Gustavus Conyngham (1744 - 1819)

Gustavus Conyngham was born circa 1744 in the Rosaguill Peninsula in Co Donegal, Ireland. The Conyngham's were products of the Protestant Ascendency whose linage can be traced back to Alexander Cunningham, the fourth Earl of Glencairn in the Peerage of Scotland in 1488. The first known member of the Conyngham family to appear in Ireland was the Rev. Alexander Conyngham in 1611. He was first Protestant minister of Iver and Kellymard in Co. Donegal.

As a child of a privileged family, Gustavus was either home schooled by a private tutor or at an established Church of England school. There is no information available to indicate that he attended university. His passion was for the sea and the open world that lay beyond the mouth of Lough Swilly, much more so than for the confines of a university setting.

Gustavus immigrated to Philadelphia in the American colonies in 1763. At that time Philadelphia was one of the preferred destinations for many of the early colonists because of its adherence to Quaker principles and its liberal attitude towards business. Philadelphia had another asset, particularly conducive to the shipping and trading business, its east coast location and sheltered harbor.  For these reasons many of the wealthy and well connected colonists choose Philadelphia as an ideal location to setup branches of family owned business so as to take advantage of the rapidly expanding trade between the Colonies the Caribbean and Europe.

It was into this type of environment that Gustavus entered at the age of nineteen. He was one of the lucky ones in that he was the scion of well-established family with successful businesses on both sides of the Atlantic. Upon arrival in Philadelphia he was hired as an apprentice in the shipping business of his first cousin, Redmond Conyngham

 Redmond Conyngham, who arrived in the colonies in 1740, was the founder of Conyngham & Nesbitt one of the most successful shipping and trading companies in Philadelphia. Over time Redmond took on partners and hired family members and close friends from Ireland and Scotland.  Gustavus was one of those who were taken on as an apprentice. He was assigned to a Captain Henderson, the master of a trading ship the Molly servicing the Antigua trade.  After completing his mandatory four year apprenticeship, Gustavus had perfected his seamanship skills and had acquired a deep and abiding respect for the sea and those who sailed its waves. After Henderson death, Gustavus was given command of the Molly, a command he held until the onset of the Revolutionary War in 1775. 

Gustavus married Ann Hockley, the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant, in October of 1773.

Despite the fact that the Cunningham’s were members of the "Ruling Class" in Ireland they did not hesitate to throw their support to the colonist’s quest for freedom and liberty.  The owners and employees of Conyngham & Nesbitt either joined the Continental Army or Navy or provided same with provision and money for the duration of the war. When the army was bivouacked and practically starving in Valley Forge during the winter of 1777/78 the company owners paid for rations to alleviate the suffering and keep the army intact. 

In September  of 1775 Gustavus was given command of the brigantine Charming Peggy with instruction to sail to France to acquire and smuggle back to the colonies desperately needed gunpowder and other military equipment for the Continental army.  On arrival in Dunkirk he docked close to the powder magazine in order to load the cargo surreptitiously at night away from the prying eyes of British agents. Unfortunately, a crewman on a nearby British ship became suspicious and alerted his captain to the unusual nighttime activity in and around the Charming Peggy.  Gustavus was informed by French sympathizers that his mission was compromised, thus was able to jettison the cargo before French officials boarded and searched his ship at the behest of the British.

Unable to find any contraband aboard the Charming Peggy the French allowed Gustavus to leave Dunkirk unhindered. Unwilling to return to the colonies without a cargo he headed north to Texel in the Dutch West Frisian Islands where colonial agents had arranged the transfer of gunpowder, military equipment and other necessities purchased from Dutch businessmen.

After transferring the cargo the Charming Peggy was unable to sail due to becalmed winds. In the meantime a rogue crewman aboard the Charming Peggy informed the local British consul that it was transporting a cargo of munitions and armaments for the rebelling colonists. The Charming Peggy was boarded by mariners from a patrolling British warship. Gustavus and his crew were placed under arrest aboard the Charming Peggy for transport to England when the winds returned. When the winds did return Gustavus and his crew overpowered their captors and set sail for home.  Shortly after hoisting sail the winds died down again. To avoid recapture Gustavus and his crew were forced to abandon the ship; leaving it and its cargo in the possession of the Dutch authorities with the understanding that he would be compensated, thus be able to purchase another vessel. 

After losing possession of the Charming Peggy, and not having been compensated for same, he made his way back to France hoping to meet up with compatriots and also to reassess his options.

In December of 1776 Benjamin Franklin, one of three commissioners sent to France by the Continental Congress, arrived in Paris. Their mission was to obtain France's recognition of the newly declared United States of America and to secure French military personnel and equipment to help oust the British from their American colonies. 

Shortly after arriving in Paris, Franklin met Gustavus who was living there since losing the Charming Peggy. Franklin had in his possession a number of blank Continental Navy commissions, one of which was used to appoint Gustavus an officer of the Continental Navy and give him command of the luger, Surprise. Immediately after assuming command of the Surprise he set course towards the English Channel in search of British vessels. Within a week he returned to Dunkirk with two captured British vessels, (prizes) the Prince of Orange carrying mail and the brig Joseph carrying wine.

Returning to a French port with captured British vessels was not a wise decision as provision of the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Year War in a British victory, forbid France from harboring vessels hostile to Britain or selling commandeered British goods. As a consequence, Gustavus and his crew were placed under arrest and the captured vessels returned to their owners. Although his arrest was a ruse to pacify the British, his commission and other documents confiscated on his arrest were not returned on his release. 

