The Buccaneering career of Robert Surcouf
Robert Surcouf was born in 1773 in the Breton port of St Malo. Positioned in a relatively poor part of France, for centuries the only career options for its inhabitants had been fishing, farming or the church. But all that changed in the 18th century. France was frequently at war with Britain, and the French government encouraged la guerre de course, authorising privately owned warships (called privateers) to attack British commerce. St Malo was the perfect place to base such activity. Well protected, yet close to the main trade routes to Bristol and London, the port was soon a centre of privateering. Now there was a fourth very lucrative, if highly dangerous, career option for its residents. It was perhaps with these risks in mind that Surcouf’s parents sent their son to Dinan to train for the priesthood. But privateering was in his blood. His great grandfather had commanded a privateer at the time of Louis XIV, and his mother was related to the corsair René Duguay-Trouin. Aged thirteen, Surcouf ran away from the seminary and enlisted on a merchantman bound for Cadiz.
For the next few years Surcouf worked in the French slave trade taking them from the Horn of Africa and Madagascar to work on plantations in the French islands in the Indian Ocean. He proved to be an excellent seaman who learned quickly. By 1790 he was a lieutenant even though still a teenager, and in 1794 he was given command of a small slave ship called the Créole. When the Revolutionary government in Paris banned the slave trade, the outbreak of war with Britain presented him with the opportunity to become a privateer instead. Much of Britain’s lucrative trade with India and China passed close to the same islands he had supplied so recently with slaves.
In 1795 Surcouf took command of the schooner Émilie, armed with four 6-pounder guns and with a 32-man crew. In spite of failing to get authorisation as a privateer from the Governor of Mauritius, he set out to attack British shipping. It was hazardous attacking British ships, many of which were armed, with such a tiny ship. On one occasion he had to sail through a reef at night to shake off two larger British opponents that were chasing him. But he steadily began to succeed in his new calling. On the 8th of December he captured his first prize, a small ship called the Penguin loaded with timber. The following month he captured four more ships in the Ganges delta, one of which he decided would make a better privateer then his own, so he transferred his four guns and crew to her. At the end of January he closed with another potential prize, only to realise too late that she was a 26 gun East Indiaman with a crew of 150 called the Triton. Surcouf’s crew was down to only 22 men. Unable to flee without arousing suspicion, he raised a British flag, gathered his little band around him, and closed with his huge opponent. At the last moment he replaced his British flag with a tricolour, and boarded the Indiaman. In the 45-minute battle that followed the Triton’s captain and first officer were both killed, after which the crew surrendered. Flushed with this spectacular victory, Surcouf returned to Mauritius.
Far from the hero’s welcome he so richly deserved, the prize court on the French island ruled that as he had not been authorised as a privateer, his prizes would go to the state. Outraged by this decision, he returned to France to argue his case in the domestic courts. In September 1797 he won his case and was awarded 660,000 francs, although the French government never paid him more than a fraction of this sum.
Surcouf’s reputation as a privateer was established now, and he found his services in demand. In 1798 he took command of the much larger Clarisse, a 14-gun privateer manned by 120 sailors, and returned to the Indian Ocean, this time with the correct authorisation. Over the next two years he ranged far and wide from Africa in the west to Java in the east, capturing fifteen prizes with the aggression and disregard for the odds that became his hallmark. A typical attack occurred when he came across two 20-gun merchantmen loading pepper off the island of Sumatra. Without hesitation he lay himself alongside one ship while sending his brother off in the ship’s boats to capture the other. After a fierce battle lasting half an hour both ships were in his hands.
But the action that Surcouf is best remembered for occurred in 1800, when he had been given a yet larger privateer, the 18-gun Confiance. On 7 October 1800, off Sand Heads, near Calcutta, Confiance met the large 40-gun East Indiaman Kent. Out-gunned, and out-numbered three to one in crew, he still swept along side and boarded his opponent. It took Surcouf an hour and a half to capture his prize. Ship and cargo were valued at £60K, a fortune at the time.
Sourcouf returned home in 1802, having had to throw most of the Confiance’s guns and anchors over board to evade the British blockade of the French coast. He was greeted as a national hero, feted by Napoleon, was one of the first recipients of the Légion d'Honneur and was offered a commission as captain in the French Navy, which he refused. Instead he returned to St. Malo, where he married his fiancée Marie Blaize who had been patiently waiting for him. They would go on to have five children together. Using his considerable wealth, he began building and arming privateers for others to command, but the lure of the sea was too much for him. In 1807, after five years ashore, he returned to the Indian Ocean for one last cruise in command of a new privateer, the 18-gun Revenant. News of his arrival in Indian waters led to a doubling in insurance premiums. Over the next two years he took a further 16 prizes. One infuriated merchant captain he captured is said to have told Surcouf that "You French fight for money while we fight for honour." Surcouf retorted "So each of us fights for what he lacks most."
In 1807 he returned to St Malo, where he settled back into family life. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, he became a substantial shipowner, trading in African slaves once more, as well as fish with Newfoundland. He died in 1827, and was buried in St Malo with military honours.