Ben Franklin spent most of the American Revolution in Paris, negotiating an alliance with the French. But he had a side hustle: running a small fleet of privateers headed by an Irish pirate named Luke Ryan.
Ryan actually tricked Franklin into giving him a privateering commission by using a hapless Connecticut seaman as a beard. Franklin found out, but that didn’t end his little pirate navy. Something else did.
He was born in the coastal Irish village of Rush on Valentine’s Day, 1750, the son of Michael and Mary Ryan. At 12, he went to work in a Skerries boatyard. Then at 16 he began his apprenticeship as a shipwright for Edward King in Ringsend.
He then left his apprenticeship and got involved in small-scale smuggling. In February 1979, he took his first privateering cruise — for the British. He was a pale, slight 29-year-old, according to Eric Jay Dolin in his book, , Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution.
Ryan had a right-hand man, Edward Macatter, another Irishman. They converted his cutter into a privateer, with 14 guns and 60 crew. And they got a letter of marque from the British government, which gave him license to attack French, Spanish and American shipping.
But Ryan couldn’t change his smuggling ways.
In April of 1779, the Friendship headed for Ireland loaded with smuggled Dutch tea and French brandy. But some of the crew didn’t like the way they’d decided to divide the spoils. They ratted on the Friendship to Irish customs officers, who seized the ship and threw most of the crew into the Black Dog prison.
Luke Ryan had already gone onshore. He enlisted armed men to stage a prison break. They overpowered the guards, wounding a few. Then they stole some boats, rowed out to the Friendship, captured the nine customs officers on board and sailed out of Dublin Harbor. Heading north, Ryan’s crew rowed the guards to shore and gave them each a guinea to pay for their trip back to Dublin. Then they sailed to Rush to pick up Luke Ryan.
Now they were wanted men in Britain. If caught, they’d likely hang. But France, Britain’s enemy, was a different story. And so they sought refuge in Dunkirk, then a center of European smuggling. And they had a plan. They’d become American privateersmen. Ryan argued they had to take the American, not the French, side, because a crew of Irishmen could never pass for French.
In Dunkirk, they met with the two Torris brothers, Flemings who had supplied them with contraband in the past. The Torris brothers agreed to a 50 percent stake in the Friendship, renamed the Black Prince.
Ben Franklin was then in Paris, working with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee on a diplomatic mission to negotiate an alliance with France.
Ryan had heard that Franklin wanted to commission privateers to attack British shipping.
The Torris brothers, through a contact, learned Franklin couldn’t give a letter of marque to a vessels commanded by a foreigner – let alone an Irish pirate.
Franklin worried about his countrymen held at Mill Gaol and Forton Prison in England. He had good reason. More Americans died in British prisons than in battle during the American Revolution. Franklin wanted privateers to capture British seamen so he could exchange them for Americans.
Ryan found a way. It so happened that a Connecticut shipmaster, Stephen Marchant, had arrived in Dunkirk looking for a command. Ryan met with Marchant and liked what he saw: A weak-willed egotist he could manipulate easily.
Eric Jay Dolin described what happened next.
He would be presented to Franklin as captain, and another Connecticut man, Jonathan Arnold, would be offered as first mate, but in reality Ryan would be in charge. (Marchant and Arnold would not be privy to this fact.) Franklin met Marchant and granted the privateering commission.
Luke Ryan, Privateer
The Black Prince struck towns along the coasts of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, terrorizing the local populace. Ryan took 13 vessels within sight of the Newquay harbor in England. A Newquay wrote to a friend after one of Ryan’s raids.”We are all in vast alarm here, for two nights the soldiers have been under arms,” he wrote.
During the spring and summer of 1779, the Black Prince set out four times and captured 34 prizes. Ryan brought Franklin more than 50 prisoners — not as many as Franklin wanted. Ryan had let the British ransom prisoners along with the vessels he captured. That’s because he didn’t want to bother taking the prize ships and prisoners to Dunkirk.
The Irish crew obeyed the orders that Ryan issued. By the end of the third cruise, the officers and crew realized Ryan actually commanded the Black Prince — everyone, that is, but Stephen Marchant.
Ryan couldn’t stand Marchant, though, and told him the truth on the fourth cruise. Marchant, wrote Dolin, simply sulked quietly until the Black Prince returned to Dunkirk in September 1779. He then returned to America.
Franklin Finds Out
Franklin finally found out the truth, which he found highly entertaining. He sent Ryan a pair of binoculars, along with a letter:
Being much pleased with your activity and bravery, in distressing the enemy’s trade, and beating their vessels of superior force by which you have done honor to the American flag, I beg you to accept my thankful acknowledgement together with the present of a night glass as a small mark of the esteem with which I have the honor to be…
He also wrote to John Jay, bragging that a “small cutter…called the Black Prince, has taken, ransomed, burnt and destroyed above thirty sail of their vessels within these three months.”
Luke Ryan Commands the Fearnot
Franklin was so delighted with Ryan’s success he commissioned another privateer, the Black Princess, commanded by Macatter. But Ryan had taken ill, so a fellow Irishman, Patrick Dowlin, took charge of the Black Prince. They captured 20 ships and 68 prisoners, prompting loud complaints along the north coast. Townspeople said the British admiralty didn’t do enough to prevent the depredations of the American corsairs.
Then Franklin gave a letter of marque to a third vessel, the Fearnot, commanded by Ryan, by then recovered.
In 1780 from March to September, Ben Franklin’s Irish privateers captured 60 more prizes along the north coast. One resident wrote a letter to the editor stating Ryan “reigns uncontrolled.”
By September 1780, Ryan and his privateers had burned, scuttled or ransomed 114 British vessels, embarrassed the British admiralty, driven up marine insurance rates and wreaked havoc on the coastal trade in the English, Scottish and Irish seas.
But Franklin’s original aim, to free American prisoners, didn’t pan out as well as he expected. Many of the captured crew chose to join the privateers, and the British balked at prisoner exchanges.
The business of commissioning privateers and adjudicating prizes also took up a lot of Franklin’s time, which he’d rather spend in diplomacy. Controversies arose over the way he awarded the prizes, and the French got annoyed that so many French mariners signed on to American privateers. So Franklin put an end to his little pirate Navy.
Ryan went on to gain a commission as a French privateer. However, the British captured him in April 1781 after he mistakenly attacked a British warship, thinking it a merchant ship. Ryan was tried in the Old Bailey and sentenced to hang. But in March 1783, with peace negotiations coming to an end, he received a pardon.
Luke Ryan died in debtor’s prison in 1789. His obituary mentioned he had captured more British ships than any other single ship. He “did more injury to the trade of these kingdoms than any other single commander ever did.”
With thanks to Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution by Eric Jay Dolin.
Images: Rush By Alison Cassidy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18417043. Dunkirk General view, Dunkirk, France. , ca. 1890. [Between and Ca. 1900] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001698117/. Old Bailey By Nevilley at en.wikipedia – w:Image:Oldbaileylondon-900.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3171920.