Naval crews and Privateers

HM Royal Navy, its Admirals (well most of them), officers and seamen were renowned for their courage and bravery, and the amazing camaraderie of the guns’ crews in the British Men O’ War is proverbial. However, reinforcing this professional pride was a strong motive of potential financial gain. The main objective was to defeat the enemy, but in doing so there was always the underlying hope of taking ships prize, and securing prize-money awards. 1 This was particularly so in engagements with smaller vessels such as smuggling craft or enemy privateers, which rarely put up much of a fight against superior odds. As with warships taken in action, awards of prize-money arising from the capture of smuggling craft were shared in strictly laid down in proportions amongst all members of a ship’s company, according to their rank or rating.

One moiety of the net Produce arising from the sales of Smugling vessels shall be vested in and divided amongst the said Officers and seamen … Captains of Men O’ War and Sloops, 3 eighth parts. To Captains of Marines and Masters Sea Lieuts, 1 eighth part, to Ensigns, Carpenter, Boatswain, Gunner, 1 eighth; to Midshipmen, Mates, Coxswain, 1 eighth; to Trumpeters, Stewards, Swabbers, Barber and Able and Ordinary Seamen, 2 eighths to be distributed amongst them. 

ADM 11/3866 – 10 June 17632

Despite being frowned upon by many Royal Naval officers, privateers were an essential part of commercial war, the disruption of enemy supply lines, and the seizing of the raw materials of war. At the outbreak of war Letters of Marque, or reprisals, were issued by governments concerned, authorising their ‘private ships of war,’ or ‘privateers,’ to make seizures of enemy shipping and/or cargoes in neutral shipping if intended for the use of an enemy. There was always a flurry of privateering activity at the outbreak of each war. This was the ‘happy time’ when easy prizes could be made amongst homeward bound enemy merchant ships – their captains and crew being ignorant of hostilities having broken out.

While senior family members John and Henry Carter, were held prisoners in Brittany in 1778-79, following the seizure of Henry’s ‘big cutter’ Swallow in the January, the rest of the Carter family were not idle in their privateering ventures. They ran a number of registered privateers which quite improperly also served as smuggling craft when the opportunity presented itself. Roger, a younger brother in command of the Phoenix, did very well working in tandem with the Hunter, of Guernsey. They brought into Mount’s Bay six French prizes laden with fishery salt, in August 1778. Phoenix held a regular Letter of Marque, but for some reason these prizes were later condemned as Droits of Admiralty. However, the Crown graciously allowed the captors to share the net proceeds of the prize sales – over £2,000.3

Some doubt has recently been expressed as to how someone like John Carter could obtain cannon to mount on his coastal battery. On his release from the French prison, Harry Carter in his autobiography expresses his concern that during their detention in France the family smuggling business would have been disastrously reduced. He had clearly underestimated the capabilities of their brother Roger. In any case, on his release Henry Carter immediately returned to privateering and smuggling, and with the Bridport built cutter Shaftesbury, had further success in capturing the Fantaisie, of Marseilles, south west of the Canary Islands. She, together with her cargo of coffee and sugar from Mauritius was valued at £30,000. Unlike many privateers which hovered in the Channel, these mariners thought nothing of venturing far out in the Atlantic,4 and their privateers were legitimately armed with cannon and swivel guns appropriate to the size of the vessels. Typically the Carters’ vessels of this period carried ‘three,’ ‘four,’ and ‘six,’ pounders – the Shaftesbury being equipped with 16 of the latter in December 1780.

Thus – finding cannon for their private battery can hardly have been a problem.

  1. For the ramifications of the Naval Prize system during this era, see Richard Hill’s The Prizes of War, Thrupp, Stroud 1998. ISBN 0 7509 1816-0
  2. Quoting a Whitehall Treasury Chambers document
  3. National Archives HCA 32/474/8, 1 to 163
  4. C J Davies Article in the 1998 Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. SM 18.09 1780 and PRO (Prize Papers) National Archives HCA 32/32925/1-58