Pierre Labey, privateer
This article seeks to do no more than illustrate privateering in some of its aspects through the experience of one captain. It does not attempt to grapple with the more important questions about profitability and whether British privateers played any major part in maritime wars. It is generally assumed that profitability was the driving motive but there is evidence, yet to be marshalled, that indicates that the Channel Islanders resorted to this form of warfare for other less self-seeking motives.
Declaration of war
When war was finally declared against France at the end of May 1756, the Channel Islanders were well prepared for it and their London agents headed the queue at the Admiralty for the issue of Letters of Marque for their motley fleet of privateers. As in previous wars the defence of the islands and the destruction of France's maritime commerce were the objectives. By the end of that month they had commissions for 20 privateers and one Letter of Marque trading ship; 14 ships were of 40 tons or less and the larger ones included the Amazon, Cumberland and Royal George I of Guernsey (totalling 350 tons) and the Phoenix (140 tons) and the ''Charming Nancy'' (250 tons), commanded by Philip Winter, a veteran of the previous war now aged 43, of Jersey.
One of the smaller ships was the Boscawen 1, 25 tons, carrying two carriage guns, ten swivels (anti-personnel weapons throwing a one-pound shot or bits of iron), 40 crew and provisions for a three-month cruise. Her principal owners were E Anley of Jersey and W Seward of Southampton, the agent and merchant in that port for much of the islands' trade. Her captain was Pierre Labey, then aged 31 - the average age for island captains on taking up their first commission.
The purpose of this study is to follow Labey's fortunes, as a representative of many of his contemporaries who took to privateering and persisted in that occupation with no great success or fame, going about his task with none of the swashbuckling that has been erroneously attached to that profession, despite the real facts. The impression was fostered by opponents to the cause that privateers men were gamblers, greedy for quick profits, piratically inclined, only out for easy prizes, devoid of any moral fibre, the dregs of society who lured good men from the Navy and lacked any patriotic stance (whatever that meant in those times).
Of course there were some rogues, as in the Navy, but for the most part the islanders sought neither fame nor infamy; they had other more urgent business to attend.
Unemployment and poverty
To understand why Guernsey and Jersey took to privateering in a big way it must first be said that both islands suffered from endemic over-population and, in Jersey's case, a surfeit of seamen who had learned the art in the Newfoundland fisheries, in which landsmen went out to undertake the many tasks ashore but returned as capable mariners. The transportation of apprentices and servant girls to Jersey's settlements in North America and Newfoundland reduced only slightly the problems of unemployment and poverty.
But privateering was man-hungry both for providing the enlarged crews and for the many ancillary tasks ashore related to shipping and cargo-handling and the disposal of prize goods. The late Professor John Bromley, whose knowledge of Channel Island privateering was unequalled, wrote: "I am not prepared to generalise about the love of adventure which can be no more than another name for starvation". Most men went to sea of necessity, despite romantic views to the contrary.
Privateering was no picnic. Firstly, the experience of previous wars was that at least 60 per cent of all privateers either failed to take any prizes or were captured by the enemy, a fact of life that was reiterated in the Seven Years War. Secondly the cramped, wet and vermin-ridden conditions on board the many smaller ships were compounded with long periods of tedium or rough weather. The owners offered volunteers wages and part-shares, entitling them to one-sixth instead of one-third of net prize monies - an arrangement which put experienced seamen at about the same wage-rates as those in merchant service and which provided an escape from poverty.
All of Jersey's and most of Guernsey's privateers were locally manned, all French-speaking in the local language, all coming from close-knit local communities with a common objective to prevent their French neighbours from invading their island. Linked with this a determination to sweep up that country's coastal shipping and, with luck, to take some richer prizes on the transatlantic trade routes, made for good team work and happy ships. Regular pay and leave ashore, in line with the Newfoundlander's pattern of wintering at home, had advantages which the Navy could not offer, with the added indignities of the press gang, although the risks of being captured were much greater.
The merchant owners deployed their privateers with three distinct objectives. Firstly, with some occasional support from the States, they maintained patrols along the French coast from Morlaix to Cherbourg to observe enemy shipping and troop concentrations which might indicate the gathering of a combined operation against the islands or against England - an ever-present fear. For that purpose two or three of the smaller privateers might be engaged at any time and they were joined by others on trial cruises before setting out for the main hunting grounds along the French Atlantic shores and northern Spain, a 700-mile beat.
