|Studies in Naval History|
by J. K. Laughton, M.A.
The French Privateers.
IV. Robert Surcouf.1
THE gigantic development of modern commerce will necessarily give to its defence in time of war a more serious importance than it has ever yet had. That, by either belligerent, the enemy's commerce will be a principal object of attack may be assumed; in what particular way the attack may be made is supposed to be uncertain. The supposition seems, if not a mere pretence, to be based on ignorance of human nature and the custom of war. Can any sane person really believe that a future Napoleon - whatever his nationality - would be bound by the rules of a Declaration of Paris ? or that, if it suited his purpose, he would scruple to declare the Declaration null and void ? I cannot doubt that in future wars with a maritime country, the main fact of privateering will remain as in time past. The details may be modified; the form of commission may be different; but the absolute fact will be as heretofore. To what extent it may be carried will depend on the wealth and the trade, the power, ability, and moral scruples of the respective belligerents. So considered, we have, as very practical
1 United Service Magazine, February and March, 1883.
questions, to discuss what effect such an attack is capable of producing, and what may be the best way of guarding against it.
Our forefathers, as is well known, gathered their merchant ships in large convoys under the escort of ships of war. It was a mode of proceeding distasteful to the one and irksome to the other. Naturally the officers of our ships of war did not like it, for it withdrew them from active, brilliant, or possibly lucrative enterprise, to a service on which the enemy was to be avoided rather than sought, on which dull safety was the aim, rather than glorious victory, and which, with a great deal of difficulty and vexation, brought with it small chance of distinction and none of emolument. And on the other hand, the masters of merchantmen, if they found themselves in a good ship, and had, as was commonly the case, a pecuniary interest in an early market, chafed under the delay which worse sailing ships forced on them; and the delay was not always the fault of the ships; the ignorance and incompetence of some of the masters was as irritating and embarrassing as the undue eagerness, obstinacy, and inattention of others. It has therefore been assumed that in any future naval war the system of convoys will not be attempted. 1 Most certainly, naval officers will not be anxious that it should be. Whether the merchants, for whose benefit it was devised, may not be driven to a different opinion is a question which time alone can answer. But if not in convoys, how then is our commerce to be protected ? Is it to
1 See a paper by Rear-Admiral Colomb on Convoys, are they any longer possible? in the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 26 March, 1887.
protect itself ? I believe the theory that it may do so is widely accepted, though the way in which it is to do so has never been satisfactorily explained; and though I read of merchant-ships carrying 40-pounders, or even heavier guns, and flying the blue ensign, I doubt very much whether the few guns, or the scanty, imperfectly-trained crew, would enable the blue ensign to fly long in the immediate presence of an enemy's ship of war. But I am not now going to dwell on my own personal doubts. I prefer examining into the historical antecedents of the theory; and, by seeing how far armed merchant-ships have, in former days, been able to defend themselves, forming some warranted opinion as to how far they may be able to do so in time to come.
Many hundred years ago, practical experience decided in favour of a permanent distinction between merchant-ships and ships of war; notwithstanding which, merchant-ships continued to be armed, chiefly as a defence against pirates and savages. Sometimes, however, the armament was spoken of as efficient against men-of-war; and was carried to such an extent that engagements with merchant-ships have been added to the roll of naval achievement. Notably has this been the case with the celebrated capture of the Acapulco ship by Commodore Anson. Every boy has read the story and admired the boldness with which the Centurion - her crew reduced by sickness and death - sailed from Macao to look for this gigantic adversary, of nearly double her tonnage, and with more than double her number of men : and not only to look for, but to find, to fight, and to capture. It may be well to instil into the boyish mind a belief that Englishmen are a match for double their number of
Spaniards, or of any other people; it is a belief that has often led to very practical results : but in this particular instance, when we examine the story technically and critically, the consideration is forced on us that the Centurion was a man-of-war, and that - however big the Nuestra Senora de Covadonga was only a merchant-ship; as emphasizing which, it is well to look beyond the familiar account written by the commodore and his friends. This does indeed tell how the Spaniard had 67 men killed and 84 wounded, whilst on board the Centurion were only 2 killed and 17 wounded ; and remarks : I of so little consequence are the most destructive arms in untutored and unpractised hands.1 This short comment i5, however, not likely to catch the attention, or even be fully understood by the ordinary reader; for the exact meaning of it we have to refer to the little-known narrative by Mr. Thomas, the ship's schoolmaster, which, describing the Covadonga, says:
’She had ports for mounting 64 guns, but had, I think, to the best of my remembrance, but 40, and was so lumbered that she could not fight all of them; 17 of those were brass, I think all twelve-pounders, but no two of them alike, but I suppose picked up here and there at different times as they could procure them . . . . Her defensive weapons were swords and cutlasses, poleaxes, and a dangerous sort of pike, the wood handle of which was about seven foot long and headed with a double-edged iron about eighteen inches long, very sharp, and which alone was enough to destroy all the men who should enter on the nettings, or to push back those who might attempt to enter in any other parts : but I fancy they were in so much haste and hurry that they forgot most of these below ; for we afterwards found many of them in the gun-room, a place where they could be of no manner of
service. . . . Though indeed it appears that the general was really very confident of success and expressed himself after that manner before the fight to some of his officers . . . it would never bear to charge him with not clearing the guns between decks, they being so lumbered that it would have been morally impossible for him to have got them clear in three times the time he had for it from the first sight he had of us to the time of the engagement. Indeed what I think they might very justly and with the most reason imaginable call him to a strict account for, was his not endeavouring to get away from us at first.' 1
And yet this Covadonga was a half-and-half sort of craft ; was a government ship, regularly commissioned, and entitled to fly the royal standard. She was, however, a Spaniard; and there are many amongst us who would fain believe that the victory was won by Englishmen over Spaniards, rather than by a man-of-war over a merchantman. I propose, therefore, in more fully inquiring into this question, to eliminate, or indeed to reverse the supposed advantage of nationality; and to do this, by tracing, in some detail, the history of privateering in the Indian seas during the last great war with France, and in following out the career of a certain Captain Surcouf, with whose name few English readers are perhaps now acquainted, but who, some eighty years ago, was a very real power in the eastern seas, and whose memory still lives in France as the one bright spot in a time of deep naval gloom.
Robert Surcouf 2 may be properly enough described
1 A True and Impartial Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas and round the Globe in His Majesty's Ship Centurion, by Pascoe Thomas, Teacher of the Mathematics on board the Centurion (1745) ; pp. 288-290. The book has never been reprinted, and is now scarce.
2 So far as the French side of his career is concerned, I base my narrative principally on the Histoire de Robert Surcouf, Capitaine de Corsaire, publiée d'apres des documents authentiques : par Ch. Cunat. The author claims also to have gained much of his information first-hand, from Surcouf himself or the companions of his voyages; and, judging by a close scrutiny of the leading facts, I have come to the conclusion that he has not been purposely untruthful, though he has written throughout in a spirit of almost grotesque exaggeration not perhaps uncommon in the lower class of French historians.
as a privateer by birth. A native of St. Malo, the chosen home of French privateers, he was descended, on the mother's side, from a grand-uncle of Du Guay-Trouin : on the father's side, he was the great-grandson of an earlier Robert Surcouf, a contemporary of Trouin's, and himself also a daring and successful cruiser. He was born on 12 December, 1773 ; and after a childhood distinguished - we are told - by a high-couraged fondness for fighting, for tearing his clothes, and for kicking his schoolmaster's shins, he was sent to sea in March, 1789, on board the Aurore, a merchant-ship bound to the East Indies, and trading at first between Mauritius and the coast of India. In the following February she took in a cargo of negroes for the West Indies; but she had scarcely left her port before she got into a storm - a pre-scientific cyclone - which dashed her on the African shore. The crew, and the black women with their children, who were unfettered, were saved; but it was found impossible to release the four hundred wretches chained below, and they perished to the last man: the hull was thrown up on the beach, and seemed capable of being repaired ; but it was a full fortnight before the fearful mass of putrefaction could be cleared out. In the loathsome task, young Surcouf came to the front by his energy and courage; and when the captain chartered a
country vessel to carry part of his crew to the Mauritius, he took the lad with him as his chief officer. By what series of accidents it does not appear, but the crazy and ill-found boat was driven far to the eastward ; after great suffering for want of water and provisions, they made the coast of Sumatra; and so, after a three months' voyage, got to Penang, or, as it was then more commonly called by the English, Prince of Wales Island. From there they took a passage to Pondicherry in a French merchant-ship, and finally arrived at Mauritius, towards the middle of December. For some months longer Surcouf continued with his old captain, as chief officer of a brig trading to Madagascar. The school of seamanship was rude, but, we may believe a thoroughly good one; and when, towards autumn, the lad, not yet eighteen, made up his mind to return to France, and shipped on board the corvette Bienvenue, he was rated as quartermaster (timonier), and served as such during the homeward voyage. She was put out of commission at L'Orient, on 3 January, 1792.
