Thursday, 20 March 2014

The True History and Tragic Demise of the Pirate Luke Ryan (Pt III)

* Hi, if you've been following the story of the Dubliner Luke Ryan, you'll be happy to see that this is the final post.

And it marks the end for the Irish smuggler & pirate turned British Privateer, turned French Corsair and finally, Hero of the American Revolution.

Such was the high-risk, high-octane life that Ryan lived, he could never have expected to have enjoyed an old age surrounded by the chests of gold he took on the high seas....

But despite four appointments with the hangman, our hero came very, very close to winning a comfortable retirement....

A Warning To Others - A Pirate Hangs in Chains at Entrance To London Port

* The History of the Dread Pirate, Luke Ryan, Part III - In which our hero gets a little greedy and ends up with an appointment with the noose....

But by the summer of 1780, such was the mayhem being wrought at sea by the Black fleet and others, the always murky issue of American Letters of Marque had become a major diplomatic problem for the French, British and Americans. With all three nations coming to the realisation that the war would have to end, the French were becoming particularly irritated by actions of the privateers who were turning their waters into a lawless zone. The American Congress, not happy to have the wild Irish plundering international trade in their name, responded to growing pressure from the French and instructed a reluctant Franklin to revoke the commissions given to non-Americans sailing (nominally) under the thirteen-striped flag of the US.

As a Congressman and Ambassador, Franklin was bound by the views of his Government. Those captains and sailors who were not American citizens were going to be cut loose to fend for themselves.

As the politicians manoeuvred in the background, it was business as usual for Ryan, who had by now taken command of the formidable, three-decked, thirty-two-gun frigate Calonne, purchased by Torris from the French navy and crewed by 250 men.  Ryan had also secured French citizenship for himself, as a protection against summery execution as a rebellious Irish pirate. Or so he thought. 

He remained unaware that Benjamin Franklin and the American Congress would no longer offer American protection to “foreign” crewed letters of marque.

The end came for Luke Ryan off the Firth of Forth on the coast of Scotland in April, 1781. In the waters off St Abbe’s Head, Ryan’s frigate Calonne, under French colours and crewed by 250 Irish, Dutch, French and American sailors, had captured a fat little prize, the merchant brig Nancy. Luke Ryan wanted to deal with business quickly and bargained a ransom with the Nancy’s master, a Captain John Ramsay. A price of three hundred guineas was agreed and the Nancy was cut loose. 

Captain Ramsay would stay on board the Calonne as a guest of Luke Ryan until the agreed ransom had been handed over. As dusk began to fall on the evening of 16 April, Ryan’s lookout shouted ‘sail-ho!’ as a number of ships were spotted on the horizon. Ryan was suspicious, a force of ships spotted in enemy waters would certainly give him pause for thought. 

But Ramsey, a quick-thinking Scot, observed to his captor that the ships were bound to be Greenland whalers, on their way to the Arctic. Unarmed whalers meant rich pickings and Ryan fell for what turned out to be expertly proffered bait.

The ‘easy prizes’ turned out to be nothing of the kind. The Calonne was actually running up to the Berwick, a Royal Navy first-rater of seventy-four guns. And worse, the Berwick had an escort, the two-decker, thirty-six-gun Belle Poule, which had manoeuvred in the failing light to come up behind the Calonne and was quickly opening up with broadsides. 

Ryan immediately engaged the Belle Poule, hoping that he could knock away a mast and make his escape before the Berwick could come up and catch him between two fires. But after a heavy exchange of guns, lasting an hour, the Berwick did arrive and Ryan was forced to strike his colours. He could not run. And to fight on meant certain annihilation. No frigate, no matter how well commanded and crewed, could stand the fire of a first-rater and her consort for very long.

Ryan was initially treated as a French officer, until Captain Patton of the Berwick noticed that this French gentleman did not have a great command of his own language, and seemed to speak with what sounded suspiciously like a rough Irish accent. The Calonne was taken into Edinburgh and Ryan, by now suspected to be the notorious Irish pirate, was transferred to Edinburgh Castle, charged with high treason and jailed to await extradition to London. 

The other Irish ‘rebels’ were also imprisoned while the Americans, French and other nationalities (who came from sovereign states that were “officially” at war with Britain) were sent to be exchanged.