The primary role of the local patrols was for intelligence gathering; while some prizes were taken, they were more usually small fishermen who were halted, cross-examined and released on payment of a token ransom. The Chausey Islands formed an advance base for that purpose, dominating the approaches to Granville and conveniently close to Saint Malo.
The greatest number of privateers were deployed south of Ushant, only picking up chance prizes between that landfall and their home bases on the outward or return journies. Two-thirds of all shipping (enemy, neutral and recaptures) was brought in for adjudication from south of Ushant; in terms of tonnage the proportion increased to four-fifths. Even the smallest privateers, between ten and 20 tons, cruised as far south as Bordeaux river and a team of six such effected their own temporary blockade of that river in May 1760, their massed tonnage being no more than 200, the smallest being the Lively (Jean Kirby) of 10 tons which also put in time as a local patrol boat.
Their one prize was a 34-tonner loaded with wine, worth perhaps £300 after the deduction of all costs, but barely worth the risk of running the gauntlet to get her home with a prize crew.
The two other objectives were either to penetrate the dangerously shallow inshore waters chasing stray ships, some of which were cut out from convoys, and were run aground or abandoned, or to cruise further out on the main traffic routes for deeper draughted vessels, off landfalls and port approaches, where larger island privateers often worked in consort with the smaller ones that acted as scouts or decoys. The primary objective was to annoy and hurt the enemy; if the prizes were profitable, so much the better.
From a detailed examination of some 270 prize instances concerning island privateers in this war, involving 26,000 tons of shipping, Jersey privateers accounting for 130 (10,800 tons), it is quite clear that many small prizes of little or no value were swept up; French inter-port traffic including vital naval supplies for Brest and Rochefort, was interrupted and local morale in such ports as Sables d'Olonne was greatly lowered since they observed only too plainly the actions of les mauvaises corsairs de Guernsey et Jersey.
Privateering was a costly business. To purchase, convert, arm, provision and crew a ship for her first voyage required about £12 to £15 per ton. Thereafter the wages bill alone steadily increased at about £75 a month for a small ship with 50 men aboard. Repairs and renewals were also a variable and costly element. The Defiance of Jersey (60 tons) cost £5,637 from purchase and setting out in June 1756, to March 1758, when captured and written off; those bills amounted to £73 per ton or £310 per month.
Pierre Labey, born in 1725, was the fourth and youngest son of Philippe Labey and Jeanne Anthoine whose mother, Sara, was a daughter of the Rev Francois Le Couteur, Rector of Saint Helier. The Labeys owned and farmed lands in St Saviour, Grouville and possibly St Clement, but it would seem that the holdings were not large enough to support all four sons and thus the youngest went to sea, starting as a cabin boy, aged 12 or 13. His sea-going experience probably included some time on one of the island's colliers trading with the southern Breton ports, and he was old enough to have served on a privateer in the previous war (1744-1748).
He married Jeanne Le Riche, a co-heiress of Thomas, a farmer, in the fief de Vaugualame, Grouville, in or before 1753. At about that time he appears in the Southampton port records as master of the Charming Jenny in which he made five passages between 1751- 52. Three years later he commanded the Jersey Packet, making ten passages between home and that port in 1755 and a further seven in 1756 before being given command of the Boscawen privateer by William Seward, who had had plenty of opportunity to observe his abilities as a mariner and as one who handled his crew well.
Labey was one of very few masters who had been employed on the Southampton run who were promoted to command privateers; the cross-channel trade was no fit school for aggressive commerce-raiders in the dangerous waters off the French Biscayan shores.
In all that follows it is necessary to understand the normal procedures by which a privateer attempted to take prizes. When approaching a possible prey she could fly any ensign, usually the French fleur de lys. The islanders adopted various signals for recognising each other. If the prey did not respond and appeared to be defenceless, or unlikely to put up a fight (the brailing of her lower sails indicating that she was preparing for action), a swivel shot across the bows would usually halt her and at the same time the privateer would show her true colours.
If the prey lowered her own, it was an act of submission and the privateer, standing off at a sufficient distance, then sent her boat with an officer aboard to secure the prize, receive the ship's papers, estimate the nature of the cargo, send the master and all but three of his crew back to the privateer while the boarding party pillaged what they could of the French crew's possessions.
