In the spring of 1779 Gustavus Conyngham sailed into Philadelphia. The ship captain had been away for years and was returning home after many successful raids and harrowing experiences.
Conyngham had been born in Ireland, but moved to Philadelphia with his family as a teenager in 1763. His cousin had already established a successful shipping company. Gus joined the family business and was soon commanding merchant ships in trade with the West Indies and Europe. He purchased a home in Philadelphia, got married, and settled into the life of a merchant ship’s captain.
British agents took notice of his purchases and notified French authorities. The French, at this time, were obligated by treaty to prevent the colonies from buying any war materials, but also did not really want to live up to that treaty. French officials inspected his ship as the British Ambassador demanded, but found nothing. Conyngham had received advance notice, and had dumped his gunpowder into the harbor before the inspectors arrived.
Conyngham made his escape, but was still without the gunpowder. He then sailed for the Netherlands, where he made another deal to purchase gunpowder. This time, one of his own crew members informed authorities. Officials seized the ship, put it under a prize crew, and arrested the captain and crew.
Conyngham, however, was not ready to go to prison. His crew overpowered the prize crew aboard his ship and made a dash back to the Netherlands. There, Conyngham made a quick deal to sell his ship before it could be confiscated. He made a deal to sell it to the Dutch government, but ended up never getting the money. Dutch officials simply kept his ship and never paid him.
So, by early 1776, Conyngham was still a free man, but was stuck in the Netherlands without a ship, supplies, or money. He spent a year stuck in Europe as the war in America heated up. In early 1777, Conyngham received word that the American Commissioners in Paris were trying to purchase and outfit ships to harass British shipping.
Benjamin Franklin had arrived in France with pre-signed commissions from the Continental Congress. He granted Conyngham a commission as a captain in the Continental Navy in March, 1777. Franklin also put Conyngham in contact with William Hodge, a recently appointed American agent in Dunkirk. The men then outfitted a merchant ship into a converted warship which they named the Surprize.
By May, Conyngham had assembled a crew and sailed the Surprize out into the English Channel and began seizing British merchant ships. The ten-gun ship was small, by naval standards. But, living up to its name, it was a real surprise for British merchant ships in the English Channel. Conyngham was able to get in close and demand the surrender of ships unaccustomed to attack in these friendly waters.. The Surprize captured two ships and sailed back to Dunkirk.
The British of course, were apoplectic about this. In early 1777, France and Britain were still at peace. The British ambassador to France lodged a formal protest with Vergennes. France was permitting its harbors to be used by American pirates. They had taken British ships that were engaged in lawful commerce.
France was treaty-obligated to prevent the use of their ports for anyone attacking British shipping. Under pressure, French officials seized all three ships, returning the captured vessels to British authorities, and arrested the crew. The British wanted Conyngham sent to London to be tried for piracy and hanged. The British Ambassador, Lord Stormont, began referring to Conyngham as the “Dunkirk Pirate.”
Franklin was able to intervene and get Conyngham freed before the British could take him to England for trial. France continued to play it’s dangerous game of supporting American efforts as much as possible, while still avoiding war with Britain. Impressed by Conyngham’s first voyage, Hodge was able to convert an even larger ship for Conyngham’s next voyage. The new ship, dubbed the Revenge, had fourteen cannons and twenty-two swivel guns. It was also extremely fast.
|The Revenge at sea
In Britain, word of the “Dunkirk Pirate” spread as he became the most effective American raider in Europe. His efforts, along with the three other Continental navy ships harassing British shipping in 1777, created a real problem. British merchant ships could not get insurance, except at astronomical rates. British merchants began shipping on foreign ships that they knew would not be subject to attack, as long as they sailed under a neutral flag. British commercial shipping came almost to a standstill. The British navy sent out ships in all directions with orders to capture the Dunkirk Pirate, but without success.
