Conyngham, Gustavus

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Conyngham, Gustavus

CONYNGHAM, GUSTAVUS. (1747–1819). American naval officer known as the "Dunkirk Pirate." Ireland. Born in County Donegal, Ireland, in 1747, Gustavus Conyngham emigrated to Philadelphia in 1763 and entered the service of his cousin, Redmond Conyngham, who had founded a shipping house there in 1745. In September 1775 Gustavus sailed for Europe as master of the brig Charming Peggy. This was intended as a "powder cruise." Picking up a cargo of flax seed at Londonderry, along with Irish registration, he intended to return with a load of war supplies critically needed in the American colonies. At Dunkirk he took on a load of powder and, having been warned by French friends, unloaded it just in time to frustrate a search demanded by the local British consul, Andrew Frazer. He managed to pick up more war supplies off the Dutch island of Texel, but Frazer got word of this through a deserter while Conyngham was becalmed in Nieuport Canal. The British got permission from the Dutch to put a guard aboard the Charming Nancy and Conyngham was stranded in Europe.

On 1 March 1777 the American commissioners in Paris appointed Conyngham to command the lugger Surprise, which was owned partly by Congress and partly by William Hodge, a Philadelphia merchant responsible for finding ships and officers for the American navy. On 3 May Conyngham captured the British packet Prince of Orange. On his way back to Dunkirk he snapped up the brig Joseph as well, and returned to Dunkirk just one week after his original departure with two valuable ships as prizes. The British ambassador in Paris, Lord Stormont (David Murray, second Earl of Mansfield), raised an uproar over this raid, which he called piracy, by an American ship fitted out in a French port. The red-faced comte de Vergennes (Charles Gravier) had no alternative but to order the arrest of Conyngham and his crew. Soon released, Conyngham was commissioned a captain in the Continental navy and given command of the Revenge. On 16 July 1777 he sailed on the first of the cruises into British waters that were to earn him the epithet "The Dunkirk Pirate." In a period of two months he raided the North Sea and the Baltic, circumnavigated the British Isles, and went safely into the Spanish port at Cap Ferrol. In this audacious venture into British home waters he took many prizes, terrified the coastal towns, and sent maritime insurance rates soaring. After destroying or capturing nearly twenty ships in just two months, Conyngham had become, in the words of Silas Deane, "the terror of all the eastern coast of England and Scotland."

In 1778 Conyngham used Spanish ports with great success, claiming another forty ships, until British pressure caused the Spanish to become less hospitable. Conyngham moved to the West Indies, took two valuable British privateers off St. Eustatius, and reached Philadelphia on 21 February 1779 with a cargo of military supplies. In eighteen months he had taken sixty prizes. On 27 April 1779 he was captured off New York City by the British naval vessel Galatea while sailing as a privateer aboard the Revenge, which had been bought by some Philadelphia merchants and converted to this new role. In view of his odious reputation, the British subjected him to unusually severe treatment, first in Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, and later in Mill Prison, Plymouth. On his third attempt, on 3 November 1779, he escaped with fifty other prisoners by digging out. He reached Texel and joined John Paul Jones aboard the Alliance, transferring shortly thereafter to the Experiment. On 17 March 1780 Conyngham was again captured by the British and sent back to Mill Prison. Here he remained a year before he was included in a prisoner exchange.

After the war Conyngham returned to the merchant service. He failed in his efforts to re-enter the navy and to get compensation from the government for his war services. He died in Philadelphia on 27 November 1819.

SEE ALSO Naval Operations, Strategic Overview.


Coleman, Eleanor S. Captain Gustavus Conyngham, U.S.N:, Pirate or Privateer, 1747–1819. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

Neeser, Robert W., ed. Letters and Papers Relating to the Cruises of Gustavus Conyngham. New York: De Vinne Press, 1915.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles