’s most famous and preeminent scientist, who needed fighting sailors, and an Irish punk - who was on the run from the British gallows and needed a new nationality.
For nearly two years Ryan and his Irishmen, with three very fast, heavily armed battle cruisers (the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Black Prince, </em>the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Black Princess</em> and the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Fearnot</em>) did considerable damage to British shipping and terrorized British subjects. Before the Irishmen are finished, they will capture or destroy over 100 British ships, win a number of engagements against British warships, take hundreds of prisoners for Franklin and invade a number of English and Scottish towns at will - tying down precious British military resources (militias had to be stationed along the coast and as many as 40 British frigates were trying to hunt Ryan down at different times). Perhaps even worse, Ryan’s victories will create a financial panic in London as merchant ships refuse to sail and maritime insurance rates skyrocket.
Ryan’s reign of terror abruptly came to an end after he was captured off the coast of Scotland in 1781 while in command of the French frigate, <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Calonne</em> (through, possibly, a double-cross). He was taken in chains temporarily to Edinburgh Castle until he could be moved to London to be tried for treason and piracy.
Following a lengthy and much publicized trial, Ryan was convicted of both piracy and treason and sentenced to hang. Four times the British set his execution date and four times Ryan prepared himself for death. But his execution was postponed on each occasion. Eventually, through the efforts of one of his ardent admirers, Ryan’s life was spared. Who was his admirer? It was the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who plead for Ryan’s life, who asked King George to show mercy. The King of England was sufficiently moved by the Queen’s request and reduced Ryan’s death sentence to life imprisonment.
According to official British reports, Ryan was released from prison after the war and died in a debtors’ prison in 1789 (for failing to pay a doctor for inoculating his three children against small pox). Some in France though have claimed that this is report was a hoax, that Ryan did not die in an English debtors’ prison but rather returned to France after the war and lived out his years serving in the French navy. Could the British reports be wrong? Or could Ryan have faked his own death and if he did, why would he do such a thing? We will probably never know the truth of it.
IV. Final Thoughts
How does a 25 year old Irish smuggler, a common thief and a person with no formal military training that we know of, accomplish so much against the world’s most powerful navy (and in its own home waters)? The answer remains a mystery. Ryan’s successes, successes that stagger the imagination, cannot be easily explained though.
An equally intriguing question is: what motivated Ryan and his Irishmen to risk life and limb for the Americans? At first the Irishmen sailed for prize money, true. But Ryan and his men never saw any of the money. Their French investors either squandered it or stole it all and yet Ryan and his Irishmen continued to sail out against the British over and over again, the money be damned, determined to inflict as much harm on the British as they could. Interesting questions...
Certainly Ryan was not only a gifted sailor and master tactician, in light of the unswerving devotion of his men, he had to have been an extraordinary and inspiring leader too. This much we do know: Ryan and his Irishmen were true heroes, they were true <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">American</em> patriots…
Still dubious about the contribution of American privateers? The results speak for themselves. When the war began, America had no navy and by 1777 the Continental Navy had only 34 cruisers in service. By 1782 this number had dwindled to a mere seven serviceable ships. Privateers were used to augment this meager force and before the war’s end, tens of thousands of men in hundreds of privateers ventured out into hazardous waters against the most powerful navy in the world, sinking or capturing 2,283 enemy vessels (compared to the Continental Navy, which captured or destroyed 196 enemy ships in total). After the war’s end, the British Admiralty reported to the House of Lords that American privateers had cost the British merchant navy more than £8 million in damages.<strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"> </strong>
Franklin’s privateers were responsible for 114 of those victories (<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Black Prince</em> took<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"> </em>35 enemy vessels, <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Black</em> <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Princess, </em>43, the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Prince</em> and the <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Princess</em> sailing together took another 20 and <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Fearnot</em> took<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"> </em>16). A number of other British ships were damaged or forced to stay in port. Hundreds of prisoners were taken, an unknown number of British seamen were killed or wounded and the British employed a large number of ships and soldiers trying to catch Ryan. These numbers are impressive by any measure.
