“Un célèbre marin a fini sa carrière“ – The death of the famous Corsair Robert Surcouf in 1827

8 July 1827, the French privateering naval hero and slave trader Robert Surcouf died at the age of 53 in his native Saint-Malo in Brittany.

"Que dira-t-on du grand rafiot, En Angleterre et à Bordeaux, Qu'a laissé prendre son équipage Par un corsaire de six canons Lui qu'en avait trente et si bons" (French Shanty)

The Capture of HEICS “Kent” in the Gulf of Bengal by Ambroise-Louis Garneray, naval painter, writer, Surcouf’s biographer and member of “Confiance’s” crew during the action in 1800

The officers of the 3rd Cuirassiers had just entered the Café and already displayed the behaviour that endears Prussians so much to the rest of the world, acting as if they own the place, talking too loud, ordering the staff about and commenting on local customs and national heroes in rather disparaging terms. Finally, the small portly man at the billiard table had it, pushing one of the Boches away with his cue and called them out, all twelve of them. The place was not Casablanca and the year was not 1941, though. It was Saint-Malo in 1816 and the brave little fellow was the famous privateer Robert Surcouf and, so the story goes, the corsair fought and killed or wounded every single one of his opponents except the last one, a young ensign. Surcouf told him: “I don’t brawl with children. Go home and tell your people how a soldier of Napoleon fights.” The tale is seaman’s yarn, of course, written down for the first time in 1890, but even if told to the Marines because sailors wouldn’t believe it, it tells of the respect and esteem the privateer was held and for a while, English merchantmen struck their colours when his corvette “Revenant” came in sight.

Gustave Alaux’s imagination of Surcouf’s “Revenant” off Mauritius in 1808

Carrying cargo across the Seven Seas during the Age of Sail was a dangerous business at the very least since the days Drake and Frobisher set sail in Plymouth. Thus, large merchantmen looked, more often than not, like warships and were heavily armed, like the East Indiamen employed by all of Northern and Western Europe’s seafaring nations on the India and China run. But even if they carried as many guns as a frigate or even a 4th rate ship-of-the-line, their crews were neither numerous nor drilled enough to take it up with men-of-war or privateers. However, even if the merchant crews fired broadsides that would have made Cochrane or Pellew weep, it was usually enough to make privateersmen keep their distance. They had to pay the repairs or even the loss of their ships out of their own pockets and could afford casualties among their men even less than the captains of warships. There were successful captures of East Indiamen, though, and Robert Surcouf took even two, the “Triton” in 1796 off Mauritius, boarding her with a band of 26 men, overpowering her crew of 150 and, in Surcouf’s arguably finest hour, the HEICS “Kent” in 1800. Admittedly, the “Kent’s” master Mr Rivington mistook the 18-gun brig “Confiance” for the Calcutta pilot, allowing the French privateer to come to close quarters and play every advantage he had against the much bigger East Indiaman, who was not quite cleared for action anyway. Surcouf tested the abilities of Rivington’s crew by sailing in circles around the "grand rafiot" when it became obvious who he was and finally, the “Confiance” lay alongside and boarded her. With a bit of skill, even this could have been avoided, but the “Kent” just moved straight ahead. The highly motivated privateers made short work of the resisting company men and Surcouf and his crew returned as rich and living legends back home to France.

Boarding of HEICS “Triton” in 1796, Engraving by Ambroise-Louis Garneray

Memories of Surcouf are quite ambiguous. He learned his trade on a slaver, smuggled slaves every now and then even after the Revolutionary government outlawed slavery in France and her colonies in 1794 and picked up the threads officially after stealing humans had become legal again under the Bourbons in 1816. And Surcouf had a proven track record in avoiding or escaping Royal Navy patrols, since his old enemy patrolled off West Africa and in the Northern Atlantic after Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 to catch types like him. Again. However, Surcouf was a national hero. He had captured more than 40 merchant ships besides “Triton” and “Kent” during his career as corsair in the Indian Ocean between 1795 and 1809. The Emperor offered him a regular command in his navy, even a squadron and promised him to make him a rich man and Surcouf answered that the floor of his closet was covered with Napoleon d’ors already and the Corsican asked indignantly: “What? You dare to step on my head?” And the Privateer answered in all modesty: “No, sire, I placed the coins there edge-to-edge.” Surcouf, the naval hero, privateer and slaver settled down in his native Saint-Malo for good in 1810, put on weight, grew richer and died of cancer at the age of 54 and was buried with military honours, unlike most of his fellow pirates, those who sailed with a letter of marque and those how didn’t, who were at best celebrated as naval Robin Hoods centuries after they had died, usually in poverty, in combat or on the gallows. 

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