Luke Ryan: Premier Privateer


October 25, 2017
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Luke Ryan was born in the County Dublin coastal village of Rush on February 14, 1750. His parents were Michael and Mary Ryan. As a twelve year old boy, Luke worked in John Grimes’ boatyard in Skerries and then at age sixteen began his shipwright apprenticeship under Edward King in Ringsend. It is unclear if he completed his apprenticeship which would have lasted between five and seven years. We do know that following his years as an apprentice, he began to get involved in small time smuggling.

In 1777, Dublin newspapers began carrying stories about American privateers seizing British ships in the Irish Sea. Being a privateer was dangerous work; it involved long sea chases, bloody but brief engagements, lightening raids, smuggling, and at times, kidnapping for ransom. Because the Royal Navy could not afford to assign ships to deal with these privateers, they began to recruit privateers of their own from both England and Ireland. The ships, granted British Letters of Marque, were fast and heavily armed. Luke Ryan (and his cousin, Edward Wilde) decided to convert his smuggling ship into a privateer and rename her the Friendship. In February of 1778, the Freeman’s Journal reported that the Friendship, moored at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin, was “ready to sail, being completely armed and manned, carrying 14 carriage guns and 60 as brave hands as any in Europe.” [1]

Little is known about Ryan for the next twelve months. Two things, however, occurred that would influence his life over the next six years: first, France and the United States signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance; and second, M. de Sartine, the French Minister of Marine, drafted a set of regulations “concerning the formalities to be observed respecting the prizes … brought into the ports of this kingdom by the American privateers.” [2] One of the formalities was the procedure to be followed for the condemnation of a ship and/or its cargo. First, the captain of the ship that took the prize had to submit a full report; second, the officers of the Admiralty Court would take an inventory of the cargo, seal the hatches and set a guard on board the ship; third, the Admiralty Court would conduct a proces-verbal – this involved conducting interviews, taking statements, having documents translated, and reviewing bills of lading; and fourth, the Court sent the proces-verbal to the Conseil des Prizes who would hand down a decision. The regulations were submitted to the three American Commissioners, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Arthur Lee, for any modifications. On August 13, Adams and Lee informed Sartine,

Dr. Franklin concurs with us in these sentiments, but as he is absent, we are obliged to send [this] letter without his subscribing.[3]

Sartine made the modifications recommended and on September 27 officially published the regulations. There is no record that Franklin ever reviewed the regulations when he returned.

In April of 1779 the Friendship returned to Ireland laden with contraband. Some crew members, upset with how the profits were going to be distributed, “lodged information against her at the Custom House.” John Draper, the Superintendent of Excise for Dublin, had the Friendship detained, what goods remained aboard impounded, and Wilde and the crew thrown into Black Dog Prison. Ryan, who had already been on shore, organized a group men, overpowered the guards at the prison, and freed Wilde and his men. They quickly boarded the Friendship, confined the nine Dublin revenue officers who had been onboard, and sailed out of the Poolbeg. Once the Friendship was clear of the harbor, the revenue officers were placed in one of the ship’s boats and given their freedom. Luke Ryan and his crew were now outlaws. If they were captured, their crime was punishable by death. Ryan decided for their safety to sail for Dunkirk, France.

Dunkirk was the center of European smuggling and quickly becoming the privateer and prize court center as well. Shortly after Ryan’s arrival, he sold half interest in the Friendship to Jean Francois Torris, an armateur, that is, a person who supplied the resources needed to arm and outfit privateers. At the same time, Benjamin Franklin was looking for men who wished to be granted Letters of Marque on behalf of the United States. The Chevalier de Clonard, an acquaintance of Franklin’s, and Francis Jean Coffyn, Franklin’s agent in Dunkirk, recommended a newly arrived cutter, the Black Prince (formerly the Friendship). Coffyn said arrangements could be made with Jean Torris, the ship’s owner, and Stephen Marchant, an American captain. Franklin agreed and on May 19 issued an American commission or Letter of Marque to the Black Prince. What Franklin, Clonard and Coffyn, did not know, however, was that Marchant was only the nominal captain of the ship; the real captain was Luke Ryan. Torris knew that Franklin would never agree to having Ryan, an Irish smuggler, British privateer, and a wanted British criminal, serve as the captain of the Black Prince.

