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Buccaneers of Brittany

Bounded to the north by the English Channel, to the south by the Bay of Biscay and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, Brittany has some 2,900km (1,800 miles) of coastline peppered with estuaries, busy ports, small harbours and naval bases. The sea has always played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; from the arrival of the early Christian saints in their stone boats to the departure of hundreds of vessels carrying men to join the Free French Forces in England in the final days of June 1940.

Maritime activities such as fishing and international trade were always key parts of the Breton economy. The peninsula was located on the main sea routes between the big trading nations of Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands; in the 16th century, there were 123 significant working ports in Brittany and many, such as those of Saint-Brieuc and Brest expanded into international hubs.

Brest - Brittany - pirates - ships
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The region also benefited from the expansion of France’s colonial empire and navy: the ports and shipyards at Saint-Malo, Brest, Nantes and Lorient were constantly improved; the latter was also headquarters of the French East India Company. A significant proportion of Brittany’s non-agricultural workforce were thus employed building, servicing and victualling its shipping industry.

With such a strong mercantile heritage, it is not surprising that Bretons came to constitute a leading component of the French navy and also played an important role in the colonisation of New France and the West Indies. Some of these Breton sailors have left their mark on history.

Jean de Coatanlem, from the north coast town of Morlaix, is perhaps the most well-known Breton privateer of the late medieval period although his services at sea were licenced in support of the King of France rather than his nation’s sovereign. He seized a number of well laden English and Flemish merchant vessels in the English Channel from 1475 onwards and invested his prize money in new ships. Within a decade, his flotilla included about ten ships of between 150 to 250 tons and a large number of smaller boats from 30 to 80 tons.

There are stories that claim he mustered his forces to save his town when the port was raided by three English pirate ships in 1484 and that after defeating the raiders, he launched a punitive attack on the English west coast port of Bristol, destroying large parts of the city and taking several notable hostages.

Medieval pirates
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Unfortunately, contemporary records are unable to confirm these events as they are first noted in a family deposition to a French tax investigation in 1539, claiming exemption from taxes due to the noble status inherited from a grandfather, Nicolas de Coetanlem. We do know that 1484 was the year that de Coatanlem entered the service of the King of Portugal whom he served with great distinction until his death in Lisbon in 1492; his exploits defending Portuguese shipping against the pirates of the Barbary Coast having earned him the title ‘Governor of the Sea’.

De Coatanlem’s nephew, Nicolas, was one of the Breton ship-owners most frequently employed by King Henry VII of England to transport men, weapons and supplies to his forces supporting Duchess Anne of Brittany in her battles with the King of France in 1489-91. De Coatanlem’s unstinting services were rewarded with a licence to import, under Crown protection, goods into England duty free.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the sea was widely regarded as an area beyond rules and treaties; a wilderness outside the law. As such, the concept of piracy was vague and ill-defined and became especially opaque when rulers granted official sanction authorising men to raid the shipping of an unfriendly nation or recalcitrant noble.

de Coatanlem  -pirate
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The 15th century voyages of exploration and discovery, coupled with advances in navigation and cartography, quickly brought about vast changes to the fortunes and outlook of many nations. For the kingdoms of Europe, command of the sea was now no longer a case of protecting borders but of projecting influence and expanding opportunities for profitable trade. The distances and natural hazards involved in transacting such endeavours were great and many men, of all nations, saw opportunities for personal enrichment by helping themselves to the fruits of others.

The nomenclature surrounding such adventurers is rich and varied, particularly when the words thief or robber are all that are really required but a whole range of other descriptors have been used, such as Gentlemen of Fortune, Privateers, Freebooters, Corsairs and Filibusters to describe men, and it was usually men, who attacked and plundered targets with the approval of a state’s authority. Sometimes, that approval was deliberately vague and sometimes was conferred by a minor official completely out of touch with his government’s wishes; but it was nonetheless approval of sorts.

Capturing a ship - piracy
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Pirates were essentially outlaws who attacked the shipping and settlements of all nations with no real pretence of serving under any flag but their own and risked the gallows in the event of capture. The term buccaneer was often used to describe both pirates and privateers. Often, the differences between pirates and privateers were, at best very subtle, and, at worst, a matter of subjective interpretation. Distinctions are further clouded by the fact that many men drifted between legitimate privateering and outright piracy and vice versa.