Plundering any of the cargo was absolutely forbidden but any provisions or war-like stores or armaments could be transferred to the privateer for her own use. Any valuables had to be listed and secured under lock and key and were accountable to the owners. The privateer captain was entitled to whatever was in the master's cabin up to a value of £50; navigational instruments, carpenter's tools, medical chests and so on were appropriated by the officers or craftsmen concerned.
If, for good reasons, it was impracticable to send the prize back to a home port, either party might propose that the ship and cargo be ransomed for a sum approximating to but rather less than the estimated value arrived at by bills of lading. Once agreement had been reached, a hostage would be taken (one of sufficient status to ensure that the French owners would wish to redeem him), the Ransom Bill signed by the master, hostage and captain and the business concluded after some hours of wrangling.
The Ransom Bill gave the French master a stated number of days during which time he was exempted from capture or ransoming by other privateers. If the prize was considered to be of sufficient value, the privateer would break her cruise to escort her home. The owners' instructions made it clear that there must be good reasons for such action. If a potential prize appeared to be of much greater size and/or armaments, or there were other ships in the vicinity that might come to her rescue, discretion usually prevailed and engagement was avoided, possibly by getting out the sweeps and rowing away.
So far as possible all attempts to take prizes were conducted at arm's length; grappling hooks and hand-to-hand fighting were extremely rare, but since both sides disguised themselves as innocent merchantmen, some boarding parties found themselves trapped. The most usual procedure was for the less heavily armed ship to yield without demur.
Once the prize was safely in port the French crew were kept in custody until they had been interrogated by the local Admiralty Commissioners, who worked on a set series of questions of very similar format to those used by French Amiraute authorities. The purpose was to establish ownership of ship and cargo, the trade routes on which the prize had been engaged, the date and location of capture, the history of the ship, the losses and treatment sustained by the prisoners, and above all that the ship had been seized in a manner that did not infringe agreed maritime customs or laws.
Once the prize master had delivered all the ship's papers to the Commissioners, the depositions and all other papers were sent to London, and remain lodged in the High Court of Admiralty. Similar French records are stored in the various Departemental archives. Unfortunately ships' logs were included only occasionally in the HCA papers if there was some dispute about the circumstances of the capture, particularly when another privateer or naval ship claimed to have been in the offing.
By chance the log of the Boscawen survives for the first week of her initial cruise. It is preserved in the Amiraute archives at Vannes among the papers concerning the capture of the Peter, a 25-ton Jersey privateer commanded by Jean Benest, which was taken on 6 September 1756. The log includes three separate records, all kept by Edouard Etur; the first concerns a voyage back to Jersey from the Thames in December 1754, the first page being cut out. Pages 3 and 4 are headed:
- Journal de Notre Pretendu voyage avecq la permission de Dieu a Bord du Coursere appele le Bisqayone Captaine Pierre Labet Commandant pour aler Croiser Contre nos Ennemins les Francois." (as written).
He kept a daily record from the departure from Jersey on Monday 21 June 1756. On a southerly course they turned to port off Cap Frehel and on Tuesday took a prize off Saint Malo and sent her back to Jersey, loitering for the rest of the day in the vicinity of Herpin. The following morning they chased and drove two gabarres (lighters) ashore in Cancale Bay, apparently an occasion for small arms and gun practice. Later off Granville two larger ships were seen and were discreetly avoided. A fishing boat was ransomed for 50 ecus; swivels shots were exchanged with a Qoteur which they then thought to be the Delawar [12 tons, Captain George Messervy].
They ransomed late in the evening a sloop of 70 tons loaded with stones for 300 ecus. On the 24th they chased and brought to a sloop which proved to be one in which Jean Galais was returning from Granville. Squally weather later caused them to hove to for a time and they finally anchored near Les Huguenans in the Iles Chausey in the vicinity of which they boarded two fishing boats on the following evening and ransomed them for 200 livres. On Saturday they anchored for two hours a league off Qotance and then headed for Les Ecrehous, Off Carteret on Sunday morning, 27 June, they chased a sail but found her to be the Delawar once again; they then headed for Jersey, at which point the log ends, a page is torn out and then it reopens with the record of the Peter's cruise. Since none of the small ransoms nor the early prize are recorded, it must be presumed that they were too insignificant to be brought to the attention of the Admiralty Commissioners.
