21st October 1805. Prizes of War.
A complaint aired recently in the Press was that the Royal Navy might need to recruit foreign sailors. As 18,000 men in Nelson’s fleet prepared to do battle, 1,400 were foreigners made up of 25 different nations: Swedes, Danes, French and American: Bellerophon had ten black sailors on board.
Today commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar which saw the death of Horatio Nelson in 1805 after scoring a victory over a superior Franco-Spanish fleet.
In this era of Prize Money for captured ships, the crews could have expected bounties, but a storm sunk many captured ships, so the average pay-out turned out to be £7 or six months wages for the seamen.
Nelson later to have his own Prize Agent complained in his early years that he rarely received much Prize Money as he was often away from areas where enemy ships could be captured.
In the 16th and 17th centuries captured ships were legally Crown property and in order to reward sailors at no cost to the Crown, it was the custom to pass on all or part of the value of captured ships and cargo to be distributed to the crew.
Also Civil Privateers having Letters of Marque and Reprisals were authorized to claim enemy vessels and Prize-Money.
It was a practice formalized under the Cruizers (sic) and Convoys Act 1708, which divided Prizes into eighths. So a Captain would receive 3/8’s of the prize, whilst the seamen had to share 2/8’s: the remaining 3/8’s went to the rest of the crew. This was amended in 1808 so a Captain now only received 2/8’s, with the ordinary matelot getting more.
However fortunes were to be made by the senior officers especially where one was appointed to Prize-Money commands. Sir Hyde Parker received £200,000 in Prizes, in addition to his salary, when in command of the West Indies Station, equivalent to millions in today’s money.
All claims were subject to a Prize Court, Agents weren’t always quick to pay up and charged interest on money held; a system to last through the Colonial and Napoleonic Wars.
One of the biggest Prizes ever collected resulted from action in May 1762 when the Spanish ship Hermione engaged off Cadiz, the 28 gun frigate HMS Active under Captain Herbert Sawyer, and the 18 gun Sloop-of-War, HMS Favourite under Captain Philemon Pownoll.(1)
Incredibly the 2 captains cleaned-up £65,000 each, and each seamen and marine £482, which constituted 10 years’ wages.
One result of the loss of the Hermione was the suicide of the writer, Horace Walpole’s neighbour, Fernandez Nunez who had insured the ship.
Even as late as World War I, Prize Money was being apportioned by the Royal Navy, but aggregated and distributed through a general fund.
(1) On 31st May 1762.
Ref: Nelson and Navy-Prize Money/Historical maritime Society.
Ref: wikipedia.org/capture_of_hermione/Pic of Hermione.