After a few months at home, Surcouf was off again to Mauritius, chief officer of a vessel which would seem to have been engaged partly in the slave-trade, until the war with England broke out, when the blockade of the island drove him on board a corvette equipped by the governor, who gave him the local rank of ensign. M. Cunat implies, rather than asserts, that he continued in this employment for more than a year, and had his small part in the engagement on 22 October, 1794, between the French squadron Cybèle and Prudente, large frigates, with the Coureur, brig, and the Jean Bart, privateer, and, on the other side, the two English ships, Centurion of 50,
and Diomede of 44 guns; an engagement in which the Centurion received such damage as to be obliged to withdraw from the station, taking with her also the Diomede. Although not quite so heroic, so Curtius-like, as Cunat describes it - for the forces were not so utterly disproportioned - the affair was, no doubt, as creditable to the French as it was the reverse to the English ; 1 but leaving that on one side, there seems no clear reason for supposing that Surcouf had anything to do with it. We may believe that if he had, his future career would have been very different ; not impossibly, more distinguished; and we may be quite sure that if his biographer could have adduced one jot of evidence of his being in any one of the ships, he would have described him as the hero of the day. It seems to me more probable that the young man's service on board the ship of war - whichever it was - was short ; that the constraint and discipline of even a colonial and revolutionary ship was irksome to him, and that he got out of her at the first opportunity.
It is at any rate quite certain that shortly after this he was busy carrying slaves from Africa to Bourbon, or rather Reunion, a traffic which, in February, 1794, the Republic had pronounced illegal and contrary to the rights of man. It was, however, profitable ; and to young Surcouf the chance of breaking the law and oppressing the nigger was a further inducement. The colonists wanted slaves ; the making them contraband raised the price ; the smuggling required and remunerated daring, and the unholy trade went on briskly for some months. At length the attention of the colonial
1 See James's Naval History (edit. 1860), i. 236. [p. 212 in 1837 edition.]
government was called to the continued malpractices of M. Surcouf in the brig Créole ; and orders were given, both in the Isle of France and in Réunion, to arrest him. The news reached him as he was taking in a cargo in Madagascar ; but none the less he ran his slaves, landed them by night at Grande Chaloupe, on the west side of Réunion, and stood, impudently enough, into St. Paul's Bay, where he anchored at daybreak. His people were still busy removing the traces of negro occupation, when three police agents came on board. They were earlier than was expected, and had no difficulty in finding sufficient proof of the business the Créole had been upon. It was a new and very flagrant breach of the law ; and as they drew up their report, they told Surcouf he must accompany them on shore. ' Quite at your service, citizens,' said the young captain, with the blandest courtesy; ‘ but the cook is just bringing aft the breakfast which I hope you will do me the pleasure of taking before we go.' The invitation was accepted, and the party went down to the cabin; Surcouf, in a few hasty words, leaving his chief mate in charge.
The breakfast was good ; the wine was excellent; and the guests enjoyed themselves without thought of the future, or of their host's probable anxieties ; whilst on deck, the chief mate, having sent the officers' boat on shore, quietly cut the cable and made sail to seaward. It was not till the Creéle got out of the bay and felt the swell of the south-east wind, that the officers below had any idea of what was going on. They rushed on deck, and saw their position with dismay. Realising that under existing circumstances their host was not a
man to stick at trifles, they ordered him to return instantly, threatening him with the terrors of the legislature ; to which Surcouf replied that just to keep clear of these he was going to carry them over to Africa and put them on shore amongst their dear friends the negroes. And so he left them to their own reflections. As the day wore on, they lost sight of land: the brig, under small sail, rolled heavily in the swell, and they were extremely sea-sick.
Night came on, with the horrors of darkness ; the wind blew fresh and they fancied it a storm; they were excessively miserable - miserable enough in the present, still more miserable as to the future when they could bring themselves to think of it. So, in very humble spirit, they entered into a negotiation with their master, and were able to come to terms. They were to write a new report to the effect that they had found no trace of negroes on board the Créole ; that she had none of the marks of a slaver, and that she had been forced out to sea by the rollers setting in. Surcouf, on his part, agreed to put them on shore ; but not to let them off too easily, carried them to the Isle of France, where he landed them eight days later, and where, thanks to the complicity, or, as M. Cunat calls it, the good-will (bien-veillance) of three most respectable and deservedly influential men, members of council, he escaped the penalties to which his nefarious traffic had properly subjected him.
He did not, however, care to tempt fortune again in this particular way; and the course of the war seemed to offer him a more honourable as well as more lucrative path. He accepted the command of a vessel of 180 tons
fitting out as a privateer. Her name was Modeste, and her equipment was conformable ; she carried four guns - 6-pounders, and thirty men. The name could be changed and she became the Emilie; but her armament was unaltered, being probably limited by the means or credit of her owners. The colonial government refused her a letter of marque, thinking her, perhaps, too contemptible, and wishing rather to concentrate the forces of the island. Much to Surcouf's disgust, he had to sail as a peaceful trader to the Seychelles for turtle ; and left Port North-West, as the republicans had named Port Louis, on 3 September, 1795. It is a date that marks the beginning of Surcouf's career.
Whether Surcouf had already made up his mind to go privateering, with or without a letter of marque, or whether he was purely the child of circumstance, may seem doubtful; he certainly went to the Seychelles, and lying in the roadstead of Mahé, began taking in his cargo. By chance, or otherwise, he had also received on board a number of sailors who were scattered amongst. the islands and wanted a passage to the Isle of France, when one afternoon - it was 7 October - two large English ships were seen making for the anchorage. They may have been men-of-war; it suited Surcouf to think they were, and cutting his cables, he went out on one side as they came in on the other. He concluded that as the English had made the Seychelles their cruising ground, it was unsafe for him to return, and that he was free to go in quest of adventure. The quest led him over to the neighbourhood of the Andaman Islands and the coast of Sumatra, sailing, according to his biographer, in an aimless kind of way for three months, and
once only interrupted by an English wood-boat, which had the impertinence to fire on him as a summons to bring to, and which, purely in self-defence, he was obliged to take possession of, and send to the Isle of France. The fact is, of course, that he was cruising having no licence or letter of marque, he was, in point of law, a pirate; and his having provisions for this lengthened time at sea, with an increased crew, is presumptive evidence that the whole thing was predetermined.
Having taken his first step with the wood-boat, the rest came naturally. A few days later, he met, off the Sandheads, two vessels laden with rice, in charge of a pilot brig; he had no difficulty in making himself master of all three ; sent the two rice-ships and the Emilie to the Isle of France, -and transported himself with the remainder of his crew, twenty-three in number, on board the pilot brig, which is spoken of as the Cartier, and which appeared better suited for his purpose than his former ship. After another week he captured another rice-ship, the Diana, and having put a prize crew on board her, resolved to accompany her to the Isle of France. He was proceeding to carry this into effect, when standing over to the Orissa coast, he caught sight of the Company's ship Triton, lying in Balasur Roads. She was a vessel of 800 tons, and is described, with perhaps not very much exaggeration, as mounting 26 twelve-pounders on her main deck, and as having on board 150 men. As compared with the Cartier, she was, very literally, a ‘Triton among the minnows.' On board the Cartier, reinforced by all the available men from the Diana, there were nineteen, exclusive of a few, perhaps
half-a-dozen, Lascars from the different prizes ; but the Cartier's appearance favoured a surprise, and with his people all hidden from view, the Lascars only showing, and himself steering, Surcouf ran down to the big ship. The officers and passengers were at dinner; in the heat of the afternoon most of the crew were probably asleep ; the careless watch took for granted that the brig was, as she looked, the expected pilot-boat, and thought nothing more about it till they suddenly found her alongside, and the Frenchmen, armed with pistol and cutlass, jumping on board. Of defence, in the strict sense of the word, there was none. The few who made any opposition were at once killed; the others were thrown down the hatchways, and the hatches clapped on ; the halliards of the port-lids were cut, so that the ports could not be opened ; and the English were virtually prisoners between decks. A few volleys of musketry down the main hatchway anticipated an attempt to blow up the quarterdeck ; a little desultory firing from the poop windows was easily quelled, and with the loss of one man killed and one wounded, the Frenchmen were masters of the ship. The loss of the English was greater, but small compared to what it might have been had resistance been possible. The captain, a midshipman, one of the passengers - a soldier officer, and two seamen, five in all, were killed, and six wounded ; the prisoners were put on board the Diana and allowed to make the best of their way. The little Cartier was recaptured off Madras by the English 74-gun ship Victorious ; but the Triton, under the command of Surcouf, was carried safely to Mauritius.