The practice of manning and arming private vessels to attack rivals’ ships is an ancient one and continues, in parts of the world, to this day. In Europe, over time, this practice was formalised with the awarding of privateering commissions or ‘letters of marque and reprisal’ that granted named individuals licence to seize the king’s enemies at sea and share the proceeds between the privateers and the Crown. Vessels and cargo seized by the privateers were sold at officially sanctioned auctions, with the Crown typically taking between 10 and 20 per cent of the proceeds and the ship’s captain and his investors receiving the remainder.

It could therefore be a highly lucrative enterprise. For the ship-owners and the men who financed such expeditions, fitting out privateers was an expensive business; the ship had to be supplied with stores of victuals, powder, shot and other equipment. It was also crucial that the captain could be trusted to declare all his plunder and not trade too much on his own account.

Licensing privateers during periods of war was widespread in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, representing a cheap and low-risk way of striking at your enemy. It also carried the benefit of gnawing away at their foreign trade and perhaps forcing them to divert resources into protecting their merchant ships or actively patrolling for privateers.

Duguay-Trouin - privateer
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Born into a wealthy ship-owning family in the major privateer port of Saint-Malo in 1673, René Trouin aka Duguay-Trouin turned his back on the career in the Church that had been marked out for him and took to sea aboard a local privateering vessel at the age of 17. He was obviously a natural sailor and was given his own command the following year and successfully plundered many English cargo ships plying the Channel during the ongoing Nine Years War. 

His skill in naval warfare brought him to the attention of the navy who gave him command of a 36-gun frigate in 1692 but his luck ran out when he was captured by English warships off the Scilly Isles in April 1694. However, the resourceful officer escaped and was safely home in Saint-Malo by the end of June. The following year and in command of a 48-gun warship, he captured an English warship after a two day running battle. A feat he surpassed in 1697 with the capture of a 15-ship Dutch convoy off Bilbao, earning himself a commission as a captain in France’s Royal Navy just as the Nine Years’ War concluded.

pirates - corsairs - buccaneers - Breton
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There was precious little peace in Europe at this time and five short years later the conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. It was during this period that Duguay-Trouin enjoyed his greatest successes; his scattering of a great Portuguese convoy in 1706 and the seizure of hundreds of vessels over the next few years saw him ennobled in 1709.

In September 1711 he led an expedition of 15 ships, a mixture of naval warships and privateers, against Rio de Janeiro. His fleet stormed into Rio’s harbour and after a series of engagements, secured the town nine days later. After looting the city and the 60 cargo ships at anchor within the bay, Duguay-Trouin demanded a large ransom to spare the city’s buildings, eventually receiving 610,000 cruzados. When his fleet, now augmented by two captured Portuguese warships, departs in November, they leave behind a devastated city but the expedition proves a disappointment for his investors, particularly as two of his largest and most heavily laden ships were lost with all hands (over a thousand men) on the journey home. Further promotions followed his return and Duguay-Trouin successively commanded the naval forces at Saint-Malo and Brest, being appointed Lieutenant-General of the Naval Armies in 1728.

Saint Malo - corsairs - pirates
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Like Duguay-Trouin, Robert Surcouf was also born into a ship-owning family in Saint-Malo who hoped that he would enjoy a life in the Church but young Surcouf had other ideas and ran away to sea. At 16, he enlisted aboard a slave ship that plied the routes between the Horn of Africa, Pondicherry, Mauritius and Madagascar; surviving a shipwreck in the Mozambique Channel in 1790 in which 400 slaves, chained below decks, perished. Despite the 1792 ban on slave trading, Surcouf continued his ghastly activities until 1795 when he took command of a privateer in Mauritius, capturing five British merchant vessels over the course of the year even though he had been refused a letter of marque by the Governor of Mauritius.

