Gustavus Conyngham is known to history as the “Dunkirk Pirate,” but that was the name the British gave him. It was not a name that he ever would have given himself. He thought of himself only as, Gustavus Conyngham, USN (United States Navy). He was never, in fact, a pirate. He was a commissioned officer in the new U.S Navy fighting for his country and was one of the most successful naval commanders of the American Revolution.
(Right: Captain Gustavus Conyngham, Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.)
Gustavus Conyngham was born in Larganreagh on Rosguill peninsula in northwest County Donegal in 1747. In 1763 his family immigrated to Philadelphia. His cousin, Redmond Conyngham, had arrived in Philadelphia more than two decades earlier and become part of a successful shipping company with fellow Irishman, John Nesbitt. Redmond placed young Gustavus on a ship with Captain Henderson, one of his most experienced captains, and he eventually would command his own merchant ship for the company. His cousin Redmond said of him, “his natural genius, pointed out the sea as the element on which Gustavus was to live.” Redmond and his family were staunch supporters of the revolutionary movement in the colonies. His son, David, traveled to Europe in 1774 as a secret agent for the colonies.
By 1775 Gustavus had joined in his family’s revolutionary cause and had also married Anne Hockley, the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant. He was dispatched to France commanding the brig “Charming Peggy” with orders to return with gun powder and other military items. He arrived in Dunkirk in November. Conyngham got the supplies loaded, but he’d had the misfortune of having a British ship moored alongside and his activities had been observed.
Their return trip to the colonies did not get far. The ship was quickly captured and Conyngham found himself, for the first time, but not the last, a British prisoner. However, this first time and later, the British would find that catching him was easier than holding him. He and his crew overpowered the small prize crew the British had put on-board and managed to escape, landing in Holland. But the British got the Dutch to seize his ship and for about a year Conyngham was stranded in Europe with no ship.
(Below, Benjamin Franklin in Paris.)
The representative from the Continental Congress soon came to his rescue. Benjamin Franklin, the American Minister to France, was looking for bold men to command ships he would buy to harass the British in their own waters. He definitely found one in Gustavus Conyngham, who was anxious to do his part in the war and would prove himself to be an intrepid and audacious commander. The idea was to influence commerce, maritime insurance rates and British morale while also making them commit warships to protecting their home waters.
Franklin issued Conyngham a commission in a Continental Navy. Both the existence and the conditions of that commission would later become disputed, but it had no expiration date or restrictions of any kind. With the help of William Hodge, who was working with Franklin, they bought a lugger in Dunkirk that they renamed from “Admiral Peacock” to “Surprise,” perhaps for what they had in mind for British ships near their home waters.
Conyngham converted his ship into a warship by mounting ten guns on her. On May 1, 1777 Conyngham sailed her into international waters and immediately hoisted the Continental Navy Jack (below, right). “The Surprise” lived up to its name in short order, capturing two unsuspecting British merchant ships, the “Joseph” and the “Prince of Orange.” But he made the mistake of sailing his two prizes back into Dunkirk and following there himself. The French, though sympathetic to the American cause, were at this point still neutral and bound by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht to close its ports to any the enemies of Great Britain. They couldn’t be this openly supporting attacks on British shipping and were pressured into arresting Conyngham and impounding and eventually selling his vessels. The British wanted him sent to England to be tried as a “pirate,” possibly to be hung, but the French drew the line there. He was held briefly and then Franklin arranged his release.
William Hodge was immediately at work getting Conyngham another vessel. He obtained a larger and very fast vessel for him, a cutter named “Greyhound.” As with his first ship, Conyngham again named his vessel with an eye to his future actions: “Revenge.” Conyngham said of her, "She was trim, small, but fast as a witch." This ship he armed more heavily, with fourteen carriage guns and twenty-two swivel guns. His crew was mostly French and did not particularly care about America’s struggle for freedom. They were in it for the money, and that would eventually cause him problems. It was impossible for the French government not to get wind of all this. They allowed him to sail out of Dunkirk in July, but only after obtaining a totally worthless promise that he would sail directly to the United States. The British were also aware of his departure and attempted to nip this new threat in the bud, but his new ship was too fast for them.
If Conyngham’s first attempt at harassing British shipping was annoying to them, this one would drive them to utter distraction. Conyngham quickly began to decimate British shipping all around England, Scotland and Ireland, taking some as prizes and burning others. He even dropped in back home in Ireland, brazenly sailing into Broadhaven Bay in Co. Mayo, which brought him right past his childhood home in Donegal, and resupplying there. And this was not going to be like his last successful but too short attempt that ended so abruptly. This time he would send his prize ships to Spanish ports, avoiding the mistake of going back to France. By early August he had captured or destroyed five ships in barely more than two weeks.
