Ben Franklin, Pirate Impresario

One of the lesser-known and less savory aspects of Benjamin Franklin’s diplomatic career in France during the Revolutionary War was his role in organizing pirate attacks on British shipping.

Lest you judge Franklin too harshly, it should be mentioned that in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, unleashing freelance maritime bandits–“privateers” was the more polite-sounding euphemism–against wartime enemies was considered a perfectly acceptable tactic. And Franklin was motivated not just by a desire to strike at the British, but by worries over the fate of the thousands of American POWs who were languishing in inhuman conditions on British prison ships. (During the war, 13,000 American soldiers died in captivity, more than the 4,300 killed in actual fighting.) Franklin figured that by capturing a few British nationals from merchant ships, he would then have some bargaining chips of his own. 

Fortunately, France had plenty of pirate talent for Franklin to tap. The port of Dunkirk–later famous as the spot from which Allied troops escaped from German invaders during WW II–was the epicenter of the privateering industry. Franklin’s 19th century biographer Edward Everett Hale notes in his book Franklin in France that the port was swarming with sailors of various nationalities who knew the local coastlines intimately and made a living by exploiting that expertise for nefarious purposes. Dunkirk’s privateers had been hoping in vain for another war to break out between England and France, so that they could obtain letters of marques from the French crown–essentially, licenses to attack British shipping, steal cargoes and seize passengers and crew for ransom.

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Franklin himself didn’t come up with the idea. In April 1777, Franklin’s agents Franz Coffyn and John Torris visited Dunkirk, and Coffyn wrote back to Franklin that some of these “merchants,” as he euphemistically called the pirates, would be glad to obtain commissions from Congress to fit out their vessels under the colours of the United States, provided it should be allowed to bring the prizes into the French ports.

Coffyn had another brainstorm:

Here is one Christopher Ferron, a noted Irish smuggler (and there are many more of his stamp about the port), who knows the coasts of Ireland, Scotland, England and Holland better than he knows the four corners of his ged. Why not utilize all this material by fitting out privateers, filling them up with these English, Scotch and Irish who would fight under American commissions, and if taken would cause no trouble for any one, for they would all swear that they were American? They could not take French commissions, for they could not pass as Frenchmen; but under American colours they could do good service.

For whatever reasons, Franklin apparently took a while to put the scheme into place. Two years later, in April 1779, Torris outfitted a ship, the Black Prince, and a crew of various nationalities.  Initially, because the ship lacked the space for prisoners, the privateers let British captives go, in exchange for them signing a written guarantee that an American would be released in exchange for their freedom. Not surprisingly, the this didn’t work too well, because the British simply ignored the contracts. In February 1780, Franklin wrote to the ship’s captain, Patrick Dowlin:

I desire that you would secure your prisoners as well as you can, and lodge them in French or Spanish gaols, by which means you will have the satisfaction  of relieving many poor captives and recommending yourself to the favour of Congress.

The Black Prince soon was augmented with other privateering ships–the Fearnot, the Princess, and the Black Princess. While the bandits were successful in terrorizing British shipping and capturing numerous prisoners, Franklin also was criticized for deploying them both by the British–who threatened to hang any American privateers they captured–and by American supporters, who were uneasy about employing foreign mercenaries to execute such lawless tactics.

While the Black Prince was sunk in battle in April 1780, other American-chartered privateers frequently got the better of their British counterparts in combat. According to the Revolutionary War Almanac, for example, in June 1780, the American privateer Pickering, under the command of Capt. Jonathan Haraden, was sailing off the Spanish island of Bilbao when it spotted a 22-gun British privateer, the Golden Eagle. The Pickering’s crew surprised their British counterparts and were able to capture their ship without firing a shot. While enterig Bilbao’s harbor, the Pickering then encountered an even bigger British privateer, the 42-gun Achilles. Haraden, however, cleverly dropped anchor near shoals, forcing the British to attack head on, directly into the path of American cannonfire. The Achilles was badly damaged and had to retreat, leaving the Pickering to dock and to a cheering throng of Spaniards.

For more, be sure to tune in tonight at 10P et/pt to Ben Franklin’s Pirate Fleet on the National Geographic Channel. 


  1. shabbychic
    April 7, 2011, 3:36 pm

    I love Ben Franklin, and I love pirates. And I love it when Nat Geo combines my favorite things!