After that trial cruise, the Boscawen lost no time in harbour. Six days later she was busy taking two prizes off Croisic near the entrance to Nantes river; both were named St Anne. The first, a 70-tonner was carrying 89 pieces of timber to the naval dockyard at Brest, with the master and five crew aboard. The second, 95 tons, was carrying timber from Nantes to Rochefort, also for the navy. She was in a convoy of seven or eight ships similarly engaged.
Leaving the river by the Chenal du Nord and sailing better than the others, on spotting the Boscawen she headed for Croisic Road but was halted and abandoned by her crew before she could get in to the Road where the Mutine a French 24-gun frigate was anchored. There being no wind the captor and prize lay at anchor overnight and the following morning the Mutine weighed anchor but could make no headway and therefore sent her launch with 60 men, with small arms and two swivels to attack Labey. When within range he fired three 2-lb guns and drove them off and then sent the prize, a snow, to Jersey with a prize crew under command of George Larbalastier.
Thirteen days later, on 16 July, Labey was back in the English Channel near the Roches Douvres, north of Brehat, perhaps convoying the two prizes homewards, and met and took La Sirenne, a 45-ton schooner built at Saint Malo in 1754, which had left that port with salt, bread and other provisions destined for Louisburg, the French Newfoundland base. She was a Letter of Marque ship, armed en guerre et marchandises, but with a crew of nine men she put up only a token resistance in which 12 shots were exchanged. No casualties seem to have been suffered by either side.
Labey stayed long enough in Jersey to off-load his prisoners and, perhaps by an oversight, failed to hand over the various captured ships' papers without which the Admiralty Commissioners could not conduct their interrogations and forward them to the High Court in London for processing and condemnation. However, the local authority had power to permit cargoes to be unloaded instead of being kept on board under lock and key if they were perishable or the ships were straining at anchorages that dried out.
Labey returned to his cruising grounds and on 10 August he was in the vicinity of the Ile de Groix, off Port Louis, when a 20-ton Guernsey privateer, the Dolphin (Captain William Cullam) halted and ransomed a storm-damaged Frenchman, the Marie de Cesson, 45 tons, for 5,000 livres. Cullam had commandeered a local fishing boat to make the prize and claimed that no other privateer was in sight that might claim a share in the ransom. However Labey believed that he had such a claim, although the London agent, Noe Le Cras, merchant, of St Peter Cornhill, for J Anley, one of the owners of the Boscawen, was not instructed to make that claim to the High Court of Admiralty until too late, since he could not get detailed instructions from Jersey because of postal delays. In June 1757 he had to plead that he had no reply to a letter sent two months earlier "as no ships whatsoever since he wrote have come from Jersey to Southampton or to London". Being out of time, the case was dismissed and costs and taxation awarded (£8 2d) against his client on 6 July 1757. It had dragged on for four Sessions.
Meantime the Marie de Cesson had put into Port Louis for repairs and to unload 12 tons of rosin, part of the cargo taken on board at Bayonne, and then headed for Saint Brieuc where she was to deliver the rest of her cargo of rosin, pitch, planks and oars. Some five leagues east-north-east of Ushant she ran into the Peter (G Benest) and was taken by him on 31 August. This was the only success Benest had before he was taken by the French a week later, near the Ile de Groix, on his maiden cruise.
Edouard Etur recorded in his log not only this instance, but also that they spoke to six Dutchmen and saw several others, engaged unsuccessfully in three chases, veered off another that was heavily manned, and met two prizes, one taken by Pierre Le Cronier of the Defiance and another, a cache maree taken by Pierre Labey. Such were the frustrations of privateering with spells of boredom, fruitless chases and rapid withdrawals from threatening situations and, as with so many others from the islands, ultimate capture with few if any prizes to compensate for all the expense and effort. Labey was to have his share of such frustrations before the war ended.
The chasse marie that Labey had taken was to be the last of his prizes in the Boscawen. She was the 28-ton Utile in ballast, of Lorient and belonging to the French East India Company, taken on 3 September to the north-east of Ile de Groix, the French crew abandoning ship. About a fortnight later, after no further successes and his three-month cruise nearing its end, he turned for home and was safely in harbour by the beginning of October. Because Labey had not delivered to the Admiralty Commissioners the various prize papers of his earlier captures, he was then kept busy seeing the four successes through the local Amiraute Court and giving evidence himself in the two i which the French had abandoned ship, and describing himself as aged 31 and, when not at sea, living with his wife and family.
