America’s Undercover Pirates

One year into the American Revolution, and the outlook is bleak. The British have taken New York. The Continental Army is in desperate need of supplies and manpower. And hundreds of elderly American men are captured while en route to Paris.

Personal letters from these apprehended men reach Benjamin Franklin. They speak of starvation, freezing temperatures, disease and poor conditions within the English prisons. And they beg him for help. So, while Benjamin Franklin works to persuade the French to join their war efforts, he asks the British to make an even swap – one British prisoner for one American.

But Franklin’s got a major problem on his hands – He doesn’t have enough British prisoners to exchange. And in order to go out and capture more prisoners, Franklin needs ships. But at the start of the American Revolution, the Royal Navy had about 265 vessels… and you could count the number of American ships on two hands.

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Benjamin Franklin knew that England, as an island nation, was vulnerable to commerce raiding. So Franklin turns to private citizens – called privateers – for help. These individuals are given an official document or letter of mark that permitted (during wartime) to capture enemy ships, commerce and prisoners.

All of these privateers operated undercover, sometimes even as a British vessel. They would fire warning shots and pull alongside a nearby merchant ship. And then, quite suddenly, they’d raise the American flag, take the crew hostage, and loot the ship.

The first of these ships, the Black Prince, began her maiden mission around the British Isles. It was a small ship, about 65 feet in length. But it was stocked with 16 cannons, 30 swivel guns, and a huge crew of men. The Black Prince’s orders? Detain as many British prisoners as possible. In the Black Prince’s first week at sea, she took seven ships and 35 British prisoners.

While it initially appears a success, problems quickly emerge. The Black Price doesn’t have enough room on board to keep all the prisoners and crew. Captured Americans continue to languish in British jails. The Captain of the Black Price – who Ben Franklin thinks is an American – is really an Irish fugitive. And soon the goals of Benjamin Franklin and the privateers are at odds.

In Holyhead, Wales, there’s a shipwreck that may have belonged to Franklin’s undercover fleet of pirates. It lies within an area nicknamed “The Fangs” from the line of sharp rocks just below the water’s surface. And a group of underwater explorers are diving into what could be a long lost piece of the American Revolution…

Find out what happens on Ben Franklin’s Pirate Fleet, Wednesday, April 6th at 10 PM et/pt on the National Geographic Channel!