Maine’s Unluckiest Privateer
By Pat Higgins
On the 5th of September 1813, the USS Enterprise defeated the HMS Boxer off the coast of Maine in the waters between Pemequid and Monhegan. It was quite a famous little victory in a war that was more likely marked by nascent America's defeats on land. For a complete account of the Seafight between the Boxer and the Enterprise check out Maine Stories. The story that follows continues the thread.
Privateering: Licensed Piratry
Privateering was not a phenomena of the War 1812 but a very old way of using the merchant marine to military advantage. A privateer, by definition is a privately owned war ship outfitted, sailed and operated at the expense of the owner(s) but under the license of their government to attack and capture the ships of their country's enemies. The captured ship or prize could be either a merchant or naval warship, although the more lightly armed, more easily captured merchant ships made for safer and more valuable prizes. In the United States the license to steal was called a Letter of Marque. Captured ships need only be brought to an American port where both the ship and the cargo could be sold off at a tidy profit. The whole procedure was tremendously advantageous to our government because it did not have to build, maintain or operate these privateers, but, at the same time, the United States manned a quasi navy of vicious raiders capable of ravaging the enemy's economy. The crew and shareholders of successful privateers stood to gain extensive profits. Truth be told, despite Letters of Marque, there was often a fine line between privateering and piracy.
After the Revolution, conditions soon deteriorated on the high seas. Both the American merchant fleet and the navy knew from experience that they could not mount a reasonable defense against the large, well-armed and well-organized European forces. With the beginning of hostilities between the British and the French, both European countries insisted on support from the new United States. At the same time, British naval ships harassed American merchantmen, impressed sailors and seized ships and cargoes. There was little the Americans could do when faced with the might of the British (or, for that matter, the French, who behaved no better). In less than ten years, between 1803 and 1812, more than 1500 American ships were seized and countless American (or allegedly American) sailors were impressed.
In an effort to protect Americans, Congress passed the Embargo Act in 1807 and followed it up with the slightly more lenient Non-Intercourse Act in 1809. In the first all foreign trade was forbidden, and in the second only trade with England and France was off limits. Neither was particularly effective at controlling deteriorated foreign affairs. In effect, the New England merchant marine was ruined, and so was the New England economy. At the time Maine exported about $800,00 worth of goods on a shipping fleet of nearly 150,000 tons. After the passage of the Embargo, ships rotted in the harbors and the various industries related to shipping and shipbuilding were bankrupt. Unemployment in Maine's coastal towns topped 60%; soup kitchens were established in Portland's market (Monument Square) and elsewhere. Mainers were infuriated with the restrictions imposed by their government. Smuggling was a dire necessity with Eastport at the center. But that's another story.
At the outset of the War of 1812, the American navy had about 17 ships. The British navy was the largest in the world with ships of size numbering about 1,000. A privateer navy would be needed to fill the breech. Maine and New England jumped into activity. Here was a business opportunity to recoup past losses. Ships were built for speed and armed for battle; shares were sold. An infestation of American privateers ravaged British shipping all along the American coast, throughout the Caribbean, across the Atlantic even into the Irish Sea, the Mediterranean and out to the Indian Ocean and beyond to the Pacific- in fact, wherever American ships could find British prey.
The Fate of the Boxer, Part and Parcel
After losing the sea battle with the USS Enterprise, the not so lucky HMS Boxer was auctioned off as a prize for $11, 674. Gould says the total ran to $9755 in three lots including the Boxer, its guns and 36 tons of kentlege (iron ballast). The prize money was shared out between the Enterprise officers and crew. Capt. Burrows' heirs received $1,115; prize money for a seaman came to $54.31.
The Boxer was auctioned to Thomas Merrill, Jr. for $5600 and went to sea under Capt. William McLellan as a merchant ship. Although her final fate is uncertain. She did see service one more time during the War of 1812, this time on the American side. In August 1814, the Boxer did a short stint protecting the city of Portland (as will be seen further along in our story).
