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Renewal of Privateering under Napoleon

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Despite its weaknesses, France's navy was in huge demand for duty. The Emperor did not use it sparingly. He attached, from the beginning, an extreme importance to privateering, with the goal of striking serious blows to British commerce and to make things harder for the Royal Navy. This privateering put into service isolated warships, light squadrons composed mainly of frigates, indeed several vessels. These units acted in connection with "private" privateering. Since 1803, one sees thus the reappearance in the Indian Ocean of men like François Lemême, Dutertre, Courson, and above all Robert Surcouf. At the head of the 18 cannon Revenant (Ghost), whose name did not follow by chance, Surcouf effected from 1807 to 1809 a beautiful campaign in the Indian Ocean before returning to Saint-Malo. Just as in the past, the principal theaters of operation were the Channel and the North Seas, including the Baltic thanks to the possibilities offered by the ports of occupied Prussia. Prussia benefitted from the support of Danish corsairs, after the second bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807. From 1812, American corsairs operated their tours north of the British Isles. The privateering applied equally to British traffic in the Mediterranean starting from French and Italian ports, such as Naples or Ancône, the Ionian Islands, indeed from certain North African bases, like Tarifa or Ceuta. The West Indies also represented a active sector in the war of commerce. Starting from Martinique and Guadeloupe, small armed ships intensely attacked local traffic which transported British possessions. The Indian Ocean constituted a privileged zone of action. Starting in 1803, Admiral Linois' division operated out of Reunion or the Ile de France. It was joined in 1808 by Hamelin's division, composed of young officers, enterprising like himself, like Baudin, Bouvet, and Duperré. This privateering enjoyed brilliant success in the Bay of Bengal. With crews well seasoned by the cruises, these forces were ready to confront the English successfully. August 23, 1810, the Hamelin division, four frigates strong, inflicted a severe lesson on the equal strength Willoughby division which had dared to enter the harbor of Ile de France. Two English frigates had to surrender and were burned. A third dropped its flag. As for the fourth, it was intercepted and captured by two French ships waiting in the open sea. This Battle of Grand Port, enviously celebrated throughout the 19th century, represented the only victory of the Imperial Navy. French privateering, whether military or private, reached its apex in 1810 with more than 600 conquests against less than 400 in 1804. The figures must not, however, create any illusion. It concerned a merchant navy, imposing for the epoch 2.5 million tons, with 24,000 ships and 164,000 sailors. In ten years, the value of the take did not surpass [[sterling]]13 million of a trading volume of [[sterling]]2,350 million. The relative weakness of the results translated into a drop in insurance rates to 6% in 1810 down from 12% in 1801 and 50% during the American war. Starting in 1812, it collapsed. The seizures fell to 371 in 1813. This fall is explained by the protective measures taken by the Royal Navy. In intensive traffic zones like the Channel, the British navy patrolled the routes. On the great commercial routes, the Admiralty, had a system of protected convoys. The importance of the convoys varied extremely, from 100 to 1000 sails. Their frequencies varied as well. From a weekly schedule for the North Sea, every fortnight for the Baltic, monthly for faraway destinations, North America, West Indies, Iberian Peninsula, and the Far East. The fall in results stemmed as well from the dearth of sailors. Imperial privateering translated into the loss of 450 ships and the capture of 27,000 sailors. By reason of this exhaustion of naval capital, the number of armed corsairs passed from 200 in 1810 to only 93 by 1812. Last handicap, the loss of support points overseas. The English seized Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, and the Cape in 1806, Curaçao in 1807, and the Danish base of Anhalt in 1809. The decisive results were obtained the following year with the complete occupation of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Reunion and the Ile de France.

Eventually, starting in 1809-1810, the French naval effort became integrated into the economic warfare launched by Napoleon and whose effect were severe. On two occasions at least, the continental Blocus shook the British economy. These crises were produced during the periods where peace had been reestablished in Europe and the times of war had translated into a recovery for England.

