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Nov. 14, 2020

French ‘Corsairing’ in the Americas during the War of the Spanish Succession by Mike LaMonica

French ‘Corsairing’ in the Americas during the War of the Spanish Succession by Mike LaMonica

Mike LaMonica talks all about French naval adventure-seekers in the 17th-18th centuries.


It took the podcast quite a while but we finally have an episode with pirates. Today’s special episode is by Mike LaMonica, a PhD student at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. “French ‘Corsairing’ in the Americas during the War of the Spanish Succession” tells the story of French pirates who acquired the right to legally raid the high seas. Pirates, need no further introduction, so I will turn it over to Mike.

• Hi, my name is Mike LaMonica, I’m a PhD candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Québec Canada and today I’m going to talk to you about French corsairing in the Americas during the War of the Spanish Succession. A corsair is the French term for a privateer and I’ll intermittently use both over the course of the episode.

• The War of the Spanish Succession doesn’t occupy a very big place in the popular consciousness today beyond historians who study the period and a handful of enthusiasts. To the extent that your average North American has even heard of the conflict, it likely occupies some dusty recess in the back of their mind, likely from a long-ago European history course. It’s often thought of as a wholly European conflict where some magnificently peruqed monarchs fought a war over contested inheritance rights thanks to generations of Spanish royal inbreeding. While this IS true, the war had a wider impact that reverberated far beyond the borders of Europe. While the Seven Years War fought half a century later is more properly called the first “world” war, I think that we can call the WotSS the first Trans-Atlantic war. Violence in earlier European wars had certainly spread to the Americas, but both the scale and the stakes were higher in the WotSS.

• Let’s start with a quick background to the war as a refresher from some and maybe a first-time introduction for others. Spain was the most powerful European nation of the 16th century. It had built the first truly global empire thanks to the massive amounts of wealth brought in by the exploitation of its vast holdings in Central and South America. For a variety of reasons, its power began to wane in the 17th century and France, ruled by the Sun King Louis XIV, surpassed Spain as the predominant European power. Spain was ruled by a branch of the Habsburg dynasty, the same family that ruled the Holy Roman Empire – a vast confederation of central European states – but by the end of the 17th century, the Spanish branch was failing. King Charles II had a variety of physical and mental ailments brought on by generations of inbreeding and was incapable of producing children. Lacking an heir, it was clear to everyone that Spain and its immense world empire would fall into the hands of a foreign dynasty after his dealth – the question was which one? The Austrian branch of the Habsburgs who ruled the Holy Roman Empire clearly had a claim, but the last thing that Louis XIV wanted was to see a rival Austrian on the Spanish throne, allowing them to encircle France. After much diplomatic wrangling and the untimely death of several compromise candidates to act as Charles’ heir, the final command upon his death in 1700 was for Spain’s undivided empire to pass to Philip, the grandson of Louis XIV, who became King Philip V of Spain. The elevation of a member of France’s House of Bourbon to the throne of Spain threatened to upset the balance of power in Europe. Nearly every other major European power declared war against France and Spain in an attempt to reverse Charles II’s will. The resulting conflict would last for twelve bloody years from 1701-1713 and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

• I’m an Atlantic historian and I want to use these episodes of French privateering in the colonies to place the WotSS in an Atlantic perspective. Now, I imagine that many of you have never heard of the term ‘Atlantic’ history before and are wondering what it means. Simply put, Atlantic history sees a semi-cohesive ‘Atlantic World’ develop from roughly the late 15th century when European ships began journeying first to Africa and then the Americas, bringing these populations into contact with each other for the first time, through to the early 19th century and the Age of Atlantic Revolutions. The core concept is that the Atlantic Ocean didn’t act as a barrier, but rather as a highway linking together populations in the Americas, Africa, and Europe in a web of circulations and interconnections. Atlantic history seeks to break away from national histories that tend to limit their focus to the territory of a single modern state or imperial histories that center themselves in Europe and look outwards at the rest of the world.