Jean Brunet, also aged 31, as prizemaster made supporting depositions. The various papers were then forwarded to London on 20 November; the allegations (or Libels) were published there in February 1757, to enable other claimants to intervene (as Labey did over the Dolphin's ransom) and eventually the four were duly condemned as lawful prizes in that same month.
For all his efforts he had swept up some 250 tons of enemy shipping, which might fetch about £500 at auction, two cargoes of timber which local island ship-builders would be glad to have in stock, and the small cargo intended for Newfoundland which was of no great value, perhaps £100-£150. If the gross takings were £1,000 the various charges exacted by the local and London Commissioners, agent's fees and all the costs of harbouring, guarding, off-loading and disposal at auction would reduce the net takings to about £750, of which the owners took £500, plus a portion for crew's wages. In addition to his salary, perhaps £15-£20, Labey would have been fortunate to have received £50 prize money (on the basis that the captain held about a quarter of the shares allocated to the ship's company), but he was also entitled to the perquisites, such as they might have been, in the masters' cabins.
A waged seaman might have received about £5 prize money. For their part the owners had probably laid out about £350 on the ship and a month's advance wages. A further £80-£100 was payable on the balance of wages for a three-month cruise, so that at this stage, with total outgoings in the region of about £400-450 and with takings as c£500, they were in pocket, but by no means handsomely.
The Boscawen was then laid up for the winter, during which she was lengthened by ten feet, costing perhaps £300. Wintering and refitting may have cost about £100. On 22 May 1757, Daniel Messervy noted that three privateers set out on cruises, "including the Boscawen, Capt Labey ... on his first sortie since she was lengthened." Four days later, in the Bay of Audierne she was taken by the Thetis frigate, commanded by the Vicomte de Rochefort, carrying 250 men and 24 8-lb guns, one of three ships of force permanently stationed on patrol between the Glenans and Ile de Dieu to suppress island and other privateering activities.
In the face of such force of arms Labey went quietly into captivity. Four days later he and his first and second lieutenants appeared before the Amiraute Court at Vannes for examination. Wearing a wig and brown clothing he stated the date he had left Jersey, provisioned for six weeks, that the Boscawen was of 35 tons after lengthening by ten feet and carried a crew of 35, of whom three had been put on a prize taken by Pierre Le Cronier in the Defiance, and also that she had been built three months before the war in Jersey and "belonged to his family" - which is not apparent in the Admiralty Commission.
Abraham Godet, First Lieutenant, wearing a blond wig, age 23, and Edouard Mourant, age 31, wearing a black wig and brown clothing, had nothing to add. All three denied any knowledge of any recognition signals used by island privateers - a subject of much interest to the French at the beginning of a new season of commerce-raiding; when they captured the Peter nine months previously they found the signals then in operation, and now, with a much strengthened naval presence, such information would be invaluable in attempting to eradicate the privateering menace to their maritime traffic. When auctioned at Vannes the Boscawen was sold for 3,650 livres (c£180, or £5 per ton); provisions remaining on board fetched £14.
Labey and his companions were then delivered to the prison authorities and it is probable that after a few days spent in the Citadel in Vannes they were marched off to Dinan, the main prison for Brittany. As captain, Labey had then an opportunity, if he could raise the necessary surety, to apply for and be granted parole until an exchange of prisoners, rank for rank, could be effected - a process that might take some months, perhaps three in the case of the Channel Islanders who had gathered in sufficient French captains and masters to be in a good bargaining position and geographically convenient for such exchanges.
But Labey had other fish to fry. While on board the Thetis he obviously spent some time in the company of the Vicomte "who made great enquiry after the Brave Captain Lockhart, of HMS Tartar who had taken three French corsairs in 1756 and was rapidly adding to his, bag at that time, "and seem'd to wish to meet with him". In those conversations the Vicomte had revealed that, to counter the privateering menace, there were now nine French warships stationed between the Fontenoy Race and Bordeaux deliberately, so Daniel Messervy was to state, to suppress Island privateers. The nine were named, their sailing abilities and armaments were also noted as well as the fact that overnight they lay offshore a distance of about eight leagues, coming in at dawn to pick up whatever privateers might be observed.
At the beginning of a new season, this information was obviously vital for both islands. Either Labey managed to escape from prison or more dubiously he broke parole; he made his way to the Baie de la Frenaye, near Cap Frehel, seized a boat and arrived in Jersey on 20 July, his stay in prison having been "very tedious, and was most starv'd" - which indicates that he had not been granted parole. Messervy hastened to send the information about the nine frigates to James D'Auvergne, aide-de-camp to Prince George, with a request for closer naval protection for privateers.
