Peter, privateer

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Peter, privateer


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This article by Peter Raban was first published in the 1994 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


Researches into the Islands' privateering operations very occasionally produce unexpected bonuses among the formal documents contained in the High Court of Admiralty archives in the Public Record Office, London, or in the equivalent French departernental repositories. Some 1,800 bundles concern that number of prize instances (1755-63); most of these contain any surviving ship's papers and the interrogations of two or three of the participants to establish the circumstances and legality of the seizure. Other miscellaneous papers are also occasionally found such as a ship's log, personal papers, bundles of letters, valuations of cargos and ships or perhaps a note that the privateer had not returned to port and was presumed lost.

New vessel

From the formal records the Peter was a 25 ton privateer of Jersey, commissioned on 10 June 1756, (the first day that such licences for privateers were issued) alongside eight other Jersey ships (487 tons) and eight also from Guernsey (355 tons). By the end of that month Jersey had eleven in commission (972 tons) and Guernsey 28 (2,390 tons).

The Peter carried 4 cannon, a number of swivel guns and a stated minimum crew strength of 30 men, being provisioned to cruise for two months; her captain was Jean Benest and her principal owners were J Dolbel, W Patriarche, J Heros, and J Perrochon, Jersey merchants. The brothers Matthew and P Perchard, with James Pipon in London, stood as sureties in the sum of £1,500 which was forfeitable if Benest flouted the regulations governing the conduct of privateers as laid down by Act of Parliament.

Benest took only one prize, the 45-ton Marie de Cesson, bound from Bayonne to Saint Brieuc, her home port, with a cargo of pitch, planks and oars; she was halted on 31 August off Ushant and sent to Jersey, with Joshua Lempriere, aged 27, as prize-master with a crew of five. Safely back in Saint Helier, Lempriere and one of the French crew were interrogated and it emerged that the Marie had been damaged in a gale in the first week of August and was then halted by the Dolphin (W Coulam) of Guernsey; since her damage was severe and it was unlikely that she could be safely conducted back to Guernsey, Coulam ransomed her for 5,000 livres tournois (about £225) and she had then put into Port Louis for repairs and to unload 12 tons of rosin before going on to Saint Brieuc, only to be halted once again, this time by the Peter. By the time the Jersey owners had paid all the overheads of getting the Marie condemned and auctioned, they would have been lucky if they received £200, assuming that the earlier ransom was a realistic estimate of her value, and in that case they would have been about £100 out of pocket on the venture whilst 36 officers and crew were languishing in a French prison for at least seven months before receiving their share of the prize money.

Peter's capture

While official British archives are silent about any other prizes taken by Benest, the French Amiraute archives at Vannes, which are equivalent to our Prize Instances, reveal that within a week of taking the Marie, the Peter had been taken near the Ile de Groix by the Sirene, one of three ships returning from Canada. Jean Benest, the captain, aged 31, wearing a black wig, of short stature and wearing brown clothing with metal buttons; Jacque Pain, aged 30, a lieutenant; and Jean Le Cras, aged 36, the steward, were all interrogated; they stated that they were Protestants of Jersey and when challenged that they were really French refugees because they all spoke passable French, they reiterated that they and the rest of the crew were all Jerseymen or English.

Further questions elicited that the Peter had been built only in May-June. Benest also stated that he had had 42 men on board, and that six of them had been sent home on the one prize he had taken (the Marie de Cesson). They had left Jersey only on 29 August on this their first cruise, the delay between the grant of the Commission, in London, and sailing being due probably to the time taken to recruit a crew.

Among these French papers are details also about the sale by auction at Lorient of the Peter after she had been condemned in the Cour d'Amiraute. Described as pine-sheathed, with an elm keel and oak beams and knees and now rated at 40 tons, she was sold on 5 February 1757 for 1,960 livres tournois, after outgoings of 440 livres, thus realising about £95 nett, or £2+ per ton which was a very low figure for a vessel less than a year old and which had probably cost more than £10-12 per ton to build, arm, man and provision as a privateer.

Log book

The French archives yield an unexpected bonus in the form of Edouard Etur's log book, which opens with his record of the later stages of a voyage from the Downs to Jersey in December 1754. It then continues with his journal of a week patrolling off the Cotentin ports and Saint Malo from 21 June 1756 onwards, when he was on the Boscawen (Pierre Labey). Back in Jersey he stayed to assist in fitting out the Peter while the Boscawen set off to attack French shipping south of Ushant. His log reopened on 29 August, when the Peter sailed from Jersey. It records the taking of the Marie, examining a Dutchman, of chasing and being chased by an unknown ship, and then of meeting a prize taken by Captain P Le Cronier in the Defiance near Belle Isle. Finally, on 6 September, the log closed and was signed by Jean Benest before handing it over to their captors.

At the back of this log Etur records the navigational instructions for entering Saint Helier harbour, which are of local interest although some of the landmarks are no longer identifiable. Among the other papers, and of even greater interest to the French, for immediate circulation to all corsairs and patrol boats, were the current recognition signals to be observed by Island privateers; until changed (as they were, frequently) their use by the French could entrap any hapless privateers. Those instructions should have been thrown overboard as soon as it was apparent that the Peter was going to be taken.

She was bought by Foucault et fils, of Lorient, and set out as L'heureux Union corsair under the command of Captain Pierre Ives Ie Rousse of Saint Malo, and was rated at 40 tons with 4 cannon, eight swivels and 48 men, her draught was 5 foot laden and 3 foot unladen.

All this is known because she was re-taken by HMS Antelope (Captain Samuel Hood) on 24 May 1757. It is noted that her former owners, J Dolbel and G Rowcliffe claimed her, James Pipon of London acting on their behalf. She was released to them after paying half her agreed value as salvage to Hood and his crew.

Long imprisonment

Meanwhile Benest, Etur, described as a prize-master, T Benest, pilot, and 21 of the crew were not discharged from Dinan prison until 3 April 1757, when they returned to Jersey on the Three Brothers, C Bidard, a cartel ship although some, including Francis Balleine, a sailor, did not return until 21 July, on the Samborne cartel. Their long confinement was at least in part due to British reluctance to hasten prisoner exchanges.

From the summer of 1755 a toll had been taken of French ships carrying munitions and reinforcements to Canada and Louisburg, thereby incarcerating the most able-bodied and experienced French seamen; to defer their release on cartel exchanges for as long as possible was advantageous to the British, since France could not expand her navy effectively without the petty officers and able seamen who were in short supply. In consequence the Islands' privateersmen and merchant seaman also suffered longer than average periods in French prisons until the early summer of 1757.

The last information we have about this privateer is in a letter from George Bandinel to Daniel Messervy, in London, on 30 May 1758, a year after her recapture: "The Prince Ferdinand, formerly the Peter goes to Morrow [ie on her first cruise]. Mr Gosset the present Armateur cannot remember the name - but calls her the Prince Ferrand. This recaptured and renamed privateer had been commissioned on 26 April 1758, with J Denyze as captain; rated at 40 tons, she carried 4 cannon, 12 swivels and 30 men and was provisioned for two months. Her named owners were W Patriarche, G Rowcliffe and J Dolbel, but neither British nor French archives throw any further light on her.

It is rarely possible to piece together such a complete history of the vicissitudes of one privateer from the miscellany of documents held in archival repositories on both sides of the Channel; they illustrate both the changes and chances of life at sea as well as the very occasional bonus of serendipity in the large corpus of documents being researched.
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