Contrary to what is often assumed, the Royal Navy’s triumph at Trafalgar in October 1805 did not signify that it had driven the French flag from the seas. It had driven the French fleet from the seas, but swift French ships continued to slip out of port to attack British commerce, the guerre de course at which French seamen demonstrated an aptitude in the seven wars Britain and France fought between 1689 and 1815. The war on trade involved both government cruisers and privateers. The latter were privately owned vessels officially licensed to prey on enemy shipping. Their crews were bound to obey the laws of war, and if captured they were entitled to be treated as prisoners of war rather than condemned as pirates. In return for its support, the state received all of a prize’s armaments and part of the proceeds from the sale of the vessel and her cargo. The remainder was distributed among the privateer’s owners and crew.1
A Corsair's Story
The scant record of Napoleonic-era French privateersmen is brightened by the thrilling (perhaps too thrilling?) memoir of one Henri-Ferdinand Marote.
By Jack Sweetman