• How does that apply here? Like I said earlier, the WotSS has traditionally been presented as a European affair concerning grand diplomacy and royal dynastic rights, but a major catalyst for the war was non-European in origin. The proverbial jewel in the Spanish Crown was its American empire. Fueled by the forced labour of thousands of enslaved Indigenous and African people, Spain’s colonies produced prodigious amounts of gold and silver. These riches formed the foundation of early globalisation as they were sent both East to Spain’s Pacific colonies in the Philippines by the so-called Manila Galleons in order to trade with China; and West in the annual Treasure Fleet that sailed from Veracruz to Cadiz, supplying Europe with vast quantities of specie that it used to trade with the rest of the world. In fact, the great wealth produced by martime trade had assumed a central role in European geopolitics by the 18th century as each state tried to control as much trade as possible for itself in a system sometimes called ‘mercantilism.’ As Spain’s power declined, Britain and France became rivals in a contest for global power. This contest would dominate the rest of the 18th century, leading some historians to label it the “Second Hundred Years War.”

• In the year 1700, England was just emerging from more than a century of tumultuous religious and political conflict. In just 60 years it had experienced a Civil War that resulted in the execution of one king and the establishment of a short-lived republic, followed by the restoration of the monarchy and overthrow of another king in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. However, this small island nation was rapidly emerging as a great power thanks to the wealth brought in both by its trade in the Indian Ocean and its growing colonial possessions in the Americas. Britain’s Caribbean colony of Barbados had created the first prototype in the 1640s for what would become the ‘planation system’: a cash crop monoculture (sugar in this case) employing vast numbers of slaves. England’s capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655 set the stage for the rapid development of this system. The chartering of the Royal African Company five years later in 1660, which would ship more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other single institution, set off an explosion in the Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, one of England’s goals in the WotSS was to attain the Spanish Asiento – a contract that gave its holder a monopoly on the slave trade to Spanish America – held by France during the war.

• France under Louis XIV had also seen a rapid expansion of its global empire. While not as populated or as lucrative as the English colonies, France’s American claims – anchored by the fortified capital Québec on the St. Lawrence – spread across the vast interior of the continent from the Great Lakes down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This “French river world,” to quote from historian Robert Englebert, was held together by a loose network of forts and trading posts that manintained the all-important system of alliances linking the Crown of France with the various Indigenous nations of North America. France also held several important islands in the Caribbean, especially Martinique and Guadeloupe. In 1697, Spain recognized French possession of the western part of the island of Hispaniola. Called Saint-Domingue, this possession would become not only the richest French colony of the 18th century, but the richest colony in the world before its cruel slave regime was overthrown in the Haitian Revolution.

• France had previously attempted to build a large navy to rival the maritime powers of England and the Netherlands, but its disastrous defeat at the Battle of La Hougue in 1692 forced a rethink. It was clear that England, a rich and rising power, was committed to naval dominance. France had to support a large army – the largest in Europe, in fact – and could not support the expense of an equally large navy. Instead, they turned to privateering.

• So what is privateering? A privateer (or corsair in French) is a private individual sailing a private ship that obtains a commission (often called a Letter of Marque) from a sovereign authority that allows that private ship to behave as if it were a ship of war. Now, why would anybody want to do this? It’s because any ships or goods that they capture were theirs to keep – mostly. Typically, the State issuing the Letter of Marque would also take a cut of the proceeds. In short, it’s a license to engage in acts that would otherwise be considered piracy. Although it might sound shady, privateering has a long pedigree extending back to the Middle Ages and lasted until the middle of the 19th century until its effective abolition by the Paris Declaration of 1856, now considered part of international law.

• The reason for the French reliance on privateers during the WotSS was simple: England depended heavily on its maritime trade; anything that disrupted that trade would harm its war effort and thus benefit France. Plus, peacetime merchants and sailors put out of work due to the war would have an opportunity to make money at England’s expense and the French State would take a cut – so all would benefit! France actually a went a step further during this conflict and adopted a policy known as the ‘course royale’ or royal corsairing. Essentially, ships of the royal navy were made available for private interests to lease and use as privateers!

• Although the bulk of French privateering took place in European waters with corsairs operating out of Saint-Malo and Dunkerque, it was not just limited just to the Old World. Seaborne violence soon spread to the Americas, and corsairs based both in Europe and the colonies took part in this privatized global naval conflict.