At Versailles, the British Ambassador threatened war. Stormont accused French officials of tolerating the Revenge, allowing it to operate with its mostly French crew, as it was disrupting British shipping. Unless French officials put a stop to it, Britain would go to war with France and begin seizing French ships at sea. This was in the summer of 1777. The British army from New York was launching its offensive against Philadelphia, and another army from Quebec was moving into New York.
French officials saw a real possibility that the American rebellion might come to a quick end. They did not want war with Britain if Britain was not distracted in America. French officials began cracking down on the Americans. At one point, Conyngham was being held in a French harbor pending arrest, but then somehow got permission to leave. Officials arrested the American agent, Hodge, and threw him in the Bastille. They also began cracking down on officials who had allowed Conyngham to leave port with his ships.
Conyngham’s crew of mostly European sailors had joined the ship’s crew for the money. Many of them were would-be pirates who would have been happy to attack any ship from any country. Conyngham had to keep his crew in line, manage the politics of neutral ports, where the British wanted him arrested, and fight the entire British Navy that was looking to hang him. He managed to remain active, raising thousands of dollars in prize money for the patriot cause and disrupting British trade.
Conyngham continued to raid British shipping around Britain for the rest of the summer and fall. He sailed north to the Baltic and also through the Irish Channel. He even seized several ships right at the mouth of the Thames River. At one point, he even disguised his ship and put into an English port for repairs. Over the course of 18 months, he captured 27 ships and sank or burned another 33.
By 1778, France had gone to war with Britain. But Conyngham’s difficulties with authorities did not end there. He faced accusations that he had attacked neutral ships, including merchant ships from Sweden and Spain. It appears Conyngham had taken the controversial position of seizing British property that was being carried by neutral ships. This was in contravention of generally accepted norms of privateering. Eventually, he found all European ports were closed to his ship. No one wanted to be associated with the Dunkirk Pirate.
Return to America
Conyngham eventually sailed to the West Indies, thinking he could disrupt shipping there as well. By early 1779, Conyngham had been away from home for over three years. The American agent at Martinique, William Bingham, asked Conyngham to deliver a load of weapons to Philadelphia. With that mission Conyngham finally had an opportunity to return home and see his family.
Conyngham returned to Philadelphia to what should have been a hero’s welcome. He had captured more ships than any other privateer or captain in the Continental Navy. He had completely disrupted shipping between Britain and the continent, and had provided prize money that left the American Commissioners in Paris with desperately needed funds.
The Continental Congress, however, did not see it that way. Several of his crew had returned to Philadelphia before him and had accused him of not paying promised wages to his crew. More importantly though, Conyngham got caught up in Congress’ efforts to assault the reputation of Silas Deane.
Paris' American Commissioner Arthur Lee had reported that the Surprize and the Revenge were operating as privateer ships. Lee further alleged that this was part of a larger scheme by Silas Deane to enrich himself at government expense. Lee alleged that Deane had pocketed prize money and that Conyngham has possibly shared in that money.
The Chair of the Maritime Committee in Congress was Arthur Lee’s brother, Richard Henry Lee. The committee called on Conyngham to give an account of himself. The first thing he needed to do was establish that he was, in fact, a Continental Navy officer, as he alleged. For that, he needed to produce his commission.
Unfortunately for Conyngham, French officials had seized his commission when they had arrested him to appease British officials before the two countries had gone to war. Conyngham had had to slip out of France rather quickly and unofficially to avoid arrest and never got back his commission.
Conyngham also did not have any paperwork, or often even any first-hand knowledge about the sales of the prizes he had captured. Typically, he sent his prizes to a port where they could be sold quickly and quietly before officials got wind of them and tried to seize them. It did not make much sense to keep records of ships that were captured and sold. That information could only be used against him later at a piracy trial if the British captured him. Further, his goal was not to raise money. It was to disrupt shipping. The sales of the ships were just an added benefit, which he had left to others.
The committee seemed to accept Conyngham’s explanation about the disposition of the ships. But without the proof of a commission, they concluded that he was a privateer, not a captain in the navy. Since Benjamin Franklin had provided his commission, and he was still in Paris, there was no way to confirm Conyngham’s claim, at least not for many months.