The Hyder Ally
The Hyder Ally was built in Portland by shipwright Samuel Fickett at a dock near the foot of Park Street. William Goold, who gives the most complete account of the Hyder Ally in his history of Portland, says she was "not especially built for a privateer but was constructed to carry a battery, as no vessel was then safe on the high seas without one." and "She was built for speed as most vessels of her time were; drogers were sure to be picked up by the armed vessels of some nation, and during Napoleon Bonaparte's time, it was hard to comply with the restrictions of all the belligerents."
The Hyder Ally's keel was laid before the war was declared. There just was no market for ships in these times, but "Fickett concluded to finish her and trust to luck for a purchaser." Times were tough; Maine was devastated by the Embargo and Non-Intercourse acts. Few, if any shipbuilders, were laying keels. Any investment that Fickett had in the hull which became the Hyder Ally was rescued just as times began to change, and there was some resurgence in a market looking for privateers.
This didn't work out awfully well to Fickett's advantage but he eventually found a buyer. The merchants Bryant & Sturgis of Boston offered to purchase the hull at $40/ton (she weighed out at 367 tons) if she were rigged out as a ship. Fickett agreed despite the fact that it would cost almost as much again to rig the ship as it had to build hull. Fickett must have thought there wouldn't be any more offers given the times.
Bryant & Sturgis purchased the Boxer armament for their new privateer at auction and must have added some new guns as well. Ten 18 pound and two 6 pound cannons were bought at the auction. The final compliment aboard the privateer was twelve 18 pound caronades, two long 18 pounders and two long nines. This doesn't quite match the list of Boxer armament but neither do the Custom House records which state that the Hyder Ally carried only ten guns.
The Hyder Ally's captain was Israel Thorndike of Beverly Mass; second in command was Lt. Henry Oxnard of Portland, and the third officers were a Perry of Salem and Noah Edgecomb, a Portland rigger. Thorndike ran a tight ship with strict discipline. There was a crew of fifty, many from Portland including Isaac Fickett, a relative of the builder and caulker on the Hyder Ally during her entire privateer career as well as the man from whom Goold later received most of his information.
Privateering on the High Seas
Maine author Kenneth Roberts wrote that the Boxer's bad luck was transferred with her guns to the Hyder Ally. But when the new privateer sailed from Portland for the Indian Ocean on January 31, 1814, nobody thought about bad luck. The privateer took several prizes in the Indian Ocean but never managed to bring a single one to port.
Near the Cape of Good Hope on the way out, the American privateer was chased all day by a sloop of war belonging to British East India Company and finally escaped under cover of darkness. After rounding the Cape and somewhere in the latitude of Isle of France, she captured a British East Indiaman with a valuable cargo. Thorndike sent the prize off to Portland with a prizemaster and crew. The prize never made port but was captured off Cape Elizabeth by the British privateer Tom.(Gould, Roberts. 225)
That the Hyder Ally's prize was recaptured off Cape Elizabeth is not really much of a surprise. Throughout 1813 and 1814 the coast of Maine was virtually under siege. Maine began to fortify its coast. In Portland the militia built Fort Burrows, named for the captain of the Enterprise, on Jordan's Point and shore batteries at Fish Point, the most easterly point on the neck. A little further out, the mouth of the harbor was protected by Fort Preble at Spring Point and Fort Scammel on House Island, both built in 1809.
With the end of their war against Napoleon, the British had more energy and resources to pit against the Americans. By August 1814, British were blockading the harbor in earnest. By September they captured Castine and held the Maine coast east of the Penobscot. Rumors abounded in Portland warning that "a large fleet with troops" under the flagship Bulwark had left Castine headed westward towards Portland. Indeed, the British were very bold and sailed daily up to lighthouse scaring the dickens out of Portlanders every day, but the promised fleet did not materialize. Many moved their goods and families off the neck to safety. Gov. Strong called up 6-700 militiamen from Cumberland and Oxford Counties to defend Portland. More defenses were built around the area. Portland appropriated $10,000 for public defense. Much of the excitement was driven, in large part, by rumor.
It was during this period that the Boxer was again pressed into service. The battery of the prize ship San Jose Indiano was ordered mounted on board. She was then hauled into position and moored in such a place as to command approaches to Vaughan’s bridge. The gunners amused themselves with practice by firing into the steep bankings of Bramhall's hill. All this went on for about two weeks, then with no action taking place, everyone was sent home.
