Joseph Ring

Ship name: Active
Year: 1777
Month: January
Taken to: Liverpool
To: Nantes
From: Charlestown
Rank: Second Mate


On 27 January 1777, little more than six months after thirteen of Great Britain’s New World colonies declared independence, two mariners stood before a tribunal in the house of Henry Forshaw, also known as the Golden Lyon tavern, in Dale street, Liverpool. Both men had been mariners aboard the Active, a 135-ton sloop sailing from Charleston, South Carolina, to Nantes, France, with a cargo of rice, tobacco and indigo. When the Active left Charleston her eclectic crew consisted of six British subjects, two Dutch – though judging from their names, they were probably Danish or Norwegian – and five Spaniards, all under the command of John Osborne of Belfast, Ireland. The first to be interrogated by the High Court of Admiralty in Liverpool was the vessel’s thirty-year-old second mate, Joseph Ring. Born in Kinsale, Ireland, he had been "brought up in a seafaring way" and "followed the business of a mariner." In his youth he had spent several years in Workinton in Cumbria working as an apprentice and he thus claimed to be a freeman of this town in northwestern England. During his seafaring career he had always sailed from ports in Ireland or America or from Liverpool, and despite the American colonies’ Declaration of Independence, he considered himself a subject of the King of Great Britain.

However, the Active’s captain, John Osborne, did not regard himself to be a subject of Britain’s King. Quite the contrary. The Continental Congress had given him a letter of marque – granting him permission to capture enemy ships – and the Active was allegedly to be fitted out as a privateer after her cargo was sold in Nantes. Osborne "was formerly a Subject of the King of Great Britain but had of late renounced his allegiance and put himself under the power of the Continental Congress,” and the Active sailed under American colours "commonly called the Thirteen Stripes of the United Colonies." According to Ring, Captain Osborne had frequently expressed "his affection for America and the cause." The crew, however, did not all share this affection, and on the high seas they mutinied against Osborne and his first mate, Joseph Price. Ring, with Samuel Montegomery the other mariner from the Active interrogated), Hans Christan, Magnus Hallesald, Daniel Scott and the boy Paul Ketting overpowered Osborne and Price Ring stated that he “and no other person whatsoever first attacked the said Osborne with a drawn Cutlass which he had in his Hand who made some little resistance and was thereby wounded in his hand […] between the Finger and Thumb on the Right Hand.” Price fared worse: attacked by two others, he received several wounds before he surrendered. After the dramatic mutiny on the high seas, Ring and his allies altered course and headed for Liverpool to hand themselves and the ship over to the English Crown.

The ships traversing the oceans in the eighteenth century were often cosmopolitan worlds of their own: home to many nationalities and many different political convictions. Though it rarely ended as dramatically as with the Active, this example is testament to the importance of the different forms of subjecthood and shifting allegiances in the early modern world and in a conflict, which in time would transform the political and economic equilibrium of the world.

Eighteenth-century ships crossing the oceans were often cosmopolitan worlds of their own: they were home to many nationalities and many different political convictions. The story of the Active, culminating in high drama, testifies to the importance of the varying forms of subjecthood and shifting allegiances in the early modern world and in a conflict which transformed the world’s political and economic equilibrium.

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Martin Dorre and Jean La Croix

Ship name: Victoire
Year: 1778
Month: March
Taken to: Jersey
To: Boston, Massachusetts
From: Bordeaux
Rank: Master & Passenger


Sailing from Bordeaux to Salem, Massachusetts, the French ship Victoire was captured in March 1778 by the English privateer Revenge, commanded by Captain Noel Gautier, roughly thirty leagues off Cabo Ortegal in Galicia, Spain. The Victoire, bearing a varied cargo that included salt, iron, brimstone, sailcloth and sea flints, was taken to the Channel Island of Jersey. Its sailors were primarily French, but two Dutch men and a Swede had joined the crew in Bordeaux. Two crewmembers were interrogated to ascertain whether the vessel was a lawful prize. Captain Martin Dorre appears to have been quite forthcoming in his answers, disclosing all the information requested by the High Court of Admiralty; neither he nor his crew had resisted the privateers, and the ship’s lone passenger had not been hidden. Nonetheless, there was a limit to Captain Dorre’s cooperation with his British captors. When time came to sign his interrogation, he tersely "refused to sign alleging for reason that he had already done and declared enough." The passenger, Jean Le Croix Gorneti, was a Bordeaux merchant seeking to immigrate to America, He had moved to Bordeaux from an area the British clerk could identify only as Eran in Guyenne, and in 1778 was ready to move on to a new continent and a new market. After answering a first set of twenty questions, then twelve more, he refused to sign the interrogation because signing “was not the Custom in France.” The Victoire’s seventeen-year-old second mate was more obliging and, unlike Dorre and Gorneti, signed his interrogation seemingly without hesitation.

The story of the Victoire demonstrates the impressive mobility of the seafaring community during the Age of Sail – transporting themselves and a wide variety of goods all over the world. It also points to the difficulties of establishing an efficient bureaucracy in Great Britain and France in this period. Perhaps Gorneti’s claim that signing interrogations was not customary in France might help explain why the French equivalent of the English Prize Papers is not as useful for historians. This example is further frustrating because the Prize Papers usually present a unique opportunity to examine literacy, or at least the ability to sign one’s own name, in the early modern period.

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Jonas Lindall

Ship name: Nancy
Year: 1779
Month: September
Taken to: Liverpool
To: James River, Virginia
From: Bordeaux
Rank: Chief Mate


When seized by the British, the brig Nancy was en route from the James River in Virginia on her maiden voyage with a cargo of Virginia tobacco meant for European markets. The capture took place on 12 September 1779 more or less halfway between the Azores and the Iberian coast. Captured by the Watt of Liverpool, commanded by Captain Coulthard, the Nancy was carried to Liverpool, where members of its crew were interrogated in Pontack’s Coffee-house in Water street. The two interrogated mariners, the chief mate and one of the foremast men, told the court similar stories. Both tried hard to explain how they had ended up on an American vessel smuggling – in the eyes of the British – tobacco into France. Their narratives shed light on the maritime labour market, the mobility and flexibility of the mariners, and finally how wars and politics interfered with the lives of common workers.

The chief mate, Jonas Lindall, was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, around 1743 but for most of his life had resided in London, where he had served an apprenticeship. Nonetheless, he still saw himself as a subject of the King of Sweden. He sailed to New York aboard the Hunter Transport in 1776, but the ship was laid up on arrival and Lindall suddenly found himself unemployed in this unfamiliar American city. He then found work on an English privateer hunting for American vessels. But his stint as a privateer was short: he and the rest of the ship’s crew were soon cast away on the coast of North Carolina, where they were apprehended by the Continental fleet as prisoners of war and sent to Virginia. After they were held for about a month they were released, and Jonas Lindall set about finding his way back to Europe. He claimed his only way back to London was on the Nancy en route to Bordeaux; this was why he was aboard a rebellious American ship – not, he said, because he supported the colonists’ cause.

The 24-year-old foremast man Alexander Miller told a strikingly similar story. Around 1744 he was born in the London port district of Rotherhithe, where he would serve as an apprentice to a ship’s carpenter. He left London in 1776 on an English vessel headed for Africa. Immediately before Miller’s ship arrived at the Caribbean island of Barbados with its cargo of slaves, it was captured by an American privateer and taken to the French island of Martinique. In Martinique he was impressed on the American privateer Hornsnake, and when was it was subsequently sold he was impressed on the General Montray in the service of the American rebels. However, he managed to escape the warship and came on board the Nancy “to get home to his own country.” Even after two stints on American vessels of war, he still considered himself to be a subject of the King of Great Britain.

The stories of Jonas Lindall and Alexander Miller give fascinating insights into the flexibility of sailors during the Age of Sail: enduring shipwrecks and seizures by enemy vessels, both men managed to find work and to retain a certain measure of personal freedom. Lindall and Miller shared a strong drive to get to the port they viewed as home: London.

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Robert Nelson

Ship name: Polly
Year: 1777
Month: June
Taken to: Stoke Damsell (and London)
To: Spain or Portugal
From: Halifax in North Carolina
Rank: Master


On 9 June 1777 the owner and master of the merchant ship Polly, Robert Nelson, was interrogated by British authorities in London. The Polly was a 140-ton vessel manned by thirteen men, “including this respondent [Robert Nelson] and a negro boy,” and was making her way up the river near the port of Newport, Rhode Island, in the company of the rebel fleet commanded by Commodore Esek Hopkins, when a Royal Navy fleet commanded by Sir Peter Parker arrived at Newport. Nelson claimed that he had desperately tried to get away from the rebel fleet and was seeking the British Navy’s protection. However, Admiral Parker, not convinced of Nelson’s intentions, captured the ship as a lawful prize, and the British carried her all the way to London. All the Polly’s crew had been on vessels captured by the American fleet, and according to Nelson they “were glad to be shipped by him who hired the whole crew by himself.”

For Nelson the involuntary journey to Great Britain was a return to his roots. He was born in Kirkby Lonsdale in the county of Westmoreland around 1740, but had moved to Halifax, North Carolina, at least seven years prior to his capture. Halifax would seem to be quite far inland for a captain to settle. But Nelson had immigrated to America to be not a captain or mariner but a plantation owner. He had been in partnership with two North Carolina merchants, Joseph Monsfort and James Heburn, but when they both passed away Nelson found himself bankrupt. He “had parted with all his property in their partnership also with his negroes and land” – it was his intention to quit America upon the settling of his affairs there and to move to London, home to his father, brother and sister. Also, he had always, he said, considered himself to be a subject of the King of Great Britain.