On 10 October 1781, Ryan and his first mate Thomas Coppinger were brought under heavy escort to London by road. They were presented at the Admiralty Sessions Court at the Old Bailey and charged with high treason and the piratical taking of vessels. When he came to trial in March 1782, Ryan still insisted on speaking French, even giving his name as ‘Luc Ryan’ and protesting that he was a naturalised citizen of King Louis and therefore liable to treatment as a bona fide prisoner of war.

However, nobody believed him, with one report in the London press wryly noting that while his French was awful, for an Irishman, he spoke English ‘tolerably well’. And as an Irish subject of the British Crown, he couldn't claim French citizenship in any case. Luke Ryan was a traitor and a rebel who could claim the protection of no foreign King.

Any doubts about the identity of Ryan, who was still claiming to be a French officer, were dashed by the appearance of a string of witnesses from his native Rush, Co Dublin, who testified to his real identity when he was eventually brought to trial. The witnesses who swore evidence included local land-owners, merchants some of his cousins and even fellow smugglers from Rush.

There would be payback for those from Rush who helped send Ryan to the gallows. In May 1782, Ryan’s former officer and fellow Rush man Patrick Dowling returned home in the Fear Not privateer. Dowling landed with a large party of men at Skerries and burnt the houses of several witnesses against Ryan, including the home of the Revenue agent Frederick Connygham, in retaliation for the part they played in condemning their shipmates.

 Flags of Privateers 

In London, Ryan and Coppinger had been charged with an eye-watering list of crimes, including mayhem, murder, mutiny, treason and piracy against George III. 

Ryan’s defence was simple: he may indeed have carried out all of these acts, but he did so as a lawful privateer for the Americans and the French in a time of war. The Irish man was not likely to get a sympathetic hearing from the jury or from the notoriously hard Justice Sir James Marriott, a hanging judge if ever there was one.

Judge Marriott - Compassionate looking Chap

While awaiting his fate, Ryan was joined at Newgate Prison by his former shipmate Edward Wilde of the Black Princess who had been captured off the Scillies. The Royal Navy had also apprehended the rest of Ryan’s squadron, officers James Sweetman and Matthew Knight from Rush were also up for trial, and were convicted, in London in the summer of 1782.

Ryan’s trial, in March 1782, effectively turned on his citizenship. If he could prove he was French he would go free. If he was found guilty of being Irish and a subject of King George, he would hang at Wapping.

There were witnesses for the defence who swore that Ryan was the French-born son of an officer serving in Dillon’s Regiment in France and at one stage, they even produced a forged parish register from a little village in France which claimed to prove this. It was a touching story, the infant Luke had been brought to Rush to live with his relatives after the tragic death of his brave father in France. 

Justice Marriot was having none of it. 

Ryan was Irish. And Ryan would hang. 

After three weeks (a lengthy trial for that period) the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all charges. His former shipmate and fellow Rush man, Thomas Coppinger turned state’s witness and earned himself a pardon. Edward Wilde (McCatter) and two other Dubliners, Nicholas Field of Skerries and Edward Duffy of Rush were convicted of piracy and treason along with Ryan.

On 14 May 1782, the four men (along with another officer, Thomas Farrell of the Black Princess) were sentenced to a particularly brutal form of execution and one that was meted out to the worst pirates of the era. They were to be ‘caged’ at Wapping on the London docks. 

Caging involved first partially strangling the condemned man before wrapping him in heavy chains and then locking him into a large iron cage that would be hung over the Thames river.  As the tide rose, the cages would gradually slip beneath the water, drowning the condemned man even as he struggled for his last breath through the upper bars of his small iron prison.

Caged - A Pirate's Death

The condemned men could appeal and were sent back to Newgate prison while the final legal formalities ran their course. At this stage, Ryan was joined in London by his wife and five children, who had lived in Rush through his career as a privateer.

Few could have held out hope for the Irishman. During a lengthy and legally arcane appeal process, he was ordered for execution four times but was reprieved on each occasion. And Ryan still had one card to play.

Negotiations on ending the American Revolutionary War had begun and it seems Ryan still had some friends amongst the Americans and French, who began to put pressure on the British government to offer a pardon to the Irishman. 

The British, who had been forced into a humiliating retreat from their US colonies but were anxious to normalise relations and get on with business, were mindful to hear these appeals. Lord Shelbourne, the Home Secretary, was instructed by the British cabinet to pardon Ryan, but execute one of the other pirates as ‘an example to the others’. Ryan and his four officers would be pardoned, but an unfortunate Irish sailor called Daniel Casey, a first mate from the privateer fleet, would be caged at Wapping.

