The 4th of July is fast approaching, so Balladeer’s Blog will be squeezing in a few more holiday-themed posts up til then. In the past I’ve examined Revolutionary War privateers like John Haraden and Silas Talbot. This time around I’ll take a look at the controversial Luke Ryan.
Ryan was born in 1750 in Rush, Ireland and by the late 1770s he was an established smuggler. Captaining his ship the Friendship, Luke got commissioned in February of 1778 as a privateer for the British but would later switch to the American side.
The Friendship, with its 14 cannon and 60-man crew, sailed as a privateer vessel for King George III until April of 1779. Captain Ryan couldn’t resist pulling a side hustle against his ostensible employer England by smuggling some goods from Dunkirk, France to Rush, Ireland.
Some of Ryan’s crew didn’t like the way the spoils were divided from this extracurricular activity and informed the authorities about Luke’s smuggling offense. The Friendship was seized and hauled to Poolbeg and all crew members on board were arrested, then thrown into Black Dog Gaol. This happened on the night of April 11th into 12th.
Luke was not among those men on board at the time, so he organized a raid to bust his men free from Black Dog. The raid succeeded, following which the freed men and their liberators went to Poolbeg where they stole aboard the impounded Friendship and overpowered the guards.
The recovered vessel sailed to Rush before daybreak and with 18 additional men signing on, it was on to Dunkirk. Captain Ryan and his crew had committed a hanging offense by taking back the Friendship, so they decided to switch sides and become privateers for England’s enemies.
Once in France, Luke and his men became one of the privateering crews being overseen by Benjamin Franklin himself. Ryan knew he and his crew could never pass themselves off as French privateers if they were captured at sea, so they became Americans and renamed the Friendship the Black Prince.
A complication arose over Luke Ryan’s reputation as a smuggler both before and after obtaining King George’s Letter of Marque. Ben Franklin was having enough trouble dancing around international laws with America’s French allies. If America offered a known, wanted criminal and deserter the captaincy of one of its privateering vessels the British could use that as a reason for NOT treating Ryan and his crew as prisoners of war if taken.
Some deception was employed. Though Luke Ryan would be the real captain of the Black Prince, a Connecticut man named Stephen Marchant would be the captain on official papers. The Black Prince had been refitted to carry 16 cannon and a crew of 72, and would soon take to the seas as an American privateering vessel using Brittany as its base.
Well-seasoned from his and his men’s 14 months of experience on the British side, Captain Ryan was very successful. June of 1779 saw him fight and seize 8 prize ships, among them the Goodwill, in the waters from Cornwall to the English Channel. One of the ships was retaken by the British.
The Black Prince’s July haul was thirteen ships, among them the Dublin Trader, as Ryan and company sailed around Scotland and Bristol. In August of 1779, Luke added to his reputation by seizing another 8 ships in the waters around the Isles of Scilly. Two or three of the July and August prizes were retaken by the Brits before Ryan could get them to an allied port.
In September, Captain Ryan and his men took another 6 ships, this time around Scotland and they also bombarded Argyll until the townspeople agreed to ferry food and other supplies out to the privateering vessel.
At the end of the September cruise, Stephen Marchant resigned as the nominal captain of the Black Prince and signed on as the real captain of the 26-cannon ship the Countess of Berigen. This meant that Ben Franklin had to be told that Luke Ryan had been the real captain of the Black Prince during its June through September voyages.
Assorted personnel changes followed this revelation. Ryan had supposedly fallen ill or was wounded in September’s actions, and he would need to recuperate on land for a few months. Patrick Dowling, who had been serving under Luke since their days as British privateers, was named the new captain of the Black Prince.
Another privateering vessel, the Black Princess, would take to the seas captained by another of Luke Ryan’s longtime comrades, Edward Wilde aka Edward Macatter aka Edward McCatter.
While the Black Prince and Black Princess resumed terrorizing British shipping, Captain Luke Ryan did not return to the sea until after January of 1780, this time commanding the 18-cannon, 96-man ship the Fear Not.
Though pleased with Ryan’s haul of ships and goods, Benjamin Franklin was exasperated at Luke’s repeated failures to provide him with his greatest need – captured British seamen to use in prisoner exchanges. American POWs were dying from the harsh conditions of their captivity and so far Captain Ryan had provided the lowest number of prisoners to exchange – not much over 100.
The mercenary-minded Luke paid Franklin no mind. Taking prisoners all the way back to land rather than just paroling them at sea took up time that could be better spent on additional plundering. Plus prisoners had to be fed, which also nibbled away at Captain Ryan’s profits.
No matter how many times Benjamin Franklin would remind Luke and the other privateer captains operating out of France, they were unconcerned that the British refused to honor the paroled seamen as prisoners to be exchanged for suffering American POWs.
Always pushing boundaries, the scurvy Captain Ryan had even taken to preying on the occasional neutral vessels, too, which was absolutely forbidden by law.
From March through July of 1780, Ryan’s Fear Not, plus the Black Prince and Black Princess, plundered maritime trade around the Hebrides and the shipping routes to Northern Ireland. Captain Ryan in particular became notorious for sending landing parties ashore to loot remote seaside towns in Scotland.
Come autumn of 1780, Ben Franklin abandoned his France-based privateering operation. Getting America’s enemy England and ally France to deal with American privateers on equal terms was almost impossible and the abysmal numbers of prisoners taken made his plans for exchanges fairly unsuccessful.
Ben pulled the Letters of Marque from his privateers, though such vessels from America continued striking at sea until the end of the war. Luke Ryan was unwilling to abandon his career and signed on to captain French privateering vessels like La Marechal and the Calonne. He wasn’t as happy as he had been as an American captain due to the French government’s insistence on taking a full THIRD of the funds earned by their privateers.
Still, despite his ugly tendency to flirt with actual piracy, Luke Ryan continued to serve our French allies well, seizing many prizes and in February of 1781 he was made a naturalized French citizen, removing whatever lingering fears he may have had about his legal status if captured.
Or so Captain Ryan may have thought. On April 17th, 1781 he and his crew were captured by the British and because of his notoriety the Brits wanted Luke hanged. Legal wrangling – including official French diplomatic efforts to save him – dragged on until February 9th, 1784 when he was finally released from prison.
Ryan returned to France, but his successful years were behind him. Ultimately he returned to England where he died from an infection in Debtor’s Prison on June 18th, 1789.