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Ole Grersen

Ship name: Daageraat
Year: 1781
Month: November
Taken to: London/Liverpool
To: Bordeaux
From: Dublin
Rank: Boatswain


In 1781 the ship Daageraat embarked from Dublin on a voyage to Porto, Portugal, with a cargo of butter, as well as stones and sand for ballast. When the ship was in sight of the French coast three English privateers appeared and gave chase. At the time of the chase the Daageraat was flying no flag, though she did have Flemish colours on board. The privateers fired at her, after which the crew surrendered. The vessel was first carried back to Dublin and later brought to Liverpool, where her crew was made to stand before a High Court of Admiralty held at the Golden Lyon tavern in Dale Street. The only man interrogated here was the ship’s boatswain, Ole Grersen of Kristiansand, Norway. Brought up in the sea service, he had sailed out of several ports in Norway and Denmark, but he still viewed Kristiansand as his home because his wife and children dwelled there at the time. When asked if he knew why the ship had been seized, he answered that the vessel had been taken “for lawful prize under pretense of being the property of the enemies of Great Britain.”

Grersen had been shipped by Captain Jacobus de Vries with other crew members in Dublin, but it soon became clear that the ship had more than one captain. An Irish man known as Matthewson gave just as many orders as Captain de Vries did, and the two men were to be respected in the same way; while on board he heard the ship referred to as Matthewson’s brig, and took this to mean that Matthewson had some interest in the Daageraat. Grersen was told they were sailing for Porto, but the landlord of the Dublin house he lived in was convinced they were sailing for Bordeaux. Either way, he was to be paid £3 10 shilling per month as boatswain on the voyage. He did not know who the ship’s owners were, nor who shipped half the crew, nor even where they were headed. He suspected that Mathewson had shipped the others, and the Dublin landlord, with whom he must have been on rather good terms, convinced him that they were headed for France rather than Portugal.

The case of the Daageraat offers insight into one of the simple tricks captains, crews and ship owners would try to play on the authorities. By claiming that the ship lawfully was Flemish, Captain Matthewson and his Flemish companions were hoping to fool the British authorities and so continue trading with southern Europe. Examples like this also make clear that common crewmembers, like Ole Grersen, had very little incentive to cover or lie for their masters: loyalty of crew to officers seems often to have been fickle.

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Joseph Deturnis

Ship name: Herman
Year: 1780
Month: October
Taken to: Portsmouth
To: Bordeaux
From: Cape Francois, Haiti
Rank: Captain


On 9 October 1780, three French mariners were interrogated at the Portsmouth house of William Harward, known as the Three Tuns tavern. They had manned the French vessel Le Herman, which had sailed from Bordeaux for the busy Caribbean port of Cape Français (Cap-Haïtien in present-day Haiti) with a cargo of wine, brandy and provisions. She encountered the Royal Navy frigate Brilliant 43 degrees North and 12 degrees West of Paris, and after a battle of one and a half days she surrendered to the British and was carried to Portsmouth.

In his interrogation Captain Joseph Deturnis of Le Herman, a native of Bordeaux where he lived with his wife and family, disclosed that he had been given the position of captain by one Madame Draveman, the vessel’s sole owner. Deturnis believed that “the said owner is a Frenchwoman by birth and a subject of the French King,” and he also knew her to be a widow. Female shipowners were not rare in the eighteenth century: they would carry on their deceased husbands’ businesses either with other family members or by themselves. Madame Draveman can be found described as the “veuve Draveman” (widow Draveman) living in Bordeaux’s Port Negrier: the city’s slave port. Le Herman’s voyage to the Caribbean could indicate that one of the routes traversed by the ships owned by Madam Draveman would be to Africa. The wealth of many European shipowning families had its basis in the triangular trade in these years.

The prize papers of the High Admiral Court make it possible to investigate an underappreciated part of maritime history – namely, the role of women in the shipping industry. There are very few examples of women being interrogated as the crew members were, but for many of the captured vessels women figure as full or partial owners.

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Gilles Stap

Ship name: Aurora
Year: 1780
Month: February
Taken to: Baltimore
To: Dutch West Indies
From: Middelburg
Rank: Third Mate


When the Dutch ship Aurora was taken by the English privateer Alert of Bristol in the summer of 1781, seven miles from Great Basa on the west coast of Africa, twenty-two-year-old Gilles Stap was third mate on board. The vessel was mastered by a Scotsman, Robert Goodwell, and the crew consisted of thirty-six men from The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Gilles Stap was born in Vlissingen, or Flushing as it was known in English, in the Netherlands and had “resided there ever since save such intervals as he has been at Sea and that it is now the Place of his residence when at home.” He was born free and considered himself a burger or freeman of Vlissingen. Maybe this belief was part of the reason why he didn’t find it necessary to move.

The ship’s cargo, however, had been forced to migrate. When the Aurora was taken her cargo was still on board. The cargo she had carried from Middelburg in the Netherlands consisted of muskets, iron, powder, liquor “and other sundry merchandize fitting for the trade of Africa.” Trading in Africa had resulted in a new cargo: when taken, Stap explained “that the Lading and Goods she had on board consisted of one hundred and three or one hundred and four slaves.” The destination for these forced migrants was one or more of the islands of the Dutch West Indies. Where they ended up after the ship was captured by the British is, sadly, unknown. The British confiscated the ship’s papers so as to uncover all the details about the ship, crew and owners. Among these papers were the rules and regulations for the ship’s crew, including instructions on how they should behave in Africa and information about how big a bonus per slave they would receive. Gilles Stap would have received twenty stuiven for each slave, or 2080 stuiven for the entire cargo.

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