Robert Surcouf

Robert Surcouf

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For ships of this name, see French ship Surcouf
French ship Surcouf
Five ships of the French Navy have been named in honour of the 19th century privateer Robert Surcouf:* A mixed propeller 531-ton dispatch boat * A 1850-ton steam-powered cruiser...


Robert Surcouf (12 December 1773–8 July 1827) was a famous French corsair
Corsairs were privateers, authorized to conduct raids on shipping of a nation at war with France, on behalf of the French Crown. Seized vessels and cargo were sold at auction, with the corsair captain entitled to a portion of the proceeds...

. During his legendary career, he captured 47 ships and was renowned for his gallantry and chivalry, earning the nickname of Roi des Corsaires ("King of Corsairs").


Robert Surcouf was born 12 December 1773 in Saint-Malo
Saint-Malo is a walled port city in Brittany in northwestern France on the English Channel. It is a sub-prefecture of the Ille-et-Vilaine.-Demographics:The population can increase to up to 200,000 in the summer tourist season...

, a fortified town in Brittany
Brittany is a cultural and administrative region in the north-west of France. Previously a kingdom and then a duchy, Brittany was united to the Kingdom of France in 1532 as a province. Brittany has also been referred to as Less, Lesser or Little Britain...

, traditionally a corsair stronghold. He attended a religious school and was educated by the Jesuits. At 13, he escaped his teachers and stole a small craft to prove his ability to sail; he was subsequently caught in a tempest and had to be rescued.

At age 15, he enlisted on a merchantman to India.

French Revolution

In 1792 he came back to Saint-Malo and discovered the political changes France had undergone in the wake of the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

. He sailed to Île de France (present-day Mauritius
Mauritius , officially the Republic of Mauritius is an island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent in the southwest Indian Ocean, about east of Madagascar...

) in August on a commercial brig
A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts. During the Age of Sail, brigs were seen as fast and manoeuvrable and were used as both naval warships and merchant vessels. They were especially popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries...

, and was informed on his arrival of the outbreak of war against Britain
Kingdom of Great Britain
The former Kingdom of Great Britain, sometimes described as the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain', That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN. was a sovereign...

. Île de France was blockaded by two British ships: the 50-gun HMS Centurion
HMS Centurion (1774)
HMS Centurion was a 50-gun Salisbury-class fourth rate of the Royal Navy. She served during the American War of Independence, and during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars....

, and the 44-gun HMS Diomede
HMS Diomede (1781)
HMS Diomede was a 44-gun fifth rate built by James Martin Hillhouse and launched at Bristol on 18 October 1781. She belonged to the Roebuck class of vessels specially built during the American Revolutionary War for service in the shallow American coastal waters...

, commanded by Commodore Osborn. Surcouf was made a second officer of the 40-gun frigate Cybèle
French frigate Cybèle (1790)
The Cybèle was an Nymphe class 40-gun frigate of the French Navy.On 22 October 1794, soon after the outbreak of the war with England, and along with the 32-gun Prudente and the brig Coureur, she fought HMS Centurion and , who blockaded Ile de France. The French ships managed to drive away the...

, which, with 32-gun frigate Prudente
French frigate Prudente (1790)
The Prudente was a 32-gun Capricieuse class frigate frigate of the French Navy.In 1791, under lieutenant Villaret de Joyeuse, she was tasked with ferrying troops to Cap Français and with police duty in Santo Domingo...

 and brig Coureur engaged and repelled the attackers. Surcouf was one of the heroes of the day.

Captain of the Émilie

He was made a captain in Île de France, and expressed his ambition to wage corsair warfare against Great Britain. However, the Convention
National Convention
During the French Revolution, the National Convention or Convention, in France, comprised the constitutional and legislative assembly which sat from 20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795 . It held executive power in France during the first years of the French First Republic...

 frowned at privateers, and it was difficult to obtain a letter of marque
Letter of marque
In the days of fighting sail, a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was a government licence authorizing a person to attack and capture enemy vessels, and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale...


On 3 June 1794, Surcouf sailed with the 4-gun ship La Créole, with a complement of 30 men, with orders to bring rice to Mauritius, and encountered three English ships escorted by the 26-gun Triton; he used a technicality to engage combat in self-defence, by not flying his colours until the English ships requested them by firing a warning shot (a naval convention of the time), which Surcouf later reported to consider an aggression. After a brief gunnery exchange, the British ships lowered their flag and were brought back to Mauritius, with their cargo of rice
Rice is the seed of the monocot plants Oryza sativa or Oryza glaberrima . As a cereal grain, it is the most important staple food for a large part of the world's human population, especially in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and the West Indies...

 and maize
Maize known in many English-speaking countries as corn or mielie/mealie, is a grain domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The leafy stalk produces ears which contain seeds called kernels. Though technically a grain, maize kernels are used in cooking as a vegetable...

. Surcouf was welcomed as a saviour in the famished Port Louis
Port Louis
-Economy:The economy is dominated by its port, which handles Mauritius' international trade. The port was founded by the French who preferred Port Louis as the City is shielded by the Port Louis/Moka mountain range. It is the largest container handling facility in the Indian Ocean and can...

