Thomas Paine Goes to Sea: A Pre-Revolutionary Tale

Prewar Conflict (<1775)

November 6, 2018
by Jett Conner Also by this Author


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Coming up rapidly from behind the British privateer, the frigate suddenly lowered one national flag and raised another, the customary ruse of switching colors, swung about and unleashed a fury of cannon fire directly at the stern of the enemy ship. Although it had done its best to prepare for just such an attack, the privateer suffered damage and heavy losses. Above deck, limbs of masts and men went flying. But what must have been happening below was even a greater nightmare for Thomas Paine—the fear of being struck down “not by cannon balls, but by splinters from inside the ship that fly in all directions.”[1] The privateer managed to come about and return fire, taking many lives on the French ship. Soon, though, the British ship, overwhelmed, out gunned and out manned, struck its colors. For real.

Fortunately, young Paine missed all the action this time. On the crisp November morning in 1756 that the British privateer Terrible put out to sea, he was not aboard. He certainly had meant to be, but just in the nick of time his father tracked down his runaway son in London and talked him out of sailing off with the rest of the crew. Good thing he listened. As he recalled later: “From this adventure I was happily prevented by the affectionate and moral remonstrance of a good father, who, from his own habits of life, being of the Quaker profession, must begin to look upon me as lost.”[2]

Growing up in Thetford, England, a market town northeast of London of about 2000 inhabitants at the time, Thomas Pain (he would add the “e” later in life) was provided a grammar school education by his working-class family. His father was a staymaker, a maker of whalebone components for women’s corsets. His mother was the daughter of a civil servant. Around age thirteen, his formal education having come to an end, Paine began an apprenticeship with father to become a staymaker. He worked in the trade for six years until suddenly running away from home to seek his adventure at sea.

It must have been a dull existence, making whalebone stays. Descriptions of Thetford at the time do not paint a bleak picture of the town or surrounding countryside, although like many English towns of the period stark inequality was everywhere and little opportunity existed for those not well connected to the town’s ruling family, named Grafton. Paine attended the Anglican church of his mother, but nonetheless was exposed through his father to the bland uniformity of the Quaker religion which he mildly poked fun of years later: “Though I reverence their philanthropy, I cannot help smiling at the conceit, that if the taste of a Quaker had been consulted at the creation, what a silent and drab-coloured creation it would have been. Not a flower would have blossomed its gaieties, nor a bird been permitted to sing.”[3]

So, the young bird flew the coop: “At an early period, little more than sixteen years of age, raw and adventurous, and heated with the false heroism of a [school] master who had served in a man-of-war, I began the carver of my own fortune.”[4] (Paine’s recollection of his age was off. He was nineteen in 1756, the year he left home to seek adventure—the same year the Seven Years War between England and France began in Europe.)

After running away, Paine quickly found work as a staymaker in London. But he soon answered an advertisement that appeared in London’s Daily Advertiser in the fall of 1756: “To cruise against the French, the Terrible Privateer, Capt. William Death . . . All Gentlemen Sailors, and able-bodied Landmen, who are inclinable to try their Fortune, as well as serve their King and Country, are desired to repair on board the said Ship.”[5] Paine’s dream of going to sea was finally coming true, or so he thought.

Privateers were“ships with a license to rob.”[6] Outfitted as a privateer in October and granted its license soon after, a letter of marque, the Terrible carried twenty-four guns, a combination of six and nine pounders and smaller carriage-guns. After posting its advertisement for a crew, the one that Paine saw and responded to, the privateer ship sailed from London in November. It quickly spotted and boarded a vesselwhich likely held contraband goods and, after dropping it off and hoping it would be declared a prize, continued making its way to Plymouth to lay over for additional supplies. What might have happened to Paine had he sailed off on that fateful cruise soon unfolded.

The names of the captain and the ship were certainly ominous enough. Aboard the Terrible in addition to its captain, William Death, was a second officer, a cousin to the captain also named Death and several other officers with names such as Ghost and Devil. The privateer ship, which sailed from Execution Dock, was about to live up to those names. As it happened, there was also aboard a lieutenant of Marines named Samuel Stokes, who survived the ship’s fateful battles and capture, and later published an account of the events.[7] It is by his account that much of what happened to the Terrible is known. Also, aboard as the ship departed Plymouth in early December to begin its cruise was a very dangerous passenger—a deadly fever with a presence much more menacing than the frightful names of the ship and its crew.