The loss of the Surprise was not a lethal setback for the American commissioners, particularly, Benjamin Franklin. Impressed by Gustavus skill and daring in capturing the two British ships in the shadow of patrolling British warships he set about finding another ship for Gustavus to command.  In order to deceive the ever-vigilant British, the commissioners purchased the Greyhound, in Dunkirk in the name of their agent.  Upon observing the placement of armament on board the cutter the British navy threatened to set it on fire. In order to placate the British the cutter was sold to a "buyer" in England who gave a bond to the Admiralty in London that it would not be used against British maritime interests.

When the Greyhound left Dunkirk in July of 1777, supposedly, for Bergen in Norway it was boarded by Gustavus and his crew who hoisted the Continental colors, renamed her the Revenge and headed north to prey on British shipping. Within a week the Revenge had captured two British vessels. Due to the proximity of British warships the vessels were set on fire.

After two months at sea the Revenge sailed into Broadhaven Bay in Co. Mayo for repairs and provisions. By then it had captured as many as twenty vessel. Some of the sunk due to the proximity of British warships, the others were sent to ports in America or Spain where the cargo was sold. In some instances the vessel was returned to the owners after a ransom was paid.

After departing Broadhaven Bay the Revenge set sail for Ferrol in northern Spain arriving there in late August of 1777. For the next twelve months the Revenge cruised the Bay of Biscay, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea wreaking havoc on British shipping. The escalating toll on British shipping by Gustavus, referred to by the British as the “Dunkirk pirate”, caused a 30% increase in maritime insurance for British flagged ships and a substantial decrease in the number of British merchant ships plying the shipping routes to and from British ports  

In order to stop Gustavus the British exerted diplomatic pressure on the Spanish Court to bar Gustavus from using Spanish ports to dispose of his prizes of to grant the Revenge safe harbor. Despite these restriction he was able to find a friendly Spanish port where he refitted the Revenge and stocked up on provisions.

With access to most of European ports blocked Gustavus realized that it was time to leave Europe for more fertile hunting grounds.  By the time he departed Spain on September 1, 1778, for the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean he had captured 60 British vessels, destroying 33 and sending 27 to friendly ports as prizes.

After arriving at the port of St. Pierre in early October, Gustavus reported to the Continental Congress’s agent who was authorized to allot Continental Navy personnel new assignments. After the Revenge was fitted out it headed north toward British controlled islands. By the end of December 1778 he had added six prizes to his tally. His last assignment in the Caribbean was to carry a shipment of armament to the United States. 

In March of 1779 the Revenge was sold by act of the financially strapped Continental Congress. The new owners who intended to use the Revenge as a privateer appointed Gustavus as her captain. After returning to sea in April of 1779 while in pursuit of two British vessels he came to close to a British warship Galatea and, unable to match its firepower or speed was forced to surrender.

Gustavus was first take to British controlled New York and from there to England where he faced execution by hanging.  The Continental Congress informed the British that if they, the British, hanged Gustavus they in turn would hang an English officer in retaliation. Faced with that dilemma the British relented and transferred Gustavus to Mill prison in Plymouth for a prisoners-of-war exchange. 

While in prison Gustavus made a number of attempts to escape. On his third attempt he succeeded and with the help of compatriots in London made his way to Texel where he met up with John Paul Jones.  While awaiting further instructions from Franklin he sailed south with Jones to prey on British shipping. Their route traversed the heavily patrolled English Channel and the Atlantic waters of the west coast of France. They put-in for provisions in La Coruna, Spain where Gustavus departed company with Jones having decided that he would return to the United States.  

On March 17, 1780 the British captured the merchant ship that Gustavus had boarded in La Coruna for his return to the United States. He was returned to Mill prison where he remained until he escaped for the second time in June of 1781.  After his escape he met up with his wife, Ann, in Lorient, France and shortly thereafter returned to the United States.

Gustavus  returned to the merchant service and commanded the armed brig Maria during the Quasi-War with France. He was  a member of the Common Council of Philadelphia during the War of 1812/14 and assisted in the defense of the city

As was the situation with other naval captains, including John Paul Jones, who served so gallantly in and around the British isles during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress treated Gustavus poorly, denying him the credit he deserved for his historic exploits, using spurious excuses including his inability to produce the confiscated Naval Commission(!) he received from Franklin in 1777.   

In contract to Congresses shameful dismissal of Gustavus’s contributions to the newly declared United States the U.S. Navy recognized his extraordinary contributions and commissioned three destroyers in his honor Conyngham( DD 58) in 1916, Conyngham (DD 371) in 1936 and Conyngham (DDG 17)  in 1963.

Gustavus Conyngham passed away on November 27, 1819 at his home in Philadelphia.



(1)  On November 8, 1902, the New York Times reported on “the accidental discovery of a time-worn document in a small printseller’s shop in Paris.” The winning $2 bidder on a John Hancock signature discovered he had actually bought the missing commission papers issued by Ben Franklin to Gustavus Conyngham

Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

cemetery AND grave location

Name:    Saint Peter's Episcopal Churchyard                                  PHONE NO.    215 925 5968

ADDRESS:   313 Pine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106



who departed this life on the 27th. Nov’r 
1819, in the 76th year of his age. 

Gone to his dear Saviour’s Eest, 
United from earth he flies 
 Secured from harm he meets the hlest, 
The pure above the skies. 
 Ah ! who shall lament him, dead ? 
Yain man ‘twas God’s decree, 
 Upon the Kock ho rests his head, 
 Safe through Eternity

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Posted 08/01/2015