Mr Gaborian detains a Privateer Captain in Cherbourg – 15 June 1777
On 10 June the Admiralty wrote to Lieutenant Thomas Gaborian of the cutter Sherbourne 6, based at Dartmouth, ordering him to put to sea and cruise between the Ĭle de Batz and Ĭle de Bréhat on the northern coast of Brittany to seek out a small American schooner privateer which had been preying on shipping to the south of Guernsey.
As it happened, the Admiralty orders arrived in Devon after the commander-in-chief at Plymouth, Vice-Admiral Molyneux Shuldham, had received notification of the privateer’s activity in the vicinity of the Channel Islands from the lieutenant-governor of Jersey. Reinforcing the Sherbourne’s complement with six marines and a corporal from the Ocean 90, Captain John Laforey, Shuldham had quickly despatched Gaborian to seek out the privateer. As an experienced 40 year-old officer who had spent many years commanding cutters in the King’s service, the Cornish-born Gaborian would prove well up to the task of putting an end to the privateer’s effectiveness, although his means of doing so would prove to be anything but conventional.
The American privateer was the swift-sailing Montgomery, manned by twenty-three men, some of whom were French, and commanded by an Englishman, John Burnell, who had abandoned his family in Ilfracombe, Devon, and migrated to Baltimore. The Montgomery had been commissioned in Annapolis, Maryland, during the autumn of 1776 after a previous career as a Chesapeake ferry-boat, and she carried an armament of two 4-pounder cannons and six swivels. She had been at sea for five months, during which time she had taken five prizes including one, somewhat audaciously, not six miles from the coast of Guernsey. Apart from one prize that had been sent to America, the rest had been carried into the French port of Cherbourg, from where Burnell had visited Paris to meet with the American commissioners to the French Court, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin, to establish whether he would be allowed to sell his prizes.
Upon arriving at Alderney on 14 June and learning that the Montgomery was in Cherbourg with a prize she had recently taken, this being a brig bound from Holland to Guernsey, Gaborian proceeded towards that French port and anchored some six miles off shore. A strategy of waiting for the Montgomery to come out so that he could intercept her was prone to risk, for the privateer’s excellent sailing qualities would probably enable her to run free. Conferring instead with his pilot, Gaborian concocted a plan to disguise the cutter as a revenue runner so that she would have a rationale for entering Cherbourg, and then for the pilot to assume the identity of a smuggler with the intention of bringing off Burnell, whom Gaborian knew full well to be a Devonian.
Shortly after the Sherbourne entered Cherbourg Gaborian learned that Burnell, his first lieutenant by the name of William Morris, and an English captain of one of their prizes, were at dinner with some other gentlemen in a tavern. Gaborian’s pilot managed to inveigle himself into this company, and explaining that he was the master of a smuggling vessel that had been chased into the French port by a British revenue vessel he began plying the men with drink. The conversation eventually got around to an exceptional spy-glass that the pilot claimed to own, and which Burnell coveted, so after some negotiation about payment an agreement was reached whereby the apparent smuggler would make a gift of the glass in return for Burnell’s protection from the revenue vessel.
Taking to a French boat, one that was apparently flying French national colours, a party which by now consisted of Burnell, Lieutenant Morris, and two French merchants put off for the disguised Sherborne. No doubt the worse for wear, the privateersmen simply had no idea of the danger they were heading into until, on coming aboard, Burnell was seized by two men. Somehow wriggling free, he launched himself over the side and into the sea, but as soon as he resurfaced he saw Gaborian’s pistol levelled at him. Accepting his fate, Burnell swam back to the Sherbourne and was hauled aboard to be clapped in irons with Morris.
Gaborian’s ingenuity had actually snaffled more than a dangerous privateer captain, for a search of Burnell’s clothing revealed his personal papers, including his commission, his instructions from the American Congress, and letters of recommendation from Silas Deane. The privateer captain also proved to be a talkative soul, for he soon revealed information regarding other privateers operating with French complicity, particulars of the meeting he had held in Paris with Deane and Franklin, and details of how American captures of British vessels could be disposed of in supposedly neutral France. Realising the importance of this treasure trove of information, Gaborian hastened to London after the Sherbourne re-entered Dartmouth on 19 June, and in a letter to the Admiralty on 22 June he laid out the intelligence.
Unsurprisingly the Americans raged at the ‘kidnap’ of the two privateersmen, citing the friendly treatment and generosity that Burnell had accorded the British seaman he had captured, claiming that Burnell’s son had been apprehended rather than Lieutenant Morris, and that the Sherbourne’s crew had actually un-housed their guns and threatened to sink the boat if the Americans had not been brought on board, thereby impinging the neutrality of France. Franklin and Deane wasted little time in firing off a letter to the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes, laying out the facts as they saw it and demanding that the American citizen Burnell be reclaimed from Britain by the King of France. However, despite their best efforts Burnell remained in British custody.
On 22 June the Sherborne, commanded by her sailing master in Gaborian’s absence, arrived at Plymouth where the privateersmen were initially removed to the Blenheim 90, Captain Broderick Hartwell, before being despatched to Mill Prison the next day. Here Burnell was placed in solitary confinement. Meanwhile his old command, the Montgomery, remained in French waters until she sailed back to Annapolis in the following year.
As a reward for his resourcefulness Lieutenant Gaborian was soon promoted commander, and in the following year he was fortunate enough to be present when the King reviewed the fleet at Portsmouth, being one of those commanders who were posted captain as a celebration of His Majesty’s visit. Yet lacking any great influence he was to enjoy only one further command at sea, and when he became due for flag rank in June 1795 he was passed over and died just a few weeks later.