Privateer History Cont'd - French Corsairs

The Formation of "Gueux de la mer" or “Sea Beggars”: A Heroic Order

Print entitled "Horribles_cruautes_des_Huguenot_en_France_16th_century"In fact, the Roman Catholic church attempted a series of propaganda campaigns, to tarnish the image of the Huguenot “Corsair“ as a marauding and lawless pirate. But in actuality, the Huguenot Corsairs were governed by a serious of licenses issued by sympathetic protestant states – such as the Netherlands, and England.

The sea beggars were comprised of adventurers, pirates and patriots (= those fighting against the Spanish and Roman Catholic Rule). At sea they proved to be even more successful than on land, though not unbeatable.

For several years their bases of operation included the ports of Emden (on the coast of the Dutch Province Friesland), La Rochelle (on the coast of France) and Dover (on the coast of England). The “Gueux de la mer” attacked vessels of almost any Catholic State as well as fishing villages and towns. In views of the local people, they were modern day heroes, rebelling against what was seen as a corrupt church, and for retribution against the crimes committed against the people over previous centuries by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. In the people’s eyes they were equated with the legendary knight orders such as the “Poor Knights Of Solomon” or “Knights Templars” who were also persecuted and burned at the stake in France by the King and the Pope. The Huguenots commonly were referred to as “poor” and “tramps” or beggars. At sea, they earned the nickname, “Sea Beggars”, and were seen as a heroic order, fighting for both God and the people’s rights.

In fact, one of the common symbols of the Huguenots, known as the "Huguenot Cross" came into existance not long after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Huguenot Cross came into general use amongst Huguenots as confirmation of the wearer's faith.

Huguenot CrossThe cross itself was designed in the form of a Maltese cross: four isosceles triangles meeting at the centre. Each triangle has, at the periphery, two rounded points at the corners. These points are regarded as signifying the eight Beatitudes of Matthew 5: 3-10. Suspended from the lower triangle by a ring of gold is a pendant dove with spreaded wings in downward flight, signifying the Holy Spirit. In times of persecution a pearl, symbolizing a teardrop, replaced the dove.

The four arms of the Maltese cross are sometimes regarded as the heraldic form of the four petals of the Lily of France (golden yellow irises, signifying the Mother Country of France) which grows in the south of France. The lily is also the symbol of purity. The arms symbolize the four Gospels.

It has as its predecessor the badge of the Hospitaler Knights of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Malta, a religious and Crusader order founded in Jerusalem in the 7th century AD. In 1308 they occupied the island of Rhodes after the collapse of the Crusader states and the abolition of the Knights Templars, and in 1530 formed the order of the Knights of Malta after Rhodes was surrendered to the Ottoman Turks. They lived for 4 centuries on the island of Malta, hence the name Maltese Cross for the central part. (The Maltese Cross is generally associated with fire and is the symbol of protection of fire fighters in many countries).

These fierce Huguenot privateers were under the command of a succession of daring and sometimes reckless leaders. The best-known of whom is William de la Marck, Lord of Lumey, and under his command the Huguenots became known as "Sea Beggars", "Gueux de mer" in French, or "Watergeuzen" in Dutch.

In the last half of the 1560s the “Sea Beggars” were formed into an effective and organized fighting force against Spain. In 1569 William of Orange, who had now openly placed himself at the head of the party of revolt, and granted letters of marque to a number of vessels manned by crews of desperadoes drawn from all nationalities. Eighteen ships received letters of marque, which were equipped by Louis of Nassau in the French Huguenot port of La Rochelle, which they continued to use as a base. By the end of 1569, about 84 Sea Beggars ships were in action.

In the late 17th century, many Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Prussia, Switzerland, and the overseas colonies. A significant community in France remained in the Cévennes region. A separate Protestant community, of the Lutheran faith, existed in the newly conquered province of Alsace, its status not affected by the Edict of Fontainebleau.