Instead, Congress ordered Conyngham’s ship, the Revenge, seized as government property. Since Congress could not raise a crew to make use of the ship, Congress (always desperate for cash) opted to sell the ship at auction.
The state of Pennsylvania tried to buy the ship for river defenses, but was outbid by a private bidder, a merchant named Gustavus Conyngham. Yes, Captain Conyngham bought back his own ship. If Congress would not recognize his commission, he could at least go back to work on his own terms against British shipping.
He received a letter of marque from Pennsylvania to protect commerce along the Delaware River. But that was only a short term gig. Once that ended for Conyngham, in the spring of 1779. After that, he once again went out into the Atlantic in search of British prizes.
Conyngham very quickly came up against the British navy ship the Galatea in late April. Although he attempted to escape, the Galatea was faster and managed to force his surrender. The British crew captured the ship and put Captain Conyngham in irons. The capture of the Dunkirk Pirate was a big deal for the British.
Because neither side was willing to recognize Conyngham as a naval officer at the time of his capture, and because his letter of marque had expired, the British treated Conyngham as a pirate. The Galatea took him back to British-occupied New York, where he was held in a prison ship in pretty horrific conditions.
Conyngham knew that he was in serious danger of being hanged. He made several attempts to escape from prison, including one where he dressed up like a visiting doctor and simply walked out the front gate with a group of visitors. But the guards realized it just after he got out and recaptured him.
His captors did offer him a way out of his predicament. If he agreed to join the British Navy, he could leave prison and return to sailing. Conyngham, however, was a committed patriot. He not only refused the offers, but also joined in a signed agreement with his fellow prisoners that none of them would enlist with the British in order to gain release from prison.
Meanwhile, back in America, Conyngham’s reputation was improving. Benjamin Franklin, in Paris, had been able to get word to Congress that Conyngham was a legitimate navy captain. Once that was established, the Continentals protested the treatment of this captured officer. In retaliation for Conyngham’s treatment by the British, the Americans confined a captured British officer being held in Boston to conditions similar to those that Conyngham experienced.
The British, however, were undeterred. They still planned to try, and likely hang the Dunkirk Pirate. Messing with British shipping was a serious offense, and examples had to be made.
Conyngham was not interested in sticking around to see if the Americans could convince the British otherwise. He and several prisoners were able to break into a prison store room and steal some digging tools. The group managed to dig a tunnel under the main prison wall.
On the night of November 3, the group made its escape. The plan was for hundreds of prisoners to use the tunnel that night and make their escape. However, after the first few dozen had gotten through, the scramble to get out turned into chaos. One boy got trampled and had his arm broken. His screams alerted the guards, who shut down the tunnel and recaptured most of the escaping prisoners.
Conyngham, however, had been one of the first few out of the tunnel. He managed to avoid capture. A national manhunt for the Dunkirk Pirate got underway. Despite this, Conyngham managed to make his way to London, where he had friends who provided him with shelter and money. After a few weeks, he was able to get smuggled out of England aboard a ship bound for Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Joining with Jones
In 1779, the Netherlands was still a neutral party in the war. It had treaties with Britain, but was tolerating the semi-covert use of its ports by the American Navy and some privateers. When Conyngham reached the Netherlands, he was able to make contact with Commodore John Paul Jones. Jones had landed at Texell, a small Dutch Island just off the northern coast of the Netherlands. Jones had just captured the British ship Serapis in a recent battle, losing his own ship the Bonhomme Richard in the process. That’s a whole separate story that I want to cover in a separate episode.
Despite the blockade, Jones and Conyngham managed to slip out of Texel at night on December 27, and evade their would-be captors. Jones had given Conyngham command of a new frigate, the Alliance. The squadron once again began wreaking havoc on shipping in the English Channel.