The news of the capture of the Boscawen did not reach Jersey until 3 July, when the St Aubin (T Blampied) returned from her cruise; Blampied reported also that the Whim (20 tons, T Amy) had been taken. The Amiraute archives at Rennes confirm that she was taken on 17 June, north of the Ile de Bas; she sold at auction for 687 livres (c£31).
Labey spent the next few months at home with his family, enjoying the modest proceeds from his prize monies. In September 1757, his wife conceived their third child and in February 1758 J Anley and Co, in recognition of his services, gave him command of a new and larger privateer, the King of Prussia which they were setting out. At the same time they rewarded Jean Brunet, formerly Labey's first lieutenant, with command of the Revenge 35 tons, preparing for her first cruise. Labey's ship was a 100-tonner, with eight carriage guns and a crew of 80; she was provisioned for three months.
It is probable that she was not ready for sea until April or May; she had only a short life and took no prizes. By mid-June she was lying in Brest harbour and on 6 July was commissioned as a corsaire. Three months later Claude Hamel, her captain, had orders to proceed to Canada with urgent papers and to avoid all other ships on the way, but she had hardly left port when she was taken by HMS Acteon and the Great Britain privateer on 2 November. But it was not until early May 1759 that the original owners, identified as J Anley and Philip Le Couteur, for whom James Pipon of Bishopsgate was agent, put in their claim. They would have had to pay half the value of the Roi de Prusse, as she was known to the French, as salvage to be shared between the two ships which recaptured her.
Labey was now enduring a second spell in prison; only one other Channel Island captain, Philip du Pre, commanding Guernsey ships, was twice captured during this war. Thirty-seven captains in all endured such privations; three of them had had similar experiences in the preceding war between 1744 and 1748, among whom John Beale had been taken on three occasions, to which he added a fourth term in April 1757. All but two were taken between August 1756, and September 1758, the peak privateering years when French countermeasures were most effective. Thereafter, with the suppression of much of France's maritime trade, prize-taking became increasingly difficult.
It is not known for how long Labey endured captivity this time, and with a past record of having escaped he probably found it harder to obtain parole and live in more comfortable quarters. With a young and increasing family, his wife Jeanne having given birth to their third child, Thomas, in mid-June 1758 while he was in prison, it seems that he settled for a quieter life on his return home. This time he had no prize money to draw on and it is not known whether he had a smallholding or whether he may have relied to some extent on support from his relatives.
In September 1759 he applied for and was granted a commission for his own boat, the Fox. She was a 9-tonner, square-sterned lugsail row-boat, carrying two swivels, a crew of 20 and provisions for two months. Among the named officers were Charles and Philip Anthoine, who were presumably his cousins. For Labey, the clock had turned full circle and he was restricting his activities again to local patrol duties in a boat that probably cost about £100 to set out. His return to intelligence gathering coincided with very increased anxieties in Whitehall of retaliatory measures, in the form of combined operations to invade England, Ireland or perhaps Scotland to pin down the English navy and troops which could otherwise have been deployed elsewhere and to greater advantage.
Labey, in the Fox, is known to have taken three prizes and probably picked up some small ransoms as he had done in 1756. The first was the Jean Herve, 18 tons, abandoned by her crew just south of Carteret on 31 March 1760. Her cargo consisted of four hogsheads of lard, a ton of rosin, two cases of soap, a barrel of pitch and a feather-bed, all of minimal value. In the absence of any French witnesses, Labey, now aged 36, Noah Cabot (23) and Clement Hubert (26) made depositions to the local Admiralty Commissioners and she was condemned as a lawful prize in July.
Twelve months later, on 19 March 1761, Labey, with a reduced crew of only eight men, was anchored off the northern side of the Chauseys in an ebbing tide. Out of sight and on the southern side the Duke of Richmond (Noe Gautier) and the Roast Beef (Robert Cook) of Guernsey also were anchored. The latter ship, owned by Nicholas Dobree, had started life as a privateer and was now hired to the Admiralty as an armed ship, 130 tons, based on Portsmouth and Guernsey, Dobree still acting as armateur. Her successive English captains had little regard for small fry privateers and once in Admiralty service tended to claim a major part in any prizes taken by others when they were or claimed to be in sight of those activities.