. The capture was declared legal, but in the absence of a letter of marque, the authorities retained the entire cargo (a portion of which normally goes to the corsair).

Following a dispute with the governor of Île de France, Surcouf sailed to France to receive his letter of marque
Letter of marque
In the days of fighting sail, a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was a government licence authorizing a person to attack and capture enemy vessels, and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale...

. He returned to sea in Nantes
Nantes is a city in western France, located on the Loire River, from the Atlantic coast. The city is the 6th largest in France, while its metropolitan area ranks 8th with over 800,000 inhabitants....

 in August 1798, as captain of the 18-gun Clarisse, with 105 men. He captured four ships in the South Atlantic, and two others near Sumatra in February 1799. On 11 November, the 20-gun Auspicious was captured, with a cargo worth in excess of one million francs. Surcouf later had to flee before the 38-gun frigate HMS Sybille
French frigate Sibylle (1792)
The Sibylle was an 38-gun Hébé class frigate of the French Navy. She was launched in 1791 at the dockyards in Toulon and placed in service in 1792...

, throwing eight guns overboard to out-sail the British warship. He captured a British brig and an American merchantman before returning to Île de France.

Captain of the Confiance

In May 1800, Surcouf took command of Confiance, a fast 22-gun ship from Bordeaux
Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne River in the Gironde department in southwestern France.The Bordeaux-Arcachon-Libourne metropolitan area, has a population of 1,010,000 and constitutes the sixth-largest urban area in France. It is the capital of the Aquitaine region, as well as the prefecture...

 undergoing repairs in Île de France.

Beginning in March, he led a brilliant campaign which resulted in the capture of nine British ships. On 7 October 1800, in the Bay of Bengal, off Sand Heads, Confiance met the 40-gun Kent, an 820-ton East Indiaman, under Captain Robert Rivington, with, including passengers, 437 men. The French managed to seize control of the Kent. He became a living legend in France and, in England, a public enemy whose capture was valued at 5 million francs, although he was noted for the discipline of his crew and his humane treatment of prisoners.


On 13 April 1801, though chased by British warships, he arrived in La Rochelle
La Rochelle
La Rochelle is a city in western France and a seaport on the Bay of Biscay, a part of the Atlantic Ocean. It is the capital of the Charente-Maritime department.The city is connected to the Île de Ré by a bridge completed on 19 May 1988...

. He settled in Saint-Malo
Saint-Malo is a walled port city in Brittany in northwestern France on the English Channel. It is a sub-prefecture of the Ille-et-Vilaine.-Demographics:The population can increase to up to 200,000 in the summer tourist season...

, married, and spent six years in retirement as a businessman.

In 1803, at the breaking of the Treaty of Amiens
Treaty of Amiens
The Treaty of Amiens temporarily ended hostilities between the French Republic and the United Kingdom during the French Revolutionary Wars. It was signed in the city of Amiens on 25 March 1802 , by Joseph Bonaparte and the Marquess Cornwallis as a "Definitive Treaty of Peace"...

, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte personally offered him the title of captain
Captain (naval)
Captain is the name most often given in English-speaking navies to the rank corresponding to command of the largest ships. The NATO rank code is OF-5, equivalent to an army full colonel....

 and command of a frigate squadron in the Indian Ocean. Surcouf, however, refused, for two reasons: first, he would not have been allowed to operate as independently as he desired; and second, he believed that the naval war against England should be waged by commerce raiding rather than by direct naval assault and squadron tactics. In 1805, Napoleon did opt for a blockade
A blockade is an effort to cut off food, supplies, war material or communications from a particular area by force, either in part or totally. A blockade should not be confused with an embargo or sanctions, which are legal barriers to trade, and is distinct from a siege in that a blockade is usually...

 against England rather than direct confrontation, and allowed privateers to operate with relative impunity. Surcouf left in good terms, and was made officer of the Légion d'Honneur
Légion d'honneur
The Legion of Honour, or in full the National Order of the Legion of Honour is a French order established by Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of the Consulat which succeeded to the First Republic, on 19 May 1802...

 on 18 July 1804.


In 1804, Surcouf went into business as ship-owner, and equipped 14 privateers in the Indian Ocean (among them his brother Nicolas Surcouf and his cousin Joseph Potier). Their achievements, however, were somewhat less impressive than Surcouf's own: four of the corsairs were captured by British warships, and 5 campaigns turned a deficit.

Captain of the Revenant

In 1807, a British vessel captured Nicolas Surcouf. On 2 March, Surcouf returned to sea on a specially built three-master, the 20-gun Revenant
French corvette Revenant
Revenant was a 20-gun privateer corvette designed by Robert Surcouf for commerce raiding. She was later requisitioned for service in the French Navy, and was renamed Iéna, but was subsequently captured by and served in the Royal Navy as HMS Victor...

. Revenant was constructed under special directives by Surcouf himself, with a completely coppered hull, and a remarkable (for the time) top speed of 12 knots.

Surcouf arrived at Île de France in June, defeating the British blockade and capturing several ships on the journey. During the subsequent campaign, which was to be his last, Surcouf captured 16 British ships, partly because British ships tended to strike their colours
Striking the colors
Striking the colors is the universally recognized indication of surrender, particularly for ships at sea. Surrender is dated from the time the ensign is struck.-In international law:# "Colors. A national flag . The colors . ....

 as soon as they realised their opponent was Surcouf. He returned to Île de France in February 1808. He then decided to stay on the island, leaving the campaign to his second-in-command (and cousin) Joseph Potier. In two campaigns, the latter captured about 20 ships, including the large 34-gun Portuguese Conceçao.

The governor of Île de France, General Charles Decaen, seized the Revenant for the defence of the island. After a heated argument with Decaen, Surcouf acquired the frigate Sémillante
French frigate Sémillante (1792)
The Sémillante was a 32-gun frigate of the French Navy, lead ship of her class. She was involved in a number of multi-vessel actions against the Royal Navy, particularly in the Indian Ocean. She captured a number of East Indiamen before the she became so damaged that the French disarmed her and...

, renamed her Charles, and sailed her back to France. In the meantime, Decaen had confiscated all Surcouf's possessions in the Indian Ocean. In October 1808, the Revenant (renamed Iéna) was captured by a British warship and renamed Victor. She was retaken two years later by the frigate Bellone, under captain Duperré, and kept the Victor name. She later took part in the Battle of Grand Port
Battle of Grand Port
The Battle of Grand Port was a naval battle between squadrons of frigates from the French Navy and the British Royal Navy. The battle was fought during 20–27 August 1810 over possession of the harbour of Grand Port on Île de France during the Napoleonic Wars...


On 4 February 1809, Charles arrived in France with an 8-million-franc cargo. Surcouf was received by Napoleon and made Baron d'Empire, and his possessions were returned to him.

The Renard

In 1812, Surcouf obtained his last privateer, the Renard
French cutter Renard
The Renard was a cutter armed by Robert Surcouf. She was his eighth and last privateer ship.Renard was launched in 1812 and commissioned under captain Leroux-Desrochettes. On 9 September 1812, beginning at 5 p.m. and lasting through the night, Renard successfully engaged the British 16-gun Alphea,...

 ("Fox"), a 14-gun cutter. She was commissioned under captain Leroux-Desrochettes, and fought a bitter battle on 9 September against the British 16-gun Alphea. Alphea exploded, taking all hands with her, while Renard sustained 33 casualties, including her captain, over a crew of 46.

In January 1814, Surcouf was made a colonel in the National Guard of Saint-Malo. However, he took no part in the Hundred Days
Hundred Days
The Hundred Days, sometimes known as the Hundred Days of Napoleon or Napoleon's Hundred Days for specificity, marked the period between Emperor Napoleon I of France's return from exile on Elba to Paris on 20 March 1815 and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII on 8 July 1815...

 as a chief of Legion. After the war, he returned to Saint-Malo, rich and with the title of baron
Baron is a title of nobility. The word baron comes from Old French baron, itself from Old High German and Latin baro meaning " man, warrior"; it merged with cognate Old English beorn meaning "nobleman"...

, and became a merchant ship-owner, establishing business with Terre-Neuve
Terre-Neuve can refer to these locations:* Terre-Neuve, Artibonite, a municipality in Haiti* Terre-Neuve, Saint Barthélemy, quartier of Saint Barthélemy* Newfoundland , in French is Terre-Neuve...

, the Caribbean
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

, Africa, and the Indian Ocean.

He died on 8 July 1827, and was carried to his grave by sea on a flotilla of over 50 sailboats.


As a privateer, Surcouf used tactics to compensate being out-gunned by larger British ships: he would use small, fast ships to make the huge ships think he was either not enough of a threat to consider firing at, a vessel on the verge of sinking, or a fishing vessel. Even if the enemy did fire at him, his ships were often too fast for the British behemoths to catch. When alongside an enemy ship, elite marines waited belowdecks until an order was given to board. When the men sprang forth, the British ship cannons could not depress enough to fire directly on the French ship.


  • Discussing with a British officer:
"You French fight for money, while we British fight for honour."
"Sir, a man fights for what he lacks the most."

  • On spotting the much more powerful Kent:
"The reward will only be fatter!"

  • Construction of his grand terrace at his residence.
Through Surcouf's actions he brought incredible wealth to St. Malo, it was said that Napoleon himself borrowed from the city's treasury to pay for his campaigns. Surcouf naturally had amassed a great deal of wealth in his escapades and wanted to make a terrace out of coins. He went to the Emperor himself and requested permission. Of course all currency had Napoleon's face on it and he disapproved of people treading over his visage. The great corsaire then clarified his plan with; "No my lord, they will not be treading upon your face."
The large terrace was constructed with the coins stacked and then laid sideways so that the thin edge acted as the surface on which people walked.

External links