Oxnard Makes a Fatal Error
After sending off her first prize, the Hyder Ally continued on to Sumatra and off the coast captured another British prize. Contemporary American newspaper accounts muddy the story a bit. "The frigate was the Betsey, late Capt. Bennett, of Calcutta, 580 tons, mounting two guns and coppered, cargo pepper, beetlenut and gumbenjamin. She had a crew of 50 men (Lascars)" (Palladium, 9/23/1814). The New Bedford Mercury described the prize as "370 tons, full cargo pepper". According to the Portland Gazette, the cargo of "Teas and Spices", was valued at "100,000 pounds sterling in India", and "the Indiaman mounted 16 guns with a complement of 30 men". Such was American reportage - take your pick. The Betsey, if that's who she was, was taken without resistance. (Goold says that two British ships were captured, and Perry was sent home with the second prize, but no further information is given on the fate of this second ship. An account in the Palladium on September16, 1814 said, "She (the Hyder Ally) had taken two other vessels and released them"; then on the 24th the same paper reported that Thorndike "captured the English brig Jupiter, Capt. Turick, and gave her up". A third vessel or one of the two?)
At any rate, Lt. Oxnard was sent off home as prizemaster and "spoke no vessels" on the 120 day (Gazette) journey home. Dodging British along the coast, the prize was prevented from reaching safety in Portland and put in at Castine on Penobscot Bay instead. Having been at sea for some time, he did not know that Castine was in the hands of the enemy until he dropped anchor. Then he noticed that not only were all the ships in the harbor flying British jacks but also a fleet of small armed boats were already headed his way. It was too late to take flight, and outnumbered as he was, he could not win a fight. All this according to Kenneth Rpberts who loved a good story! (Roberts, 225)
Or maybe it went the way the Palladium described it: Oxnard's prize was chased off Cape Sable by a British brig of War but managed to escape after dark. On September 7th, she put in at Bass Harbor on Mt. Desert Island. The Mercury and the Palladium agree that "this part of the country was in possession of the British" and that the prize soon "stood out again with a pilot on board". During the night they were becalmed and then discovered by a "British frigate, at anchor near land". What land is not specified. Castine? The Portland Gazette begs to differ; their account says the prize was "cut out (of Bass Harbor) in 6 or 8 hours after arrival by the sloop of war Spitfire. The Palladium said "the frigate (apparently nameless) was lately from the Mediterranean" under a captain Roberts.
Now the fun begins! Three barges full of British were put out against the prize, two approached on one side and the third on the other side. Oxnard did the only thing he could do; he lowered the ship's boats, and all hands jumped ship. Oxnard threw a mattress in which he had stuffed his valuables and papers into pilot's boat and then jumped on the mattress. The pilot was shot and killed as he went over the side. The enemy boats fired on the escaping Americans; Oxnard was hit in the leg, but managed to land and escape into the woods with at least some of his men. The Palladium reported that eight of the crew were taken prisoner.
The British faired less well. Boarding from different sides of the prize, they became confused, "mistook each other for the enemy" (Palladium) and opened fire. Things were hot for a few minutes before the mistake was discovered. The captain was shot in through shoulder and four others were wounded. Ever different, the Portland Gazette reported that the British captain was shot by one of the Lascars, and that the prize was ordered for Halifax.
Oxnard arrived home in Portland a week later bearing the tale that became so garbled by the press. One of the items in the mattress was a paisley shawl that Oxnard was bringing home to his sisters. It became a family treasure. (Roberts, 225) After his escape at Castine, Lt. Oxnard stayed in the employ of Bryant & Sturgis and received his own command after the war. He was very successful and became a rich man.(Goold) Perhaps he learned a lesson at Castine.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, the Hyder Ally very short of hands. Capt. Thorndike used a method that gave privateers of the times a bad name. He flew whatever flag was expedient to the occasion thus behaving more like a pirate than privateer. He soon overhauled two Chinese junks carrying very valuable cargoes of betel nuts and silks to Penang. Thorndike "condemned these goods as British property, confiscated the whole, and took them on board of the privateer, giving the junks his ballast in return."
