Robert Surcouf

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Robert Surcouf : biography

12 December 1773 – 8 July 1827

For ships of this name, see French ship Surcouf.

Robert Surcouf (12 December 1773 – 8 July 1827) was a French privateer and slave trader who operated in the Indian Ocean between 1789 and 1801, and again from 1807 to 1808, capturing over 40 prizes, while amassing a large fortune as a ship-owner, both from privateering and from commerce.Alain Roman; summary on ,

Surcouf started his career as a sailor and officer on the slave ships Aurore, Courrier d’Afrique and Navigateur. Having risen to Captain, and in spite of the prohibition of slave trading by the National Convention in 1793, he engaged in the business himself as a captain on Créole. He then captained the merchantman Émilie, on which he engaged in commerce raiding despite lacking a lettre de marque. He preyed on British shipping, famously capturing the East Indiaman Triton, before returning to Mauritius, where his prizes were confiscated. He then returned to France, where he obtained prize money from the government.

Returning to the Indian Ocean, Surcouf captained the privateers Clarisse and Confiance, raiding British, American and Portuguese merchantmen. He famously captured the East Indiaman Kent on 7 October 1800. Returning to France, he was awarded the Legion of Honour and settled as a ship-owner.

He briefly returned to the Indian Ocean in 1807 on the custom-built Revenant before returning to France. There, he armed privateers and merchantmen. His privateers led successful campaigns in the Indian Ocean and disastrous ones in the English Channel, except for Renard which achieved fame in her victory over on 9 September 1812. After the Bourbon restoration, he organised fishing expeditions to Terre-Neuve and amassed a considerable fortune. He died in 1827 and is buried in a graveyard at Saint-Malo.



Robert Surcouf was born 12 December 1773 in Saint-Malo to a family of ship-owners.Levot, p. 493 His father, Charles-Ange Surcouf de Boisgris, was the grandson of Robert Surcouf de Maisonneuve,Cunat, p.145 who had captained the privateer Aimable during the reign of Louix XIV.Cunat, p.390 On his mother’s side, Robert was a distant relative of René Duguay-Trouin.Hennequin, p.378 When his parents sent him to Dinan college to become a priest, he fled at age thirteen to enlist on the merchantman Héron, which shuttled between Saint-Malo and Cadiz.Granier, p.216

On 3 March 1789, he enlisted as a volunteer on the 700-ton Aurore, under Captain Tardivet, a slave ship bound for India. Aurore sailed to Pondicherry and ferried troops bound for Isle de France. On her next journey, seeking to purchase slaves on the Horn of Africa, Aurore was wrecked in Mozambique Channel, drawning 400 black slaves chained in the orlop. Tardivet chartered the Portugues San Antoine in October 1790 to return to Port-Louis, but had to divert to Sumatra because of the weather, and only returned to Port-Louis in late 1790, on a French ship via the French colony of Pondicherry. Promoted to officer, Surcouf enlisted on the Courrier d’Afrique, another slave ship, bound for Mozambique under Captain Garnier. Captain Tardivet then brought him over as Lieutenant on his new ship, Revanche.Levot, p. 494 On Revanche, Surcouf made several expeditions off Madagascar.

Surcouf enlisted as a helmsman on the French Royal Navy’s 20-gun fluyt Bienvenue, under Lieutenant Haumont,Roche, p.74 bound for France.Cunat, p.391 Bienvenue arrived at Lorient on 2 January 1792, where Surcouf discovered the political changes France had undergone in the wake of the French Revolution.

After six months, Surcouf enlisted as a lieutenant on the slave ship Navigateur, under Captain Lejoliff. She departed on 27 August 1792 for Mozambique before sailing to Isle de France, where Surcouf was informed on his arrival of the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. He served as an auxiliary ensign on the 40-gun frigate Cybèle during the Action of 22 October 1794.