Ryan’s first cruise took place between June 12 and 22. He captured eight ships in the English Channel; one was ransomed, six retaken, and one, the Goodwill, was brought to Morlaix. His second cruise took place between July 15 and 25. This time he captured thirteen ships in the Bristol Channel; eleven were ransomed, one retaken, and one, the Dublin Trader, was brought to Morlaix. His third cruise occurred between August 15 and 23. Eight ships were captured around the Isles of Scilly; all were ransomed.

In late August, Franklin began to receive the proces-verbaux of the ships ransomed during the Black Prince’s first two cruises. He did not understand why Sartine was sending them to him, but he knew that he did not have the time to read them – so he gave them to his secretary to file. On September 8, he wrote to Coffyn asking if he knew why the proces-verbaux were sent to him. On September 18, Coffyn responded

By the 11th article [of the regulations] your Excellency will observe … that the officers of the Admiralty in port where the prizes arrive, are order’d to instruct the process, and to send the Copys with the original papers to the Deputies of the united states at Paris [4]

Franklin was stunned. Adams and Lee were no longer in Paris, which meant instead of the Conseil des Prizes making the decision, it would be him alone. Franklin’s first condemnation of prizes was issued ten days later.

Ryan’s final cruise for the season occurred between September 4 and 24. He sailed to the Irish Sea and captured six ships; three were lost or burnt, one ransomed, one retaken, and one brought to Dunkirk [5]

Why was Ryan so successful? It was a combination of his fearlessness, his sailing ability, his tactics, and the devotion of his men. He had his ship appear at first glance to be a simple, somewhat unkempt trader; his gun-ports were closed (hiding his loaded cannons); and he flew whatever flag gave him the best chance of a peaceful approach. When his ship had gotten close enough, he flung open her gun-ports and demanded the targeted ship to surrender; if she didn’t, she was boarded and any resistance was dealt with harshly.

Five days after the Black Prince returned from the Irish Sea, Marchant sent a letter to Franklin. He resigned as captain of the Black Prince. “I am Just setting off to Ostend to take the command of a Frigate of 26 Guns called The Countess of Berigen.” [6] Before departing Dunkirk, he surrendered his commission to Coffyn and requested an accounting of the prize money he was owed. This left Torris with no choice but to inform Franklin that twenty-nine-year-old Luke Ryan was the actual captain of the Black Prince.

I may give all assurances to your Excellency, you will have as much Satisfaction from the honest & brave Macatter (the nom de guerre of Edward Wilde), as you are Now [pleased to] express with the Hero Luke Ryan, a part owner & my particular & worthy friend, who is the Real Capt. of the Black Prince, Stephen Marchant is but the Ostensible one. [7]

Ryan, “who’s health being a little altered,” would “stay ashore” to recover for the next couple of months.[8] At his recommendation, the position of captain of the Black Prince was conferred on Patrick Dowling, who had served with Ryan aboard the Friendship. Dowling is an honest Brave man & best qualified in every respect for this command, & for all our Confidence , which, endeed, we ow him as a reward for his most essential Service on board. Mr Ryan & all the Concerns beg leave to recommend Mr. Dowlin to Your Excellency. [9]

A second ship, the Black Princess, was purchased while the Black Prince was away; command of her was given to Edward Wilde.

The expressions of your Excellency … will give all Comfort … to the Crew of the Black Prince privateer; … which will be ready for sea soon Mr Coffyn has Sollicited a Commission for the Brave Macatter, & we all hope your goodness will grant it directly.[10]

An agreement was reached that the Black Princess would join the Black Prince on her next cruise. It was thought that if the two ships “cruise[d] together there would be more convenience to stow and bring in prisoners.” [11]

On October 15, Franklin sent “the Commissions desired for the Black Prince and the Black Princess[12] to Coffyn. Hiring a new crew, securing two bonds, and waiting for the December storms to abate, prevented the two ships from setting sail until December 21.

In January of 1780, with his health restored. Ryan was given command of a new ship, the Fearnot.

