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A Private Man-o’-War

East Lothian has always been a maritime county – in past centuries vessels from Fisherrow, Morrison’s Haven, Aberlady, North Berwick and Dunbar traded far and wide. And as they sailed they risked more than bad weather and dangerous shores. For much of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries Britain was at war and merchant ships ran the gamut of foreign navies – and foreign privateers.

A privateer was a privately financed warship sanctioned by ‘letters of marque’ issued by its home government, a license to target the merchant marine of the government’s enemies. Basically, a privateer was one roll of parchment away from being an out-and-out pirate. As time passed, the letter of marque was internationally recognised as a means of augmenting sea-power quickly and, from governments’ point of view, cheaply. Consequently, Britain too went in for letters of marque in a big way!

Any small merchant ship could be equipped with a few guns and a large crew and set off to roam the seas. In his younger days James Fall of Dunbar was one such commander, converting the family flagship Happy Janet into a privateer with backing from his brothers and a group of London merchants, which helped secure the coveted letter of marque. On the back of this experience he was ever after ‘Captain’ James, even when serving as an MP at Westminster. He wasn’t the only East Lothian privateer captain.

Advertisement, Caledonian Mercury 8th June 1758

Advertisement, Caledonian Mercury 8th June 1758

George Calbreath (or Galbraith) first appears as a privateer captain in command of the Deptford in 1757. By May of 1758 he had transferred to the Hussar (it’s just possible that this is the same ship under a new name and owners as the crew numbers, tonnages and armament are similar) and was on the hunt for more men. An advertisement or appeal duly appeared in the Caledonian Mercury on the 8th of June 1758. Stressing George’s Dunbar roots it appealed for ‘seamen, fishermen, landsmen, and boys’ who would be rewarded for signing on and promised ‘prize money’ because George had ‘good intelligence’ of ‘70 rich sail’ from St Domingo and the Caribbean intending for Europe. A second inducement was a promise of security from the press gang and safe escort home. Did anyone take this offer up?

Anyone reading this ad would know, because fighting captains were the celebrities of the day, that the Deptford had, under George’s command, been successful.

• She had taken the Count de Gifors of St Malmo in May of 1757 in the Channel and had an exciting night avoiding her prize’s four compatriots that had come up in support. They were all individually smaller but the Deptford would have had a hard time if had come to blows; the prize went to Falmouth to be sold.

• Just weeks later the Deptford and another privateer, the Defiance, intercepted and took the Britannia, a British merchantman which had fallen prey to a French privateer on a voyage from Jamaica to London. Back in British hands, the Deptford escorted her into Falmouth. The Britannia was laden with sugar, coffee, spices, timber, rum & cotton – which George & his crew now had a claim to. The Deptford then headed to Kinsale in the southeast of Ireland for cleaning and repairs before venturing out again in the middle of September 1757.

• Off Cape Finisterre in the middle of November that year she captured the French privateer Signe (or Cigne) of 6 guns and sent her in to Cork to be sold.

• Immediately after, in conjunction with the privateer Antelope, the Deptford took another French privateer, from the port of Bayonne, of 26 guns and a crew of 300.

HMS Juno, 1757

This picture of HMS Juno of 1757 gives a good impression of George’s ships the Deptford and Hussar. Although the Juno was a bit bigger, she carried a similar broadside and a similar sized crew. Command of a vessel of this type put George amongst the first rank of privateer captains – the bulk of British privateers were smaller brigs and sloops of fewer men and guns.

It was surely this run of success that won George the command of the Hussar in the following year. By 16 July 1758 and after his recruiting visit to the Forth Captain Calbreath was in the thick of it again. He sent in a letter to Aberdeen by means of passing fishermen to the effect that two French privateers had taken three British Greenland whalers and that the Hussar had been chased by them for 5 hours. Nothing more is heard of the Hussar until November, when she sent into Falmouth the Dutch vessel Elizabeth of St Eustatia, with news of yet another prize still at sea.

In July 1759 it was reported that the Hussar and 19 other British privateers were to be taken under Admiralty command – being thereafter HM Hired Ships. And what happened to Captain George Calbreath? Naval officers took over command of the Hussar and George slips from the record. Except, in 1764, a George Calbreath commanded the Honorable East India Company’s ship Lord Anson. If this was Dunbar’s George, it would be a fitting, and lucrative, reward – but that would be another story.