As a bit of privateering - which the English, if it had
failed, would rightly have called piracy - the capture of the Triton seems to me really very clever, though the heroics in which M. Cunat indulges are of course utterly out of place. ‘At the sight of the English,' he says, ‘at the recollection of their country, these eighteen heroes chose rather to die than to dishonour themselves by cowardly surrender.' There was no question of either dying or surrendering, if they had not thought fit to attack : the Triton would certainly not have begun.
This ship' - the words are attributed to Surcouf – ‘this ship shall be our tomb, or the cradle of our glory.' I don't suppose for a moment that he said anything of the sort ; I think he most probably put the case very plainly and truthfully before his eighteen men ; that his words were somewhat like:- 'Here's a fine fat Indiaman with a hold full of dollars and rupees. It's all ours, if you'll make a dash : most of her men are asleep, and those that aren't will think we're the pilot. Only remember if they should overcome us, they'll hang us as pirates.' But whilst I think that M. Cunat's description of the combat is absurd, I am bound to say that the one which was published at the time in England is entirely false, and self-contradictory. According to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine' for June, 1796:-
‘The Triton was seized by a party of Frenchmen in a schooner which had been captured a few days before by the Modeste, French privateer. The whole number did not exceed twenty-five, who, it was proved, had broken their parole, escaped from Calcutta in a dingey, and contrived to get possession of the pilot schooner, under which description they were permitted to come alongside the Triton. The moment they had boarded her they killed every person who had the
misfortune to be upon deck. Those who unfortunately fell victims to the treachery of these savages were, &c. &c.'
How the pilot boat, schooner, or brig was captured by the Modesto and got possession of by the dingey, does not appear; and for the rest, the men had, as I have narrated, come there fairly enough. Their attack was a legitimate surprise, and they do not seem to have acted as savages, or to have killed more than the circumstances rendered justifiable and necessary. It is said, too, on independent authority, that the prisoners were kindly and liberally dealt with; that they were allowed to take their private property with them on board the Diana, and that some ladies, passengers, were treated with great politeness.'
When Surcouf arrived at the Isle of France, he was excessively disgusted to find that the government claimed his prizes - the wood-boat, the rice-ships, and, above all, the Triton - on the simple ground that he had no letter of marque. About the law of the case there could be no doubt ; it was in France the same as in England, and in England the prizes would have unquestionably been droits of admiralty. If a merchant-ship, being attacked, should capture her assailant, the government claim might properly be waived in her favour; but in the case of the Emilie, cleared for the Seychelles, and making prizes off the Sandheads, there seemed no reason why the law should not take its course.
The owners complained loudly. They had flattered themselves they had fallen on a good thing, and were
1 Madras Courier, 9 and 10 February, 1796, quoted by M. Cunat. I have not been able to verify the reference, but see no reason to doubt its correctness.
proportionally disappointed. They asserted that the prizes had been taken for the public benefit, that the arrival of the rice-ships had saved the island from famine; that the, colony owed a debt of gratitude to Surcouf and themselves. 'It is,' they wrote, 'with the most lively grief that we learn that in place of those sentiments of gratitude which the conduct and success of the Emilie ought to give rise to, the ship is, on the contrary, threatened with confiscation, and deprived of the fruit of her captures, because she was not provided with a commission for cruising . . . . We hope that the colony may be spared the pain of seeing those who have saved it from distress now punished and ruined.’ This remonstrance, however, produced no effect. Public opinion on the island, and several of the leading members of the government declared in favour of the Emilie; but the law was implacable; on which account Surcouf determined to carry his cause to France, and plead it before the nation. The home government took a friendly view of the case; poor as they were, it was of more consequence to encourage maritime enterprise than to enrich the treasury with the spoil; and the prizes, or the amount they had realised, were ordered to be made over to the owners, officers, and ship's company of the Emilie. It was found that they had been sold nominally for 1,700,000 livres, which, reduced to cash, was valued at 660,000 livres, and this was the sum that Surcouf would seem finally to have received.
The decision, however, had taken time. Before it was settled, fourteen months had slipped away, part of which time Surcouf had occupied in making love to a townswoman, Mlle. Marie Blaize, and part in
superintending the equipment of the ship Clarisse, of Nantes, the command of which, as a privateer, had been offered to him. When his lawsuit was happily ended, and the ship ready to sail, he decided, apparently, that his marriage might wait, and he put to sea towards the end of July, 1798 ; the Clarisse carrying 14 guns, eight - and twelve-pounders, and having a crew of 140 good men of Nantes, or St. Malo, with Nicolas Surcouf, her captain's elder brother, as chief officer.
After a quick run to the line, he fell in there with a large English ship, which mounted, it is said, 26 guns, 22 of them on a main deck; a merchant-ship, no doubt; well armed, and possibly an Indiaman, but, if so, not under the Company's flag.' Possibly she trusted to her strength, possibly she did not recognise her danger until it was too late for her to avoid the Clarisse's attack. She defended herself stoutly, and after a sharp fight, succeeded in beating her off, shooting away her fore topmast, and so left her. To the Clarisse 'there remained,' according to M. Cunat, 'from this terrible struggle, nothing but the glory of having seen the Jack of the three United Kingdoms fly before our victorious flag.' The privateer would, no doubt, rather have had the gold than the glory; and to the merchant-ship to escape was a full measure of success. But even in his sorry brag, M. Cunat is incorrect; for in 1798, Ireland was not represented in the Jack, and the three kingdoms were not united.
Off Rio Janiero, the Clarisse had a little compensation,
1 As the flag, like the Company, is now a thing of the past, there are many who will not know that it differed from the flag of ordinary merchant-ships in having a striped field, red and white, resembling in this the flag of the United States of America. It was colloquially known as ‘the Company's Gridiron.'
capturing a brig, which was sold at Bourbon for 400,000 francs; and on 5 December, she herself arrived at the Mauritius. After refitting, Surcouf went for a cruise in the Bay of Bengal ; and in the Bay of Soosoo, on the coast of Sumatra, he found two English ships at anchor, taking in a cargo of pepper. A shoal prevented his running them on board at once. In number of guns they were superior; and it was no part of his policy to batter or be battered more than necessary. After a sharp cannonade, the larger of the two was carried by the Clarisse's boats, commanded by Nicolas Surcouf, who, at the head of 40 men, boarded her in the smoke. The other cut, and tried to run herself ashore, but was intercepted by the Clarisse, and captured. ‘It was a brilliant feat of arms,' says Cunat, ‘in which our flag had triumphed over an enemy of superior force.' I repeat such expressions, not because they are true, not because they are not absurd; but because English writers have often been guilty of similar exaggerations; and English newspapers daily describe petty skirmishes, afloat or ashore, in terms that would be ridiculous if applied to Trafalgar or Waterloo.