By this time though, Conyngham was eager to get home. When the American fleet reached Spain, after a few weeks of raiding, Conyngham parted ways with Jones and, as a passenger, boarded another privateer ship, the Experiment, which was headed to America.
Unfortunately, the British captured the Experiment at sea in March of 1780. They identified the Dunkirk Pirate and sent him back to Mill Prison in Plymouth. There, once again, the authorities held Conyngham in chains and under close confinement. However, they never did hold any trial. It seems that this time they accepted his status as a prisoner of war. That said, he still was not accorded the honorable treatment usually granted to a captured officer.
After about a year in prison, Conyngham was permitted to return to France as part of a prisoner exchange in the summer of 1781. This is where his timeline gets a little sketchy. Supposedly, the Commissioners gave Conyngham another ship, the Loyola, which he outfitted and prepared for another cruise against British shipping.
But before the cruise could get underway, Conyngham received word of a peace treaty that would end the war. The treaty negotiations did not begin until the spring of 1782. So, Conyngham may have been cooling his heels in France for a year after he left prison, before he had a new ship that was ready to go.
In any event, with news of the treaty, Conyngham decided not to launch another cruise against British shipping. Instead, Conyngham boarded the Hannibal as a passenger and returned to Philadelphia. There, he would return to his life as a merchant captain, and renew his fight for recognition of his service in the Continental Navy, this time for veteran’s benefits.
Next week, we return to the southern frontier for the battle of Chickamauga Creek.
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Norton, Louis Arthur “Captain Gustavus Conyngham: America’s Successful Naval Captain - or Accidental Pirate?” Journal of the American Revolution, April 15, 2015. https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/04/captain-gustavus-conyngham-americas-accidental-pirate
Norton, Louis Arthur “Plight of the Seamen: Incarceration, Escape, or Secured Freedom” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 7, 2021. https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/01/plight-of-the-seamen-incarceration-escape-or-secured-freedom
Paton, Robert Pirates of the Revolution: https://www.historynet.com/pirates-of-the-revolution.htm
Conyngham, Gustavus. “Narrative of Captain Gustavus Conyngham, U. S. N., While in Command of the ‘Surprise’ and ‘Revenge’, 1777-1779.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 22, no. 4, 1898, pp. 479–488. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20085820
Prelinger, Catherine M. “Benjamin Franklin and the American Prisoners of War in England during the American Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, 1975, pp. 261–294. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1921564
“From Benjamin Franklin to Gustavus Conyngham, 6 February 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-36-02-0377
“The American Commissioners: Three Covering Notes for Captured Mail, 10–11 May 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-24-02-0029
“The American Commissioners to the Committee for Foreign Affairs, 25 May 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-24-02-0052
“Gustavus Conyngham to the American Commissioners, 4 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-25-02-0334
“The Commissioners to Gustavus Conyngham, 19 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-06-02-0030
“To Benjamin Franklin from Gustavus Conyngham, 18 November 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-31-02-0065.
“Franklin: Certificate for Gustavus Conyngham, [7 August 1782],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-37-02-0466
(from archive.org unless noted)
Barnes, James With the flag in the Channel: The Adventures of Captain Gustavus Conyngham, New York : D. Appleton Company, 1902.
Conyngham, Gustavus “Narrative of Captain Gustavus Conyngham, U. S. N., while in Command of the "Surprise" and "Revenge", 1777-1779” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1909.
Cooper, J. Fenimore History Of The Navy Of The United States Of America, Vol. I, London: Richard Bentley, 1839. https://archive.org/details/dli.granth.37530
Jones, Charles H. Captain Gustavus Conyngham; a Sketch of the Services he Rendered to the Cause of American Independence, Philadelphia: Sons of the Revolution, 1903.
Neeser, Robert W. Letters and Papers Relating to the Cruises of Gustavus Conyngham, Naval History Society, 1915.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Bowen-Hassell, E. Gordon, Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters, University Press of the Pacific, 2004
McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, Caliber, 2014.
Willis, Sam The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.