I have Purchased this Day, for our Brave Capt. Luke Ryan, the Fine Large Cutter Lately … She is of 150 Tuns, & mounts 18 Six-Pounders, with 20 Swivels. I shall put on board 100 Stout Americans, Irish, & Strangers, the most of which are allready listed with Mr. Ryan. We shall give her Name The Fear not. [13]

Captain Luke Ryan

On February 4, Franklin sent Ryan’s new commission to Torris. Six weeks later, the Fearnot set sail for the Orkney Islands. The cruise resulted in the capture of sixteen ships. As much as Ryan was looking to disturb British trade and capture valuable cargo, Franklin wanted captured British seamen to exchange for the Americans held at Mill Gaol and Forton Prison in England. Franklin was becoming frustrated with Ryan because each time he returned to France from a cruise he had very few prisoners. Taking prisoners, aside from those detained until a ship’s ransom was paid, was contrary to a privateer’s mode of operation. Prisoners took up room on the ships, they consumed the ships’ food, and they needed to be guarded or taken back to port, all of which reduced the privateer’s ability to remain at sea. Ryan’s solution was to grant parole to the prisoners if they agreed to sign a piece of paper stating that they were prisoners granted parole at sea. Franklin informed Torris that this practice could not continue because

The English have paid no Regard to the written paroles taken by the Black Prince … and have not return’d us a Single Man … it is now my Instructions to all your Captains who act under Commissions from Congress … to Trust no more to such Paroles, but secure their Prisoners in the best manner they can and bring them into france. [14]

            The next part of the story bears reflection; it involves the fate of the Black Prince. The Black Prince set sail from Morlaix on April 6. Unfortunately, her crew had been reduced by seventeen men because of the last-minute arrival of a letter from Sartine informing the Commissary of Morlaix that the appeal by the French seamen aboard the Black Prince for an early discharge had been approved. Three days later, just as Captain Dowling and the Black Prince were about to capture a brig north of the Channel Islands, a frigate bearing British colors chased her off. The following day, the same frigate reappeared and began to pursue the Black Prince. It became clear to Dowling that the frigate had no intention of breaking off the chase. The Black Prince sailed for the French coast, hoping as she neared it that the land batteries would give her cover. As she neared the Fort of Berck, Dowling “hoisted French Colours & fired Signals of destress for the assistance of the fort.” It was not until the frigate and the Black Prince were within pistol shot of each other that the fort began to fire on the frigate. Unfortunately, she had already inflicted irreparable damage to the Black Prince. As the frigate backed off, she “brought down her English Colours, Shewed French [colours] & Sheerd off.” All of the crew of the Black Prince were able to get to shore safely and over the next twenty-four hours would row out to the wreck and save many of her guns and most of her stores. On April 15, Jean Torris learned that the frigate was French and under the command of Captain Guilman who claimed in his report that he was justified in his actions. Fortunately, Torris spoke with

the guard of the Fort … & people on the Shore, who saw everything who will Certify the above account; & that, She Shewed her Self Clear to everybody, to be an English Frigate, & that, Captain Dowling had fired three Leward guns under French Colours, at different times, an hour before he was forced to run on Shore, or be Taken; and that the Frigate kept up English Pendant & Flagg all a Long. [15]

Torris implored Franklin to file complaints against the Minister of Marine and Captain Guilman.

Franklin had been sole judge of the Admiralty Court for American prizes for almost a year. Before the Black Prince had encountered the frigate that would bring about her demise, she had captured the Flora, a Dutch ship. He put a prize crew aboard her and ordered them to sail for Cherbourg. When the ship’s owner learned of the capture, he filed a complaint with the States General of Holland who in turn instructed the Dutch Ambassador to demand the Court of Versailles return the ship and its cargo. The demand was delivered to Count de Vergennes, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Vergennes directed Sartine to review the contract (commission) of the Black Prince. He discovered in not only the Black Prince’s commission but also in the Black Princess’s and Fearnot’s commissions a clause that said the privateer refused all benefits guaranteed “by all ordinances and regulations of the [French] Marine which are contrary to the said contract.” On June 18, Sartine reported to Vergennes, “American privateers [are] fitted out … by Frenchmen yet not subject to the same forms and laws with your privateers.” [16] Franklin took umbrage with the claim. He stated that the privateers had followed all of the regulations regarding the submission of prizes. Vergennes said that he would look into the matter. On June 26, a frustrated Franklin wrote to Torris

Not one American prisoner has ever been return’d me from England in consequence of the Paroles given by the English Prisoners discharged at Sea. So that if that Practice is continued, I must decline farther Concern in the affair & withdraw the Commissions. [17]

On July 24, Ryan and the Fearnot engaged two privateers out of Liverpool. The ships were not only able to fight off the Fearnot but caused significant damage to her. After making her way back to Dunkirk, Ryan took command of French ship, the thirty-two-gun La Marechal, and on August 8, set out on another cruise.

