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A Yankee Skipper Who Preyed On British Shipping Relates His Wartime Experiences
American sea captain George Coggeshall tells of his experiences evading the British navy during the War of 1812 and spending over half a century at sea.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
March the 18th, still a continuation of bad weather with a strong gale from the westward. At 4 P.M. saw a frigate and a brig-of-war off my lee beam, distant about five miles. They made sail in chase, but under my three lower sails, namely mainsail, foresail and jib, I had no fear of them. I showed my ensign for a few moments and then plied to windward, taking short tacks; and in a few hours they gave up the chase, when I again pursued my course to the northward under easy sail. Next day, March 19th, the wind moderated, but still there was a very high sea and very unpleasant weather.
March 20th, moderate breezes from the westward and unpleasant weather. This day I came to the conclusion to land myself somewhere on the coast of France and to send my vessel home under the command of my first officer, Mr. Samuel Nichols; and on an examination of a chart of the coast, I concluded to run for l’Ile d’Yeu [an island lying below the mouth of the Loire River] and land there. Accordingly I shaped my course for the island, and without meeting with any incident worth relating made the land on the 23rd of March at four o’clock in the afternoon, and at six landed on the island in my own boat. It soon became dark and I was obliged to remain on shore with my boat’s crew all night.
I took with me my clearance and other papers from Bordeaux, with sundry newspapers, and was well received by the governor and commissary of Marine.
March 24th at six o’clock in the morning, although the weather was thick and rainy and a strong breeze from the S.W., I sent my boat on board the schooner with a pilot, with orders to get the vessel into the roads near the town, which is situated on the N.E. end of the island. At two o’clock in the afternoon the schooner came directly off the town, close in with the fort, where with our own boat we took on board six casks of fresh water, some fresh provisions, and sundry small stores. I then obtained liberty from the public authorities to dispatch my vessel to the United States.
When I landed at l’Ile d’Yeu, I took with me as one of the boat’s crew the large black man Philip, and I was astonished to see the curiosity expressed here at the sight of a Negro. He was followed at every step by a crowd of men, women and children, all desirous to see a black man; and I soon received a pressing message from the governor’s lady to see him. I accordingly took Philip with me and repaired to the residence of the governor, where were assembled all the first ladies of the island. They had a great many questions to ask about him respecting the place of his birth, whether he was kind and good-natured, etc. When their curiosity was gratified, the fellow begged of me as a favor to be allowed to go on board, as he did not like to be exhibited as a show. This request I readily granted, telling the ladies and gentlemen that I had an Indian on board, and that I would send for him. The Indian came directly on shore, but to my surprise there appeared but little curiosity on the part of the inhabitants to see the savage.
When I came to reflect a little on the subject, I was not at all surprised at the novelty of seeing a black man. This island had been, as it were, shut out from the rest of the world for twenty-five or thirty years with little or no commerce or communication with other nations, and it is therefore highly probable that very few of its inhabitants had ever seen a Negro, and they were, of course, eager to behold one.
At five o’clock in the afternoon of March 24th, 1814, I repaired on board in a shore boat, and after writing a few hasty letters to my friends in the United States and making a short address to my officers and men, I resigned the command to my first lieutenant, Mr. Samuel Nichols, and returned on shore with a heavy heart at parting with my little band of faithful followers.
The schooner was soon out of sight as she stood round the south end of the islands, and here I should be doing injustice to the memory of these brave men did I not give my feeble testimony to their good conduct from the time we left Charleston until parting with them at l’Ile d’Yeu. I never saw one of them intoxicated in the slightest manner, nor did I ever see one of them ill-treat a prisoner or attempt to plunder the smallest article. In a word, from the first lieutenant to the smallest boy on board, they were faithful, good and true men, and to the best of my knowledge and belief were all born and bred in the United States.
[Coggeshall proceeded to La Rochelle. While arranging for the transportation of his wine cargo on another letter-of-marque schooner, the Ida, he heard of the capture of Paris and the fall of Napoleon and his subsequent exile to Elba. The Ida and Coggeshall’s uninsured property barely escaped capture. The schooner had to make a dash through a squadron of British men-of-war stationed at the mouth of the harbor; and though some of her rigging was shot away by cannon fire, she managed to outdistance her pursuers.
When Coggeshall returned to Bordeaux, he was gratified to learn that most of his cotton had been sold. Next he journeyed to La Rochelle, Nantes, and finally. Paris, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure passage home. Nantes he found “the most moral town of its size in the kingdom”—but perhaps the reason was that “there appeared to be about three women to one man. …” Paris was, in his opinion, “astonishing,” a city of “astounding sublimity.” There Coggeshall purchased 5,000 francs worth of French silks, shawls, and silk stockings, which he sent to Bordeaux for shipment to the United States. Then he went sight-seeing.