"The circumstances of this case represent as gallant an action as perhaps ever came to the view of the Court", French Laurence, Advocate, High Court of Admiralty, 26 November 1805.
Between 1793 and 1815 England was at war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In this bitter and protracted struggle the Channel Islands played a notable part, in particular as regards their long-established vocation of setting out privateers.
For the 14 months after the Treaty of Amiens of March 1802, there was a break in hostilities and a consequent cessation of privateering, but after the resumption of the war in May 1803, the shipowners and seafarers of Guernsey and Jersey were soon about their traditional wartime business.
One of the first Jersey privateers to be commissioned during this second phase of the war was the brig Ceres, a foreign-built vessel of 119 tons burden, armed with ten carriage guns throwing shot of 4 and 6 lb weight. She was commanded by Captain George Collas and owned by the firm of Chevalier (Charles), Amiraux (Matthew) and Le Breton (William).
On 17 June 1803 Captain Collas was commissioned to cruise against the French, and eleven days later was further commissioned to operate against the ships and commerce of the Dutch, whose country was a French satellite. One of the Ceres' officers was Barnaby Vicq of Saint Helier, who joined her as second mate.
At the end of June, or the beginning of July, the Ceres put to sea. On 10 July, about lat 47°N, two prizes were taken. The first was a London ship, the Prince, Alexander Scott master, which was recaptured from a prize crew put on board by the Bordeaux privateer La Blonde, Captain Francois Aregnaudeau.
The Prince, a vessel of 367 tons burden, had gone from Newcastle to Grenada with a cargo of coal and was returning to London laden with sugar and rum when, on 7 July, she was taken by Aregnaudeau, whose task was made easier by the fact that Scott did not know that the war had restarted. At the time of the recapture by the Ceres, the Prince, in the hands of her French prize crew, was steering a course for Corunna.
The second prize was the 600 ton Abraham Johannes of Amsterdam, Johannes Michael Koos master. She had sailed from her home port with a cargo of goods for the use of the plantations in Surinam, and with 200 soldiers to be landed there, and was returning to Holland with a large and valuable lading of sugar, cotton and coffee when she met with a French privateer (presumably La Blonde) whose commander informed her of the outbreak of hostilities. Judging it prudent to alter course, Koos decided to make for Corunna, and it was while heading for that port that his ship was intercepted and taken by the Ceres.
Captain Collas put a prize master and a prize crew on to each of his two prizes, with instructions to take them back to Jersey, whither he himself made sail in the Ceres. Barnaby Vicq, as prize master, and eight of the Ceres crew formed the party put on to the Prince.
During the night, the Ceres, the Prince and the Abraham Johannes separated from each other. On 12 July, about lat 47°30'N, long 12°W, Vicq and the others aboard the Prince sighted a brig steering to the south-south-east, with light winds from the northward.
The brig was a Dutch vessel, the Frederica and Mary Ann, Christiaan Andriessen master. She was of 150 tons burden and in the first instance had gone from Holland to the Cape of Good Hope, where she had taken on a lading of wines and "a great number of boxes and barrels of medicine”.
She had then proceeded to Demerara, where she delivered the wines and took on a cargo of cotton and sugar which, with the medicines, was to be delivered at Middleburg. Some three hundred miles distant from the English Channel, her master and men not knowing of the outbreak of war, she was taken by the Lancaster privateer of Liverpool, Captain John Pettigrew. She remained in the hands of the English for six days and was then recaptured by Aregnaudeau in La Blonde. Four days later she was sighted by Barnaby Vicq.
Following Vicq's own account of proceedings - at the break of the day after the first sighting the brig was still in view and he "apprehended from her appearance that she was an English vessel in possession of the French”.
He therefore consulted with his people as to "the properest steps to be pursued”. The sea was calm and it was agreed that he and four others should go out in the jolly boat to reconnoitre, "and they accordingly proceeded and rowed within a mile of her" when he (Vicq) ordered his people to stop and rest on their oars.
The Frenchmen on the brig signalled to them by waving their caps and hailed them in French, asking them to come alongside. Vicq replied in French that he was a prize master from the French privateer La Blonde; and then having a view of her [the brig] he was able to discern and to count 13 hands on board, three of whom had hats on, and they then hoisted French colours and fired a pistol, which confirmed his suspicion that she was an English vessel which had been captured by the French.
