Pirate Ship “Black Prince”
The first ship to gain Benjamin Franklin’s American privateering commission was the “Black Prince”, a French-owned vessel so named for it’s black hull and near-legendary prowess and speed as a rumrunner. The Black Prince was crewed by Irish smugglers who would split the profits from the venture with the vessel’s owner. Franklin himself took no profit from privateering. His sole interest lay in the procurement of British prisoners for trade.
The Black Prince underwent extensive improvements to prepare her for this daunting task of Benjamin Franklin’s. She was approximately sixty-five feet in length by twenty feet in her beam (width). Her hold was retrofitted to accommodate fifty or more hammocks and small sleeping cubbyholes for her officers. She was armed with sixteen 4-pounder guns and thirty swivels.
The Black Prince enjoyed a brilliant solo career, capturing an impressive thirty-five vessels before being joined by the Black Prince, who served as her consort ship. The Black Princess was “…a cutter of 60 feet keel & 20 feet beam mounting 16 three pounders and 24 swivels & Small arms with 65 men all Americans and Irish under the command of Capn Edward Marcartor of Boston.”
Together, the two ships terrorized British merchant shipping channels, thwarting all attempts to stop them and successfully capturing twenty prizes. “…we continue to insult the Coasts of the Lords of the Ocean with our little cruisers” Franklin wrote to Congress when describing his fleet’s progress. The Black Prince and Princess continued their assaults until disaster struck on April 6th of 1780, when the Black Prince met her end as she struck a reef during an engagement along the coast of France.
Lastly, the “Fearnot” joined Franklin’s black fleet, sailing independently of the Black Prince. She was “…A fine large cutter” which was equipped with eighteen six-pounder guns and twenty swivels. Between 1779 and 1780, the three ships brought in an impressive one hundred and fourteen prizes, eleven of which were retaken, seventy-six were ransomed, sixteen were brought in, one hundred and twenty six were paroled and eleven were lost, scuttled or burned. In the end, their reign of terror was only partially successful in respect to exchanging prisoners, for although they captured many, the British remained uncooperative for the most part, during prisoner exchange negotiations. But Franklin’s ships were successful in doing what had never been done before- wreaking havoc upon the “Mistress of the Seas”, as Britain was then known.
Ironically, toward the close of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin attempted to have a clause added to the peace treaty with Britain, prohibiting the practice of privateering in future conflicts. But despite the efforts of the good doctor, privateering continued to flourish. Much of this was due to the fact that the fledgling United States had no significant naval force with which to defend itself and that privateering was a highly effective method of accomplishing the young nation’s means.
Privateering continued to be practiced by the United States throughout the Civil War. To this very day, our government still maintains the right “…To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
Benjamin Franklin’s involvement in privateering is an excellent demonstration of the old adage that “history is written by the victors.” To the British of the 1770’s, Franklin’s privateering commissions were unlawful acts of piracy and could even be regarded as a form of terrorism. Had the United States lost the revolution, Franklin’s heroics would have been a hanging offense and he might have been remembered by history not as a patriot, but as a villainous pirate. But the purpose of this article is not to point the finger of blame at Benjamin Franklin and accuse him of piracy. But rather it seeks to admire the self-less determination of a man who went to great lengths for the sake of his countrymen and walked the fine line between patriotism and piracy- privateering!