The Strategic Failure of French Privateering

Clearly French privateering during the Revolutionary period failed in its perceived strategy: to cripple British marine trade.

The Strategic Failure of French Privateering During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period
By Mitch Williamson

J.M. Thompson in his book THE FRENCH REVOLUTION: “Privateering … was a branch of the service particularly popular amongst sailors who disliked discipline and hoped for private gain. It was encouraged by the ex-privateer Dalabarde, whose regime as minister of marine ran concurrently with that of Bouchotte at the war office, from April ’93 to April ’94. Privateering inflicted heavy losses on our unprotected coastal shipping. Some of the privateers had made as many as sixty prizes before they were themselves captured by the British navy. Ten years later we were losing four hundred ships a year [to privateering].” Yet despite this Britain and her dominions had 16,079 merchant ships in 1792, amounting to 1 ½ million tons of shipping, employing 118,286 men during that year of peace. By 1800 there was 1.8 million tons of merchant shipping, this expansion despite the warfare and privateering waged upon the oceans. In contrast the French merchant marine was almost driven from the high seas. Indeed, if it had not been some merchant coasters that continued to operate by sailing under the protection of shore batteries, such home ports as Brest would have had great difficulty in receiving victuals and materials. Clearly French privateering during the Revolutionary period failed in it’s perceived strategy: to cripple British marine trade.

This is not to say that the French and their allies made poor privateers, or that their efforts were lackadaisical. They did their best: but even their best efforts could not have had sufficient impact on British marine trade. Possibly greater efforts during the Napoleonic navy period for a much-expanded commerce-raiding role, as attempted during WW II by the German Kriegsmarine, for the main fleet ships-of-the-line, could have diverted sufficient resources to the detriment Britain’s wartime objectives.

Previous to the Revolution the local parlements of France had different prize laws for different ports. The French Revolutionary governments, especially early on in this period, often simply confiscated prize goods and ships, whereas in the British prize system the government would purchase at a value arrived at by the adjudication of the Admiralty Court(s). Whereas the incentive was largely reduced for French Revolutionary naval officers, the British system encouraged the taking of prizes to the point that it actually encouraged the taking of merchant shipping and rich cargo over warships as the latter fought back and had much less value after their capture. The British government tried to introduce measures to encourage the taking of warships by tying honours and promotions to the capture of enemy vessels. ‘Head money’ was paid, at 5 pounds for each crew member of the enemy ship, for both privateers and warships. Parliament often voted sums of money to victorious fleets, to be distributed among the fleet in the same way as prize money. However such measures did little to reduce the lust for prize money among many British naval officers.

Despite French the use of privateers against British commerce since 1690, it is doubtful if it was ever more than a nuisance against a determined British State. Legend suggests that it was highly profitable, however analysis shows us, that, on average, privateering barely broke even.

The premier corsair port St. Malo in Britanny sent out 28 ships, which captured 38 vessels during 1796. Nine of the privateers were captured by the British. Nantes fitted out 16 privateers in 1793. The whole effort declined over the period. Between 1803 and 1814, 178 privateers were active from St. Malo. The British navy captured 77, almost half fitted out. Only 19 privateer vessels were sent out in 1809, of these only nine displaced more than 100 tons. In 1810, France had 195 corsairs operating with a complement of 9,923 men. Less than half of these were still active by 1812.

Napoleon’s post-Trafalgar strategy was essentially that of the earlier French Revolutionary governments, albeit more intense and methodical: to wage a naval war of attrition against England by destruction of its trade through means of commerce raiding, and so force it to terms. The British certainly took it seriously enough. The French actions at sea eventually doubled the Lloyd’s of London insurance rate for British cargo, from 2.5% of the value of the voyage to 5%! Still, during the same period the French merchant marine was virtually swept from the seas with no real hope of return. Neutral shipping was so harried by the British that their own insurance rates for French-bound voyages were in the 20%-30% range. Occasionally this jumped as high as 50%, a crippling burden that discouraged trade with Napoleon’s empire and reduced many continental Europeans to poverty.

The British titled their collective fiat upon neutral shipping the “Orders in Council”. Their purpose was twofold: to embarrass France and Napoleon by the prohibition of direct import and export trade (which for them could only be carried on by neutrals), and at the same time to force into the Continent all the British-borne products that it could absorb. The expenses incurred by neutrally-flagged vessels forced to stop at British ports, both coming and going, as well as by British tariffs and sundry inconveniences, were passed on to the continental consumer in the form of ever higher prices.

Napoleon’s response to the Orders in Council were a series of decrees, the most important being the “Berlin Decree” of 1806 and the “Milan Decree” of 1807. Collectively, they prohibited the import of all British goods into the Continent, with any violator of this form of blockade liable to seizure by French ships at sea (mainly privateers) or by Imperial port authorities. French vassal states and allies, the most important being Russia at the time, were forced (or persuaded) to go along.

But Napoleon’s policy proved a poor one. It actually weakened French privateering efforts, for instead of be-deviling the enemy on distant, under-defended sea lanes, many now boarded ships near French-controlled ports, seizing the cargo and often the vessels themselves on the flimsiest pretexts that they carried British goods – even small smuggled items belonging to the common seamen being taken into account. In effect, they were pirates operating in European waters. After surviving or avoiding an outrage of this kind, neutral ship captains then faced additional danger from opportunistic port officials. Small wonder that beleaguered neutrals found British trade much safer. In large part, Napoleon’s own heavy-handed commercial policies isolated his empire and hastened its decline.


1. British Privateering Enterprises in the Eighteenth Century

David J. Sharkey 359.000941 1990 BRI

2. Parameters of British Naval Power 1650-1850

Edited by Michael Duffy 359.941 1992 PAR

3. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization 1793-1815

Brian Lavery ISBN 0 85177 521 7 Revised Edition 1990

The author wishes to thank Albert C.E. Parker for the invaluable additional information and his insightful suggestions.

Courtesy of Mitch Williamson.
Image: Norwegian Harbor of Refuge by Hans Gude. Courtesy of Particular Friend Pauline’s Pirates and Privateers.

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3 Comments on The Strategic Failure of French Privateering

  1. I have to say that it would be wrong for me to show any indignation about this post given that my French ancestors were privateering in American waters at the time. It is gallant in you to give me picture credit there dearest. Merci beaucoup!

  2. And shoots if I didn’t forget to congratulate you and The Dear Surprise for being mentioned at The New York Times Opinion Pages:

    Well done and well deserved!

  3. The Dear Knows // March 28, 2011 at 5:10 pm //

    I’m sure your ancestors were giving the Brits in American waters hell! And thank you for the congratulations, it was pretty exciting! But it really had nothing to do with the site, we’re just the only one who has that specific article so they couldn’t help but reference us. Still made me dance with joy, of course!

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