Though spectacular, naval combat represented a small part of the privateer's duties. In fact, privateers travelled long distances and did not always encounter the enemy.
Thus, even if privateers wanted to take control of a ship, they would not systematically resort to violence.Moreover, shipowners and outfitters, who invested in the transportation of merchandise, generally encouraged sailors not to resist. The privateers themselves would rather be made prisoners than give up their lives. Thus, even if privateers wanted to take control of a ship, they would not systematically resort to violence.
However, there was the occasional battle. With a warning shot across the bows, the privateer ship gave an order for the enemy ship to surrender. If it fired back or refused to comply, it was "clear the decks for action!"
A Newfoundlander against an English Privateer
The Notre-Dame de Grâce
5th May 1708, at first light
Homeport: La Rochelle, France
Location: One and a half leagues West-South-West of Belle Isle
With its crew of 97 men and its 10 small-calibre guns, the ship is on its guard. Suddenly, the crew spots two English frigates at its heels.
They are under attack! The English privateer bombards the French fishing vessel for three quarters of an hour. Waiting for just the right moment, the Newfoundlander responds to the English fire as the Englishmen attempt to board the ship. Thanks to the musketry and strategic cannon fire, the crew succeeds in repulsing the privateer's attack!
Unfortunately, the captain, Noël Lhomme, was hit just above the right eye by musket fire. He died three days later. At least the crew remained safe and sound.
British Convoy Attacked
Escort ship: The Fame
Convoy of British merchant ships
Homeport: London, England
During the summer of 1780, the Fame, a lightly armed British merchant ship, took part in escorting a convoy to Quebec. Dispersed in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, the convoy was at the mercy of an American privateer, which appeared in their way.
Since the privateer was not showing his colours, the captain of the merchant ship asked that he identify himself. When the other captain replied, "Damn'd your blood!" there was no longer any doubt; this was an American privateer!
With no further explanation, the privateer opened fire with its guns. The captain of the Fame gathered up all his papers and personal effects, certain that he would be taken. Fortunately for the English, the convoy caught up with the isolated ships and managed to drive off the privateer. This time, combat was avoided.
The Attack of Le Trompeur
Privateers can also engage in combat on land. For example, the small crew of Le Trompeur followed three ships sailing under the British flag to the far end of a bay.
To back the enemy into a corner, the privateers decided to surprise the English by attacking them by land and sea. Pretending they were going to resist, the English escaped on two ships and left the third to the privateers.
In his interrogation following his return in June 1713, René Denault, aged 21 and a self-proclaimed freebooter living at Cul-de-Sac of Quebec, explained what the ships contained:
In both ships, about ten or twelve barrels of salt, and about two thousand filleted and salted cod of various sizes and a few papers consisting of passports and commissions.
ANQ-Q, TL5D 482 G, 1713-06-19