1697, Peter Crop and other ship masters seek recompense after their ships had been plundered

Transcription from ‘Petitions in the State Papers: 1690s’, in Petitions in the State Papers, 1600-1699, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online, William Hoare clerk, chaplain to your majesty. SP 32/8 f. 265 (1697).

To the Kings most excellent majesty

The humble petition of Peter Crop master of the Diamond of Topsham of 50 tunns, and Samuell Hagon master of the Vine of Yarmouth of 150 tunns for themselves and Samuell Duersly master of the Mary Anne of Scarborough of 70 tunns Daniell Smailes master of the Catherine of 50 tunns, John Russell of the Fortune of 350 tunns, and William Hill master of the recovery of 130 tunns

Humbly sheweth

That on the eleaventh thirteenth and fourteenth days of October last, old stile, five of your petitioners and their shipps above named were taken by severall French ships off of Dunkirk whither they were bound with coales, and on the eighth and twentyeth day of October aforesaid Peter Crop the other petitioner coming from Newfoundland and bound for Topsham laden with fish and traine oyl was likewise taken by a French ship about nine leagues from Scilly within the channell and all the said ships carried to Dunkirk

That being arrived there your petitioners were in few days restord to their ships, but staying as they were advisd by means of the articles of peace to prosecute the captors who plunderd and dammagd them as by the memorandum annexed, on the 14th day of this instant December an order came from the court att Paris to stop your petitioners said ships, which were accord= ingly seizd and are now deteind in Dunkirke

Your petitioners therfore do humbly pray your majesty that your majesty would be pleasd to take this matter into your royall consideration, and to cause restitution of the ships and goods, and reparation of dammages to be made to your petitioners or such other remedy as your majesty in your great wisdom shall think fitt

And your petitioners shall ever pray etc

Samuell Hagon

Peter [Crapp?]

Report by Aelwyn Taylor

This is a petition from Peter Crop, master of the Diamond of Topsham, 50 tons, Samuel Hagon, master of the Vine of Yarmouth, 150 tons, for themselves and for Samuel Duersly, master of the Mary Anne of Scarborough, 70 tons, Daniel Smailes, master of the Catherine, 50 tons John Russell, master of the Fortune, 350 tons and William Hill, master of the Recovery, 130 tons to the King. The ships were taken by French privateers and although they were returned, they had been plundered and damaged. The captains were seeking recompense.

No individual biographical facts have been identified for the sea captains or their ships. It is important to note that these were merchant ships from different ports and of different sizes but they were all loaded for trading and all were taken to Dunkirk which at that time was a major centre for privateering. Dunkirk started out as a centre of herring fishing under the Counts of Flanders in the 11th century and began to engage in commercial traffic in the 14th century, because of contacts with Holland and England. In the first part of 17th century, it was under Spanish rule but in 1658 the French and English allies retook the city, Louis XIV eventually purchasing it permanently from Charles II in 1662. Louis developed the town as a fortified port with a basin that could hold up to thirty warships.[1]

Disrupting trade was an important aspect of warfare and so it seems likely that the ships named in the petition had been taken by privateers operating out of Dunkirk (Dunkirkers).[2] Privateers were private persons or privately owned and operated vessels. To sail as a privateer, or in French corsair, it was necessary to obtain so-called letters of marque from the government, giving license to attack and take enemy ships as prizes during a war. The granting of licenses to privateers to legally attack and seize enemy ships during wartime appears to have constituted an effective means of waging war especially at times when the government of a nation could not afford to increase the size of the navy itself. Stringent conditions applied to letters of marque which stated that particular ships could be boarded, plundered and sunk and that certain of those on board might be taken prisoner.[3] However, the temptations to flout the rules were many and so some privateers were more akin to pirates. Under the Declaration of Paris in 1856 privateering lost its international sanction.[4]

The other significant facts about this petition are the dates. The Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), often called the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg was a conflict between France and a European coalition of England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic and Spain fought in Europe and the Americas. It was brought to an end by the Peace of Ryswick (or Rijswijk), a series of treaties signed in the Dutch city of Rijswijk between 20 September and 30 October 1697.[5] One effect of this was that Louis XlV of France now agreed to recognise William III as King of England.

Another result was that the French admiralties were instructed to stop all further sailings by corsairs at the end of September 1697. In the terms of the treaty, all of the prizes that were taken after 2 October ‘were to be handed back; any Allied prizes currently held in French ports were to be detained to ensure restitution of French ships captured by the Allies’.[6] It was this treaty that the petitioners were referring to when they had stayed at Dunkirk and hoped to make a case for reparations.