By the end of the 17th century, roughly 200,000 Huguenots had been driven from France during a series of religious persecutions. They relocated primarily in protestant nations: England, Switzerland, the Dutch Republic, the German Electorate of Prussia, the German Palatinate, and elsewhere in Northern Europe, as well as to what is now South Africa and to North America.

Huguenot ship-owners, among others, became heavily involved in privateering, soon to be joined by their Anglican counterparts on the other side of the Channel. Their reasons for doing so were probably mercenary, but also and especially religious : we must remember that this was heightened during the period of the religious wars. What the Spanish really feared was that the French Huguenots should also form colonies in their territory in the New World.

Indeed, in 1565, under the orders of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the Spanish had already destroyed the colony in Florida which had been founded by J.Ribault and René de Laudonière and they had slaughtered all the inhabitants not because they were French but because they were Lutherans.

Similarly, when they captured corsairs, the Spanish would treat them as heretics rather than ordinary prisoners : this is why they were sent to the gallows, the punishment normally allotted to such a crime in Spain.

In the West Indies, the corsairs attacked not only vessels carrying rich cargoes, but also Spanish towns situated on the coast or on the islands. Between 1536 and 1568, 152 ships were captured in the Caribbean and 37 between Spain, the Canary Islands and the Azores (although not all of them by Huguenots). It is interesting to note that the corsairs carried smuggled goods on their ships which were later sold to the inhabitants of the Spanish towns in the West Indies, shortly to be followed by more attacks on Spanish vessels!

Amongst the towns which were attacked, we can mention the following : in 1543, Carthaginia (Colombia), by a joint force of 300 French and English corsairs. In 1534, Santiago de Cuba was ransacked by Jacques de Sores, using 3 boats and 300 men. He did the same the following year in Santa Maria (Cuba). In July, in the company of the Norman François de Clerc, he seized Havana, where he burned the churches and seized an enormous booty. François de Clerc had been given the first official privateer's licence, allowing him to capture vessels in America.

Seafarers lived a life of great freedom : this is one of the reasons why they soon joined the Reform Movement. In fact, there were so many of them that Jean le Frère said in 1584 that nearly all seafaring men in France were protestant, especially those who came from Normandy, notated as the most expert of them all.

Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was the main organiser of the Huguenot privateering war against Spain between 1562-1572, and had two main aspects :

The first aspect concerned the wars between Spain and France: Protestants became involved in the founding of colonies and sought to bring down Spain by attacking her vessels. Coligny organized the expedition of a colony of Huguenots to Brazil, under the leadership of his friend and navy colleague, Vice-Admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, who established the colony of France Antarctique in Rio de Janeiro, in 1555. Coligny also was the leading patron for the failed French colony of Fort Caroline in Spanish Florida led by Jean Ribault in 1562.

The other aspect concerned the financing of the Protestant cause during the religious wars in France, led by Jeanne d'Albret and the Protestant princes.

The Peace Of Westphalia: An end to an era

 As the 17th century came to an end the rules concerning the French Corsairs became stricter, and state control over privateers became more prevalent. This was particularly due to the fact that the religious wars had came to end with The Peace of Westphalia which was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October of 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster. It put an end to unlimited and unrestricted use of letters of marque, in essence it was the beginning of the end for privateers in Europe.

The Peace of Westphalia treaties involved the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III of the House of Habsburg, the Kingdoms of Spain, France, Sweden, the Dutch Republic, the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, and sovereigns of the Free imperial cities.

The treaties resulted from the first modern diplomatic congress, thereby initiating a new system of political order in central Europe, later called Westphalian sovereignty, based upon the concept of a sovereign state governed by a sovereign. In the event, the treaties’ regulations became integral to the constitutional law of the Holy Roman Empire.
The main tenets of the Peace of Westphalia were:

  • All parties would recognize the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, in which each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state, the options being Catholicism, Lutheranism, and now Calvinism (the principle of cuius regio, eius religio)
  • Christians living in principalities where their denomination was not the established church were guaranteed the right to practice their faith in public during allotted hours and in private at their will.
  • General recognition of the exclusive sovereignty of each party over its lands, people, and agents abroad, and each and several responsibility for the warlike acts of any of its citizens or agents. Issuance of unrestricted letters of marque and reprisal to privateers was forbidden.

