Deception and Profit — How an Enterprising British Officer Made a Fortune from War

Royal Navy Commodore Peter Warren used a clever ruse to capture one French trading vessel after another following the fall of Louisbourg i 1745. The scheme netted the Irish-born mariner prize money equal to $25 million in today's currency.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing — Royal Navy commodore Peter Warren used a clever ruse to capture a number of French vessels after the fall of Louisbourg in 1745. The scheme netted the Irish-born mariner prize money equal to $25 million in today’s currency.

“Warren enjoyed a fortune won through both bravery and trickery, though it can also be said it was secured by making the most out of a profitable opportunity.”

By George Yagi Jr.

WARS OFTEN PROVIDE enterprising individuals opportunities, and during the course of King George’s War, which was an extension of a wider conflict known as the War of the Austrian Succession, one British naval officer used his particular situation to secure a tremendous profit.

When approached by Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts in February 1745 to help the New England colonies mount an invasion of the French fortress of Louisbourg (located in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada) Commodore Peter Warren was apprehensive at first.

Louisbourg dominated the sea lanes into and out of St. Lawrence, which in the 18th Century provided access to the interior of the North American continent. (Image source: Google Maps)

Louisbourg dominated the sea lanes into and out of the St. Lawrence River, which in the 18th Century provided access to the interior of the North American continent. (Image source: Google Maps)

Peter Warren. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Peter Warren. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In command of the Leeward Islands squadron during the winter, he was bound to defend British interests in the Caribbean. However, in the summer months he also commanded a station ship based in New York. Just the previous September, the 41-year-old Irishman had asked Shirley for the assistance of the colony’s only vessel to attack French shipping gathered at the Cape Breton stronghold. As the ship was vital to the defense of Annapolis Royal, an outpost severely threatened by the French, aid was not forthcoming from Massachusetts. Without sufficient numbers of sailors, Warren was unable to carry out his plans.

“You will see by my publick letter what a glorious Opportunity of Serving my Country and makeing my fortune I am like to loose for want of a proper force,” he lamented.

Indeed, Warren had lost a chance for profit as officers were entitled to shares of prize money from their captures, often divided into eighths.

The fortress commanded the harbour of Louisbourg. A battery on the north shore as well as one on the point opposite and the island in the mouth of the bay should have kept any attackers at arms length. It didn't. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The fortress of Louisbourg. (Image source: WikiCommons)

While pondering Shirley’s request, new orders from the Admiralty arrived on March 8, providing Warren with a “proper force” and the means to achieve what he had wished to accomplish the previous year. His new instructions stated that he was to form a North American squadron to “attack and distress the enemy in their settlements, and annoy their fishery and commerce.”

While the campaign against Louisbourg was not sanctioned by the government as it was a colonial initiative, Warren broadly interpreted his orders and sailed north to join the New Englanders. By assisting with the siege, he would both serve his country and make his fortune.

As the New Englanders fought on land to bring the fortress into submission, Warren’s squadron was equally engaged in fighting at sea. On their operations, Warren summarized:

“[We came] so early upon this coast, and had the good fortune by diligent cruising to intercept the Vigilant (who would certainly have raised the siege had she got in); [of] all the other vessels coming to supply them with provision not one except a small ship and snow laden with wine, brandy and salt escaped us.”

British troops embark for the invasion of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, 1745. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British troops embark for the invasion of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, 1745. (Image source: WikiCommons)

While the nine prizes taken during the siege were impressive, including one vessel transporting 100,200 pieces of eight, the principle booty would be seized after the French capitulation was complete.

Following the occupation of Louisbourg on June 17, Warren ordered that the fortress, Island battery, and his four remaining ships display French rather than British colors. It was a clever ruse to fool unsuspecting merchantmen who were gathering to form a convoy for a return voyage to France.

Louisbourg in English hands. Despite what the painting depicts, Warren ordered his ships and shore batteries to fly French colours, so as to surprise unsuspecting enemy supply ships. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Louisbourg in English hands. Despite the multitude of British ensigns visible in this painting, Warren ordered his vessel and shore batteries to fly French colours so as to surprise unsuspecting enemy transports. (Image source: WikiCommons)

On June 18, the first prize had been captured, the St. François Xavier from Bordeaux, described by Warren as being “laden with wine and brandy,” and carrying other items including cloth, soap, oil and vinegar. This was quickly followed on June 22 by a French East India ship, the Charmante. Believing Louisbourg to still be in friendly hands, the unsuspecting vessel was captured by the Princess Mary and Canterbury without a shot being fired. Brought before Warren, who had watched the operation from the ramparts of the city, its hapless captain could only say, “that she is (except Mr Anson’s) as good a prize as has been taken in this war.”

On August 1, another East India ship fell into the British trap, the Héron from Bengal, recorded by Warren as “pretty rich.” As with the previous capture, the Chester and Mermaid received no opposition from the French.

The following day, Warren secured his greatest prize, the Notre Dame de la Déliverance, “of 22 guns and about 60 men, from Lima in the South Seas, for Which place she sailed from Cadiz in the year [1741]. She has on board in gold and silver upwards of £300,000 and a cargo of cocoa, Peruvian wool and Jesuits’ bark.” In total, the three ships combined were worth an estimated £600,000.

Following this final capture, Warren confided to Governor George Clinton of New York, “the success which has attended me in this conquest has been a great addition to my fortune.”

The 1708 Cruisers and Convoys Act, allowed the Royal Navy to sell off ships taken in action with portions of the proceeds from awarded to the officers and crew that affected its capture. Crews could make a year’s salary from a single prize; captains could amass sizeable fortunes.

The 1708 Cruisers and Convoys Act allowed the Royal Navy to sell off enemy ships taken in action.  Portions of the proceeds would be awarded to the officers and crews that carried out the captures. Ordinary sailors could take home a year’s worth of pay from a single prize; captains could amass sizeable fortunes.

At the close of the conflict in 1748, Warren emerged an extremely rich man. While he was considered wealthy prior to the outbreak of hostilities, he secured through numerous naval engagements a minimum of £127,405, the bulk of which was captured at Louisbourg. Figures for those from the Cape Breton expedition vary, with Warren calculating that the three ships alone brought him a total of £100,000, while Shirley valued the captures at £70,000.

Regardless of the actual amount, Warren would go on to use this money to build up a vast estate with holdings in New York, England and Ireland. In addition, £7,000 was also spent to secure a seat as a Member of Parliament for the Borough of Westminster. Created a rear admiral and awarded a knighthood for his actions at Cape Ortegal, Warren appeared at the pinnacle of success. However, during a trip to Ireland in July 1752, a sudden infection struck him down at the age of 48, much to the grief of his wife and four daughters. While his triumph was short-lived, Warren enjoyed a fortune won through both bravery and trickery, though it can also be said it was secured by making the most out of a profitable opportunity.

41wMdoGz4kL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His latest book, The Struggle for North America, 1754-1758: Britannia’s Tarnished Laurels, explores Britain’s years of defeat during the Seven Years’ War. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr

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