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On The Sea: Pirates, Privateers, and Navy Officers

By Lyndsay Constable, author of Never Inconstant

One of the things that inspired me to write Never Inconstant was that I kept seeing posts on social media expressing confusion as to how Captain Wentworth accumulated his fortune during the Napoleonic Wars. People were shocked that an officer could get rich off of war in an honest manner. I think Jane Austen must have heard some interesting stories from her brothers Francis (who commanded seven different ships) and Charles (who commanded eight), both of whom rose to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet of the Royal Navy. I tried to imagine Jane reading their letters in my portrayal of Anne in my novel Never Inconstant.

Both Austen men were honest, highly experienced, highly regarded officers with great

success in capturing ships. Jane herself saw the rewards of it in 1801, when her youngest brother Charles returned to England on board HMS Endymion bearing gifts—topaz crosses on gold chains—for her and her sister, Cassandra. He had purchased the necklaces in Gibraltar with the prize money he earned for capturing the French privateers Scipio & La Furia in the Mediterranean.

Life in the Royal Navy held many dangers but also many opportunities. In addition to battles being fought with the French Navy and blockading French ports to keep English dominance over the English Channel, the Royal Navy also had the task of capturing enemy merchants, privateers, and pirates. Captains were not well paid, and it was in their financial interest (and the crews’) to capture as many enemy ships as possible. Every captured ship was sent to England, where the cargo and ship received a value; those aboard—the admiral, captain, and on down through the ranks—were given a payment for the ship and its goods.

Ships that were captured were frequently retrofitted to become a part of the Royal Navy. Sloops and frigates, the smallest ships used in the Royal Navy, often were captured prize ships; unlike the better constructed, water-tight English-built ships, these retrofitted French ships were known to be leaky and incredibly uncomfortable.

We can assume that Jane Austen’s fictional captains Wentworth and Benwick had excellent luck at capturing enemy ships and sending them back to England for prize money. Captain Harville did not have the best of luck when it came to capturing prize ships, but this should not be taken as a reflection on his abilities as a captain. It was often sheer luck as to where you were assigned and whether there was an abundance of enemy ships to capture. If Harville were assigned blockade duty off the French coast, his chances at making prize money would have been lessened as there was little chance for action. Wentworth and Benwick must have had better assignments in locations where there would have been an abundance of enemy merchants and privateers to capture. But, as both Wentworth and Benwick obviously respected Harville, we can assume Harville was good at his job as Wentworth did not seem to suffer fools gladly.

While Captain Wentworth made his fortune the honest way through honorable service to his country, other men took different routes, through piracy or privateering.

Wherever the sea has been used for military and commercial purposes, there have been pirates. A privateer was a pirate with papers. Both England and France employed privateers, who would sail in privately owned armed ships, robbing and capturing merchant vessels and pillaging settlements belonging to a rival country. These government-sanctioned mercenaries carried letters of marque to identify themselves and make clear that the ship’s crew were to be treated as prisoners of war rather than as criminals. Of course, that was not necessarily honored by the victors of a battle.

Using privateers allowed countries to project maritime power beyond the capabilities of their navies, but because privateering was generally a more lucrative occupation than military service, the lure of riches tended to usurp manpower and resources. The most famous of all privateers is probably Sir Francis Drake, who made a fortune plundering Spanish settlements in the Americas after being granted a privateering commission by Elizabeth I in 1572.

The line between privateer and pirate was often blurred. Privateers sometimes went beyond their assigned mission by attacking and pillaging vessels that didn’t belong to the targeted country. At other times, outlaw pirates would operate with the tacit encouragement of a government but without the written legal authorization given to privateers.

Pirates worked for no one but themselves; they did not hesitate to kill everyone onboard and steal the valuable goods off a ship. During wartime, pirates could receive a letter of marque from a government and became privateers. This meant some morally murky characters were recruited during wars, including the pirate Dominique You, rumored to have confessed to the murders of the crew and passengers, including Theodosia Burr Alston, of the Patriot in 1813. When You was captured by American forces, he was recruited to fight for America in the War of 1812 and was praised for his gallantry and service in the Battle of New Orleans. It was quite a change of fortunes for a pirate.

For a deeper dive into the life of a naval officer during the regency era, I recommend C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. Or, for a biography, Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander by David Cordingly.


Graveyard of the Atlantic by David Stick (1952)

The Command of the Ocean by N.A.M. Rodger (2004)

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05 oct 2022

I’ve always thought it was an odd system to have captains and their crews earn their pay by capturing enemy ships, in part because, as you pointed out, it means some of them could remain poor/poorly compensated for their work because of where they were stationed.

Thanks for the interesting blog post!

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