Even before its first battle the Terrible already had become a ship of death. Only 116 of the crew of 200 were able to “stand the guns” of the ship, “the rest being either dead or sick below with a distemper called spotted fever [likely typhus] that raged among the ship’s company.”[8] About two weeks after departing Plymouth, the privateer ship spied a sail and gave chase. It belonged to a French cargo ship named Alexander le Grand (which the English translated The Great Alexander). Finally catching up to the French ship, the Terrible subdued it after a two-hour battle. Then the Terrible with its prize in tow started making its way toward Plymouth to drop it off. Unfortunately, William Death’s cousin—the second officer named Death—and several other crew members on the Terrible were killed during this first battle, further weakening the ship’s already spare crew.

After a few days, the Terrible spotted two distant sails at dusk. The next morning, one of those ships bore down on the Terrible at a high rate of speed. Alarmed but forced to slow down while awaiting her prize to catch up, the Terrible prepared for battle. Soon the approaching ship, which turned out to be the Vengeance, a French privateer of thirty-six guns, switched its colors from British to French and attacked.

The Terrible fought fiercely against its attackers, killing the captain and many crew on the Vengeance, but in the end the French were the victors. And in spite of striking his ship’s colors signaling surrender, Capitan Death, who was wounded several times early on but continued to fight, was shot in the back and killed as soon as the French boarded the defeated ship. Stripped of his watch and other personal belongings, he was tossed overboard. New horrors now faced the few remaining survivors of the Terrible. Because Lieutenant Stokes was among those who managed to survive dreadful imprisonment conditions, he was able eventually to return to England and publish his account of the battle and the survivors’ treatment. Among his descriptions:

I come now to relate the most melancholly Scene of all . . . the Deck was cover’d with our Men, some dead, and many with their Arms and Legs off, and otherwise wounded . . . these barbarous Villains, having no more Regard to the Living than the Dead, tumbled all overboard, in Spite of their Dismal Cries for Mercy . . . After they had beat us unmercifully with their Cutlasses, they put some of us in double Irons on board the Terrible, and the rest on board the Vengeance . . . The next Morning, being the 28th of December [1756] . . . they hawl’d Twenty-seven of the poor Wretches out of the Hole, who were smothered to Death . . . and threw them overboard, like so many Dogs, taking no more Notice of it, than if nothing had happen’d.[9]

Years later, Paine wrote that the Terrible had “stood the hottest engagement of any ship” during the Seven Years War.[10] But soon after that ship had sailed, young Paine—not knowing of the Terrible’s fate at the time—brushed off his father’s warnings which “began to wear away,” and sought out another adventure at sea. This time he boarded the King of Prussia, a 340 ton multi-decked privateer with a crew of 250 and over fifty guns, and “went in her to sea.”[11] The ship left London, sailed down the Thames in early January 1757 and, after picking up additional crew in Dover, put out to sea in February to cruise the English Channel and nearby waters.[12]

Interestingly, there were two privateers named King of Prussia, the one that Paine joined and another that sailed out of Liverpool. The ship Paine boarded had a six month’s cruise; the ship sailing out of Liverpool returned to port after two years at sea. This has caused confusion in retelling Paine’s adventure as a privateer sailor, some authors believing that Paine spent two years at sea.[13]

Next to nothing is known about Paine’s experiences on this voyage. Even though it lasted six months, he barely mentioned the event later in life. The ship captured prizes and brought back plenty of booty. There is no record of Paine’s responsibilities, so whether he took up arms against enemy ships, which was typical of hired crews’ responsibilities, or performed other duties, no one really knows. Perhaps he put his staymaking skills to good use keeping lines and sails repaired.

But danger lurked aboard all privateer ships and he certainly saw death and destruction. Whatever his role on the King of Prussia, he experienced violent battles, felt fear, and found plenty to fulfill his ambition for adventure. He particularly feared splinters flying around underneath the decks like little unguided missiles during cannon bombardments, because that’s what he mentioned later. At the very least, he learned some survival skills that helped him achieve the independence he was seeking from home and family. And he took part in the Seven Years War, the same war that across the Atlantic was called the French and Indian War, a conflict that a young George Washington helped start in 1754.

For a time after disembarking from the cruise and with the help of his portion of the ship’s bounty, Paine was able to live in London, attend scientific lectures and hobnob with some of London’s elite and literati in the various social clubs of the city. It was a brief respite from the world of tradesman work, and it proved to be a period of education and enlightenment. But before long, his seafaring earnings depleted, he was forced to face the world of regular work again and consider his options, which weren’t many. Going back to sea, however, was not among them. He didn’t sign up for another privateer’s cruise.

