Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to Gabriel de Sartine
Passy Octr. 30. 1778
We have been honoured with your Letter of the 26th. October, and We <
request your> thank your Excellency, for the prompt and generous manner in which, you have given Liberty to four of our Countrymen, who were among the Prisoners at Dinant. Such Examples of Benevolence can not fail to make a lasting Impression on the American Mind.
Since the Recipt of your Excellencys Letter, We have received another from the American Prisoners at Brest, by which it appears that there are ten of them, from four of whom only we had received Letters when We wrote before, the other six having written to Us, but their Letters miscarried. We inclose a Copy of this Last Letter, and have the Honour to request, a similar Indulgence to all the ten.1
By a Letter, We received last night from L’orient,2 We have the Pleasure to learn, that Three Whaling Vessells bound to the Coast of the Brazils have been taken by his Majestys Frigates, or by French Cruizers, and sent into that Port. It is very probable that the three Masters of these Vessells and every one of their Sailors, are Americans.
We are happy in this opportunity of communicating to your Excellency some Intelligence, which We have been at some Pains to collect, and have good Reasons to believe exactly true.3
The English the last Year, carried on a very valuable Whale Fishery on the Coast of Brizil, off the River Plate4 in South America, in the Latitude Thirty five south and from thence to Forty, just on the Edge of Soundings off and on, about the Longitude Sixty five from London.
They have this Year about seventeen Vessells in this Fishery, which have all sailed in the Months of September and October.
All the officers, and almost all the Men belonging to these seventeen Vessells are Americains, from Nantuckett and Cape Cod in the Massachusetts excepting two or three from Rhode Island, and perhaps one from Long Island.
The Names of the Captains are Aaron Sheffield of Newport, Goldsmith and Richard Holmes from Long Island, John Chadwick, Francis May, Reuben May, John Meader, Jonathan Meader, Elisha Clark, Benjamin Clark, William Ray, Paul Pease, Bunker Fitch, Reuben Fitch, Zebbeda Coffin, and another Coffin all of Nantuckett —John Lock Cape Codd— Delano Nantuckett, Andrew Swain Nantuckett, William Ray Nantuckett.5
Four or five of these Vessells go to Greenland—the Fleet sails to Greenland the last of February or beginning of March.
There was published last Year in the English News Papers, (and the same Imposture has been repeated this year) a Letter from the Lords of the Admiralty to Mr. Dennis De berdt6 in Coleman Street, informing Mr. De berdt that a Convoy, should be appointed to the Brazil Fleet. But this We have certain Information, was a Forgery, callculated merely to deceive American Privateers, and that no Convoy was appointed or did go with that Fleet either last Year or this.
For the Destruction or Captivity of a Fishery so entirely defenceless, for not one of the Vessells has any arms, a single Frigate or Privateer, of twenty four or even of Twenty Guns, would be quite sufficient. The Beginning of December would be the best Time to proceed from hence, because they would then find the Whaling Vessells nearly loaded.
The Cargoes of these Vessells, consisting of Bone and Oyl, will be very valuable, and at least four hundred and fifty of the best kind of7 seamen <
in the whole World,> would be taken out of the Hands of the English and might be < put into> gained into the American service, to act against the Ennemy. Most of the officers and Men wish well to their Country,8 and would gladly be in its Service, if they could be delivered from that they are engag’d in. But whenever, the English Men of War or Privateers have taken an American Vessell, they have given to the Whalemen, among the Crews their Choice either to go on Board a Man of War and fight against their Country or to go into the Whale Fishery. So many have chosen the latter as to make up most of the Crews of seventeen Vessells.
We thought it proper to communicate this Intelligence to your Excellency that if you find it compatible with his Majestys service, to order a Frigate from hence or from the West Indies, to take from the English at once to9 profitable a Branch of Commerce and so valuable a Nursery of Seamen, you may have an opportunity of doing it. If not, no Inconvenience will ensue.10 We have the Honor to be.11
LbC (Adams Papers.) LbC in Arthur Lee’s hand (PCC, No. 102, IV, f. 113–114).
2. Richard Grinnell’s letter of 23 Oct. (PPAmP: Franklin Papers), which reported the capture of three whalemen on their way to the “Braizels” by the Belle Poule and the Vengeur. The whalers were the brig Enterprize, Capt. Paul Pease, the ship Pitt, Capt. Francis Macy, and one other not identified.
3. The following eight paragraphs are based on information obtained from Richard Grinnell and are a close paraphrase of JA’s Diary entry for 7 Oct. (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:319–320). See also JA to the Mass. Council, 13 Sept. 1779, and notes (below).
4. Rio de la Plata, between Uruguay and Argentina.
5. This paragraph is almost identical with one appearing in the Diary, even to the extent of having blank spaces before Goldsmith and Delano in place of their first names. The only significant differences are that the Diary lists Richard Holmes as being from New York and the last name of Francis May and Reuben May is given as “Macy.” In addition, JA ended the paragraph in the Diary with the note that “Holmes and Chadwick are returned home.”
6. Denis De Berdt, the younger, was further identified in a Diary entry for 12 Oct. as managing the whale fishery for Robert Bartholomew, who, with several others, controlled it from London (same, 2:322).
7. Benjamin Franklin interlined the preceding two words for insertion here in place of the deleted phrase “in the whole World.”
8. The remainder of this sentence was interlined by Benjamin Franklin.
9. Possibly an inadvertence for “so,” but JA may have meant “too.”
10. In his reply of 6 Nov. (LbC, Adams Papers), Sartine thanked the Commissioners for the information and promised to lay the matter before the King. In a letter to Sartine of the same date, Franklin and JA suggested the frigate La Gloire for the mission against the whaling fleet (Arch. de la Marine, Paris, B1, vol. 87).
11. At the bottom of his Letterbook copy, Arthur Lee stated that this letter was “Signed by the other two Commissioners, Mr. Lee objecting to the acknowledgement of giving up the American subjects capturd in the Enemy’s vessels <
as> being a favor.”