The petition from Peter Crop is mentioned in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, for William III. The first mention of it is on 23 December 1697. In addition to the facts of the petition, it states: ‘Memorandum of the damage suffered by each of the above said ships, the captors being the Dragon, Captain Dumaitre, the Portsmouth Galley, Captain Dirck Platon, Captain Bateman of the ship —, and the Milford Galley, Captain Matthew Dupre’.[7]

The case of the Dragon and Captain Dumaitre (or de Mitter, Demiter, Desmetres) continues to feature in the State Papers and became quite complicated but central to the potential release of the petitioner’s ships.

On 25 December, an account from the judge of the Admiralty includes: ‘The Dragon of Dunkirk, Francis de Mitter, commander, a French privateer of 12 guns, was taken by his Majesty’s ship Maidstone, Captain Heling, commander, and brought into the Downs. On the 3 of November 1697, the ship was discharged according to the treaty of peace, it appearing that she was taken on the 19th of October preceding’.[8]

The following information was entered as an appendage to that entry: ‘The case of Captain Demiter, commander of the Dragon privateer, taken by the Maidstone about the 24 of October 1697, dated at the Office for sick and wounded seamen, 18 Nov. 1697. The ship’s company were landed at Rye, and thence sent to Dover, and all transported to Calais on the 28 of October, except the captain and five of his men, who voluntarily remained behind at Dover, expecting to have their ship restored to them, which was done by order of the Admiralty. But the captain has since been arrested, and his ship attached, by one Mr. Lambert, a merchant in London, in lieu of a ship of his, which Demiter had taken and carried into Dunkirk the day before he himself was taken by the Maidstone; and he is now in the custody of the marshal of Dover Castle as the Lord Warden’s prisoner, and not a prisoner of war. The captain, finding his business will be tedious, has sent away three of his men, and retains only the lieutenant and clerk, who, he desires, may stay with him till there be a determination of his business’.[9]

On 28 December, the following information is stated: ‘He (the King) has considered the French ambassador’s memorial about restoring the ships on each side, which it is pretended have been unduly taken. He finds there are but two such ships of theirs on this side, for which they talk of confiscating the sum agreed to by Major-General Erle and his officers for their ransom, and six other ships, which are detained in the port of Dunkirk after they were discharged by the Court of Admiralty there, as you will see by the enclosed petition of their masters and the copy of a letter to Major-General Erle from Dunkirk. One of the said French ships is that of Captain Demetres, who took Major-General Erle. It is certain he is not kept here by way of reprisal, since he was long ago cleared by the Court of Admiralty, but happened to be seized again upon a civil action brought by one who sues him for damages in unjustly taking his ship and sending her into Dunkirk. The complainant in this case is not one of the above-mentioned masters. Though this is a process agreeable to the laws of nations, and their making this a pretence to grant reprisals against others of his Majesty’s subjects is contrary to the treaty, yet the King intends to have this ship forthwith released, in order to cut off all occasions of cavil. To that end I have spoken with the judge before whom this case is pending, that he should more particularly consider the case, which seems to be complicated. If there be no other way, the King will take it upon him to order bail to be given in this action, that the ship and captain may be immediately released and sent home. He hopes and expects that his subjects shall be dealt with in like manner, and particularly that Major-General Erle’s hostage be no longer detained, that the six ships mentioned in the petition be forthwith released, and that the masters’ complaints of the wrongs done to them be speedily determined’.[10]

On 4 January 1698 an entry about the exchange of the ships held by the French and the English concludes with the sentence: ‘I hope the readiness we show to be the first to gratify them will induce them to send home the six ships detained at Dunkirk, and to do right to the owners’.[11]

It seems that this petition from the ship’s masters received attention and subsequent action from the highest levels of authority.


[1] ‘Dunkirk’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk#Corsair_base.

[2] ‘Dunkirk’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirkers.

[3] ‘Privateer’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privateer.

[4] ‘Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Declaration_Respecting_Maritime_Law.

[5] ‘Peace of Ryswick’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_of_Ryswick.

[6] G. Symcox, The crises of French sea power 1688-1696, p. 220 https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=hHpyBgAAQBAJ&dq=crisis%20of%20french%20sea%20power&source=gbs_book_other_versions.

[7] ‘William III: December 1697’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: William III, 1697, ed. William John Hardy (London, 1927), pp. 497-546. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/will-mary/1697/pp497-546.

[8] ‘William III: December 1697’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: William III, 1697, ed. William John Hardy (London, 1927), pp. 497-546. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/will-mary/1697/pp497-546.

[9] ‘William III: December 1697’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: William III, 1697, ed. William John Hardy (London, 1927), pp. 497-546. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/will-mary/1697/pp497-546.

[10] ‘William III: December 1697’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: William III, 1697, ed. William John Hardy (London, 1927), pp. 497-546. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/will-mary/1697/pp497-546.

[11] ‘William III: January 1698’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: William III, 1698, ed. Edward Bateson (London, 1933), pp. 1-63. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/will-mary/1698/pp1-63.

This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reigns of James II, William III and Mary II, 1685-1699’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.