In addition, there were several long territorial disputes that were settled, and the power taken by Ferdinand III in contravention of the Holy Roman Empire's constitution was stripped and returned to the rulers of the Imperial States. This rectification allowed the rulers of the Imperial States to independently decide their religious worship. Protestants and Catholics were redefined as equal before the law, and Calvinism was given legal recognition.

The Holy See was very displeased at the settlement, with Pope Innocent X reportedly calling it "null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time".

The treaties did not entirely restore the peace throughout Europe, however. France and Spain remained at war for the next eleven years, making peace only in the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659.

At the end of the 17th century there was a brief resurgence in French Privateering in the New World Colonies.
The French "Sea Wolves":Rogue Cosairs in the Americas

The Queen Anne's War (1702–1713), was the North American theater of the War of the Spanish Succession was known in the English colonies, and was the second in a series of French and Indian Wars fought between France and England (later Great Britain) in North America for control of the continent. The War of the Spanish Succession was primarily fought in Europe but, in addition to the two main combatants, the war also involved numerous Native American tribes allied with each nation, and Spain, which was allied with France.

The war was fought on three fronts:

1. Spanish Florida and the English Province of Carolina were each subjected to attacks from the other, and the English engaged the French based at Mobile in what was essentially a proxy war involving primarily allied Indians on both sides. The southern war, although it did not result in significant territorial changes, had the effect of nearly wiping out the Indian population of Spanish Florida, including parts of present-day southern Georgia, and destroying Spain's network of missions in the area.

2. The English colonies of New England fought with French and Indian forces based in Acadia and Canada. Quebec was repeatedly targeted (but never successfully reached) by British expeditions, and the Acadian capital Port Royal was taken in 1710. The French and Indians executed raids against targets in Massachusetts (including present-day Maine), most famously raiding Deerfield in 1704.

3. In Newfoundland, English colonists based at St. John's disputed control of the island with the French based at Plaisance. Most of the conflict consisted of economically destructive raids against the other side's settlements. The French successfully captured St. John's in 1709, but the British quickly reoccupied it after the French abandoned it.

The French primarly established their presence along the Canadian coastline, known as Acadia, from here it was possible for the corsairs to launch raids against English, and Spanish shipping.        

 Map Of French Corsairs In The New World 1702         
French Corsairs In The New World During The Queen Anne's War (1702)

Acadia, through its entire 150 years existence, between 1605 and 1755, was a continuing source of aggravation to the New Englanders. The incursions of the Indian raiding parties led by French officers with the resulting death and property damages was bad enough; but the shipping merchants of New England were upset on a separate count - too many of their ocean cargoes coming over from Europe and up from the Caribbean were being taken on the high seas by French "sea wolves": "For certainly we are in a state of war with the pirates ... Those great rogues and enemies to all mankind ..."

This situation was aggravated in that the authorities in the English colonies had no legal power to deal with these pirates; after capture they had to be transported to England for trial. Governor Nicholson of Virginia sent 97 over, and, of them, only 26 in England were put to death for piracies.

The lack of regulations which France gave to her colonies drove the Acadians to support these French Privateers, known as "sea-wolves" There were only three communities of any size in peninsular Nova Scotia at this time (c.1700) and these three contained most all of the population of Acadia, they were: Port Royal (Annapolis Royal), Les Mines (Grand Pré), and Beaubassin (Chignecto). All three of these places were havens for privateers (pirates to the English) who cruised down along the New England coast. The French authorities at Port Royal, due to France's neglect, were only too willing to make these sea-going desperadoes into patriots, and were only too willing to act as a fence and pay for the ill-begotten goods carried in the holds of these privateers.

