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Robert Surcouf (12 December 1773–8 July 1827) was a famous French corsair. During his legendary career, he captured 47 ships and was renowned for his gallantry and chivalry, earning the nickname of Roi des Corsaires ("King of Corsairs").

Youth

Robert Surcouf was born 12 December 1773 in Saint-Malomarker, a fortified town in Brittany, traditionally a corsair stronghold. He attended a religious school and was educated by the Jesuits. At 13, he escaped his teachers and stole a small craft to prove his ability to sail; he was subsequently caught in a tempest and had to be rescued.

At age 15, he enlisted on a merchantman to India.

French Revolution

In 1792 he came back to Saint-Malo and discovered the political changes France had undergone in the wake of the French Revolution. He sailed to Île de France (present-day Mauritiusmarker) in August on a commercial brig, and was informed on his arrival of the outbreak of war against Britainmarker. Île de France was blockaded by two British ship: the 50-gun HMS Centurion, and the 44-gun HMS Diomede, commanded by Commodore Osborn. Surcouf was made a second officer of the 40-gun frigate Cybèle, which, with 32-gun frigate Prudente and brig Coureur engaged and repelled the attackers. Surcouf was one of the heroes of the day.

Captain of the Émilie

He was made a captain in Île de France, and expressed his ambition to wage corsair warfare against Great Britain. However, the Convention frowned at privateers, and it was difficult to obtain a letter of marque.

On 3 June 1794, Surcouf sailed with the 4-gun ship La Créole, with a complement of 30 men, with orders to bring rice to Mauritius, and encountered three English ships escorted by the 26-gun Triton; he used a technicality to engage combat in self-defence, by not flying his colours until the English ships requested them by firing a warning shot (a naval convention of the time), which Surcouf later reported to consider an aggression. After a brief gunnery exchange, the British ships lowered their flag and were brought back to Mauritius, with their cargo of rice and maize. Surcouf was welcomed as a saviour in the famished Port Louismarker. The capture was declared legal, but in the absence of a letter of marque, the authorities retained the entire cargo (a portion of which normally goes to the corsair).

Following a dispute with the governor of Île de France, Surcouf sailed to France to receive his letter of marque. He returned to sea in Nantesmarker in August 1798, as captain of the 18-gun Clarisse, with 105 men. He captured four ships in the South Atlantic, and two others near Sumatra in February 1799. On 11 November, the 20-gun Auspicious was captured, with a cargo worth in excess of one million francs. Surcouf later had to flee before the 56-gun frigate HMS Sybille, throwing eight guns overboard to out-sail the British warship. He captured a British brig and an American merchantman before returning to Île de France.

Captain of the Confiance

In May 1800, Surcouf took command of Confiance, a fast 18-gun ship from Bordeauxmarker undergoing repairs in Île de France.

Beginning in March, he led a brilliant campaign which resulted in the capture of nine British ships. On 7 October 1800, in the Bay of Bengal, off Sand Heads, Confiance met the 38-gun Kent, a 820-ton East Indiaman, under Captain Robert Rivington, with 400 men and a company of naval riflemen. Despite being outnumbered three to one, the French managed to seize control of the Kent. He became a living legend in France and, in England, a public enemy whose capture was valued at 5 million francs, although he was noted for the discipline of his crew and his humane treatment of prisoners.

Retirement

On 13 April 1801, though chased by British warships, he arrived in La Rochellemarker. He settled in Saint-Malomarker, married, and spent six years in retirement as a businessman.

In 1803, at the breaking of the Treaty of Amiens, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte personally offered him the title of captain and command of a frigate squadron in the Indian Ocean. Surcouf, however, refused, for two reasons: first, he would not have been allowed to operate as independently as he desired; and second, he believed that the naval war against England should be waged by commerce raiding rather than by direct naval assault and squadron tactics. In 1805, Napoleon did opt for a blockade against England rather than direct confrontation, and allowed privateers to operate with relative impunity. Surcouf left in good terms, and was made officer of the Légion d'Honneur on 18 July 1804.