Short and unequal as the combat had been, the Clarisse had suffered considerably in hull, spars, and rigging, and Surcouf determined to accompany his prizes to the Isle of France, and there refit. Having done this, he again put to sea, on 16 August, 1799, and presently stretched over to his old cruising ground on the coast of Java or Sumatra, where, on 1 October, he picked up a Dane, neutral as to her flag, but English as to her cargo : he sent her to the Isle of France. A Swede that he next fell in with had better fortune, being outward bound from
Stockholm with a Swedish cargo. A Portuguese vessel, with 116,000 dollars on board in hard cash, paid the penalty for the English alliance; after which the Clarisse, turning northwards into the Bay of Bengal, captured a country ship off Madras; and on 10 November another, the Auspicious, a large vessel mounting 20 guns, on the Orissa coast. From this time onwards she seems virtually to have blockaded Calcutta, cruising off the Sandheads in the most persistent and audacious manner. Early on the morning of 30 December, however, having chased an American ship in shore, she was espied by the Sybille frigate, then lying at single anchor, which immediately weighed and put to sea in chase. The wind was light and the weather hazy, but slowly and steadily the frigate gained on the privateer. The Clarisse's case appeared desperate, and Surcouf resorted to extreme measures - eight of her guns he hove overboard, and all her spare spars and booms; started and pumped out a quantity of her water; eased off the lanyards of the shrouds and backstays ; knocked away the stanchions of the decks, and struck out the wedges of the masts-measures which gave the ship an incredible elasticity, and which, in a very light breeze dying away to an almost perfect calm, enabled the Clarisse gradually to increase her distance. By midnight she was lost in the darkness ; being further to seaward, she probably had more wind, and was pushing under a press of sail to the southward, while the Sybille was lying becalmed, with her head all round the compass; and thus, when day dawned, she had run her pursuer clean out of sight. 1 We may suppose that
1 Cunat describes this chase as having begun after dark on the 30th, and as having continued all that night, all the next day, and into the second night-the night of the 31st : but on this question of date I have preferred following the Sybille's log.
31 December was spent in bringing her back, so far as possible, to her proper trim and condition. On the next day she captured the Jane, a ship laden with rice for Bombay. The capture of the Jane does not, in itself, differ from the capture of many other armed ships which were quite unequal to sustain the attack of a regularly-equipped ship of war, even if only a privateer ; it differs only in this, that I have been fortunate enough to obtain a copy of a letter 1 written on 8 January by the Jane's master to her owners, giving a detailed account of the circumstances attending on her loss, and which is most interesting as evidence concerning this special, perhaps extinct phase of maritime war.
‘You will no doubt be surprised to receive a letter from me dated at Bemblepatam (? Bimlipatam), but such is the fortune of war. We were captured by the Clarissa, French privateer, M. Surcouf, commander, on 1 January, after a very respectable defence for a country ship. But that you may have a clear view of our proceedings, I will begin my narrative from the 30th ult. On the morning of that day we passed through Saugor Roads; and in a few hours after, we joined the Honourable Company's ships Manship and Lansdowne, bound to Negapatam and Madras. In the afternoon a boat from the American ship Mount Vernon came alongside of all the ships, the officer of which informed us that they had been chased the day before by a French privateer mounting 18 guns, but had happily been relieved by the Sybille frigate, who pursued the privateer out of the roads. 2 This information
1 P. R. O.- Admiral's Despatches, East Indies, No. 11.
2 There is here a strange confusion of dates. 'The day before' is 29 December; Cunat puts the chase of the American through the night of the 30th and all through the 31st ; but from the Sybille's log it is quite certain that she weighed anchor on the 30th, at 8 a.m.
determined me to keep company with the Indiamen two or three degrees to the southward of Point Palmyras, conceiving them to be a very sufficient protection against privateers. On the 31st, at 7 a.m., the pilot left us, Point Palmyras bearing W. by S. 27 leagues. We pursued our course to the S.W. in company. Between 7 and 8 o'clock we were spoke by H.M.S. Sybille returning from the chase of the privateer. Throughout the night we had moderate winds from the eastward. At daylight on 1 January, the Indiamen were five or six miles ahead. At the same time we saw a strange sail to the windward, standing to the northward, who, on perceiving us, bore down with great caution, because, as M. Surcouf afterwards told me, he took one of the ships to be either the Sybille or Nonsuch 1 seeing the other two ships safe into the sea. When I saw the strange sail altered her course, I took it for granted that she was the privateer which the American had given intelligence of, and immediately ordered a gun to be fired as a signal to the Indiamen. We continued the signal till about 8 o'clock. When the privateer saw that the ships ahead paid no attention to our firing, she hoisted English colours, up studding-sails and royals, and came on with more confidence. At half-past 8 she gave us a shot, hauled down the English colours, and hoisted the French national flag. We returned her fire from a 6-pounder which we got down off the deck into a stern port in the great cabin, at the same time carrying every sail after the Indiamen, anxiously hoping that the continual firing would bring them to our assistance ; but we looked in vain, for they never made the smallest movement to assist us.
' At 9, the privateer having got very near us, they began to fire grape shot from the two brass 36-pounder cohorns, which they had mounted forward. At this time it came on a light squall from the southward, which brought the Indiamen directly to windward of us. During the squall we carried a press of sail, and the firing ceased on both sides. The superior
1 Some other ship was meant : the Nonsuch was not on the station.
sailing of the privateer soon brought her up again, when she commenced a smart fire of musketry and grape shot from one of the 36-pounder cohorns, the other having been disabled early in the action. At 11 our powder was wholly expended, the last gun we fired being loaded with musket cartridges. The Frenchman then prepared to board us ; they triced up graplins to their main and foreyard arms, and Surcouf gave orders to board, animating his men with a promise of liberty to plunder. Seeing that we were incapable of resisting the force that was ready to be thrown on board of us, I was under the necessity of ordering the colours to be hauled down, and we were taken possession of by an officer from the Clarissa, formerly mounting 18 guns, but now no more than nine 4-pounders, one 9-pounder, and 2 cohorns already mentioned. She has likewise several bell-mouthed blunderbusses in each top, which we saw them sending down after we were on board. Her reduced force is owing to her being chased by the Sybille frigate. At that time she threw overboard four 12-pounders, three 9-pounders, with their carriages, and all the spars; sawed through a bulkhead which runs across abaft the mainmast and separates the officers from the crew; knocked down all her stanchions, and got the axes and saws up to cut off the poop, when unfortunately it fell little wind, and they found they could save themselves without having recourse to this last resource. 1
‘ The crew consists of M. Surcouf, his brother, four officers and a surgeon, sixty Europeans of several nations, ten Kaffirs, eleven Lascars, and a Serang, who entered when he took the Albion, and a few Malays. Surcouf sent on board the prize one officer, by trade a tailor, sixteen Frenchmen, and ten Lascars; they were employed until sunset shifting the prisoners and refitting the rigging. All this time the Indiamen were in sight to the S.W. At sunset, Surcouf, viewing them from the poop, requested I would tell him, upon my
1 I repeat this here as a measure of the trustworthiness of Cunat notwithstanding some mistakes, and much absurd chauvinisme.
honour, whether they were Indiamen or not. I repeated what I had said, that they were two Company's ships with whom I had kept company ever since we left the pilot. He replied they were two Tritons, alluding to the easy capture which he made of that ship, and said the commanders deserved to be shot. This was the universal opinion of the French officers. I fear their conduct will be attended with bad consequences to the Honourable Company's ships, as it has given the Frenchmen a very contemptible opinion of them, and will subject them to many attacks, which a spirited behaviour would have freed them from. The prize made sail about 7 p.m., steering S.S.E., and was accompanied by the privateer until daylight on the 2nd, when they parted, the privateer steering to the westward, and the prize continuing her course. On the 4th, we fell in with a Pariah snow, from Bengal, bound to Madras, which the privateer brought to, took out all her bales, 40 bags of rice, two bales of twine, a coir cable, and a chest of sugar-candy, and then put the crew of the Jane on board her, together with the second officer of the Auspicious - a very rich prize which he captured about seven weeks ago, bound from Bengal to Bombay, loaded with 4,000 bags of rice, 500 bags of sugar, and 375 bales of piece goods. We landed at Bemblepatam yesterday, from whence I have written you these particulars. Surcouf does not mean to come any more near the Sandheads, being very much afraid of the Sybille and Nonsuch ; but intends to cruise in the latitude of 19° or 20° ; and should he be joined by La Constance, as he expects, the trade of Bengal will be entirely cut off, until they have surfeited themselves with prizes, and return to the Mauritius to recruit their crews.'