About the Author
McMillin has been a soldier, businessman and lawyer and has written three historical fiction books about this extraordinary man named Luke Ryan: <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Gather the Shadowmen (The Lords of the Ocean), Prince of the Atlantic </em>and<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"> Napoleon’s Gold.</em> You can find more information about the author and his books at www.privateerlukeryan.com.
February 14, 1750 (or so): Luke Ryan is born, according to a parish registry produced at Ryan’s trial for piracy, in Rush, Ireland to a Michael and Mary Ryan of Kenure. At his trial, Ryan’s attorney produced a registry from the Curate of Gravelines, France showing that Ryan was in fact born in Gravelines to a Joseph and Mary Ryan (Joseph Ryan served in France’s Dillon Regiment as a lieutenant). Ryan’s nationality will become a critical issue later at his trial…
February 19, 1779: The smuggler Friendship and its crew are captured by British revenue cutters off Dublin. The ship, with its rich cargo of contraband, is taken to the King’s Customhouse at Poolbeg and impounded. The crew is jailed in Dublin’s Black Dog. Ryan soon thereafter breaks his men out of jail and retakes his ship by force.
May 19, 1779: Benjamin Franklin, America’s Minister Plenipotentiary to France, issues a privateering commission, or letter or marque, for Friendship, renamed Black Prince. Ryan knows that Franklin would never issue a commission to an Irish outlaw like himself, so Ryan dupes Franklin into believing that an unemployed ship’s master named Stephen Marchant from Boston is the Prince’s captain.
April 17, 1781: Ryan, now in command of the French frigate Calonne, takes the brig Nancy as a prize off St. Abb’s Head but runs into the powerful British 74 gun Berwick and her escort, the frigate Belle Poule. Severely outgunned and pinned against the coast, Ryan is forced to surrender, bringing his nearly two year reign of terror to an end. The event is reported in The Annual Register, or A View of the History, Politics and Literature for the Year 1781 (Third Edition).
March 30, 1782: Ryan’s trial for piracy and treason begins. He is tried at the Old Bailey Courthouse, the same courthouse where William Kidd was tried and convicted 80 years earlier for piracy. The trial is reported in the April issue of Thomas Walker’s Hibernian Magazine or Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge.
June 18, 1789: As reported in The Gentleman’s Magazine: For June 1789 (under Obituary of considerable Persons; with Biographical Anecdotes at page 578), Ryan dies from blood poisoning in the King’s Bench Prison, a debtors’ prison in London, at the approximate age of 39. Some in France dispute this and claim that Ryan died in France much later.
“In the King’s Bench prison, Luke Ryan, captain of the Black Prince privateer during the war, who captured more vessels belonging to Great Britain than any other single ship during the war. The various scenes he went through are astonishing. He sailed firm the port of Rush, in Ireland, early in the year 1778, in the Friendship, a smuggling cutter of 18 six-pounders, whose name he afterwards changed to the Black Prince, and did more injury to the trade of these kingdoms than any single commander ever did. He was taken in 1781 by one of our ships of war, tried as a pirate at the Old Bailey, condemned, and four different times ordered for execution, but reprieved; and on peace being made, obtained his pardon through the Court of France. In 1781 he had realized near 20,000l. by his piracies, and lodged this sum in his bankers hands; but having trusted a woman passed her on them as his wife, they suffered her to draw the whole out on his conviction, and she defrauded him of every shilling.” [Emphasis Added.]
For a pure historical account about Franklin’s privateer navy and Luke Ryan, there is William Bell Clark’s short book: <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Ben Franklin's Privateers</em> (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956).
To learn more about two of Great Britain’s more infamous prisons, Forton and Old Mill, there is Sheldon Samuel Cohen’s book: <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Yankee Prisoners in British Gaols: Prisoners of War at Forton and Mill, 1777 - 1783</em> (University of Delaware Press 1995).
To view National Geographic’s interesting 2011 television piece on Luke Ryan, click the following link:
These books are based on the true story of Captain Luke Ryan, Ben Franklin's most dangerous privateer. For more details please visit www.PrivateerLukeRyan.com. Thank you...
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