Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The True History of The Pirate Luke Ryan & Benjamin Franklin's Black Fleet (PT II)

*This is Part II of the Luke Ryan Story, for Pt I, please see my previous blog.

* Dubliner Luke Ryan had sailed his ship out of home waters as a British privateer to fight the Americans. But he had decided that profit and duty would be best served by turning pirate for the French Crown, and going to war against the British Navy for the freedom of the United States. 

In Dunkirk, he placed himself in the service of a man called Torris - a sort of super-agent for promising young pirates. 

A Model Of The Black Prince - Ryan's Ship

* Jean Francois Torris was an armateur – a middleman who supplied the capital needed to arm, outfit and commission the privateers – and his native Dunkirk was a privateer’s port, as close to a pirate town as you could get in northern Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Privateering in Dunkirk was big business and was administrated by the French civil service; revenue came from charging rewards, fines and duties levied on behalf of Louis XVI. The French government supplied the port facilities for the conversion and fitting out of smuggling vessels and sold former naval ships for privateering. The town was a magnet for rogues and adventurers of all nations, drawn by the prospects of high-rewards for high-risks. And now, through his controlling stake in the Friendship, the Frenchman Torris was in the slightly strange position of owning a privateer crewed and commanded by Irishmen and (nominally, at least) carrying a letter of marque from the English admiralty.

Ships of The Port Of Dunkirk 1760s

The Irish smuggling ship, turned British Letter of Marque was now a renegade French privateer. And it was bound for Dublin in May 1779 with a cargo of brandy and other contraband goods, to turn a profit for its French owner. However, the ship ran foul of the ever vigilant revenue men, who seized the Friendship and its crew at Rogerstown, near Rush shortly after they docked.

Wilde and his crew were thrown into the Black Dog Prison, close to the quays in the heart of Dublin at Cornmarket. Ryan, by now a very worldly twenty-five-year-old, had not been on board when the ship and its crew was seized and soon hit on a plan to free his crew and retake the Friendship. He organised a force of smugglers from Rush to go up the River Liffey in armed river ferry boats, they subdued the guards in the dead of night and sprung Wilde and the rest of the men from The Black Dog.They then boarded the Friendship, cut the anchor lines and sailed her back to Rush, along with a small group of unwilling passengers, Revenue men who had been surprised on board the ship by the sudden arrival of the men from Rush. After taking on additional crew in an inlet in North County Dublin, Ryan sportingly dropped the Dublin Revenue officers across the Irish Sea in Dorset before making away for Dunkirk.

Remains of the Debtors Prison - Close to the Old Black Dog in Dublin

Once out of reach of the British revenue and navy at Dunkirk, it was time for Luke Ryan and the Friendship to change their identities and sign up to help Benjamin Franklin win the War of Independence.

Franklin had been on the lookout for likely vessels to carry American letters of marque. Jean François Torris was able to offer the American ambassador to the court of King Louis XVI some likely candidates, and top of the list was the lightning-fast Irish cutter with its enterprising captain and a crew that, after the Black Dog breakout, owed Ryan their lives and their liberty. Torris sold Franklin on the idea, the Friendship would be renamed the Black Prince and her Irish crew would sail under American colours.

Torris and Ryan wanted profit. Franklin wanted chaos. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement even if there was one slight sticking point.

 As a pirate, wanted by the British, Luke Ryan could not legally command a US privateer. So Torris and the Dubliner came up with a simple solution, an unemployed merchant seaman from Boston called Stephen Marchant would be the nominal captain and front-man for the operation. Ben Franklin was told the Black Prince was sailing under an American captain. But it was a twenty-five-year-old Dubliner, a pirate, smuggler and wanted man, who was really calling the shots.

The Black Prince went to work, sailing from Dunkirk in June 1779 and quickly snapping up eight British prizes which were sailed back to the French port of Morlaix. In July, Ryan and his ship captured a further thirteen British coastal trading vessels, which were stripped of their cargoes and then ransomed back to the English owners. A Waterford brig (a quick and highly-manoeuvrable ship with two square-rigged masts) called the Sally-Anne was one of eighteen vessels brought into the ports of Morlaix and Dunkirk after a particularly productive cruise to the waters off the South West coast of England. In September, the Black Prince, which now included another Rush man as officer, one Patrick Dowling, went on a longer cruise, all the way up to the Outer Hebrides off the far north west coast of Scotland to seize an impressive thirty-four prizes.

Part of the secret of the Black Prince’s success was its ability to stalk its prey while projecting an pacific appearance. Sailing with its gun-ports closed (but with slow-match burning and cannon-fully loaded, ready to be run out at a moment’s command) it could look like an innocent trading vessel.

Privateers like Ryan would go to such lengths as making their ships look scruffy, ill-handled and as different from a tautly sailed and obviously disciplined and dangerous man-o-war as possible.

It was only when you got up close to the cutter that you might notice the extra gun-ports, the 70-odd, evil-looking crewmen packed on deck and the murderous swivel guns bolted to the rails.

By then it was usually too late. Ryan and his crew were close enough and well-armed enough to threaten a broadside that would blow your ship to matchsticks. If you resisted and they were able to board with cutlasses, flint-lock pistols and deadly musketoons (a primitive form of shot-gun, often loaded with glass or old nails) they would make short and bloody work of any resistance. Worthy prizes were sailed back to friendly ports to be stripped, sold or ransomed back to their owners. Vessels that didn’t warrant that effort were burned to the waterline. Ryan, the smuggler, contraband runner and sometimes fisherman, knew the waters around Britain and Ireland like few others.