This letter is a very remarkable voucher for M. Cunat's general good faith. The capture of the Auspicious and the Jane, which he miscalls James – the seizure of the Pariah snow, a native coasting vessel and the chase by the Sybille, are all described in
essentially the same manner by the two widely different writers. It is also evidence that there was nothing exceptionally brutal in the behaviour of Surcouf and his men. Plunder, of course, was their main object, but the captain of the Jane has nothing to tell of any gross ill-usage; on the contrary, he implies that Surcouf's behaviour, towards himself was friendly, and that the prisoners as a body were fairly well treated. On one point only are our two authorities in apparent contradiction: on the composition of the Clarisse's crew. On leaving France they were, according to Cunat, a specially fine body of French seamen; on capturing the Jane they were, according to the Jane's captain, a miscellaneous gathering of the nations. The discrepancy is only apparent, for, counting only her present cruise, the Clarisse had sent away many men in prizes, from which she had probably enough entered others in their place; Danes, Portuguese, Swedes, Irish, even English, had all come before her, just as much as the Lascars or Malays more particularly mentioned. As to the statement that the officer who took charge of the Jane was a tailor by trade, its rigid accuracy cannot now be gauged; it may have been the writer's way of saying that he differed from him in some details of seamanship; on the other hand, he may have been the purser or the master-at-arms. We may at any rate assume, as beyond controversy, that on board a ship which cruised, as the Clarisse did, on an enemy's coast for six months, and that, apparently, without even carrying away a spar, the executive officers were sailors, whether they were also tailors or not.
On the day after he had disembarrassed himself of
his prisoners, Captain Surcouf fell in with two large American 1 ships, sailing in company. They mounted each some 16 carronades, and confident in their strength, closed, one astern of the other, and stood on under easy sail. Against such an armament the Clarisse, with all her biggest guns at the bottom of the sea, could do little. Surcouf saw at once that his only chance was to board, and went straight at the sternmost of the two. His jib-boom caught in her main shrouds, and was broken off, but it served as a bridge by which Nicolas Surcouf and some 30 men gained the American's deck, and carried her without much trouble. Her consort fled; the Clarisse attempted to pursue, but having already lost her jib-boom, she carried away her fore topmast, and the chase escaped. With her armament, and in the disabled state of her pursuer, the American might have chosen her distance, and, avoiding being laid on board, have pounded the Clarisse into submission. But fighting was not her trade, and even 16 carronades of large bore did not convert a merchant-ship into a man-of-war.
His damage, however, and the heavy drain on his ship's company, decided Surcouf to return to the Isle of France, and he anchored at Port North-West (Louis) in the early days of February. He had no wish to stay idle, and as the Clarisse was in need of a thorough refit, he accepted the offer of the Confiance, a remarkably fine ship - one of the wonders of the sea, says M. Cunat. which had just come out from France. His brother
1 There was not at this time declared war between France and the United States; but there was much angry feeling, and their ships mutually preyed on each other. Cf. Brenton's Naval History, ii. 185, 187.
Nicolas would seem, about the same time, to have taken command of the Adele, a small vessel mounting 12 guns, and in her to have gone a-cruising on his own account, but with what success I know not. Cunat makes no mention of this chapter in Nicolas's career, so all I can say regarding it is that it was rudely stopped by his falling in the way of the English sloop Albatross on the night of 12 November, 1800.
In the story of Surcouf the Clarisse has no more place. Under another captain she sailed again, when refitted, made one valuable prize - a ship from London to Calcutta, which had been insured for 60,000l. ; but after this, changing her cruising ground to the Gulf of Aden and the upper part of the Arabian Sea was, about the middle of August, herself picked up by the 50-gun ship Leopard, carrying the flag of Rear-Admiral Blankett, on his way from the Red Sea to Bombay.
Surcouf had meantime transformed the Confiance from a merchant ship into a privateer. It was the middle of April before the necessary work was completed. When ready, the ship was a model of beauty and symmetry; and, painted black, with her upper works straw colour, would appear lower in the water and more ‘varmint' like. She mounted 18 guns. Her crew was made up of 160 Europeans, 25 volunteers from the Bourbon militia, and some negro servants, about 200 in all. During the south-west monsoon the Bay of Bengal was neither a safe nor an advantageous cruising ground, and Surcouf's first idea was to establish himself in the Straits of Sunda, and off Batavia. He found, however, that station occupied by the American frigate Essex, whose immediate neighbourhood might, he judged,
be disagreeable, so he drew back, and having watered at the Seychelles, cruised for a while off the south-east end of Ceylon, from Dondra Head to the Little Basses, by which all ships for Madras or Calcutta, whether from Bombay or Europe, must needs pass.
The place was no doubt well chosen, though it was one where he was almost as likely to find an English frigate as an English merchant ship. He was chased more than once, and though the fast sailing of the Confiance saved her, he got disgusted with the station, which, by the fortune of war, had given him nothing but danger. He preferred to risk the chance of bad weather in the Bay, where the luck immediately changed, and he made several captures in rapid succession. Fourteen ships are reported as having fallen, about this time, either to the Confiance or to a fellow-cruiser, the Malarcic. The largest and richest of all was the Company's ship Kent, from England for Calcutta, which, at the very end of her voyage was, on 7 October, 1800, met by the Confiance. The result of the meeting was described by the Bengal correspondent of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,' under date 8 October.
With great concern we announce the capture of the Kent, East Indiaman, yesterday, in the Bay of Bengal, off the Sandhead, by the Confiance, French privateer, of 26 guns, and 250 men, after an obstinate engagement of nearly one hour forty-five minutes, in which Captain Rivington was unfortunately killed, bravely defending the Company's property till the last moment of his existence, when he exclaimed, ‘Do not give up the ship !’ 1 Mr. Cator, a free merchant, also fell,
1 Thirteen years, it may be remarked, before Lawrence rendered these words classical for Americans. They are surely more noble and more appropriate in the mouth of a dying merchant-captain - to whom the assurance of his ship's safety is victory - than as spoken by the captain of a frigate which had just sailed out of port to fight an enemy of somewhat inferior force.
covered with wounds. The Kent was in 25 fathoms, and took the Confiance for a pilot sloop. The crew of the Confiance were all armed with sabres and pistols, and had been thrice encouraged with liquor previously to their boarding, after which the fight continued desperate for twenty minutes. General St. John and his family were on board the Kent, and appear to have been particularly unfortunate: all his jewels, plate, and baggage had been burnt on board the Queen; and he was now almost destined to behold his lovely wife, daughter to the Margravine of Anspach, and his three charming daughters, victims to the lawless excesses of a savage banditti. The gallant Captain Pilkington, the general's aide-de-camp, was severely wounded in defending the general's family. The French behaved with a cruelty almost unexampled in seafights, giving no quarter, and stabbing with their sabres even the sick in their hammocks. Previous to their boarding, the Kent had evidently the advantage, and had the crew been equally armed with offensive weapons, or had more musketry, the Confiance would, in all probability, have paid dearly for the rashness of her attempt. This is the same ship which was beat off formerly by the Arniston.1 . . . In violation of the rights of humanity as those of war, the commander of the banditti who took them pillaged them of every article of wearing apparel, and after having done so put them, including six ladies, in an open Arab boat, with no other sustenance than a little bad water and some dates; in this dreadful state they continued four days, till they reached Calcutta.