Vicq could not at this time see any guns in the Frederica and Mary Ann, but since he and the others in the boat were unarmed he decided that it would be imprudent to go alongside the brig and therefore gave the order to return to the Prince.
On the day following, the Frederica and Mary Ann was still in sight of the Prince and Vicq held another "council of war" at which it was unanimously decided to attempt a capture. Vicq himself was "determined to endeavour to retake the brig or to perish in the attempt”.
The only weapons aboard the Prince were three pistols and a sword and Vicq took one pistol and the sword for himself and armed two men with a pistol each. Vicq and the men, along with four boys, then rigged themselves out like Frenchmen, "with a view to boarding her [the Frederica and Mary Ann] in such character”.
Thus prepared and armed, Vicq and his six companions got into their boat and rowed towards the brig. As they approached her, she hoisted English colours. As part of their own plan of deception, Vicq and his men held a conversation in French.
When the Frenchmen on the brig asked them what boat they were, Vicq answered that they belonged to La Blonde, French privateer, “and he then made several flourishes with his sword in imitation of the French manner”.
Once the boat was alongside the brig, Vicq and his two men went on board. To their "great surprise" they saw that the Frederica and Mary Ann had an armament of four small carriage guns. On the companion of the cabin were two pair of pistols and two broadswords, which Vicq and his men immediately seized. They then informed the Frenchmen that they were English and Vicq pointed at the Prince and said that there were 40 more Englishmen on board.
Three of the French, who proved to be officers, advanced on Vicq, but when he threatened to shoot them, two froze and the other fell on his knees and begged for his life. Vicq then ordered the Frenchmen to get into his boat. They were reluctant to go, but Vicq persuaded them to do so by rushing among them and striking one with his sword. Guarded by Vicq's men, the French were rowed over to the Prince and secured as prisoners.
A new crew for the Frederica and Mary Ann was formed from three of Vicq's own men, a Prussian who had been part of the original crew and two Italians who had been part of Aregnaudeau's prize crew.' The Prince and the Frederica and Mary Ann then made sail together and stood to the eastward for Jersey or the first English port they could fetch.
On 15 July, about lat 46°23'N, long 11'W, in fresh and squally weather, the ships separated. Later, the Frederica and Mary Ann fell in with the Abraham Johannes, but later still these two vessels lost touch with one another. The Prince and the Abraham Johannes were taken into Jersey, whither the Ceres had preceded them, and the Frederica and Mary Ann was taken into Ilfracombe.
The Prince and her cargo were entirely British-owned and were ordered by the High Court of Admiralty to be restored to the owners upon payment to the recaptors of salvage at the statutory rate of one-sixth of the value of ship and goods. Whether the salvage award amounted to £4,000, the sum initially claimed by the Ceres interest, or was nearer to the £2,000 proposed on behalf of the Prince, does not appear.
The Abraham Johannes was owned by Thymen Lubbers and Son of Amsterdam and her cargo was mostly the property of Dutch merchants (English merchants claimed part of the sugar and German merchants part of the cotton and coffee). Presumably the ship and the Dutch part of the cargo were condemned to the Ceres, though their value, which must have been considerable, is not known.
The Frederica and Mary Ann was "a sharp-built vessel" whose cargo "occasioned her to strain”. After remaining at Ilfracombe for seven weeks, she was taken to the large and more suitable port of Bristol. The law, in all its majesty and rigour, now proceeded to take what for Barnaby Vicq was an unwelcome course.
The Prince, the ship from which Vicq had launched his effort, had not been commissioned with a letter of marque, and therefore had no authority to take prizes. In consequence, the Admiralty Court, following the letter of the law, condemned the Frederica and Mary Ann and the larger part of her cargo, which was also Dutch, as "droits and perquisites of His Majesty in his office of Admiralty”.
Early in 1804, the ship was sold for £660 and the Dutch goods for £3,300. There remained a part of the cargo (about half of the cotton and some of the sugar) which was claimed by English merchants and was ordered to be restored to them upon payment of salvage. The fact of the Prince having no commission did not affect the salvage award, which was made to the recaptors.