Unfortunately, Thorndike soon fell in with the British frigate Salsetta. Both were becalmed for twelve hours. A breeze sprang up giving the frigate the advantage, then the British ship fired her bow guns at the Hyder Ally but with no effect. Desperate for speed, Thorndike knocked some of the woodwork off the stern of the Hyder Ally and mounted two of his guns as stern chasers. He didn’t expect to hit the frigate but planned to use them as a method of "gunpowder propulsion" (Roberts, 226). He rigged long breechings to hold the recoil of the guns and drive his ship forward (according to Robert's) "much as a rocket ship is supposed to be driven toward the moon by the recoil of its powder charges". There is no record of just how many times Thorndike resorted to rocket power during the chase, but he managed to keep his ship just out of harm's way. Finally, the Hyder Ally gained an advantage due to a squall and escaped.
One might think that this has gotta be a yarn! Now, where would Thorndike get this idea? A little research brings up some suspicions; perhaps the Hyder Ally was named after the 18th century Mogul of Mysore (in India). Hyder Ali and his son and successor Tipoo Sultan have their own little niche in the history of rocketry. The father developed a 1200 man rocketry force that his son increased to 5000. Tipoo Sultan used this force in two battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799 against the British who were trying to assert control over India. Apparently this was a stunning surprise to the British but did little to save the Indian subcontinent in the long run. One of Tippoo Sultan's rockets is now displayed in the Royal Ordnance Museum at Woolwich Arsenal, near London. The story of the moguls' innovative weaponry as well as their hatred of British imperialism must have been well known in America as Hyder Ally was the frequent name of ships and race horses. If Thorndike's rocket propelled escape is a true story, the connection is certainly not a coincidence.
Captured or Fickle Fate!
After escaping from the Salsetta, The American privateer was soon becalmed again. Yet another nearby British frigate caught the breeze first, and the Hyder Ally was captured. The British frigate was the Owen Glendower, and "No doubt Captain Thorndike wished her where Prince John of Lancaster wished her Shakespearean namesake." Adding insult to injury, Capt Thorndike soon made an unpleasant discovery; he could on the same breeze sail around the British frigate and so could have escaped capture. Infuriating!
The Hyder Ally was escorted to Penang where the crew was imprisoned for four months until the East India fleet came in shorthanded due to sickness. The Hyder Ally crew was offered wages from Penang to Whompoa and then to London. At Whompoa, three of the crew members were chosen by lot to be exchanged for three British prisoners. Goold's source, Isaac Fickett, drew one of the lots and eventually made his way to Canton and then back to Boston. Those crew members who did not draw the winning lots went on with the fleet to London where they were imprisoned until the end of the war.
Certainly the Hyder Ally was unlucky at privateering but other Maine privateers - the Rapid, the Dash, the Dart, the Grand Turk (built in Salem but her home port was Portland) and the Young Teazer to name a few - were highly successful. All in all, less than 550 U.S.Navy ships and American privateers captured more than 1500 British ships worth approximately $40,000,000 and took 30,000 prisoners. Privateers not only acted as the defacto U.S. Navy but also were a lucrative money making proposition. Unsuccessful as the Hyder Ally might ultimately have been, other American privateers inflicted so much damage to British trade that a case can be made that privateers won the War of 1812.
Information on the real Hyder Ali is available at numerous internet sites in addition to the following citation:
A Brief History of Rocketry. <http://mirkwood.ucs.indiana.edu/space/rocketry.htm>
Sources on the Maine privateer Hyder Ali:
Goold, William. Portland in the Past with Historical Notes of Old Falmouth. Reprint of 1886 edition. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1997.
Roberts, Kenneth. Trending into Maine. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1938.
U.S. Maritime Service Veterans. The American Merchant Marine and Privateers in the War of 1812. 1998,1999, 2000. <http://www.USMM.org/warof1812.html>.
Young, Frank Pierce. Privateering During the War of 1812. <http://homepage.rootsweb.com/~haas/learningcenter/privateers.html>.
Contemporary newspaper articles of the recapture of Oxnard's prize provided by Joshua M. Smith:
New Bedford Mercury. (New Bedford, MA) September 23, 1814.
New England Palladium (Boston, MA) September 16, 1814, September 23, 1814.
Portland Gazette (Portland, ME) September 19, 1814.
c2001, 2003 Pat Higgins