• Some of the largest attacks in the Americas were made using royal ships that were leased as privateers. Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, a famous Canadian corsair and the founder of French Louisiana, organized an expedition of 12 ships to the Caribbean in 1706 that ended up capturing and looting the English island of Nevis, transporting thousands of slaves from there to French Saint-Domingue. [I have a give a quick shout-out to my colleague Michael J. Davis who just last week successfully defended his thesis on the Le Moyne family. Well done Mike!]. Another famous expedition was led by René Duguay-Trouin, perhaps the greatest French corsair of the entire war, who organized a massive private fleet that captured the Brazilian capital of Rio de Janeiro in 1711, forcing the Portuguese to pay out an enormous ransom. In the following year, Jacques Cassard, another well-known corsair who began his career on a fishing ship in Newfoundland, cruised the West Indies and captured the English islands of Montserrat and Antigua, along with Dutch Surinam, Saint-Eustatius, and Curaçao, the capital of the Dutch Antilles.

• However, the bulk of French privateering in the Americas was carried out by small actors whose exploits did not make them famous in Europe. Most of our knowledge of their activities comes from fragmentary evidence and obscure tales drawn from the archives.

• For the French colonies, cut off from their mother country and desperate for resources, privateering provided a lifeline. Simple provisions like food and clothing brought in by privateers were often more valuable than cash crops and proved crucial to the survival of these far-flung settlements during the long decade of war.

• One of the best examples of this is the career of Pierre Morpain in French Acadia – present day Nova Scotia. Morpain also demonstrates the circum-Atlantic character of French privateering in the Americas during the war. He was born in France but moved to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1703 at the age of 17. The reasons why are unclear, but he soon obtained letters of marque from the Governor and command of the governor’s own ship. S-D had long been a pirate haven, especially the island of Tortuga off its northern coast, and corsairing crews were easy to find. Morpain, rather than cruising the Caribbean, decided to sail north in 1706 to attack New England shipping coming out of Boston. By 1700, Boston was one of the busiest ports in the Atlantic world, carrying as much traffic as Bristol, which was second only to London in the entire British Empire.

• Morpain encountered two New England ships which were sailing down to the Caribbean and forced them to surrender. Their cargoes reveal much about colonial trade at the time: one ship was full of food and the other full of slaves. North American and West Indian colonies were bound by these vital trade links. North America sent food, wood, livestock, textiles, and other manufactured goods south, while receiving plantation products like molasses, sugar, tobacco, coffee, indigo, and cotton in exchange. Slaves were often brought to large northern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and sent south as part of an intra-American slave trade that has only just started to be studied in detail.

• Returning to Morpain, rather than take the ships back to Saint-Domingue, he proceeded north to Port-Royal, the capital of Acadia. This small fortified settlement anchored the French presence on the Atlantic and was under severe strain. Having fought off repeated attacks by New England forces and completely cut off from the outside world, its food supplies were running dangerously low. Governor Subercase of Acadia welcomed Morpain as a hero and a savior for bringing much needed food to the beleaguered colony.

• Morpain then made his way back to Saint-Domingue to sell his captured slaves. He won a new command from the newly-appointed governor and sailed north once again in 1709. This time he captured an amazing 9 English ships in a single cruise, bringing them all back to Port-Royal. He even fought off and sunk 4 NE ships attempting another attack on the Acadian capital, demonstrating just how much the French war effort in the colonies relied on independent agents such as Pierre Morpain. However, upon his return to S-D in the following year, he was chastised by the Governor there for selling the goods from his captured ships in Acadia rather than brining them back to S-D.

• It seems that as a result of this, Morpain lost his command for a time. He reappears in 1711 operating between Plaisance – the capital of French Newfoundland and present-day Placentia – which was another corsairing hot spot, and Port-Royal. Morpain and other French corsairs, many of whom had also come from the Caribbean, perhaps drawn by his tails of easy pickings, had done so much damage to NE shipping that prominent Boston merchants were complaining loudly to the British Board of Trade and begging London to take action. One complained that trade had dropped by more than 2/3 and called Port-Royal the ‘Dunkirk of North America’ – the infamous nest of privateering in France — to raise support back in Europe.

• With the help of arms and naval support from Old England, New Englanders finally succeded in capturing Port-Royal in 1710. However, French Acadian colonists and their Native allies continued to resist the English occupation. By this point, Morpain had grown wealthy enough that he had become an investor in other French privateering vessels, but didn’t give up the corsairing life himself. On a cruise off the coast of Acadia where he was unloading food and munitions from a recent capture to supply France’s Mi’kmaq allies, he was surprised by a heavily-armed English frigate and forced to surrender after a three-hour fight. He would be ransomed after the war and obtained a position as a port official in France’s new fortified colony of Louisbourg. Thirty years later, he would take up the corsairing mantle once again and terrorize New England during the War of the Austrian Succession.

