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"The Armed Schooner Success" - How a Newburyport Privateer Caused a Diplomatic Dispute with Spain

June 26, 2019

The Privateer Success was a schooner that was owned by the wealthy Newburyport merchant Nathaniel Tracy.  In May of 1776, Tracy decided to convert the vessel into a warship and outfitted it with two cannons and eight swivel guns.  The ship was commanded by John Fletcher and had a crew complement of two lieutenants and fourteen men. After securing a letter of marque and paying a $5000 bond, the vessel left Newburyport in search of British supply vessels.

 

Captain Fletcher’s first cruise was uneventful and ended in the Spanish port of Bilbao. While there, the Success rendezvoused with the Massachusetts Privateer Hawke, which was under the command of Captain John Lee. The two captains agree to sail together on a return cruise and left Bilbao on October 23, 1776.  Unfortunately for both privateers, several English supply vessels received intelligence on the privateers whereabouts and altered their respective courses to avoid the rebel ships.

 

However, on January 20, 1777, while off the New England coast, the two vessels encountered the British 100-ton brigantine Betty.  After a brief chase, the vessel was captured and escorted into Newburyport.

 

Shortly thereafter, the Success made a second voyage to European waters.   By June 16, 1777 she was once again in Bilbao.  The following month, she was patrolling off the coast of Ushant, France with the Massachusetts Privateer General Mifflin.  

 

On September 18, 1777 the 120-ton brigantine Isabel was captured by the two privateers.  A week later the Success captured the Endeavour as it was travelling from London to Villavisiosa, Spain.  Three days later, on September 28th, the privateer captured two more vessels, the William and Polly and a French vessel sailing from the Isle of Jersey to La Rochelle, France.

 

 

On September 2, 1778, the Success was back in Newburyport for refit and repairs.  A period account suggests that the privateer had upgraded its armaments and now possessed “eight guns and ten swivel guns mounted”.  Likewise, the crew size more than doubled from sixteen men and officers to forty-three men and officers.  

 

While in port, command of the ship was turned over to Captain Phillip Trask of Beverly, Massachusetts.  

 

Captain Trask departed from Newburyport on October 4, 1778.  (Interestingly, prior to the Success’ departure, Nathaniel Tracy took out not one but two bonds for her ship: a $5000 Continental bond and a “£4000 Massachusetts” bond.)  At first, the privateer’s cruise was uneventful and was marked by humorous events such as the sighting of “a damn d Comical Boat by G..d”.  However, two months later, the activities of the Success nearly triggered an international incident between the soon to be American ally Spain and the United States.

 

On December 30, 1778, the Newburyport privateer encountered the brigantine Santander y los Santos Martires.  The vessel was en route from London to Cadiz and was loaded with commercial goods. When it was sighted by the Success, it was flying a Spanish flag. Nevertheless, the Newburyport privateer bore down on the brigantine and intercepted it.  The Americans then boarded the vessel, examined the cargo manifests and declared the ship and all the goods on board were to be seized because they were British in origin.  

 

Horrified, the Spanish captain assured Trask that the cargo was Spanish owned and provided invoices in support of his position.  He also provided proof that the vessel was owned by the Spanish merchant Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadder. Surprisingly, Captain Trask ignored the Captain’s pleas and declared the Santander y los Santos Martires a captured prize.  The vessel was escorted back to Boston where it was formally forfeited  in April, 1779. The Spanish owner appealed the decision to the Massachusetts courts.

 

Understandably, the Spanish government was outraged at the incident and submitted a formal protest through Don Juan Miralles, the unofficial Spanish representative to Congress.  It also submitted an objection through their French allies. On April 24, 1779, the French diplomat to the United States, Conrad Alexander Gerard, formally objected to the seizure of the Santander y los Santos Martires.

 

 

 

Congress was confronted with a diplomatic dilemma. On the one hand, Massachusetts representatives argued that the owner, officers and crew of the Success were entitled to keep the proceeds of its prize.  On the other hand, Spain demanded that the vessel and its cargo be returned to its rightful owner.  After several competing memorials were submitted by Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde, Nathaniel Tracy, Captain Trask and several other individuals, Congress ordered a special committee be formed to determine how it should best respond.  Ultimately, the committee recommended that the Massachusetts appellate courts should decide the fate of the Santander y los Santos Martires.  It also recommended that Congress should assure Spanish officials that it would reimburse the aggrieved party if he did not prevail on appeal.  Congress quickly agreed to the recommendations.

 

In the fall of 1779, the Massachusetts appellate court ruled “that the brigantine Santander y los Santos Martires [Holy Martyrs] was Spanish property but that her cargo was British. The court therefore awarded the cargo to Nathaniel Tracy and John C. Jones, merchants and owners of the armed schooner Success, commanded by Philip Trask, which had captured the Holy Martyrs on December 30, 1778”.  

 

Following the ruling, Congress once again intervened in the matter.  On November 9, 1779, the American government declared “that the said Brigantine or Vessel called the Holy Martyrs, her tackle, Apparel and Furniture and all and singular the Goods, Wares and Merchandizes laden and found on board her at the Time of her Capture as mentioned in the said Bill be forthwith restored and redelivered and the said Joseph De Lano the Claimant in the said Cause his Agent or Attorney to and for the Use of himself and all others on whose Behalf he claims and appeals.”  

 

Congress then issued a resolution attempting to make Nathaniel Tracy pay for Spain’s legal costs. “And We do further order and decree that the party Appellant pay unto the party Appellee one thousand and fifty six Dollars for his Costs and Charges by him expended in defending the said Appeal in this Court &c.”

 

Of course, Tracy refused to pay and petitioned the Massachusetts congressional delegation for assistance.  After extensive negotiations, Congress eventually backed down and formally recognized the ruling of the Massachusetts courts regarding the seizure of the Santander y los Santos Martires.

 

Whether Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde was ever reimbursed by Congress for his loss remains unknown.  

 


The Privateer Success remained in service until 1780 when it was retired.

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