Hostilities between Britain, the United States and France formally ended on 27 February 1783 and Ryan was finally and formally pardoned and released on February 9th, 1784.

There had been a delay due to the significant legal debts Ryan had run up while defending his life and he had remained in Newgate Prison after his official pardon until the French government liquidated some of Torris’s assets and sent funds to London to clear the lawyers' bills.

The war was over. But the spoils had still to be divided, and Ryan would now face a new fight to regain the money he had won during his brief, but spectacularly successful, career. Now settled with his family in Hampshire, Ryan began legal action against his former agent in Dunkirk, Torris, and his bankers in Roscoff for over £70,000. A huge sum in the 1780s.

There was one final twist in the story. The bankers claimed that a woman, who had presented herself as Ryan’s ‘wife’, had called on them and claimed the Dubliner’s fortune. As The Gentleman’s Magazine of June, 1789 reported, the bankers ‘ having trusted a woman passed on them as his wife, they suffered her to draw the whole out on his conviction, and she defrauded him of every shilling.’ Whether this ‘mystery woman’, who was able to hoodwink a bank that was well accustomed to dealing with pirate money ever existed, we can only guess. Could she have been an ex-mistress? An agent of Torris or of one of his other associates? What is certain is that Ryan would never see his fortune.

The Dubliner was declared bankrupt in late 1788 and arrested on 25 February 1789 by the High Sheriff of Hampshire on foot of a debt of £200 owed to local doctors who had inoculated him and his family against smallpox, using the recently developed Jenner method.  Luke Ryan died in the King’s Bench Debtors Prison in London on 18 June 1789, of blood poisoning caused by an infected wound. He was one year short of his fortieth birthday.

Even then, there were some in France who claimed that Ryan had not died at all and that he had used one last trick to con the British authorities, escape to France and reclaim his fortune. It is a romantic notion. And one that would be in keeping with the story of Luke Ryan.


The Obituary of Luke Ryan, from the Gentleman’s Magazine, London June, 1789

‘In the King’s Bench prison, Luke Ryan, captain of the Black Prince privateer during the war, who captured more vessels belonging to Great Britain than any other single ship during the war. The various scenes he went through are astonishing. He sailed firm the port of Rush, in Ireland, early in the year 1778, in the Friendship, a smuggling cutter of eighteen six-pounders, whose name he afterwards changed to the Black Prince, and did more injury to the trade of these kingdoms than any single commander ever did. He was taken in 1781 by one of our ships of war, tried as a pirate at the Old Bailey, condemned, and four different times ordered for execution, but reprieved; and on peace being made, obtained his pardon through the Court of France. In 1781 he had realized near 20,000l. by his piracies, and lodged this sum in his bankers hands; but having trusted a woman passed on them as his wife, they suffered her to draw the whole out on his conviction, and she defrauded him of every shilling.’


  1. Great read. I'm planning to build the Black Prince wood model kit and was brought here in search of imagery or more information. You didn't managed to find any descriptions/designs/pictures of his first ship?


    1. Hi Marco - glad you enjoyed it - I don't have any particular design specs etc for the ships - finding any info on Luke is difficult - and if you are into building models I'm sure you have a better idea of what it might have looked like than I do - thanks again - joe

  2. Hi Joe
    I wonder were some of Luke Ryans Rush neighbours who testified against him were not too happy with the attention that his exploits were having on their own Smuggling and Privateering activities.

    1. It's entirely possible - as the full story in my book makes out - the area was basically a pirate cove full of smugglers - notorious for it!

  3. Thanks for the interesting story. It would be a good movie.
    John from Florida

    1. Thanks John, Glad you enjoyed it - it would indeed make a great movie - and there was a lot of pirate activity around florida, as you may well know - best -joe

  4. I enjoyed this immensely. Cheers.

  5. Excellent articles I enjoyed reading them ...Was just wondering did you ever find the name of his wife or the names of his children.


Hi - I welcome comments - even if they don't agree with what I say or simply don't like it. But I always try to treat people with respect and I would appreciate the same in return. There's no point in calling me names or getting into personal abuse because there are only a handful of people in the world whose opinion of me I respect and - no offense - you are unlikely to be one of them.