• Pierre Morpain had an exceptionally long and successful career as a privateer in France’s American colonies. A more typical example of a colonial corsair might be Jean Léger de la Grange. Léger de la Grange was also born in France and moved to Québec in 1687. By the 1690s he was working as a ship’s surgeon and in 1696 he had obtained the command of a ship in the fleet of Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who we had mentioned above. In 1703, Léger de la Grange won the financial backing of major Québec merchants for a raid on English Newfoundland. He received letters of Marque from Governor-General Vaudreuil and outfitted the ship Joybert as a privateer. Léger de la Grange snuck into the English port of Bonavista on Newfoundland, sunk two ships, and captured a 250-ton London ship known as the Pembroke Galley whose hold was packed full of valuable dried cod. He brought the prize back to QC where much of the cod was sold and the rest sent on to Bilbao in Spain along with the Pembroke Galley. A visual representation of the voyage actually survives in today the museum of Sainte-Anne de Beaupré in Québec. It’s what’s called an ex voto – a kind of Catholic devotional offering, typically an image or an object given in thanks for the assistance of a saint – in this case it depicts the privateer ship Joybert and was offered to the Church by one of the merchant backers of the venture.

• Although white Frenchmen from both Europe and the colonies formed the bulk of privateering crews, there is evidence that Indigenous people also played a role. For example, in a prize proceeding before the Québec admiralty court, two Indigenous Acadians named Claudechis and Claudiguan are listed as forming part of the privateer’s crew and entited to a share of the profits. Likewise, correspondence between French colonial officials and the Minister of the Navy in Versailles details how New England fishing ships were sometimes captured by France’s Native allies in small boats, especially if they experienced rough weather and were blown close to shore. In one case in particular, 37 members of the Mi’kmaq nation are identified as participating with 3 French colonists to capture an English ship, kicking off an extended debate about whether the ship should properly be considered a French or Mi’kmaq prize.

• It’s also likely that black sailors served aboard French privateers during the WotSS, particularly for ships operating out of the Caribbean. While I haven’t been able to find definitive evidence of this yet owing to the lack of records from the period, the more complete records from the rest of the 18th century show that black sailors did serve on both French merchant and privateering vessels.

• It’s difficult to determine the prescise impact of French privateering in the Americas during the WotSS due to the incompleteness of the available sources, but it is possible to make some estimates. Borrowing from figures used by historians J.S. Bromley and Nicolas Landry, at absolute minimum, 370 prize were brought to French colonies in the Americas. Martinique received the most followed by Plaisance and Port-Royal, with a handful going to Guadeloupe, Québec, and Cayenne in French Guiana. However, this number is certainly too low and doesn’t include any prizes from Saint-Domingue, which was an active colonial privateering port in conflicts both before and after the WotSS. Taking all of the available evidence into account, we arrive at a more credible estimate of 700 prizes. Even this number underestimates the total impact of French privateering since it doesn’t include ships that were captured and then ransomed at sea, a common occurrence with small prizes, especially in the colonies. Considering that there were approximately 6,500 prize captures condemned by the French admiralty during the war, an estimate of 10-12% of total prizes brought to colonial ports is a fair estimate.

• These numbers reveal the growing importance of colonies and maritime trade in European geopolitics and show how events in Europe reverberated far beyond the confines of the Continent. French privateering in the Americas during the WotSS helped to establish permanent legal institutions in the colonies, built the wealth of colonial merchants, and recolated thousands of slaves to the French West Indies, setting the stage for their rapid growth in the 18th century.

• The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ended the war between the now-Kingdom of Great Britain (following the 1707 Act of Union joining England and Scotland) and the Bourbon powers of France and Spain allowed Philip to remain on the Spanish throne, but demanded a number of concessions in the Americas. In particular, Britain would be given the Asiento – granting it a monopoly on slave trading with the Spanish Americas – and demanded that France cede its privateer strongholds of Acadia and Newfoundland to Britain. This was the first European peace treaty where American matters were front-and-center rather than peripheral and marked the ascendency of Great Britain as the most powerful commercial empire in the world. In this way, the WotSS stradled an older Europe, where States competed over dynatic affairs and control over Continental territory, with an emerging Europe increasingly focused on competition over trade and global empire.

• This has been Mike LaMonica with the French History Podcast, signing off, and we’ll see you next week!