As the writer's information must have been got from
1 This is probably a mistake; Cunat, at any rate, knew nothing about it, or he would have described it, even if he had to rate the Arniston as a line-of-battle ship.
the people in the boat, and as he dated his letter the day after the capture, the four days, at any rate, is a very evident exaggeration. Otherwise, so far as the bare facts are concerned, there is little to object to. Clearly the writer could know nothing about the liquor that was thrice served out, and he over-estimates the force of the Confiance both in guns and men; but on the whole his facts are fairly correct, judged even by M. Cunat's standard. The colouring of the whole affair is, of course, very different: brutality, or heroic determination ; savage banditti, or worthy sons of France - the terms are interchangeable, according to the views and nationality of the writer. But in point of fact, the charges which the English reporter brings against the assailants are frankly enough admitted by Cunat. ‘My lads,’ he describes Surcouf as saying, as he turned the hands up, while the two ships were yet some distance apart, `you mustn't let the look of this big fellow frighten you ; it is not a ship of war; I pledge you my word it is only a Company's ship. She would indeed be too much for us with guns, so we'll board her. Get your arms ready. It'll be warm work no doubt; but you shall have an hour's pillage to pay you for it.’ 1
The numbers on board the Confiance had been reduced by her many prizes: Cunat estimates them as about 130 on 7 October. It is impossible to say how many souls were on board the Kent : she had received some - possibly all - who had been saved when the Queen, a fellow-Indiaman, was burnt in San Salvador Bay, on the coast of Brazil; and may thus have held, what
1 The actual words, according to Cunat, were: `Pour prix de 1'assaut terrible que vous allez livrer, je vous accorde une heure de pillage.'
with men, women, and children, nearly 200. This is, of course, no measure of the Kent's fighting strength : of men, she may have had about 150 ; but these were neither trained to arms, nor indeed had they arms. With the Kent's heavier armament, they might have done very well if they could have kept the Confiance at a distance : for hand-to-hand fighting they were utterly unprepared. When the Confiance ranged alongside and grappled the Indiaman ; when musketry from her tops swept the Indiaman's decks; when Captain Rivington fell, killed by a grenade thrown from the privateer's main-yard; when the Frenchmen, Creoles, and Negroes, armed with cutlass and pistol, jumped on board, the Englishmen offered indeed such resistance as they could; but without a captain, without organisation, without skill, almost without arms, they were speedily beaten below, and their flag hauled down. The bulk of the Kent's crew were on the main-deck, stationed at the guns: the chief officer attempted to rally them and retake the ship; but they were unarmed and scattered : volleys of musketry were fired into them from the upper deck, and a determined charge swept them into the orlop, where a third struggle took place. ‘It was warm,' says Cunat, 'for the Frenchmen were exasperated by the obstinate resistance of the enemy.' The warmth was mainly on one side; and the obstinate resistance was made with handspikes, rammers, or any bits of wood that could be picked up; as the result of which, the English lost 11 killed and 44 wounded: the French had 16 wounded, three of whom afterwards died.
And then came the pillage. Surcouf had promised it - French privateers frequently did; I daresay English
privateers did too - and the men were now determined to have it. And they did have it: in that Cunat agrees with the reporter; but on one point he differs, and I believe Cunat is right.
As soon, 'he says, ‘as Surcouf learned that there were ladies among the passengers, he himself went respectfully to reassure them, and had sentries placed on their cabins. Amongst them was a German princess, daughter of the Margrave of Anspach, who accompanied her husband, General St. John. One of these sentries was a young Creole named Durhone, with whom I was afterwards, in the years 1808-9, a fellow-prisoner at Pondicherry for eighteen months. 1 He has often spoken to me of the incidents of this combat, and amongst others, of his driving back two sailors who attempted to force his post.'
Undoubtedly, however, in this time of pillage, there was much roughness and excess : Cunat deplores it, and says that Surcouf was much vexed at it, and cut the hour very short ; but the English, who were the sufferers, naturally spoke of it in much stronger language. The next day the two ships made sail together for Mauritius, where they arrived about the middle of November; and Surcouf, feeling perhaps that he could now afford a holiday, agreed to take the Confiance back to France in her original capacity of merchant ship, although with a letter of marque, or, as the French and English then called such a ship, as an aventurier. On the passage he captured and ransomed for 10,000 dollars a Portuguese bound from Lisbon to Rio Janeiro; and, escaping the blockading squadron, although at one time hardly pressed, he anchored at Rochelle on 13 April, 1801.
1 M. Cunat was a young officer on board the 'Adele' privateer, which was captured by the 74-gun ship Russell, on 5 December, 1807.
The tender memory of Mlle. Blaize had very possibly a good deal to do with the home-coming of Robert Surcouf: he was married to her on 28 May; and the happy couple went to spend the honeymoon and their spare cash in Paris. They then took up their abode at St. Malo, where, if the peace, which about this time intervened, had continued, Surcouf would probably have settled down into a respectable merchant and ship-owner. The change from a life of rude adventure was very great, and his wild energy found various outlets and gave rise to a number of semi-comical anecdotes. This is one:
In investing his money, which must have amounted to a very considerable sum, he became the owner of a house then occupied by M. Bléchamp, the father of Mme. Lucien Bonaparte, holding in St. Malo the office of naval commissioner and marine superintendent. 1 For some reason which does not appear, Bléchamp was annoyed at the sale of his house : possibly he wished to buy it himself ; possibly he thought a merchant skipper's buying a house over the head of a naval commissioner was a piece of impertinence : at any rate, he permitted himself to speak somewhat slightingly of his new landlord. The disparaging remark was repeated, of course with exaggerations, until it reached his landlord's ears : and a formal notice to quit at the end of the term was the immediate consequence. Shortly afterwards Surcouf was told that his tenant, in preparing to move out, was carrying away a number of the fixtures. He took measures to ascertain that it really was so ; and having armed himself with a pistol, proceeded to the house, forced his way in past the orderly at the door, and
1 Commissaire-ordonnateur : we have nothing exactly corresponding.
rushing upstairs, found a workman busy taking down the cranks of the bells. He had him down the ladder in less than no time ; and the bell-hanger, terrified out of his wits at the sight of the pistol, took to his heels and fled. Surcouf then marched into the office, and, with angry voice and gesture, demanded to see the commissioner. M. Bléchamp was fortunately not at home; but when he came in and learned what had happened, he made out an order to Surcouf to repair to Brest immediately, and sent it by a couple of gendarmes, who had instructions to accompany him. Surcouf, who was not only a rated merchant captain, of several years seniority, but had, some time before, 29 June, 1800, been appointed an unattached ensign in the navy, felt the indignity thus put upon him. In order to evade it, he pretended to be sick, too sick to travel ; and meantime wrote an account of the affair to his friends in Paris, and to Decres, the minister of the navy, demanding redress for the way in which the commissioner had abused his power. When he thought his letters must have reached Paris, he managed to slip out of his house unknown to the sentries at his door, and set off for Brest in a post-chaise. The commissioner, however, having discovered the evasion, sent off the gendarmes riding post after him, and one of them overtook him at the last stage. Surcouf was determined not to appear in Brest as a prisoner; and between him and the gendarme there was a lively altercation, in which - as it would appear - the pistol was again produced. They managed, however, to compromise matters, and the gendarme agreed to follow the post-chaise at such a distance as to seem in no way connected with it. Surcouf thus drove into Brest, and went at
once to report himself to the prefect, who had already received a telegraphic message very much in his favour. The conduct of M. Bléchamp was disapproved ; and in the end, he was sentenced to make compensation for the damage he had done to Surcouf's property.
When the war with England again broke out, the first consul, who had heard of Surcouf as a thorn in the side of his enemy, sent for him, and is said, in a personal interview, to have proposed giving him the rank of captain in the navy, and the actual command of two frigates, for a cruise in the Indian seas. It is impossible to say how far this proposal was real : that something of the sort was said is possible ; but it is still more possible that Surcouf's vanity mistook a vague suggestion for a definite proposal. Whatever it may have been, he declined it ; not choosing to subject himself to the orders of an admiral, even though that admiral were Linois, ‘whose prowess at Algesiras was,' according to M. Cunat,’ the presage of a series of brilliant successes.' M. Linois's successes in the East are a favourite theme with a certain class of minor French historians, but no one has ever yet calmly and honestly enumerated them. So far as I can trace them, they were of a distinctly negative character : his success against the fleet of merchant ships under Commodore Dance, on 14 February, 1804 ; his success in Vizagapatam Roads, on 18 September, 1804 ; his success against the convoy escorted by the Blenheim, on 7 and 8 August, 1805, would each, in the English service, have merited a court-martial, and been rewarded with a severe reprimand.
