Privateers off England’s East Coast

pirate ship docking under moon light

Privateers and pirates were a constant scourge to the many hundreds of ships which sailed along the east coast of England, many of them heading to or from the Norfolk ports. If you aren’t quite sure of the difference between a pirate and a privateer it can be summoned up like this.

A privateer was privately-owned ship ‘licensed’ by a government or monarch to attack enemy merchant shipping; and carried a commission or document, known as “Letters of Marque”, to prove it. This commission empowered the holder to undertake all hostile action permissible at sea by the usages of war. That included attacking vessels from the countries specified in the document during wartime. Such ships might be seized and either ransomed or taken back to a friendly port as prizes. They and the goods they carried could then be sold, and the proceeds divided between the privateer’s sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew under the terms of prize law. A percentage share also went to the state which issued the letters of marque.

CaptainKiddLetterofMarquePrivateering was essentially private-enterprise warfare—a way of supplementing a state’s naval resources by utilising civilian ships and crews as well. It also served as an early form of commerce-raiding. By encouraging privateering, a state hoped to disrupt the enemy’s trade through the capture of the ships, captains and crews necessary for it to carry on maritime commerce. If captured, the crew and officers of the privateer were thus treated as prisoners of war. They would be held until ransomed, exchanged or released on the cessation of hostilities.

A pirate was a ‘common criminal’ who preyed on any ship too weak to resist, stealing anything of value. As a result, captured pirates would be subject to the full weight of the criminal law. Some would be executed and others transported. The most experienced and useful sailors amongst them might well be ‘pressed’ into service in the navy.

The East Coast Trade

Throughout the eighteenth century, what we now call the North Sea (then known as the German Ocean) was crowded with shipping of many kinds. Most of these merchantmen were small. In Norfolk, only Great Yarmouth could berth large vessels, with King’s Lynn taking some of middle sizes—at least the ones that could navigate the shoals and sandbanks of The Wash. For the rest, primarily Wells and Blakeney, the silted-up channels through the salt-marshes, ensured only small vessels could make it. Cromer had no port, so any ships calling there (some colliers did) had flat bottoms, so they could rest on the beach when the tide went out, then be lifted off again at the next tide.

The trade along these coasts was mostly domestic: coal from the north-east being taken to many places along the way, but primarily London. Norfolk wheat going south to London and good malting barley going anywhere beer or whiskey was made, including Holland and Germany. Anything heavy could be carried. Sending heavy goods by road was slow, difficult and expensive. Passengers were also taken on many ships, especially the ‘packet boats’ carrying the mail to continental countries.

Strategic Goods

Disruption of any of this trade would be a nuisance, but the true prize for ships from hostile countries was the timber trade. War, politics and economics were as closely linked at that time as they are today. Much of the timber used by the Royal Navy came from the Baltic and Scandinavia. Virtually all the masts and spars did. An anonymous work called The Memoire of a Person Interested in Baltic Commerce (I7I6) claimed that all of the hemp in the world (for ships’ ropes) and the best masts came from a region stretching from the Gulf of Bothnia to the coasts of Prussia.[1] Constant damage by storms as well as enemy action ensured ropes, masts and spars were always in demand. Sweden also exported a good deal of the iron ore required for everything from nails to cannonballs. Stop or hinder that supply and you could cause significant disruption to the means of waging naval warfare. The campaigns by the Royal Navy against Denmark during the Napoleonic wars had as much to do with trade as depriving the French of an allied fleet.

Woollens were Britain’s major export to help pay for what it needed from these countries. Norfolk, especially Norwich, was one of the main producers of the fine worsteds and similar cloths which sold well in countries like Russia and Scandinavia. A great many yards of dyed ‘Norwich Stuffs’ were sent across the North Sea during this time. Once again, disrupting this trade would cause economic problems for the nation as a whole, as well as considerable unrest in the area which produced them. Norfolk merchants were as keenly interested in protecting and expanding their trade as any others. Britain’s almost-continuous warfare with various continental powers during the 18th century was never popular in East Anglia.

Of course, the activities of French and other privateers was not confined to the North Sea. Britain’s merchant shipping and trading links were increasingly biassed towards the Atlantic and eastwards to India. Nearly every French Atlantic port served as a base for privateers at one time or another in the 18th century. Their vessels roamed throughout the western approaches, the English Channel and the North Sea. During the Revolutionary War, the Americans also fitted out privateers to disrupt British trade, not just in the waters off the east coast of America, but in European waters as well.

The British Response

Privateering peaked early in the 18th century, then fell away for a time. However, it revived strongly during the American War of Independence and Britain’s long war against the French between 1793 and 1815. During this time, the Board of Admiralty organised a growing number of naval vessels to escort convoys of merchant ships. This ‘convoy system’ became the principal counter to enemy privateering and commerce raiding.

By the ‘Convoy Acts’ of 1797 and 1803, it was made compulsory for ships engaging in foreign trade to join convoys, with a few exceptions, such as East Indiamen. During the same period, the growth of the marine insurance industry, based first in Lloyds’ coffeehouse in London, helped indemnify shipowners against their losses. Such insurers too brought pressure to bear on merchants and captains to make sure their ships joined protective convoys. In many ways, this combination of convoys and marine insurance was the deciding factor in the increasingly successful defence of British trade during the period leading up to 1815[2]. Naval escort ships were based in Norfolk ports, especially Great Yarmouth, and convoys assembled there to be escorted on their way.

  1. “Memoir of a Person Interested in Baltic Commerce,” in Guillaume de Lamberty, Memoires pour servir a’ l’histoire du XVIII sie’cle, contenant les negociations, traitez, et autres documens authe’nticques concernant les affaires d’e’tat (The Hague and Amsterdam, I700–1718), IX, 663.  ↩
  2. For a thorough treatment of the convoy system and other forms of defence of British trade in the period, see The Defence of British Trade, 1689–1818, Patrick Crowhurst, William Dawson, Folkestone, 1977.  ↩

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1 Response to Privateers off England’s East Coast

  1. noelleg44 says:

    Fascinating, as always. Trade is something I find really interesting!


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