Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Nathaniel Fanning, 23 November 1782

From Nathaniel Fanning8

ALS: American Philosophical Society

Dunkerque Goal 23d:
Novr: 1782

May it Please your Excellency

That nothing could have enduced me to have troubled your Excellency with these lines, but the way, and manner of my being committed to this loathsome Goal, & the little hopes I have, (as a Stranger) of recovering my Liberty; notwithstanding my Perfect innocence of the Charge laid to my Crew which runs as follows (Viz)

Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon Duc de Penthievre Amiral de France a tous ceux qui ces presentes lettre Verront Salut Savoir faisons que vû les Charge et information fait a la requete du procureur du Roy le dix huit November Present mois a loccasion d’un pillage commis abord du Navire d’anois L’Anegard9 par les Equipage du Corsaire L’Eclipse Capt: Fanning de ce port &c.1

Now as your Excellency is well known for administerg: Justice on this Side of the Atlantic to your Countrymen, so I myself (as being Born of a very Reputable Family in New London) most ardently beg your Excellency’s Protection, & that your Excellency would be pleased to take such necessary Steps with the French, Court as may be the means of my Enlargement.

The Crews of Privateers from this Place in general, are composed of, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, English, Portuguese, Turks, &c &c. Therefore I leave your Excellency to Judge, how difficult it must be for a Capt: to prevent such People from Plundering if they are bent upon it; nay I even defy any Capt: out of this place with a Crew composed of such men as Afforesaid, to avoid such unlawful Proceedings.2

I have now lodged at the Publick Notary of this place a Certificate Signed by my Principal Officers & men, which purports that my Orders were always very Strict against plundering Neutral Vessels; even at every time my Boat was man’d, in order to Board any Vessel, during my Cruise in the Eclipse. I can take my affidavit that if ever my People took any thing out of any Neutral Vessel, which I always Strove, as much as lay in Power to avoid, that it never came within my Knowledge.3

Therefore I think it very hard as I have not been the agressor, to make me Suffer for the Faults of my People, in lying in this prison; having been but just released from an English one; I think I have had my Share of imprisonment this War, having been at one time better than twelve Months, in Forton Prison, at Portsmouth.4

I most humbly implore your Excellency not to reject the prayers of him. Who has the honor to be Your Excellency’s Humble Petitioner & most Obdt: Servant

Nathaniel Fanning

P.S. I am most certainly very peculiarly situated; for I have wrote a Letter in English to the French Minister, but cannot get any Friend in this place to translate it into French, nor any one here to speak in my bhalf. I was committed to this Prison by the Order of Mr: Donglemo [D’Anglemont] commissary of the Marine, & have since been ordered by the Admiralty to appear before them in order to justify my innocence but as the former & the latter are at variance so I see nothing else but I shall be Obliged to continue here.

Having been decended from a very reputable Family which I can prove, as I had, when I left America two Uncles Field Officers under his Excellency Genl: Washington & one a Member of Congress;5 when I consider this I feel my Character much hurt by this imprisonment as your Excellency may reasonably Judge.

N. F.

His Excellency Benjamin Franklin Esqr:

Notation: Fannel 23 Nov. 1782.—

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

8Fanning (1755–1805) had been a midshipman on the Bonhomme Richard (XXX, 630) and subsequently sailed on French privateers. In June, 1782, he was given command of the French privateer Eclipse for a cruise that lasted from June 5 to Aug. 12. During that cruise he raised English colors and gave orders to board and search the Emiliard, a vessel flying the Danish flag that in fact was neutral. Regardless, the boarding party looted the passengers, some of whom were French, stealing all the effects of the wealthiest and (to their later regret) most influential of them, the marquis de Ségur-Bouzely, the lieutenant du roi of Grande Terre, Guadeloupe, who was returning to France. The Emiliard proceeded directly to Copenhagen, and the French passengers had to make their own way home. One of them was approached six weeks later in Dunkirk by a crew member of the Eclipse, who told him that the privateer and its captain were in port. The passenger filed a complaint with M. d’Anglemont, commissaire de la marine at Dunkirk (XXIX, 173n). D’Anglemont initially dismissed the complaint, but when Ségur got involved, and a number of the Eclipse’s crew came forward to testify, the affair came to the attention of the highest government officials and became something of a cause célèbre. All crew members of the Eclipse were arrested pending a thorough investigation, and Fanning found himself—as he writes here—in a Dunkirk prison. The information in this and the following notes is drawn from Henri Malo, “American Privateers at Dunkerque,” trans. Stewart L. Mims, United States Naval Institute Proc., XXXVII (1911), 973–83.