While living in Lewes where he served as a tax collector Paine penned his first pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise. It was a forcefully written petition urging Parliament to improve wages and working conditions for England’s excisemen. Many of them collected the funds necessary to get the pamphlet printed. Distributing it himself, Paine lobbied members of both houses of Parliament personally, but in the end his efforts failed and cost him his job, most likely for his political agitating, though officially for neglecting his duties in Lewes as a tax collector while leaving his job to lobby the government in London. But Paine’s pamphlet revealed his skills for persuasion and a way with words, and it caught the attention of some of London’s movers and shakers, including such people as playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith.

At some point around this time Paine was introduced to Benjamin Franklin who was in London serving as an American agent for several colonies. The two got on well enough, because toward the end of 1774, at age thirty-seven and with numerous career failures and two failed marriages behind him, but carrying a letter of introduction from Franklin to his son-in-law Richard Bache in Philadelphia recommending the “ingenious, worthy young man,” Paine went to sea once again for a second adventure. This time it was to start life anew in America and perhaps to fulfill a dream. He had always wanted to see America since grammar school: “I happened, when a school boy, to pick up a pleasing natural history of Virginia, and my inclination from that day of seeing the western side of the Atlantic never left me.”[14]

Unfortunately, that old seafaring passenger and foe which had appeared on the Terrible, the dreaded Deadly Fever, was also aboard for this voyage. By the time the ship docked in Philadelphia in December, Paine was deliriously sick, unconscious, and unable to get out of his berth to set foot on the land of his new country. Still, in spite of acquiring the illness, he survived the crossing. Luckily, Franklin’s letter worked its magic as a friend of his, a doctor, came aboard to help Paine get off the boat, carry him ashore, and restore his health. Within a month, having recovered enough to get out and about, Paine began to explore his new opportunities. Virginia would have to wait.

He struck up a friendship with Robert Aitken, a Philadelphia printer, bookseller, and recent Scottish immigrant, and was hired in January 1775 to help edit Aitken’s brand new publication, the Pennsylvania Magazine: or, American Monthly Museum. Paine’s career as a revolutionary writer was about to take off. One year later, he published Common Sense, a pamphlet that created a sensation and would soon make its anonymous author famous for spurring the movement for independence.

Paine crossed the Atlantic several more times during the rest of his life. But it’s likely he was able to do so only by the good fortune of being talked out of that first attempt to go to sea on the Terrible by his father, and later surviving his first ocean crossing. His lucky breaks were certainly critical for his own future and, as it turns out, for America’s too.


[1]Thomas Paine, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: The Citadel Press, 1969), 2: 1068.

[2]Ibid., 1: 405.

[3]Moncure D. Conway, The Life of Thomas Paine (New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1893), 498.

[4]Ibid., 405.

[5]Alyce Barry, “Thomas Paine, Privateersman,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 101. No. 4 (October, 1977), 454.

[6]Barbara W. Tuchman, The First Salute (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 47.

[7]Samuel Stokes, “An Narrative of the Many Unparalle’d Hardships and Cruel Sufferings, While in France, of the Crew of the TERRIBLE Privateer, Commanded by Captain WILLIAM DEATH (London: J. Towers). Printed in Sarah and John Exshaw, The Gentleman’s and London Magazine,”vol. 26 (Dublin: John Exshaw, 1757), 490-492,

[8]E.P. Statham, Privateers and Privateering (New York: James Pott & Co., 1910), 106-107.

[9]Stokes, An Narrative of the Many Unparalle’d Hardships.

[10]Paine, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 1:33.

[11]Ibid., 1: 405.

[12]John Keane, Thomas Paine: A Political Life (New York: Little, Brown, 1995), 38.

[13]For further details about the King of Prussia, see

[14]Paine, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 1: 88n.


  • A privateer named the “Terrible” and a “Captain William Death”?!?!

    Does it get any better?! Great story!

  • Ha – it just got better. Officers “Ghost” and “Devil”. I am amazed. This is really fun, great stuff.

  • Outstanding story. Notwithstanding America’s debt to Paine, I don’t doubt that if John Adams had known of Paine’s earlier decision, he would have wished that Paine’s father was never able to talk him off his cruise on the “Terrible”.

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