(Below: The Revenge in action off the east coast of England.)
Silas Deane, another one of the American government agents operating in France said that Conyngham had “become the terror of all the eastern coast of England and Scotland.” British shippers put enormous pressure on the government to put an end to Conyngham’s reign of terror, and they sent warships in all directions looking for him. When he left Ireland he headed to the Spanish port of El Ferrol, barely outrunning a British warship to get there in August. There, by good fortune for a Son of Erin, he got the assistance of the provincial governor, Don Felix O’Neille, a member of a prominent Wild Geese family in Spain.
Through late 1777 into early 1778, sailing out of Spain, Conyngham, continued to hound and destroy British shipping and outwit and out sail all the British warships sent out to capture him. Over the twenty-two months after Conyngham left Dunkirk, he would cause a near panic in the world of British shipping commerce, capturing or destroying perhaps as many as sixty ships. Insurance rates for merchant ships soared and many merchants started shipping on foreign vessels, causing massive financial problems for British shipping companies. But he was beginning to have problems with some of his crew, who were interested only in making a profit and demanding he capture neutral ships. By all accounts Conyngham was an imposing physical presence, as you would have to be with the sort of crew he had, but his mostly foreign crew would have had no qualms about organizing a mutiny. After taking a couple of neutral ships to mollify them, he wore out his welcome in Spain, with even Franklin turning against him on this issue. In late October 1778 he sailed off for Martinique in the Caribbean.
Conyngham, in addition to disrupting British commerce and causing them to assign a large number of their warships to protect against him, had aided the American cause tremendously with the money from the sale of the ships and merchandise he had captured. Many loads of arms and equipment that made their way to the Continental Army were paid for by his exploits and the U.S. government commissioners in Europe had been largely funded by that money. And the friction he had helped cause between Great Britain and France played a part in bringing France into the war on the American side, something that would prove to be the decisive event of the war. His name was known in every port of Europe, and hated in every port in Great Britain.
(Right: An 18th Century sketch of Conyngham.)
Arriving in Martinique in October 1778, Conyngham was able to replace most of his recalcitrant crew with one that was less mercenary. He once again went to work disrupting British commerce, capturing five more merchant ships.
In December he performed an invaluable service when he sailed to warn Admiral Comte d’Estaing’s French fleet on its way to Martinique that a large British fleet was about attack them, possibly saving them from destruction.
He then sailed to Philadelphia with a load of arms for the cause in February 1779. Once there, in a harbinger of things to come, he found that he got far less than the hero’s welcome his contributions to the war effort deserved.
In Philadelphia he was investigated by the Marine Committee. Given his activities, selling prize ships in foreign ports, etc, he didn’t have much paperwork to back up what he’d been doing. And his involvement with Silas Deane, who had recently been accused of financial wrong doing in France and eventually dismissed, did not help him. They took Revenge from him and solid it at auction. But it was bought by none other than his cousin’s Conyngham and Nesbitt company.
They gave Gustavus command of the Revenge to sail as a privateer. Up until now he had lived a charmed life at sea, barely avoiding capture numerous times, but in the last years of the war his luck would turn. In April he and his crew were captured by the British frigate Galatea off the coast of Delaware.
The British must have been elated, as he was considered a pirate by them, and a most successful one. His treatment by them would be brutal. Though he had been given a commission in the U.S. Navy by Franklin before he first set sail in the Surprise, the French had confiscated the actual document when they arrested him in Dunkirk, so he had no way to prove he had acted as a naval officer of the U.S. government. They locked an iron ring around his neck put fifty pounds of chains on him and put him in a New York harbor prison hulk where they fed him on bread and water for two weeks. Then they paraded him through a jeering loyalist crowd in the city and shipped him off to England locked in the coal hold of the ship for nearly the entire trip. For a time he was held in in heavy irons within a small windowless, flea infested cell sealed with the iron-bound door in Pendennis Castle. When the Americans discovered this they placed a British naval officer in same conditions and informed the British he would be treated exactly as Conyngham was treated. The British then transferred him to Mill Prison in Plymouth.
(Left: 18th Century French engraving of Gustavus Conyngham with no less than 5 pistols stuck in his belt.)
There is no question their intent was to give him a brief trial and hang him as a pirate. In Great Britain he was probably only second to Washington as the face of the revolution. It was rumored that even King George had said it would give him great pleasure to witness the hanging of Conyngham, but General Washington informed the British that if Conyngham was executed six Royal Navy officer prisoners would be executed in retaliation, so they hesitated.