9The Emiliard.

1Castries, minister of the marine, sent orders on Nov. 5 for d’Anglemont to seize Fanning and his crew. They were imprisoned at their own expense. On Nov. 10 Castries complained sharply to the judges of the Admiralty at Dunkirk that they had not given him an account of “a crime of such gravity.” He demanded that they inform him of the investigation, trial, and punishment. On Nov. 24 the King himself intervened and transferred the case to the conseil du roi: Malo, “American Privateers at Dunkerque,” p. 978.

2Fanning’s second in command, the man who led the boarding party and who instigated the plundering, was in fact an American, Thomas Potter. Potter had led two mutiny attempts during the cruise, and after looting the Emiliard forced Fanning to bring the Eclipse back to Dunkirk. Potter then made his way to Passy, received 120 l.t. from BF (see the Editorial Note on Promissory Notes), and on Oct. 23 shipped out again aboard the Philadelphia-bound Renette, thereby eluding prosecution: Malo, “American Privateers at Dunkerque,” p. 979.

After a complex investigation that lasted seven months, the judges rendered their verdict on June 21, 1783. Potter and four other crew members (all French) were convicted of robbery. Potter was condemned to hang; the others received lesser punishments. Fanning was convicted of not being able to maintain discipline, and he was forbidden to command a vessel for three years. The Dunkirk outfitters of the Eclipse, Peychiers and Torris, had failed to respond to their summons and were consequently forced to pay all legal expenses, which amounted to twice what the cruise had earned them. Malo, “American Privateers at Dunkerque,” pp. 982–3.

3Fanning was stretching the truth. Crew members later testified that he had indeed known about the plunder—and had even tried on one of the marquis de Ségur-Bouzely’s crimson costumes, under the influence of drink—but was powerless to stop Potter and his followers, whom he had previously lectured against committing acts of piracy. Malo, “American Privateers at Dunkerque,” pp. 981–2.

4According to a fictionalized memoir written by Fanning late in life and published posthumously in a limited edition, he spent from June, 1778, to June, 1779, in Forton, was loosely confined at Falmouth for six weeks in 1781, and was captured twice more: John S. Barnes, ed., Fanning’s Narrative: Being the Memoirs of Nathaniel Fanning, an Officer of the Revolutionary Navy, 1778–1783 (New York, 1912), pp. 20, 139–44, 217–24. He was briefly in British custody in October, 1782, just before assuming command of the Eclipse: Malo, “American Privateers at Dunkerque,” p. 977. Fanning’s narrative rewrites the present incident as a matter of a few days’ imprisonment, after which he was compensated with 1,500 l.t. and a “very handsome apology” from the commandant: Barnes, ed., Fanning’s Narrative, p. 228.

5Fanning was the son of Gilbert Fanning and Huldah Palmer of Stonington, Conn. We have been unable to find any uncles answering this description. He had three maternal uncles who were either privateer or militia captains, and several Loyalist uncles on the Fanning side, including Edmund Fanning, colonel of the King’s American Regiment of N.Y. Walter F. Brooks, History of the Fanning Family (2 vols., Worcester, Mass., 1905), I, 135–66; Norman F. Boas, Stonington during the American Revolution (Mystic, Conn., 1990), pp. 75, 145; Emily W. Leavitt, comp., Palmer Groups … (Boston, 1901–05), pp. 129–30.

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