Privateer Matilda

Dudley, William S. ed. The Naval War of 1812: A documentary History Vol. I (Washington: Naval Historical Centre, 1985) Page 191 -192.


The Privateer Matilda
The rush to go into privateering was not entirely smooth, as the following document indicates. Discipline in privateers varied from ship to ship, and the altercation between captain and crew on board Matilda offers a case in point. The men had apparently signed on at Philadelphia, but according to this statement by a crew member, one Charles Read, the brutality of one of the officers caused a good number of crewmen refused to sail. Mr. Read wrote directly to the secretary to describe their plight. Under Article 15 of the Act Concerning Letters of Marque, offenses by either officers or crewman of privateers were to be tried by court martial made up of U.S. Navy officers. The disposition of the case is not known, but the incident demonstrates some of the problems that existed for privateersmen on board their own ships.


Charles Read to Secretary of the Navy Hamilton.
New Castle [Delaware] Goal 13 July 1812
Sir
At request of 25 of the crew of the Privateer Schooner Matilda who with myself were sent to this prison on Saturday last by order of Capt. [Noah] Allen of the said Schooner I take the liberty of informing you that in consequence of the Barbarity and threatnings of our Officers we have refused to go the cruise for which we had engaged. But previous to this refusal we wrote a letter to the Capt. Requesting that the first Lieutenant (who had stabbed a man with a boarding pike and threatened to blow the brains out of many others) might be tried by a Court Martial which was refused: And having been informed that the said Capt. Allen has applied to you for the appointment of a Court Martial to try us for the said offence. We also request that a like Court Martial for the trial of the said first Lt. for the Offence above mentioned may be also appointed. If Officers are permitted to pursue such conduct with impunity our seamen will be no longer safe they will have their enemies on all sides and in fact they will have more to fear from the violence of our own Officers than from the real enemy: Our Ignorant Officers in our Privateers begin already to boast of having Martial Law on their side which they seem to consider as a scourge to seamen in my humble opinion it as much intended to protect the seamen against the violence of their Officers as for any other purpose.
The whole crew refused to go in the schooner but when they had got 26 of us in prison they kept the rest on board in hopes they would think better of it and proceed on the cruise. I have the Honour [&c.]
Charles Read


Maclay, Edgar Stanton A History of American Privateers (New York: Appleton and Co. 1899)


Pages 433-435
Probably no American privateer in this war had such a varied experience as the 11-gun schooner Matilda, Captain H. Rantin, of Philadelphia. She got to sea about July 15, 1812 and when a few days out captured a brig from San Domingo for London, which arrived at the Matilda’s home port, August 10th. A few days after taking this brig the Matilda fell in with the English brig Ranger, Captain John Heard, which was taken only after a stubbornly contested action, in which the British commander was killed. The prize was sent to Philadelphia, and a newspaper of that city, under date of August 23, 1812 notes: “Yesterday the remains of Captain Heard, of the British brig Ranger, were interred with the respect which honour and valour, even in an enemy, can never fail to inspire. Captain Heard was captured, with his brig, by the privateer Matilda, of this port, after a smart action, in which he received a wound of which he unfortunately died. The funeral was attended by the officers of the United States army and navy now in this city and by the uniformed volunteer corps. The Philadelphia Blues, commanded by Colonel L. Rush, performed the funeral honours. The war of freemen is not with virtuous men of any nation, but against the tyranny and oppression of rulers, and generosity must even shed a tear over those whose unhappy lot is to be victims of their injustice”.
In July of 1813 the Matilda fell in with a large ship, which was mistaken by the Americans for a merchantman. She proved to be the privateer Lion, built as a frigate, to be presented by the British Government to the Turks, but later converted to private use. She was pierced for twenty-eight guns, and at the time she met the Matilda was manned by one hundred and twenty men. Captain Rantin did not discover the real force of this vessel until he had boarded her with nearly all his officers; and had he been promptly followed by his seamen he would have captured her, for most of the British crew had run below. A heavy sea, however, carried the two ships apart, leaving the American officers unsupported by their men. Taking in the situation at a glance the Englishmen rallied, and, after overpowering the officers of the privateer, made sail for the Matilda and soon compelled her to surrender. In this action Captain Rantin and twenty or thirty of his men were killed. The survivors were carried into Bahia, [Brazil] from which place they sailed for New York in the ship William, Captain Davis.
The British immediately refitted the Matilda and sent her to England, but while in the English Channel she was recaptured by the United States brig of war Argus, Master-Commandant William Henry Allen. A few days after taking the Matilda the Argus was captured by HMS Pelican, Allen dying from injuries he received in the fight. The notice quoted from a Philadelphia newspaper relative to the burial of Captain Heard, of the Ranger, will apply to the attention paid to both Rantin and Allen, the British in both cases honouring the American commanders in every possible way. But the Matilda was not yet safely “out of the woods”, for shortly after her recapture by the Argus she was recaptured by a British 74 gun ship of the line [ HMS Revolutionaire]. A British prize crew was placed aboard and ordered to England, but before gaining that place of safety the Matilda was taken for the forth time, being seized by the American privateer General Armstrong, and was sent into port.