While using Port Royal as their base, they would also cruise down in the Carribbean, attacking English settlements and later Dutch settlements and colonies in South America.

Besides the coast of New England, French privateers made their base along the coast of Lousiana in New Orleans, Mobile and Biloxi, and launched incurisons against Flordia, and the British Province of Carolina.

As well, one of the most important important destinations was the Guyana, which was inhabited by the Arawak and Carib tribes of Native Americans. Although Christopher Columbus sighted Guyana during his third voyage (in 1498), the Dutch were the first to establish colonies: Essequibo (1616), Berbice (1627), and Demerara (1752).

In Guyana, the slave trade proved to be very lucrative between the Dutch settlements and France. The slaves were forcibly brought to Guyana under harsh conditions in the early 17th century in order to provide free labour for the development of the local economy and production of goods for export to Europe. Escaped slaves formed their own settlements known as Maroon communities.

French corsaires had jumped into the Atlantic African slave trade in the early 16th century, a century before the first Yankee set sail for Africa. Nearly 200 ships bound for Sierra Leone sailed from three Norman ports between 1540 and 1578. A Portuguese renegade, sailing under the French flag as Jean Alphonse, was one of the pioneers of the "triangle trade" between Africa, the New World and Europe.

The French government sought to promote plantation economies in its West Indies colonies. With capital, credit, technology -- and slaves -- borrowed from the Dutch, these islands began to thrive as sugar export centers. The Dutch established the first successful French sugar mill in 1655. By 1670, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Christopher had 300 sugar estates.

Realizing slaves were the key to this, a monopoly Compagnie des Indes Occidentales, largely financed by the state, was organized in 1664. A French fleet took many factories from the Dutch in Gorée and the Senegambia in the 1670s. In 1672, the French government offered a bounty of 10 livres per slave transported to the French West Indies. This spurred the formation of a second monopoly company, Compagnie du Sénégal, founded in 1673. By 1679 it had 21 ships in operation.

  Port Royal - Nest of Spoilers
The three most famous French privateers at the time were Morpain, Castin, and Baptiste. In the year 1692, Baptiste is recorded to have taken nine vessels in six months. In 1694, Baptiste, in a big, bright fighting vessel, which he had brought back with him from a visit to France, took five prizes off the coast of New England. In 1695, another lesser known privateer, Francois Guion, took three vessels in June when their escorting frigate went up on "a rock south of Grand Manan." With the Treaty of Ryswick signed in 1702, privateering became less wide-spread. This lull, more a truce than a peace, lasted only to 1709. The French privateers who had been pent up and ready to go back to business, in 1709, sank 35 New England bound merchant ships! In the official correspondence of New England, mention is made of the French Corsairs, "Port Royall, that Nest of Spoilers so near to us."

Despite the occasional resurgences in the colonies, by the early 18th century, French state sanctified privateering was indeed in decline especially in Europe. In 1706 the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht effectively put an end to the French corsair raids in the Caribbean, where the ‘Guerre de Course’ as the French called it, took a huge toll on the Spanish Treasure Fleet's efforts to ship the gold and silver from Peru to Santo Domingo and La Havana and then on to Spain.

For a short time, during the American Revolution and for a couple years following the French Revolution in the 1790’s, French privateers became a menace to British and American shipping in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean, resulting in the Quasi-War, a brief conflict between France and the United States, fought largely at sea, and to the Royal Navy's procuring Bermuda sloops to combat the French privateers.

The French privateers also experienced a brief resurgence in helping the United States in the war of 1812, against British shipping.

However, by 1815, privateering had practically disappeared in France. The slave trade had ended officially in 1834, and privateering officially was abolished legally in 1856, during a meeting in Paris where every nation was present (except Spain, Mexico and United States).