If you have been researching a French seaman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then you are well aware of just how difficult it can be to find out about his career. We have been working on seamen for some time and have written about ways to search for them in a number of posts:
- If he were an officer in the Marine, or Navy, you will have some luck, as we have written here.
- We wrote here about a guide to researching Breton seamen.
- We wrote here about finding a naval vessel on which your seaman may have served.
- These books tell of hundreds of French officers and sea captains.
- The Le Havre passenger lists also contain crew lists, as we explained here. (It is maddening and mysterious that absolutely no one reads this post attentively.)
- For the names of those French who fought in the American Revolution, including sailors, we refer you to the book, Combattants français de la guerre americaine 1778-1783.
However, we have not yet come across crew lists of French privateers in any French archive; yet there are hundreds of such crew lists in the National Archives of Great Britain in Kew. They are within the ships' papers captured with the vessel in the days of taking ships as prizes during war. Most of the French prizes were, themselves, privateers but some were merchant vessels. Unfortunately, they are not online, but we explain here how you can request copies.
Find them by going to the online catalogue of the National Archives ("TNA") website. In the box of what to search for, enter the phrases: "Captured ship" "Nationality French". If you are lucky enough to know the name of the ship, enter that as well. Narrow the search by entering the years during which you think your French seaman may have been active. The result will look something like this and all of the ships will be in the Prize Court series of the High Court of Admiralty.
The papers are arranged alphabetically by the vessel's name and the master's surname. There are many cases to a carton. Each case can be a thick bundle of papers.
Our example is the Général Pérignon, a most successful privateer. She was captured in 1810, with all of her papers. The first page of the crew list shows:
- Alain Gilles Nicolas, captain, from Plévenon, aged forty-nine
- François Eude Dessaudrais, from Saint-Malo, Mate, aged forty
- Gabriel Zenon Verrier, first lieutenant, from Cap Français, aged twenty-five
- Yves Guilho, first lieutenant, from Bordeaux, aged fifty
- Jean Baptiste Battur, second lieutenant, from Saint Servan, aged fifty
- François Tissier, second lieutenant, from Pléhérel, aged thirty-nine
There are eleven pages, listing every crew member in the same way, right down to the ship's boys.
By creating an account with TNA online, once you find your ship, you can request copies of the prize papers, asking for the French crew list only, if you wish.
Naturally, the great difficulty comes if you do not know your man's ship. Other search strategies that you might try, in addition to narrowing the date to ships that sailed during his lifetime, as mentioned above, are:
- If you know the names of his wife and some of the men of her family, search online the names of the men to see if they turn up as captains or as privateers (corsaires). You could find them linked to a vessel. One of their names might appear as the master of a captured vessel in the TNA search. Seamen often sailed on family vessels and researchers often forget that the wives had families.
- Examine closely the marriage and death register entries you have for him. Sometimes, a vessel is named.
Recently, we met an enthusiastic cheerleader for FamilySearch who asked us to suggest to him what archival collections we would like them to film. We prepared a long list that included the captured crew lists described here. We wrote to him some weeks ago. He must be very busy or very rude or the victim of some silencing crime, for we never received a reply. So, Dear Readers, we must continue our hunt the hard way, for now.
©2023 Anne Morddel