Benjamin Franklin was impressed. There was consternation in London, where the Black Prince was now causing great dread and distress to the merchants and money men of the City. By this stage, the nominal American captain Marchant had given up his paper command and returned to the US, to leave the Irish to get on with the job. Torris and Matthew Wilde (or ‘McCatter’) sourced a new vessel, which was named the privateer Black Princess and put to sea. Their trusted Rush compatriot   Patrick Dowling would take over the Black Prince under an American commission.

Ryan, who had been ill, now wanted to come out of the shadows. Together with Torris, he wrote to Benjamin Franklin seeking permission to outfit a new privateer with the Rush man as captain, sailing, officially for the first time, with an American commission. Franklin was now in on the secret. He realised that he had been hoodwinked by Torris and Ryan. But the Founding Father was impressed. He recognised in Ryan the kind of successful, leader of men who could get the job done. And it was war, whatever the legal niceties. He responded by buying a new ship, the former French man-o-war Sans Peur (or the Fear Not to her English-speaking crew), making Ryan its official master (though not making him an official commissioned officer of the American navy) and setting her on British shipping. Franklin also presented Ryan with a highly-prized ‘night glass’, a telescope that had been specially adapted to make the most of dim light. Franklin may have been exercising his noted sense of humour as a night glass was the perfect accessory for a pirate.

The Fear Not was refitted and sailed in early 1780 for the Orkney Islands, where she seized sixteen prizes on her first voyage under her new master, Luke Ryan. With eighteen cannon and twelve swivel guns, the Fear Not was a match for many armed ships and could claim to justify her defiant name.

There were now three Irish-commanded and crewed ships sailing under American commission for Benjamin Franklin against the British. And while Wilde and Dowling were doing their bit for the Revolution, it was Ryan in the Fear Not who was really making a name for himself. The ship caused mayhem along the Scottish coast. When supplies ran low, Fear Not sailed into one of the more isolated ports and demanded victualling at the point of  eighteen cannon. On more than one occasion, Ryan was said to have blown up the storehouses of a Scots merchant who was not coming across with the goods.

On 28 July 1780, the Dublin newspaper, The Freeman’s Journal, reported on ‘letters recently arrived from Scotland’, which ‘mentioned that the Fearnought (sic) privateer, Luke Ryan commander, landed at Stornaway, in the island of Lewis, and after plundering the town, carried off the principal inhabitants hostages, as ransomers for the houses.’ To the British, Ryan and his men were fighting for the Americans, but they were not American citizens, they were Irish pirates and rebels. If captured, it was the hangman’s noose in short order. But as one American officer who came into contact with Ryan observed, ‘I have sailed with many brave men, but none the equal to this Captain Luke Ryan for skill and bravery’.

Torris, the hard-nosed French armateur, also appears to have had a soft spot for Ryan. On at least one occasion he is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin to accede to Ryan’s request for a formal commission in the Continental Navy and US citizenship. Ryan himself wrote that he would give ‘the last drop of blood to gain honour for the American flag.’ Franklin never did make Ryan and his men an official part of the Continental Navy, with the protections that this would have brought. They always operated in the para-legal world of the privateer. The American ambassador to the French court may simply have not had the time to formalise Ryan's status further. But it is also possible that when it came to dealing with the British, as it surely must, it suited Franklin and his fellow politicians to have plausible deniability of the Irish privateers. Negotiations with the defeated British would be hard enough without having to raise the issue of Irish rebels and pirates who sailed in shadowy waters between the law and lawlessness.

Franklin may also have been irked by Ryan and his fellow captains’ failure to bring in as many prisoners as he wanted for exchange. Strangely, the Irish privateers seemed to be more intent on treasure than the more complicated business of catching and holding British prisoners.

As the Fear Not joined the Black Prince and Black Princess at sea, the British navy came under increasing pressure to do something. There were reports in the English newspapers that two Royal Navy frigates had been sent out to look for the Irish privateers.

Luke Ryan and his fellow Irish privateers were about to become the victims of their own success. Since the middle of 1779, events had gone Ryan’s way. He had sailed in and commanded five different privateers, Black Prince, Black Princess, Fear Not, La Marechal and Calonne, capturing an impressive 114 prizes. He had ransomed seventy-five captains of British vessels and exchanged over 160 British seamen. He and his fellow privateers from Rush had sailed under three different flags (not counting flags of deception) and fought on both sides of the war, albeit briefly for the British.  In a little over two years, they had been by far the most active and successful captains in a privateering fleet that had destroyed 733 British and Irish prizes with cargoes valued in excess of two million pounds.

During a debate in the British House of Lords at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, peers were told that the actions of Yankee privateers during the recent conflict had cost the British merchant navy an estimated £8m in damages. This did not take into account the huge problems caused to the British war effort and the Royal Navy, which was effectively forced to fight a sea war on the ‘wrong’ side of the Atlantic. Benjamin Franklin’s proxy sea war, fought with American captains and Irish and French privateers, had worked even better than he could have hoped.

* Final Part of the story... Here


  1. Josef,
    Excellent write-up on the history of Luke Ryan and the Black Prince. This is more detail than I have seen in several historical accounts I have in published books on the American Revolution, as well as on-line.
    One question, if you don't mind: Do you happen to know the flag the Black Prince sailed under? I may have missed it in your writings.
    Thank you,
    Scott (USA)

    1. Hi Scott, glad you found it interesting - as for the flag the ships sailed under - they were privateers - so it was a case of any flag that suited them. They were never officially part of the US navy or anything like that - the full story is in my book - Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem - The Blackest Hearted Villains from Irish History - which is available from Amazon etc - thanks - Joe


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