During wars of the Age of Sail merchantmen of all nations had to run a gauntlet of privateers. English ships in the West Indies and coming down Channel had to constantly on the lookout for the swift, heavily manned ships carrying letters of marque.
Privateers were a commercial venture and commerce only pays if you are alive at the end of the day. They trod that fine line between daring and recklessness, picked their victims carefully, and similarly broke off their attacks if they met stiff resistance. One must presume that in most cases a privateer would prevail once it had chosen its prey.
But sometimes not.
Sunday night the ship Cumberland, Barrett, master, arrived in the Downs from Quebec, under a jury foremast and bowsprit, having pitched her bowsprit and foremast away in a heavy gale of wind off the banks of Newfoundland. From seven till eight o’clock on Sunday morning, she was attacked by four French lugger privateers, between Dover and Folkestone, the first of which hailed to know if he wanted a pilot, Captain B[arrett], having suspicion of her, replied in the negative: immediately after another privateer ordered him to lay back his main-yard, and the whole then commenced a fire of musketry, and two of them ran alongside and boarded the Cumberland, previous to which the captain had ordered all the ship’s crew into the cabin; they, being armed with their boarding pikes. as soon as about twenty men came on board, the captain ordered the ship to be sheered off from the privateers, leaving the Frenchmen no good retreat; and on the ship being boarded, the privateers ceased firing; in the mean time the ship’s company rushed forward and cleared the deck; the greatest part of the boarders being killed,and the remainder jumped overboard. Immediately after, another came alongside, and told the the captain they would give no quarter, on hearing this, the ship’s company cheered them, and they were boarded and cleared in like manner.This was repeated three times afterwards, with the like success on the part of the ship’s crew, and their taking three prisoners, two of whom were wounded, and one has since died of his wounds. Immediately after this, Captain Barrett discharged three of his carronades loaded with round and canister shot, the first was seen to carry away the mainmast of one of the privateers, and the second carried away the bowsprit of another, and it was supposed destroyed many of the men, as they were heard to cry out, and the shots were heard to strike the vessel. They then made off, and the Cumberland proceeded for the Downs. We are sorry to say Mr. Coward, chief mate, is wounded in the shoulder, and that one man on board the Cumberland had died of his wounds. The loss on the part of the enemy is supposed to be nearly 60. Captain Barrett killed three himself, one of which he was obliged to put his foot on to extricate his pike.
This is supposed to be the most gallant defense made by any merchant ship during the war; as her crew consisted of only twenty-six men, and those of the privateers, according to the prisoners’ statement, up to 270 men.