After a brief sojourn in France, in February 1798, Surcouf left Nantes in command of a 14-gun privateer and an official letter of marque. After re-supplying in Mauritius, he set out to hunt on the busy trade routes of the Indian Ocean, capturing some 17 British, Dutch, Portuguese and American merchant vessels before returning to Mauritius in February 1800. He set out again in April and, over the course of a year, captured a further 8 British, American and Portuguese merchant ships. Surcouf returned to France in April 1801 where his exploits were much acclaimed; in May 1802, he was awarded the Legion of Honour upon the founding of the Order.

Surcouf - corsair - Saint Malo
Robert Surcouf

In March 1807, he once again set out from Brittany in pursuit of prey and prizes in the Indian Ocean, capturing 13, predominantly British, merchant vessels during this, his final cruise. In July 1808, his ship was requisitioned into naval service and he was forced to purchase a damaged de-commissioned naval frigate for the journey home to Saint-Malo. He arrived safely, along with an estimated haul of 8 million francs, in February 1809 but his ship sank at harbour the day after he arrived. Surcouf never put to sea again but used his considerable fortune to expand the family business, outfitting almost a dozen privateers and, after 1815, a score of merchantmen. He died peacefully at home in 1827.

For over three centuries we have been entertained by the adventures of fictional and fictionalised pirates and privateers from John Silver to Jack Sparrow but the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero would not have welcomed such romanticism; to him “a pirate is not included in the list of lawful enemies but is the common enemy of all; among pirates and other men there ought be neither mutual faith nor binding oath“.

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Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

38 thoughts on “Buccaneers of Brittany

    1. Many thanks for your really kind words – much appreciated! She sounds quite a lady doesn’t she? So many of the bits that I’ve read about her have really exaggerated what’s known from contemporary sources but I really don’t think her tale needs embellishment. To have survived all that was thrown at her, esp as a woman in those days, and to have died peacefully in comfort, in old age, surely achievement enough 😉

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    1. Thank you!! Glad that you enjoyed it 🙂 She was married when but a child herself (12/13) and it’s said that she took her infant sons to see their father’s head on the spike at the city gates to swear vengeance. We’ll never know what’s true or French propaganda now though.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Amazing essay. The story of Dieuleveult and de Graff is quite comic, isn’t it?

    Reading this post makes me remember a book I read several years ago, about the sea people, sea tribes, and sea kings from centuries ago around the sea of Celebes, north of Indonesia. The author also writes about the concept of pirates, privateers, corsairs, and bucaneers. This post has enriched my knowledge about those seafarers. I just knew the term “bucaneer” was originated in Tortuga.

    Thanks for this wonderful post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your kind words!! I’m pleased you enjoyed it 😉 Yes, I’ve read about the pirates in that part of the world too! Sadly, there were an awful lot of them about! Stay Well!

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  2. The mariners have me intrigued as my family on my father’s father’s side were marine engineers and came from Dartmouth and Kingswear. His first word was “boat” and so was my father. The women pirates are fascinating as well. I keep coming back to read some over to process. Another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What wonderful feedback – thank you so much. It’s great if a story can evoke memories!! Dartmouth is gorgeous and if I recall has its own cast of privates and privateers to run alongside the town’s legitimate maritime heritage 😉

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  3. A great post, as usual. Your research is meticulous. I particularly liked the stories of Jeanne de Belleville and Anne Dieuleveult. They were strong women indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for saying so – it is very appreciated. Yes, those two were obviously strong women! Dieuleveult was her family name but you will read in some places that it was the title bestowed upon her by her adoring crew. 😉

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  4. I’ve always found it fascinating when I encounter pieces of information about Brittany when I read royal non-fiction and fiction. Calais features heavily too, but as much as it’s never explained, I understand France’s impact on the British monarchy.

    Dear Lord, punishment for treason was especially brutal. One day I’ll look up why this was the case.

    It’s interesting to learn more about de Montfort! In England, we actually have a university named de Montfort university!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s fascinating how inter-connected Britain, France and Brittany are. For so long, the crown of England held more territory in what is today’s France than the Frankish king! Calais being one of the last territories on the continent to be lost.
      De Montfort ‘s family is a confusing one but typical of the era – marriages and alliances of convenience. Today, we would call them power-hungry power brokers 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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