As we have said, even under the orders of an admiral so distinguished, Surcouf declined to serve. He was
made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour; but he preferred the company, or the rule, of Mme. Surcouf, nee Blaize, to that of even the hero of Algesiras; and devoted himself, his talents, and his capital, to fitting out a number of privateers, and carrying on the war in his own fashion, and very much, it would appear, to his own profit. One, the Caroline brig, he despatched to the Indian Ocean, under the command of his brother Nicolas, whom the peace of Amiens had, presumably, set at liberty. Two others cruised in the Channel. It was not till towards the end of 1806, when news had come of the capture of Linois in the Marengo, on 13 March, that Surcouf could resolve to adventure himself. He then had a ship specially built, a ship of 400 tons, carrying 18 guns and 192 men ; and, as indicating his return to his former station, he called her the Revenant. Now revenant, which primarily means ‘one who comes back,' has the every-day though secondary meaning of ‘a ghost;' and Surcouf, in grim humour, gave his vessel a ghost for a figure-head - a corpse in the act of throwing off its shroud. This ghostly craft put to sea on 2 March, 1807, and in due time arrived at the Isle of France.
Of his petty adventures on the way, it would be tedious to speak; but the discipline and drill which Surcouf established on board the Revenant, a privateer pure and simple, are worth noticing. The tactics to which he trusted for success were closing and boarding as soon as possible: it would clearly be very bad policy to remain at a distance, pounding and being pounded with great guns, till the enemy - and possibly also the Revenant - was reduced to a wreck: the value of his
prize would be less ; the difficulty of sending her into port might be very great ; and his own cruise might be brought to an untimely end. Besides all which, many of the large Indiamen carried a much heavier armament than the Revenant, and might very well be able to beat her off or disable her, if only they could keep her at a proper distance. Surcouf's object was, therefore, to train his men for close fighting; and for this end he established systematic exercise with small arms and cutlass. Fencing, sword-play, or shooting at a bottle hanging from one of the studding-sail booms, occupied a great part of the time. And not only had he to drill them to the use of arms : he had to train them to their work as sailors, and to teach them the habits of civilised beings. He had, too, a most unpromising lot of raw material. Cunat is not likely to have erred in the direction of unduly disparaging a French crew; he prefers speaking in terms of exaggerated praise ; so that, in the present instance, his evidence may be frankly accepted. The crew of the Revenant was - he says - a heterogeneous collection of men of every country and of every profession, recruited from all possible quarters, even from prisons and hospitals. Such a ship's company was a mixture of all conceivable vices ; to maintain strict discipline was at once important and difficult; and very severe punishments were requisite. The captain's manner of life was thus the very opposite of that free-and-easy association which is commonly supposed to be the essence of privateering. Surcouf, we are told, maintained an extreme formality, even with his officers : they were sometimes invited to dine with him; but, ordinarily, he spoke to no one but the first lieutenant or
the officer of the watch : when he came on the quarterdeck, no one but himself might walk the weather side ; more frequently he reclined on the taffrail, smoking, in company with a few passengers, towards whom he did not preserve the same formality. His system answered; he got his crew well together and in good order; they became, in the words of Cunat, ‘brave sailors, true sons of old Armorica.' And, as commonly happens, success followed on painstaking.
After refitting, and when the south-west monsoon in the Bay of Bengal was coming to an end, Surcouf took up his old cruising-ground: the frigate Piemontaise was there also ; and the two continued for several months virtual masters of the bay. This was particularly hard on the merchants of Calcutta, whose commerce had, only the year before, been similarly scourged by the Bellone privateer, commanded by one Jacques Perroud. The Bellone, however, had been happily caught on 9 July, 1806, as in a trap, between the coast of Ceylon, the Little Basses, the Rattlesnake sloop, and the 74-gun ship Powerful. Several other privateers were caught about the same time, ‘but ' - wrote Sir Edward Pellew, better known, perhaps, as Lord Exmouth, who then commanded in India - 'I reflect with much pleasure on the capture of La Bellone in particular, as well from her superior sailing, as her uncommon success in the present and preceding war against the British commerce, in the Indian and European seas. The commercial interests of this country are particularly secured by her capture, which could not have been expected but under very favourable circumstances.'
Things had thus looked brighter at Calcutta; and
now this Revenant, in company with the Piemontaise, was making them worse than ever. The East India Company, and the independent merchants of Bombay, had been in the habit of collecting their ships in convoys, a system which those of Calcutta had disdained, as causing delay. The loss thus fell almost entirely on them, merchants, shipowners, and underwriters ; and they lost not only their money, but also their temper. They sent a wildly angry memorial to the admiralty, blaming everybody, except themselves ; and more especially charging the admiral with neglecting their interests. This document, dated 10 December, 1807, says :
Your memorialists cannot decline the painful duty of more particularly adverting to the recent capture of no less than nineteen British ships and vessels within the short period of two months, and at a station which the regular visitation of the enemy's cruisers, at the opening of the north-east monsoon, obviously pointed out as pre-eminently requiring protection . . . . All the captures to which your memorialists here particularly refer were made in the Bay of Bengal by two French frigates, and a privateer named the Revenant, of 16 guns. It was the lot of this privateer to make the greater part of these captures ; and his depredations were committed chiefly in view of the coast of Coromandel, where he has remained upwards of three months, distant little more than 400 miles from Calcutta, and within 100 leagues of Madras Roads, the principal station of his Majesty's ships; and where, at the same time, the flag of a British rear-admiral, and several of his Majesty's pennants, were displayed. It will scarcely be believed that the privateer, in which the enemy has thus extended with success his depredations along our defenceless shores, still continues on his station ; and notwithstanding the extent of the British naval force in this country, such is the unprotected state of our seaboard, that
this successful privateer, already so destructive to our commerce, and though of a force contemptible when compared with the smallest of his Majesty's ships, continues to spread consternation throughout the ports of India . . . . Nor can your memorialists foresee any probable cause to induce the enemy's privateer to relinquish the station he thus triumphantly maintains, until the number of his captures be such as to require more men to navigate them than the privateer can supply, or until, satiated with success, he may voluntarily retire from our coast . . . . Your memorialists conceive that there is no similar instance of a privateer continuing an uninterrupted series of operations for a period of upwards of three months, on a coast of the British empire, in the direct track of their chief navigation, and within less than 300 miles of a principal station of his Majesty's ships: nor do your memorialists believe that the most extensive branch of British commerce, either European or colonial, ever suffered such a series of single captures, in so short a period, as has been made by the Revenant privateer, on the coast of Coromandel.'
And they go on to say that the sums paid by the insurance offices in Calcutta alone, for losses during September and October 1807, amounted to no less than 291,2561.
Sir Edward Pellew had little difficulty in showing that, beyond the necessary hazard in time of war, the fault was mainly their own, inasmuch as they had neglected or refused the convoy which had been liberally offered. And the numbers of French privateers - among others the Adele, already spoken of - captured by the English cruisers at this very time; the capture of the Piemontaise herself a few months later, 8 March, 1808 ; and the fact that the Revenant was repeatedly but vainly chased, sufficiently show that her success was due not to any carelessness of the admiral, or of the captains under
him, but to her own superior sailing, and still more to the care and watchfulness of her captain. How much these last, the personality of Surcouf himself, had to do with it, would seem established by the future fortunes of the ship.
By the middle of January, 1808, the time spoken of by the Calcutta merchants had arrived: the Revenant's crew was reduced to 70, and Surcouf determined to return to the Mauritius, where he anchored on the 31st of the month. When the ship was again ready, he sent her to sea in the charge of Potier, his chief officer, to look for a Portuguese, homeward-bound from Goa, of which he had intelligence. Potier took up his station on the coast of Natal, where, on 24 May, he sighted, over took, and captured the object of his search. The Portuguese is described as a ship of the largest size, of – we may suppose - 1,200 or 1,500 tons ; pierced for 64 guns, but actually mounting 34 ; and having on board, amongst other passengers, a body of 50 soldiers - possibly invalids. In mere numerical estimation, the disparity was excessive: but the question was really one of the relative value of men and arms on board a merchant ship and a ship of war. Against such numbers of men and soldiers, presumably effective, Potier felt that their usual tactics would be rash; he was obliged to try, in the first instance to reduce, or at any rate, to weaken, the enemy by force of guns ; and so, taking up and cleverly maintaining a position on her quarter, he kept up a continuous fire. The mark was big, and every shot told; whilst the fire of the Portuguese, at a smaller target, was wild and desultory: presently her port-lanyards were cut by grape shot ; the guns were blinded, and the sea was too heavy to risk blowing the port-lids away. On deck, the
soldiers, passengers, and men taken from the useless guns, plied the assailant with musketry, and were answered with showers of grape and langridge ; the fight was going on briskly, and the merchant ship was bravely holding her own, when, through some carelessness, a barrel of powder caught a spark and blew up. The accident was decisive, and after a few minutes' vain attempt to overcome its effect, the Portuguese was compelled to lower her flag. 1
When the privateer and her prize returned to Port Louis - which, having discarded the republican name of Port North-West, was now Port Napoleon - the governor, General Decaen, laid his official hands on the Revenant. The French men-of-war on the station had just then been practically wiped out : the last of them, the Semillante frigate, had returned disabled, barely escaping from the Terpsichore. The resources of the colony were not equal to refitting the Semillante as an effective ship of war; and Decaen accordingly claimed the Revenant, which he established as a corvette. Surcouf in vain protested against the forced sale of his property, which to him seemed very like confiscation. Decaen was not only firm, but threatened to embark Surcouf on board her as a sub-lieutenant - an ensign. Forced thus to yield to fate, Surcouf accepted the command of the Semillante, which had been bought by a mercantile house at Port Louis, had been re-named the Charles, and was
1 M. Cunat's note may be here properly reproduced: 'The account of this combat is taken from the journals kindly lent me by my friends MM. Lamarre-Peigné, Michel-Villeblanche, and A. Duhaut-Cilly, distinguished sailors and companions of Captain Potier.' The combat is unquestionably a very brilliant episode in the history of privateering, even though Surcouf personally had nothing to do with it.