It was to be so in this case. From a vantage point on shore in the Chauseys, Gautier (aged 29) and two members of his crew, John Greenway (28), a native of Fowey, but resident in Jersey since 1756, and Francois Gautier (22) stated under oath that they had seen a French brig (known later to be the Nanon, 100 tons) to the north-east, between Blainville and Le Senequet, and they saw the Fox chasing her; under some small arms fire, Labey sheered off to prepare his swivels and muskets and then resumed the chase. The Nanon ran aground and her crew abandoned ship at 10.30 am. Labey lay to until the tide lifted her at 1 pm, when his prize crew were able to sail her to Jersey the same day.
Meanwhile the Roast Beef lay becalmed and she arrived in Jersey only the next morning, under oars - and promptly claimed a part in the prize, which had a cargo of millstones, plaster, glass and earthenware goods - not of great value, worth perhaps about £350 including the ship. Evidence was also given by Clement Hubert, now aged 27, George Le Brun (26) and Clement Pallot (23) of the Fox, who added that she had been under fire for half an hour. There were no heroics but this incident illustrates the demoralising effect that small privateers, in this case armed only with two swivels, could have on much larger ships whose crews were untrained in using muskets effectively.
At the end of the day Labey had the trouble and expense of defending his claim against the Roast Beef before the Admiralty Commissioners in London. Their final judgement is not known. Relationships between privateers and the Navy were hampered by such incidents, since the latter were usually supported in their claim that their presence, however distant, contributed to a successful conclusion and they were quick to try to claim their portion of a prize.
Fifteen months later Labey took his last prize, the Katherine of Brehat (30 tons) on 8 June 1762, as she was entering Saint Malo. She had a cargo of 27½ tons of wheat and 2 tons of oats; she was French built at Paimpol in 1752 and was condemned three months later ... she was possibly worth no more than £300.
Thus Labey was a man committed to privateering throughout the war. His one opportunity to put his gifts to the test in command of a larger ship, the King of Prussia, came to nothing but another period of imprisonment, but he was by no means the only islander to have such a short-lived command and there was no disgrace attached to such failures. That 60 per cent of all Channel Island privateers either took no prizes or were captured, demonstrates either a careless recklessness or a determination to fling all available men and ships into the defence of the islands by aggressive commerce-raiding and a determination to annoy and hurt the enemy at whatever personal cost.
The risks were well known but were not allowed to deflect the determination. Much attention has been given to successful captains and rich prizes to the neglect of those who achieved no place in such records. That only a few captains regularly took prizes, rich ones or not, marked them as having luck on their side, and there must have been some competition to serve under them; this was also the case in other British ports and privateering fleets and that is why the other side of the story needs to be told - of perseverance without heroics, of long periods at sea without success, of captivity and, with luck, a new command on returning home. Greed, an over-active sense of adventure, fame and glory culminating in a comfortable retirement to the dream cottage, had little or nothing to do with Channel Island privateering.
When the final balance sheet is drawn up it will show that after all outgoings and losses, most owners, officers and crew emerged with little to show for it except some scars (on those who survived) and a hard-fought battle to maintain the liberty that they had sought to preserve, as offshore islands of England rather than of France. For very many seamen they had also found a way of life, however uncomfortable and perilous, that lifted them above grinding poverty and demoralising unemployment.
Soon after the outbreak of war in 1756 Daniel Messervy wrote to an old friend, a Member of Parliament. He described the privateering and other preparations in hand and said: "Our zeal and fidellity, under the Protection of God, will convince the Disterbers of our Peace, that we are not easy to be had." For him, as for others, freedom from French domination largely depended on intelligence-gathering by local patrols and on the islands' forward defence lines sustained by privateers cruising between the Cotentin, Bordeaux and beyond".
Pierre Labey played his part in both those objectives during the Seven Years War. He was Constable of Grouville from 1779 to 1782, but was not among the early subscribers to the Jersey Chamber of Commerce on its inception in 1768. Ten years later, in the war against the rebellious American Colonies and France, he went privateering once again as owner and captain of another Fox (25 tons, 12 swivels and 30 crew - a ship with a square stern and no head). His fortunes in that war have yet to be researched, but it would seem probable that he engaged in patrolling the local waters to see what the disturbers of the peace were plotting and to inflict as much annoyance and hurt on them as lay within his powers. He died in 1802.