Sunday, 12 April 2009

Piracy in the Blood?

The desperate activities of the pirates from Somalia are currently attracting world-wide attention and universal condemnation but the Channel Islands were once notorious too as centres for the sea robbers.

Now as then, the ransom was a favourite method for extracting wealth without too many questions asked and it suits the tactics of the small, lightly armed and fast vessels with just a dozen or two fearless men on board.

Blatant piracy was substantially curtailed around the Channel after about 1700 but it was not eliminated and many vessels sailed from Guernsey and Jersey with official “Privateering Licences” issued by the Admiralty in London and they often behaved more like pirates and continued to ransom captured vessels and their crews, long after London had decreed that they should not.

The extensive smuggling trade also meant that many hundreds of illegally armed vessels sailed out of the Channel Islands in peacetime because it was not against the law in these regulation havens to arm vessels. There were frequent and ferocious battles and many were killed or injured by the Channel Islands smugglers and just occasionally some of the culprits were captured to be punished as pirates. More usually though they died in battle or were sent to serve in the Navy or they evaded capture altogether and prospered………..

Philip Bailhache was the commander of the “Resolution” licensed privateer lugger of Jersey in 1782 and he and his crew of 24 men went to sea armed with just 1 small cannon, 2 swivel guns plus hand arms. Their lugger was about 30 feet long and would have been remarkably similar to the craft that the Somalians use today.
Clement Bailhache commanded the tiny “Surprize” lugger with a crew of 12 men and the “Enterprize” lugger of just 10 tons at about the same time.

The Le Cocqs were active in all the islands and around Weymouth as successful smugglers and privateers and Peter Le Cocq typically commanded the “Tartar” a 14 gun lugger based in Guernsey in 1799 with a crew of 70.

In those days there was a much greater camaraderie among the Channel Islands families and the Syvrets were another who seemed to be well integrated into the dubious maritime business. But James Syvret who commanded the 50 men on the “Aurora” in 1779 may or may not have realized that his part owner Edward Millais was in league with the French and was helping with the planned French invasion of Jersey.
Millais was lucky to escape with his neck but young John Syvret served on several small Jersey vessels later and spent a lot of time in French prisons as a result.

Peter and Thomas Labey also commanded several armed vessels of the smaller class that were flexibly suited to all sorts of activities. Their “Fox” and “Lark” were very suitably named luggers carrying about 30 men armed with swivels guns and hand arms in 1779 and their “Diamond” was another with a solitary small cannon and a couple of swivels and just 12 desperadoes as crew. Their vessels were probably based at Grouville because the nearby French Island of Chaussey was a favourite rendezvous where they traded with Regnier, the great French smuggler and ally of Ed Millais. There were all sorts of strange allegiances in those days. Philip Dupré who had commanded the little “Adeventure” in 1756 might have been a near neighbour until captured by the French off St Malo in 1757 but he had Guernsey based owners.

There were no such doubts about Capt Philip Jeune who sailed out of Jersey in the diminutive “Hazard” lugger in July 1780 with just 12 men, armed with cutlasses and pistols and 2 swivels and victuals for a 6 months cruise. But it was a wonder that they had enough storage space even for the toilet paper! When John Jeune commanded the little “Lively” cutter with just 14 men in 1793, these included a Peter Dupré as carpenter so they were possibly from the eastern side of the Bailiwick and the Jeunes were from a refugee French family. John Jeune part owned the ultra tiny “Lively” lugger of just 6 tons in 1782 carrying a crew of 9 men, with small arms and I barrel of gunpowder on a 1 months cruise. They probably operated a no smoking rule.

The Viberts took to “privateering” like ducks to water and John, Thomas, Philip and William all commanded vessels after 1779 as did John and Noah Le Sueur. The latter had a long and varied career including a spell as commander of armed West Indies rum smugglers such as the “Mars”. But inevitably the luck ran out and the “Mars” was seized for smuggling in 1815 although Le Sueur had by then ceased to command the ‘Jerseyman’.

In 1778 the “Lively” of Jersey Capt Kirby was captured by the French although she was armed with 16 cannon. In fact she was a French built vessel so they were probably claiming back that which justly belonged to them. But some of the captured crew, including a Rondel presumably questioned the fairness of it. He scratched his name on his prison wall at La Rochelle where it remains to this day – as a sort of early “Hansard” record of history.

William Reed commanded the “Alderney” of that island in 1778 but he was most likely from Weymouth and the vessel was a notorious smuggler and it was all part of the devious game to disguise true ownership or details of the business activities.

The Perchards were also predominantly from the sister isle and Capt Daniel Perchard was sailing out of Southampton in 1747 in the “Guernsey privateer” and the “Fame” 10 years later. But this family were more into ownership of vessels than actually sailing them and James Perchard was prophetically in partnership with the Le Mesurier and Dobrée families as owners of the “Hopewell ” sloop in 1705.
Later, a Perchard and a Le Mesurier would both serve as Lord Mayors of the City of London and a Dobrée would be Governor of the Bank of England.

When you reach the top as they say, the only way thereafter is down……….

Submitted by Thomas Wellard.


Anonymous said...

Of course our view of Jersey history is just as much sanitized as is our view of current events by traditional media and education.

Show me a Jersey street named after a Jersey pirate, privateer or smuggler? These aspects of Jersey have been erased from the "respectable" Finance obsessed record.

See the current article on Voices of Antigua and Barbuda "Heritage Tourism" and note that it is yet another shared problem. Access it through the links on voiceforprotest.

Why are we so afraid of the historical truth?

Nick said...

Can't help noticing the prominent names of Bailhache and Syvret as brothers-in-arms. Does this explain things nowadays - a sort of Cain and Abel family falling out?