Pirates of the … North Sea?


Drawing for an 18th-century British Sloop-of-War

Many of us were brought up on romantic tales of pirates sailing in various exotic parts of the world, whether through “Treasure Island” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Yet the business of being a pirate could be just as profitable, and just as violent, in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Here, from the pages of the Norfolk Chronicle, is part of the tale of one notorious pirate in 1782–3. The piece gets confusing as it keeps referring to “the captain”, but rarely says which one is meant, but I think the overall sense is clear enough. Note that the ‘good guy’ — Captain Steward — is himself described as commanding a privateer. “Set a thief to catch a thief”, perhaps? Or “our ships are privateers, yours are pirates.”

Yarmouth, Feb 1.

On Thursday, about twelve o’clock, the DREADNOUGHT, Privateer, Captain Timothy STEWARD, Commander, of 14 carriage guns, and 50 men, went to sea, and after being at sea about an hour, she saw a large brigantine from Shields, laden with coals, bound to London, who mounted four carriage guns, which was taken[1] this morning about six o’clock, after an engagement of two hours, off Cromer, and ransomed for four hundred guineas; the master was wounded, the mate killed, and all the remainder of the crew wounded, except two little boys. Within half an hour after another large vessel, laden with coals, passed our roads, which was also taken this morning, soon after the above, and ransomed for five hundred guineas. The Captains of the above vessels say, they were taken by that notorious villain FALL, who had on board his ship at that time thirteen Ransomers; they supposed that FALL has taken near thirty sail of ships from the North [2]. It is surprizing that this villain had not one Frenchman on board.

Captain STEWARD, his Officers and friends, who were on board, directly sailed down to a Scotch privateer in the Roads, and would have had the Captain [presumably this means the captain of the Scotch privateer] gone in quest with him directly after this audacious pirate, but the Captain refused; he [now we seem to be talking about Capt. Steward] then directly sailed down to the RANGER privateer, but the crew refused, as their Captain was not on board, and the ship not in proper order for action. Captain STEWARD had 20 Gentlemen on board, friends, who sailed out of the port with him, and who offered as volunteers to go in pursuit of FALL immediately, if any of the ships in view would join the chase; but all refused. The FLY sloop of war was in the roads, but had fifteen ships under her convoy for Portsmouth.

(February 1781)

Pirate or Privateer?

It depended very much from which side you were looking. Generally speaking, the British ships which preyed on French and Dutch vessels in the area are described as privateers. The enemy’s ships, or those who attacked British vessels, regardless of their own origin, tend to be described as pirates. It made little difference to the treatment given to their victims.

Properly speaking, a privateer had a government commission to carry out commerce raiding against the enemy — a kind of privatised naval warfare — where a pirate was simply in it for the money and would attack anyone. However, sometimes even Captain Fall was given the dignity of being termed a privateer. Note the huge profits likely to come to him from the value of his ‘catch’.

The Sans Pear [sic], a French privateer, Capt. FALL, is arrived at Helvoetfluys, with 100 English prisoners, and 14 ransomers, valued at 5,400 guineas. The same privateer has also taken the Ranger privateer, Captain Magnus BRIGHTWELL, of Wells, (formerly the Lady Washington) of 12 guns and 45 men; and on the third inst. she fell in with the Eagle privateer of 16 guns and 160 men, which she sunk, after an obstinate engagement, that lasted with great fury on both sides for three hours and an half.

(February 1781).

What’s most striking is that English sailors were apparently happy to act as French privateers. I guess a pirate was a pirate, regardless of the flag under which they happened to be sailing.

Another account says, Monday last, 11 fellows, armed with pistols etc landed out of a large boat at Runton, near Cromer, and greatly terrified the inhabitants; but assistance being called from Cromer, they were all secured. The account they give of themselves is, that they belong to a large smuggling vessel, which they were obliged to quit in order to save their lives; but it is supposed they belong to the noted Daniel FALL, two of them being lately wounded, one of whom is shot through the knee, and the boat they landed from being thirty feet long, is thought they either came to plunder, or surprize [sic] some unarmed vessel. William WINDHAM, Esq., of Felbrigg, sent for Captain BRACEY, on the impress service in this city, who accompanied by his gang, safely conducted them to town, when they were examined before Roger KERRISON, Esq., who committed them to Norwich Castle. They all prove to be Englishmen.

(February 1781)

Captain Fall was active for quite a long time, it seems.

It is reported that FALL has again made his appearance in the North Sea, in a big privateer of 18 guns, from Dunkirk, and has already captured six prizes; his cruize [sic] is to continue six weeks, should not our cruizers [privateers] be so fortunate as to fall in with his.

(January 1783)

  1. i.e. They were captured and then ransomed by the pirates.  ↩
  2. This indicates the huge number of ships sailing up and down the east coast of England at the time. Most were small, of course, but there were a good many of them, mostly carrying coal and other goods to the Port of London.  ↩

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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