The first serious tremble took place in 1807-1808, not long after Tilsit. At that time, Napoleon succeeded in setting the virtual totality of Europe against England, from Portugal all the way to Russia. British exports fell from [[sterling]]41 million to [[sterling]]35 million. The vital Baltic commerce with imports of grain and naval munitions (wood, pitch, hemp), in exchange for tropical foodstuffs and manufactured products, literally collapsed. The decline in traffic provoked an industrial crisis, notably in the textile industry. Simultaneously, the French economy experienced a boom and developed its exports across the entire continent. England resisted nevertheless. It maintained its positions in the Mediterranean. With the second bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, it obliged Denmark to uphold freedom of passage in its straits. The British retort equally developed enormous contraband operations from depots installed in Helgoland, Göteborg, Malta and Lissa. In the Channel, certain contrabanders, the smogglers, unloaded their merchandise on the French coast despite tight surveillance. With the return of war in 1808-1809 - the Spanish affair and the Austrian campaign - the British crisis was overcome, the losses mended and one saw a spectacular rebound in exports which surpassed the results of 1806. Great Britain marvelously exploited the relaxation of French vigilance. The return to peace after Wagram translated into a new crisis, much more severe than the preceding one, accordingly increased by the breakdown in relations between England and the United States. Exports collapsed, falling from [[sterling]]61 million in 1810 to less than [[sterling]]43 million the following year. For the time being, Austria and Russia respected the Blockade. It was the same for Sweden with the accession of Bernadotte. The collapse of trade resulted in a renewed industrial crisis. All the manufacturing regions were touched. Unemployment, a fall in salaries caused riots, factory burnings and " ludditism " - the destruction of machines accused of suppressing employment. The army had to intervene. Inflation flared up and attained the new record of [[sterling]]860 million.

The will to fight did not diminish, as General Pillet observed, while a prisoner in England. " I saw all their factories without work, the people wrought by famine and overwhelmed by taxes, its paper money devalued each day by the necessity to buy gold to cover its primary needs and to pay the armies ; I saw its shores threatened... I saw its armies merge in Spain, and the English government obliged, to prevent their total annihilation, to destroy the population of the Three Kingdoms, in a proportion much more frightening than any of the calls made to our population ; finally to create, in its own bosom, riots, to augment by terror the number of its recruits. And I saw the English people, in the midst of all these calamities. I saw this people who knew how to make war only by the burning ambition to seize the commerce of the entire world, of which political stability could not, by any means, be put in danger by peace, exclaim from all sides : " We must destroy France ; the last of its inhabitants must perish ; to achieve this end, we must spend our last man and our last guinea ".

This will to fight excessively against the Revolution and the continental troublemaker went hand in hand with a ferocious hatred for the French. This hatred was painstakingly maintained by the government, the Parliament, the press and the church. Bishops and Protestant ministers launched a thousand curses against the French from their pulpits. The same observation can be made of the surgeon Betin, charged with an inspection mission into the care of French prisoners of war : " The English themselves give us lessons in patriotism... I insist particularly in these respects, because I wish that they be able to contribute to the uprooting of the apathy, this grievous numbing which weighs heavy particularly in our great cities where, whilst our brave defenders spill their blood to win peace and to assure for France the supremacy which is challenged by the House of Austria, one sees too many people learn with the same indifference of our successes and of our reversals." This contrast was overheard again from prisoners who had escaped from England, on their return to France, like the baron Bonnefoux : " That which astonished me was the absolute discontentment of spirits which I believed to be found under the magical spell of the exploits of Napoleon. My dissolution was not delayed : everywhere, crushing taxes which reproduced in a thousand forms ; unbridled despotism ; drafting of men which left nobody behind except old men, women, or children ; finally, a police force which cracked down on everything, denounced everything, punished everything. One does not complain of anything, because one dares not complain, but one whines as if smothered between two mattresses." In the meantime, Great Britain attacked. Certain markets were stressed. Canada, the West Indies, and above all Latin America were given special emphasis after the French operations in Portugal and Spain. It profited equally from the crisis which gripped the French Empire, unlike the preceding period. Because of the English blockade, factories lacked raw materials; cotton and raw silk in particular. Their production, judged too expensive and of inferior quality, were boycotted by buyers elsewhere in Europe. This rejection facilitated British smuggling. Napoleon reacted. The Banque de France awarded credits. They tried, without success, to create substitue industries. By an irony of history, Napoleon had to infringe on the Blockade by the Trianon Accords of 1810. Licenses authorized British importations of cotton, raw and finished silk, iron products, even coffee and sugar. In the mind of the Emperor, this system should aggravate the outflow of British precious metals, driving a mercantile economy which had been judged fragile to the brink. In reality, the anticipated collapse never occurred and the French Empire was, after a brief recovery, thrown again into crisis starting in 1812.

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