Robert Surcouf was as close to a born privateer as one was likely to find. Born on December 12, 1773 in Saint Malo, both his mother and father’s families had produced famous privateers among them René Duguay-Trouin.
He was reputed to be a rowdy young man, prone to fighting, and he was packed off to sea in March, 1789, aboard the slaver Aurore. In February, 1789, Aurore with a load of slaves was caught in a tropical cyclone and wrecked in East Africa. The ship was repairable and Surcouf came to the captain’s attention through his energy and perseverance while removing the rapidly decomposing bodies of 400 dead slaves from the hold of the ship so it could be made seaworthy. He was hired on as first mate in that captain’s next ship. That ship was also wrecked and Surcouf signed onto the French corvette Bienvenue which was bound for Lorient to be paid off. He arrived back in Brittany in January 1792.
After only a short stay at home, Surcouf signed on as the first mate of another slaver, this one bound for Mauritius. When the War of the First Coalition broke out Mauritius found itself blockaded and an unemployed Surcouf signed onto a corvette and was commissioned an ensign.
When the blockade was effectively lifted on October 22, 1794, after HMS Centurion (50) and HMS Diomede (44) were driven off by a French squadron consisting of Prudente (36), Cybèle (40), Jean Bart (20) and Courier (14) – Surcouf served in one of the latter two – Surcouf left the navy and returned to the slave trade.
The slave trade between Africa and Réunion had been outlawed earlier in 1794, but undeterred Surcouf amassed a considerable sum of money smuggling slaves. After a run-in with the local government and a narrow brush with prison, if not the guillotine, Surcouf took command of a small ship, Emilie, carrying four six-pounders and thirty men, and applied for a letter of marque from the colonial government. It was refused and so Surcouf put to sea on September 3, 1795 as a trader of sea turtles.
Obviously, Surcouf had decided to go privateering with or without the letter of marque. He dropped by the Seychelles, ostensibly to pick up a cargo of sea turtles, and took on board a number of sailors, for which he somehow has enough provisions, and set course for Sumatra.
He quickly took three small prizes, two ships carrying rice accompanied by a pilot brig. He sent Emilie and the two rice ships back to Mauritius and continued to cruise in the pilot brig. Soon afterwards he captured another rice ship.
On the morning of January 29, 1796, Surcouf passed into legend.
It began when lookouts aboard the pilot brig, which Surcouf had named Cartier spotted a three masted ship in the Bay of Bengal heading towards India. The rice ship he’d captured the previous day was close by and he took several of her prize crew back aboard Cartier to attack this new ship. He now had a crew of 19.
As Surcouf closed on the target he hoisted the Union Jack. The ship, taking him for a pilot brig, hove to and waited. It was then that Surcouf discovered that his intended prey was the East Indiaman Triton carrying 26 guns and a crew of 150. Emilie had 19 men and no guns.
Having discovered too late the size of his prey, Surcouf could not run because the Triton was a faster ship. He decided to attack. Surcouf laid Emilie alongside Triton and boarded her. The British crew was surprised but the determined assault succeeded in driving the crew below decks where Surcouf had the hatches secured.
He ransomed the captured rice boat back to its owner and put Triton’s crew aboard and set sail for Mauritius. When he arrived back in Mauritius he found the governor wasn’t terribly amused by his freelancing. All of his prizes were confiscated and sold with the proceeds going to the government. Surcouf took his case to the Directory in Paris, a cause in which he was supported by several leading citizens of Mauritius, and the decision was reversed. The decision took fourteen months in which time Surcouf was beached.
In July, 1798 he was back in action departing Nantes in Clarisse (14) with his older brother, Nicholas, as first mate. Surcouf had a successful cruise, taking several prizes and narrowly avoid capture at the hands of HMS Sibylle (44).
Even though Surcouf had been forced to toss his cannon overboard, along with his spare spars and most of his water, in his run from Sibylle he still took a few prizes on his way back to Mauritius. Clarisse was in desperate need of a refit and so Surcouf found himself in command of Confiance (16). He had intended to cruise off Sumatra but the presence of the USS Essex sent her hunting in familiar waters along the Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal.
On October 8, 1800, she encountered the East Indiaman Kent (26). Kent carried some 450 persons being the crew of the Kent, the crew of the East Indiaman Queen which had burned and the troops and passengers from both of those ships.
Kent mistook Confiance for a friendly ship and only discovered her mistake when the privateersmen came boiling up over the railings. After a short fight, Surcouf again had taken a prize several times larger than his own ship. Surcouf decided to take a vacation from privateering and returned to France in April 1801.
He married, invested his money in various ventures, and settled down in Saint Malo, and remained there until the Peace of Amiens abruptly ended in May 1803.
When war resumed, Napoleon offered Surcouf a commission as captain and command to two frigates for raiding commerce in the Indian Ocean. He declined and set about fitting out a number of privateers, including one made especially for himself called Revenant (18) which put to sea in March 1807 destined for Mauritius and the Bay of Bengal.
The East India Company was in a tizzy. The previous year the privateer Bellone had a very successful run in the Bay of Bengal until two of Admiral Sir Edward Pellew’s combatants, HMS Powerful (74) and HMS Rattlesnake (16) brought her career to an end. Now Revenant was cruising with the frigate Piemontaise (40) and together took some 19 prizes, several of them East Indiamen. According to a letter from Pellew, in the period September-October 1807 insured losses totaled over £290,000.
Faced with losses on this scale the British government was forced into action. Piemontaise was taken in a running fight and when Surcouf returned to Mauritius he found the French squadron had nearly ceased to exist. The governor impressed Revenant into service as a corvette. Surcouf protested, to no avail.
His reputation enabled him to gain employment commanding the former frigate Semillante which had been bought by a consortium of Mauritius businessmen and renamed Charles. He was supposed to take her to Saint Malo, raiding as he went. Another brouhaha ensued with the governor of Mauritius when it was demanded that Surcouf take a number of Portuguese prisoners back to France. Surcouf took them aboard, and as soon as he cleared harbor put them aboard the pilot boat and sent them back. The governor seized all of Surcouf’s property in Mauritius in retaliation.
Surcouf arrived home in February 1809 to popular acclaim. He was made a baron by Napoleon and all his confiscated property was restored. His career as a privateer, however, was essentially at an end.
He went to sea again in 1812 in the 14 gun cutter Renard and achieved fame when he engaged HMS Alphea (16) in a 10 hour slugfest which ended with the Alphea’s powder magazine exploding. Renard was a wreck and had lost 33 of 46 men, killed or wounded.
Surcouf took no part in the Hundred Days and died in 1827. His body was escorted to the cemetery by a flotilla of 50 sailboats.