His life as at sea as the commander of a warship had been legendary, and now he would add an exciting prison escape chapter to his adventurous life story. Conyngham was a very determined and energetic man, and not one to accept being locked away in a prison cell while there was a war going on. Once he got out the gate by blending in with a group of departing visitors, but was recognized by one of them before he could leave the area. Another time he got out disguised as the prison doctor, but again was spotted in town and caught. At that point he was put into “The Hole,” a large dungeon below the prison that held fifty other American prisoners. This was a miscalculation on their part, for Conyngham now had had a new “crew” at his disposal and utilized it.
Finding a loose stone in the wall, he organized a tunneling operation that eventually broke through the ground outside the walls of the prison. Now they only needed the cover of darkness to make their escape. On a night in November 1779 they began their escape, but it nearly ended before it could start. When Conyngham stuck his head up through the opening he found there was a young soldier and his girlfriend nearby. After some tense moments with fifty men huddled in a tunnel expecting to be discovered any moment, the couple finally departed and the mass escape was underway.
Conyngham managed to get to London to contact Thomas Diggs, a friend of Franklin’s. He was amused to see posters around London portraying him as a monster, with titles like "A perfect devil," "Pirate of Hell," and "Ferocious Conyngham." Diggs got him back to Holland, where he met John Paul Jones, just then arriving from his famous, “I have not yet begun to fight” battle with the HMS Serapis. He sailed for a while with him, then Jones dropped him off in Spain to travel back to the U.S. on the privateer Tartar.
But Conyngham’s run of bad luck was not over yet. On March 17, 1780 (not a good St. Patrick’s Day for him that year) the Tartar was captured by the British. No doubt they were quite delighted to see they had captured the “Dunkirk Pirate” yet again. Soon he was back in Mill Prison (below, right) again.
No doubt the administration at the prison intended make sure there was no repeat of the embarrassment he’d caused them previously. And for about a year it seemed he was a pacified, model prisoner. Such was not the case, however. He was saving up money sent from family and friends and looking for a weak link among the guards, someone with financial troubles. He found one, bribed him, and was helped to once again escape, no doubt exasperating the warden and guards. His legend as an escape artist must have now been rivaling his “pirate” celebrity around Great Britain.
Conyngham somehow got himself aboard a Dutch ship and made it back to Europe just as the war was ending. Once there he was reunited with his wife, Anne. At a time when crossing the Atlantic was taking your live in your hands, she did so solely to be there with Franklin in Paris to keep pressure on him to not give up on trying to get the British to agree to a prisoner exchange to free her husband.
Returning to the U.S., Gustavus and Anne would once again be plagued by the problem of the lost commission, and by Congress asserting that they had only been meant to be “temporary” in any event. And Congress delayed the case so long that his best witness to counter that claim, Benjamin Franklin, passed away. Captains were being given 1/20 of the value of all prizes they had captured in the war, which would have been a huge amount in Conyngham’s case. He had taken thirty-one prizes, more than any other U.S. naval officer, which may have also mitigated against him. Surely his country owed him some sort of recognition for all the mayhem he had caused the British, all the money he’d provided the cause, and all the time he spent in British prisons, but he would get no money from the government he was so instrumental in creating. Nor, in fact, would he ever get any of the sort of fame of men like John Paul Jones or his fellow Irishman John Barry.
Conyngham must have harbored an enormous amount of resentment over this for the rest of his life, but he didn’t place the blame on his country. During the War of 1812 he helped raise $30,000 for the war effort. The Revolutionary War hero, a man who had once terrorized the shipping of Great Britain, who had done so much his country, and suffered so much for it, and gotten back so little, died quietly at home in relative obscurity in Philadelphia on November 27, 1819. He was buried in Saint Peter's Episcopal Churchyard.
It is perhaps a bitter irony that almost a century later, naval historian John Barnes bought a John Hancock autograph in a Paris auction and discovered he had more than that. He had Conyngham’s long lost commission signed by John Hancock. (see below) As a historian it must have been a very exciting find, but it was far too late to help Conyngham.
No statue exists anywhere commemorating Gustavus Conyngham, nor any building or bridge or school. The U.S. Navy, at least, did remember him, naming three destroyers USS Conyngham over the course of the 20th century. He surely deserved better from our country, but perhaps he would say the monument he helped leave behind was better than any that any artist or builder could ever construct: the United States of America.
Legendary Revolutionary War Hero Now Lies Unknown in Philadelphia Churchyard