Empire

In 1804, Surcouf went into business as ship-owner, and equipped 14 privateers in the Indian Ocean (among them his brother Nicolas Surcouf and his cousin Joseph Potier). Their achievements, however, were somewhat less impressive than Surcouf's own: four of the corsairs were captured by British warships, and 5 campaigns turned a deficit.

Captain of the Revenant

In 1807, a British vessel captured Nicolas Surcouf. On 2 March, Surcouf returned to sea on a specially built three-master, the 20-gun Revenant. Revenant was constructed under special directives by Surcouf himself, with a completely coppered hull, and a remarkable (for the time) top speed of 12 knots.

Surcouf arrived at Île de France in June, defeating the British blockade and capturing several ships on the journey. During the subsequent campaign, which was to be his last, Surcouf captured 16 British ships, partly because British ships tended strike their colours as soon as they realised their opponent was Surcouf. He returned to Île de France in February 1808. He then decided to stay on the island, leaving the campaign to his second-in-command (and cousin) Joseph Potier. In two campaigns, the latter captured about 20 ships, including the large 34-gun Portuguese Conceçao.

The governor of Île de France, General Charles Decaen, seized the Revenant for the defence of the island. After a heated argument with Decaen, Surcouf acquired the frigate Sémillante, renamed her Charles, and sailed her back to France. In the meantime, Decaen had confiscated all Surcouf's possessions in the Indian Ocean. In October 1808, the Revenant (renamed Iéna) was captured by a British warship and renamed Victor. She was retaken two years later by the frigate Bellone, under captain Duperré, and kept the Victor name. She later took part in the Battle of Grand Portmarker.

On 4 February 1809, Charles arrived in France with an 8-million-franc cargo. Surcouf was received by Napoleon and made Baron d'Empire, and his possessions were returned to him.

The Renard

In 1812, Surcouf his last ship, the Renard ("Fox"), a 14-gun cutter. She was commissioned under captain Leroux-Desrochettes, and fought a bitter battle on 9 September against the British 16-gun Alphea. Alphea exploded, taking all hands with her, while Renard sustained 33 casualties, including her captain, over a crew of 46.

In January 1814, Surcouf was made a colonel in the National Guard of Saint-Malo. However, he took no part in the Hundred Days as a chief of Legion. After the war, he returned to Saint-Malo, rich and with the title of baron, and became a merchant ship-owner, establishing business with Terre-Neuve, the Caribbeanmarker, Africa, and the Indian Ocean.

He died on 8 July 1827, and was carried to his grave by sea on a flotilla of over 50 sailboats.

Tactics

As a privateer, Surcouf used tactics to compensate being out-gunned by larger British ships: he would use small, fast ships to make the huge ships think he was either not enough of a threat to consider firing at, a vessel on the verge of sinking, or a fishing vessel. Even if the enemy did fire at him, his ships were often too fast for the British behemoths to catch. When alongside an enemy ship, elite marines waited belowdecks until an order was given to board. When the men sprang forth, the British ship cannons could not depress enough to fire directly on the French ship.

Quotes

Statue of Surcouf in Saint-Malo
  • Discussing with a British officer:
"You French fight for money, while we British fight for honour."
"Sir, a man fights for what he lacks the most."


  • On spotting the much more powerful Kent:
"The reward will only be fatter!"


  • Construction of his grand terrace at his residence.
Through Surcouf's actions he brought incredible wealth to St. Malo, it was said that Napoleon himself borrowed from the city's treasury to pay for his campaigns. Surcouf naturally had amassed a great deal of wealth in his escapades and wanted to make a terrace out of coins. He went to the Emperor himself and requested permission. Of course all currency had Napoleon's face on it and he disapproved of people treading over his visage. The great corsaire then clarified his plan with; "No my lord, they will not be treading upon your face."
The large terrace was constructed with the coins stacked and then laid sideways so that the thin edge acted as the surface on which people walked.


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