Danish Privateering: 1807-11
By Tom Holmberg
Denmark's economy being largely dependent on maritime trade, its merchant marine was one of the largest in the northern seas. Between 1772 and 1807 more than 135 million rigsdalers of goods were carried by Danish merchant shipping in the Asiatic trade alone. Not all of this trade was strictly legal; Danish colors were being used as a flag of convenience by the belligerent nations. Much trade from the Dutch East Indian colonies was carried on under the Danish flag.
Danish foreign policy dictated that it needed an ally among the great Powers to protect its territorial integrity from its more powerful and aggressive neighbors. In 1794 Denmark signed a treaty of neutrality with Sweden. Though Denmark remained neutral during the wars of the French Revolution, its use of convoys to protect its trade, introduced in 1797 in response to attacks on Danish merchantmen by French privateers, antagonized Britain. Under convoy, Danish naval officers were ordered to refuse a belligerent's demand to halt and submit to search.
In the summer of 1798 British warships halted a Swedish convoy in the English Channel and took it as prize. In December 1798 a Danish frigate retook a merchantman captured by British privateers. In 1800 the British Admiralty issued orders that British captains were to stop and search neutral convoys and, if opposed, to seize the ships. And in July a British squadron of four ships opened fire on the Danish frigate Freya and captured its convoy. In response Denmark opened negotiations with Tsar Paul for a renewal of the League of Armed Neutrality. Britain sent diplomat Lord Whitworth, accompanied by a squadron to issue an ultimatum that Denmark put an end to Danish convoys. Though a convention was signed the most important issued remained unresolved. Russia seized British ships in her ports and formed a new League of Armed Neutrality with Sweden. Denmark and Prussia joined Sweden and Russia in the League at the end of 1800.
Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, along with Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, was sent with a fleet of 18 ships of the line and as many frigates, sloops, bombs, fire-ships, and smaller vessels, making a total fleet of about 53 sail to the Baltic. Without a declaration of war, the British attacked and destroyed the Danish fleet (which Nelson had observed was "too big for so small a country") at Copenhagen in April 1801, forcing (along with the assassination of Tsar Paul) the break-up of the League. The British assault shattered 80 years of Danish neutrality.
Denmark acceded to British demands in October 1801, unconditionally accepting the convention drawn up by the British and Tsar Alexander renouncing its long-held policy of "free ships, free cargoes" and the principle of the inviolability of neutral convoys. When war was renewed in 1803 between France and Britain Denmark reverted to a policy of defensive neutrality.
In September 1807, French victories again led the British to move against Denmark fearing the French would incorporate the Danish fleet into the French navy. Admiral Gambier's fleet with 31,000 troops threatened Denmark, on pain of attack, to surrender its fleet into British hands. With the Danish army in Holstein defending its borders against the French, the British were almost unopposed. Despite having mainly militiamen and armed civilians to oppose the future Duke of Wellington's regulars, the Danes refused the British demands. Britain bombarded the city of Copenhagen for three days, killing more than two thousand inhabitants and burning extensive areas of the city, including the university, with incendiaries. The Danes surrendered and its fleet, which had been previously decommissioned in order not to antagonize the British, and 20,000 tons, worth more than £2 million, in booty was taken to England.
Having lost its fleet and with Copenhagen burned, Denmark signed a treaty of alliance with France on 31 October 1807. From the end of 1807 to 1814 Denmark waged a harassing "Gunboat War" against Britain. Danish privateers and unlicensed pirates raided British shipping in the Baltic but never managed to stop British convoys from entering the Baltic Sea. The war cost Denmark more than half its merchant fleet.
United States exports to Germany totaled over $18 million in 1799. The outbreak of war and the spiraling economic war between France and Britain dropped United States official exports to Germany in 1808 to less than $700,000. American consuls in northern Germany were actively involved in smuggling and by the end of 1809 the French had succeeded in forcing the Danes to crack down on American trade. Napoleon was convinced, not without reason, that Americans and other neutrals were smuggling British goods. Ships with forged American papers were trading in the Danish ports in Schleswig-Holstein, which had become centers for smuggling British goods into Germany with Danish assistance. In December 1809, the Danes began seizing American vessels, accusing them of trading under false papers. Though Danish enforcement remained sporadic, this and the French seizure of the Hanse (along with U.S. attempts at economic warfare) severely curtailed American trade.
American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. Class I.: Foreign Relations. Selected and edited under the authority of Congress. Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1832-1861.
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