On the same day, Vergennes informed Franklin of the ruling of the French Court:

The legitimacy of [the cargo] can be judged only in France and according to the French laws … The King has instructed me, Sir, to inform you of these principles, and to inform you … that his intention is that the dispute relating to the taking of the Flora, be brought before the Courts of the Kingdom. [18]

Franklin asked if he should withdraw his privateers’ commissions; Vergenes responded that it was not his call to make, but that he would advise it.

Three weeks later, Franklin informed Torris that he was “withdrawing the American commission to [the] Black Princess.” [19] Torris begged Franklin not to withdraw the commission until the end of her three month cruise. Franklin found this agreeable and informed Comte de Vergennes, “that as soon as her Cruise is finished her Commission shall be returned to me.” [20]

Privateering in general had become a problem for the French Government. Too many were being built and outfitted. Seamen were choosing to serve on privateers rather than in the French Navy. Sartine had no choice but to order all privateers with twenty or more guns to enter government service. This may explain why on August 22, the La Marechal returned to port – or it may have been because of the fourteen prizes she was escorting. Little is known of Ryan and the Mareschal between the end of August and the end of December. It is likely that he had entered the government service.

Then on December 25, it was reported from Kinsale, Ireland that

Arrived here this day the Earl of Dunmore armed transport … she was taken the 20th by the Tartar privateer, Luke Ryan, commander, mounting 22 nine-pounders … The Dunmore [was] ransomed for 2,500 guineas, … and took on Friday two vessels within sight of the Dunmore, one a three decker, and the other a brig from Cork. [21]

By the beginning of 1781, Ryan was captain of what was thought to be a fifth ship, the Calonne, however it was not a new ship but rather the former Tartar. Her name had been changed most likely because of the French commission that Ryan had been granted. The Calonne was more like the Marechal than the Black Prince, the Black Princess, or the Fearnot – she was built for privateering in the rough North Sea rather than the Irish Sea or English Channel. Torris had purchased her from the French navy.

On April 17, 1781, the Calonne was sailing near the Firth of Forth, Scotland. She had just taken the brig Nancy when her lookout spotted a couple of ships on the horizon. The captain of the Nancy fooled Ryan by stating they were only Greenland whalers. Ryan, knowing such vessels would be unarmed, decided to pursue them. Little did he know that he was approaching the seventy-four-gun HMS Berwick and the thirty-six-gun frigate HMS Belle Poule. When Ryan discovered what he was up against, he “endeavoured by crowding sail to make off … The Belle Poule gave chase, and engaged her 45 minutes until the Berwick came up.” [22] Outgunned and trapped against the Scottish coast, Ryan was forced to surrender. The Edinburgh Courant reported

Yesterday morning, about two o’clock, the Berwick man-of-war fell in with Le Calonne, privateer of Dunkirk, the noted Luke Ryan commander, four miles off St Abb’s Head. The Calonne struck at half-past eight. Ryan is now in irons … [23]

Ryan was taken to Edinburgh Castle where he stayed until October, then was transported to London where he would be tried for high treason and piracy. His Irish crew members were also imprisoned, but the Americans and French were sent south to be exchanged.

Ryan’s trial was scheduled for October 31 before the Court of Oyer and Terminer, however for some unknown reason, it was delayed until March 30, 1782 and held at the Admiralty Sessions Court of the Old Bailey. At no time during the trial did Ryan deny the charges against him. Instead, he argued his citizenship. He claimed that he was born in France and thus entitled to the full protection of the rules of war, that is, he should be treated as a prisoner of war. The Court, however, argued two points: first, that he was born in Ireland and as a British subject guilty of high treason and second, that because he had ransomed the Nancy back to her captain for 300 guineas he was likewise guilty of piracy.

Several … witnesses were brought from Ireland, some of which went to prove that they knew Luke Ryan a child, went to school at Rush with him, knew him bound to one [Edward] King, a boat-builder[and] had seen and knew him to be in the smuggling trade between Rush and Dunkirk, in France. [24]

There also were some officers from the Berwick and Belle Poule who claimed that while talking with him after his capture, he admitted that he was an Irishman. The trial last three weeks; at the end the jury found him guilty on both counts. On May 14, he was sentenced to death. When Patrick Dowling learned of the verdict, he and the crew of the Fearnot sailed for Skerries, Ireland. Shortly after arriving he and most of the crew came ashore and burned the houses of those who gave witness against Ryan as well as the house of the revenue officer.

Amazingly, four times the court set his date of execution and four times he was granted a reprieve. With peace negotiations underway, the Ministry was pressured to pardon Ryan as a gesture of goodwill. His “royal and free pardon” was finally granted following the end of the war on February 27, 1783. Ryan was not set free, though, because he had not paid the lawyers who had defended him during the trial. The French government, at the direction of the Marquis de Castries, the new Minister of Marine and M. d’Anglemont, the Commissioner of Marine, intervened on his behalf. Some of Jean Torris’ assets were liquidated and the proceeds sent to London to cover Ryan’s debt. He was released from Newgate Prison on February 9, 1784.

The total value of Luke Ryan’s shares from his privateering days amounted to 675,521 livres. [25] By 1788, not having received all of the money owed to him by Jean Torris or any of the money he had deposited with the House of Roscoff in Brittany, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. On February 29, 1789, he was arrested for not paying the doctors who inoculated his three children against smallpox. He died four months later on June 18 in the King’s Bench Prison of blood poisoning caused by an infected wound. Luke Ryan was thirty-nine years old.

In Captain Luke Ryan’s obituary of June 22, 1789, it was written he “did more injury to the trade of these kingdoms than any single commander ever did.” [26] The exact number of ships that were captured, burned, or ransomed by Luke Ryan appears to be near seventy, however, whatever number is finally decided upon, it is this author’s opinion that no one individual will ever be able to lay claim to a higher number. [27]


[1] Freeman’s Journal, February 23, 1778.

[2] Francis Coffyn to Benjamin Franklin, September 18, 1778, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Barbara B. Oberg, ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 30:367.

[3] Arthur Lee and John Adams to Sartine, August 13, 1778, in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Francis Wharton ed. (Washington DC: G.P.O., 1889), 2:682.

[4] Coffyn to Franklin, September 18, 1779, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 30:311-12.

[5] William Bell Clark, Ben Franklin’s Privateers (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 89, 177.

[6] Stephen Marchant to Franklin, September 29, 1779, in William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 30:417.

[7] Jean Torris to Franklin, September 23, 1779, in ibid., 30: 389.

[8] Torris to Franklin, October 8, 1779,” in ibid., 30:500.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Torris to Franklin, September 12, 1779, in ibid., 30:328.

[11] Franklin to Torris, in ibid., 32:602.

[12] Franklin to Coffyn, October 15, 1779, in ibid., 30:536.

[13] Torris to Franklin, January 15, 1780, in ibid., 31:386; Luke Ryan to Franklin, January 29, 1780, in ibid., 31:427.

[14] Franklin to Torris, February 4, 1780, in ibid., 31:446.

[15] Torris to Franklin, April 15, 1780, in ibid., 32:259.

[16] Franklin to Vergennes, June 18, 1780, in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Francis Wharton ed., 3:802.

[17] Franklin to Torris, June 26, 1780, in William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 32:602.

[18] Vergennes to Franklin, July 24, 1780, in ibid., 33:111.

[19] Franklin to Torris, July 31, 1780, in ibid., 33:139.

[20] Franklin to Vergennes, August 15, 1780, in ibid., 33:191.

[21] Joseph Shiels, “Captain Luke Ryan of Rush,” Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 24, No.2 (March, 1971), 32.

[22] Edinburgh Advertiser, April 20, 1781.

[23] Edinburgh Courant, April 18, 1781.

[24] The Hibernian Magazine or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, April edition (Dublin: Thomas Walker, 1782), 169-170.

[25] W. B. Wells, ed., Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, Vol. 37 (Baltimore, MA: Lord Baltimore Press, 1911), 952.

[26] Gentleman’s Magazine, London, June 1789.

[27] William Bell Clark, Ben Franklin’s Privateers, 177; the number needs to be complemented with the captures of the Mareschal, the Tartar and the Cologne.






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