now fitting to go home as an aventurier. When this was agreed on, a fresh quarrel arose with the governor, who gave Surcouf a positive order to carry to France all the officers of the Portuguese ship, lately captured. Surcouf refused, pointing out that his doing so would be extremely dangerous, as his crew was very largely composed of Portuguese sailors, who had preferred service to imprisonment, but - with their own officers to lead them - might probably prefer Lisbon to St. Malo as a destination. Decaen would not listen to his objections, but bluntly said that unless the Charles took the prisoners, he would not sign her clearance. In order to get his legal papers, therefore, Surcouf was compelled to receive the prisoners ; and with them on board put to sea on the morning of 21 November ; but as soon as he got an offing, he unceremoniously bundled them and their traps into the pilot-boat, leaving them to make the best of their way on shore, whilst the Charles, under a press of sail, was leaving the island far behind. Decaen was furious, and sequestrated all Surcouf's property in the colony; in happy ignorance of which Surcouf pursued his way, and reached France in safety, though not without risks run both from the English cruisers and from shipwreck. It was his last voyage, and, ending successfully, as did all his other voyages, we cannot but assign a large share of credit to this man, who at such a time and under such circumstances as his, pursued such a career, without one single instance of what the world is apt to call bad luck, but which is more frequently the result of bad management. Uniform success means unceasing care.
The Revenant, which, under Surcouf's command, had
cruised - as the memorialists of Calcutta had pointed out - for five months in the very thick of the English squadron, was sent, as the Jean corvette, commanded by Lieutenant Morice, to cruise on the same station. She had scarcely got well into the Bay of Bengal, before, on 8 October, she was captured by the Modeste. Nor was this difference of fortune only for Lieutenant Morice, who seems to have been a brave and able officer. The ship was again re-named Victor, and put to sea as an English man-of-war, commanded by Captain Edward Stopford, one of a family whose name has been honourably known in our navy for the last hundred years. About a year afterwards, 2 November, 1809, she was captured by the French frigate Bellone ; and still keeping the name of Victor, again became a French corvette. As such, she was surrendered at the capitulation of Mauritius, 3 December, 1810, and was - I believe - broken up. 1
Surcouf had meantime claimed and obtained an order for the restitution of his property in Mauritius, and had settled down on shore as the owner of a fleet of privateers. M. Cunat names eight of his ships employed in European seas ; one of which, the Renard - a cutter of 70 tons, with a crew of 60 men, mostly Portuguese - fought, on 9 September, 1813, one of the most desperate actions on record, with the Alphea schooner, of 111 tons and 41 men and boys. The Renard's armament consisted
1 In attempting this comparative estimate of Surcouf's abilities, it must not be forgotten that he had - in the matter of escaping pursuit one great advantage over both Stopford and Morice. In presence of any probable danger, it was his first business to get away from it : it was the business of these others rather to see if they could not overcome the danger.
of ten 8-pounder carronades, and four 4-pounders ; that of the Alphea, of eight 18-pounder carronades. Between the two there was not much to choose in point of strength; and the fight continued with equal fortune and fury until by - what James has called - a fatal accident, the Alphea blew up. It would seem uncertain whether any of Surcouf's cruisers found their way to Eastern waters: Cunat does not speak of any; but a letter from Vice-Admiral Bertie, the commander-in-chief at the Cape of Good Hope, to the secretary of the admiralty, dated 2 September, 1809, would imply that Surcouf had not forgotten the scene of his own exploits.
Of the number of aventuriers fitted out and running for the Isle of France, I am to state that the Charwell has captured the Hyene, a very fine vessel of 230 tons, pierced for 18 guns and masted as a man-of-war, which is arrived here ; and the ‘Nereide' has captured the Agile, of a similar description . . . and it appears, by an intercepted letter found on board the latter vessel, addressed by Captain Surcouf to General Decaen, that, besides a number of privateers fitting out by himself and a society of merchants with whom he is associated, he is in treaty with the Minister of Marine for La Revanche frigate, which they intend to arm and send out with a cargo !’
Whatever schemes of this sort Surcouf may have had were of course put an end to by the capture of Mauritius; and the peace, in 1814, necessarily altered the nature of his business. He continued, however, a prosperous ship-owner and ship-builder, and one of the most influential burghers of St. Malo, until his death in 1827.
In person, Robert Surcouf was somewhat short and stout ; in his later years, almost corpulent. His whole life having been spent in command, often of very rugged
subjects, his force of character was strongly developed; and in civil life he was often violent if not brutal. M. Cunat tells many anecdotes illustrative of this, which he considers a most honourable feature; they are not worth repeating, and are very possibly grossly exaggerated. In his family he was brusque and taciturn; little given to talk over past adventures, except, occasionally, when the pride of an old privateer led him to relate the story of the capture of the Kent. Withal, generous to the poor. One anecdote not less grotesque, perhaps, but less rude than others, will enable us to part from him in kindlier mood. Walking home one night, as he passed the gate of his ship-building yard, he saw a man come out carrying a heavy bundle, which he vainly tried to hoist up on his shoulders. Surcouf went up to him and asked what he was doing. The man, who, in the dark, did not recognise him, said, ‘You might give us a lift up with this bundle of wood, that's a good fellow.' ‘Did anyone give it you, then ? ' asked the owner. ‘Faith no,' was the answer: ‘I might have waited long enough for that.' Surcouf made no further objection, and helped the man to get the bundle on his back; only, as he went off muttering his thanks, the owner called after him - 'I advise you not to try that on again : M. Surcouf is just the man to have you taken up for it.'
Surcouf is gone; honourably buried at St. Malo beneath a tombstone which - according to the picture of it given by M. Cunat - bears a ridiculous likeness to a clock-face. Another war may very well see a successor, his equal in daring and conduct, playing the same part on a larger field. The points to which I have specially wished to call attention are those facts which may be
repeated in the future; and - whether a ship corresponding to the Confiance or the Revenant is commanded by an independent rover, or by a regularly - commissioned officer - the capture of the Kent, and the destruction of trade in the Bay of Bengal, are incidents which a bold enemy will try to repeat in the next naval war. What the Bay of Bengal was at the beginning of the north-east monsoon, the several ‘crossings' will be now. And the trade that will be aimed at on these will be, not the wealth of the East, but the every-day necessities of English life - the corn, the beef, the mutton. The stress will be felt not by a few wealthy merchants or brokers in Calcutta, but by the millions of hungry fathers of starving children in London, in Liverpool, in Manchester, and throughout the length and breadth of the country. Are ships laden with these invaluable commodities able to fight their way or to run the gauntlet of the enemy's cruisers? It was seen in 1807 how difficult it was to stop the ravages of one ship ably commanded, even when her cruising ground was known within a comparatively short distance, and when there was an overpowering naval force almost on the spot. A similar difficulty may again occur ; a similar problem may demand a solution, but in this, as in other things, to be forewarned is, or should be, to be forearmed.
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