But should the whole ship's company of the Ceres share in the proceeds of the salvage along with Vicq and the eight other members of the Prince prize crew? Here there was a dispute, which in November 1805, came before the Admiralty Court for adjudication.
The Court was held in the hall of Doctors' Commons, a pleasant group of brick buildings on the southern side of Saint Paul's which served as the home of the 'College of Doctors of Law exercent in the Ecclesiastical and Admiralty Courts'.
Since 1798 the Admiralty Judge had been Sir William Scott, a man of eminent ability, whose development of prize law along systematic lines caused him eventually to be acknowledged as the greatest civilian in the whole of English legal history. It was before Scott that the advocates on either side of a case put their arguments, their evidence as to matters of fact being derived from ships' papers and the depositions of witnesses.
The case for the ship's company of the Ceres was put by the King's Advocate, Sir John Nicholl, who some years earlier had been a commissioner appointed to inquire into the state of the law of Jersey. Vicq's man was French Laurence, the disciple and intimate of Edmund Burke, who, in conjunction with Sir William Scott, had been counsel to the managers of the impeachment of Warren Hastings.
In his submission to the Court, Sir John Nicholl pointed out that though the Ceres Articles of Agreement did not provide for the contingency of capture by a prize crew, they did, conversely, contain a provision to the effect that prize crews should share in all prizes taken by the privateer during their absence. This provision, said Sir John, must on general grounds of equity necessarily imply a reciprocal right, on the part of the privateer's crew, to share in prizes taken by prize crews.
In reply, French Laurence said that Vicq's exploit was "as gallant an action as perhaps ever came to the view of the Court”. It was, moreover, "an act of mere personal gallantry, independent of his duty to the privateer”. Service on board prize vessels was hazardous because of the risk that the prize would be recaptured by the enemy and the men of the prize crew carried to prison.
Therefore it was right that prize crews should share in future captures, the equivalent for which was their service in such a particularly dangerous capacity. It was not necessary that the principle of reciprocity should apply in cases in which prizes were taken by prize crews. In the present case, the Frederica and Mary Ann had been taken by Vicq and his eight colleagues in an action "entirely depending on their personal address and gallantry" and through a type of enterprise outside the scope of the Ceres Articles of Agreement.
"To consider the privateer as entitled to share in the fruits of these extraordinary exertions, on the grounds of reciprocity, would be to establish a sort of iniquitous equity, where the risks of the parties were not equivalent, and in which no real equity can be discerned”.
In his judgment, Sir William Scott made the point that it had always been the practice of the Navy that prize interests acquired by a prize master on board a captured ship should enure to the benefit of the whole ship's company. With respect to privateers, the shares of the different persons concerned were regulated by the Articles of Agreement, "and where those Articles are not literally applicable to the circumstances of the capture, their place must be supplied by the principles of natural equity and reason”.
Since prize crews from the Ceres were entitled to share in the prizes of the privateer, it was, said Scott, both reasonable and equitable that the converse should apply. The Judge was as ready as anyone to commend Vicq and his colleagues for their initiative and gallantry, but felt it "obvious to observe that these qualities might have been as conspicuous in any capture made by the privateer”.
The matter of personal merit was not legally relevant and the ruling of the Court was that "the reward of salvage enures to the benefit of all united in the common cruise, as part of that undertaking”.
Vicq claims costs
In January, 1806, Barnaby Vicq put in a claim for £55 as expenses in connection with two visits he had made to London on business relating to the legal proceedings affecting the Frederica and Mary Ann. He had had to spend, he said, a total of four weeks in London (in January/February and May, 1805), and besides the expenses of travel and subsistence had lost £16 12s in wages through absence from his duties as a pilot in HM Service.
His claim was disallowed. The value of the salvage award is not known, but it is almost certain that Vicq's share of it did not amount to the sum he attempted to claim as expenses. He therefore had to pay, in hard cash, for the privilege of performing his exploit. England has always known how to treat her heroes but at least for Barnaby Vicq there is the posthumous reward that his name has now gone down in a small piece of history.