Fortunatus Wright

A brave Corsair

Fortunatus Wright 3 May 1712 – 16 April 1757

Fortunatus Wright went to sea as a boy, After trying his hand at land life, wife, kids and all, he went to Italy. Landing in Italy he was challenged at the gates of Lucca, where refused to hand over his two pistols to the guards. He aimed one at the soldiers, threatening to kill them. A colonel took Wright prisoner and kept him under guard in his inn. Three days later, he was escorted from the city-state and forbidden to return. He settled down as a merchant in nearby Livorno for four years, during which time he knew John Evelyn, great-grandson of the famous diarist.

Meanwhile, the War of the Austrian Succession, which Britain and France soon entered on opposing sides, had begun. In January 1744 Fortunatus Wright became personally involved when a French privateer took his ship, the Swallow, and ransomed her at sea. This stirred Wright into action. He fitted out the brigantine Fame "to cruise against the enemies of Great Britain". In December 1746 The Gentleman's Magazine reported that Wright had captured sixteen French ships in the Levant, worth £400,000. On 19 December he seized a French ship with baggage aboard belonging to the Prince of Campo Florida.

The Prince was angry, as was Burrington Goldsworthy, English Consul at Livorno, who urged Wright to set the prize free. Wright refused, but agreed to refer the matter to the naval commander-in-chief, who decided against him. The prize was released. In 1747 the Sultan complained that Wright had seized Turkish property aboard French ships. Goldsworthy demanded an explanation. Wright replied that the ships in question had French passes and hoisted French colours while fighting him. The British Government ruled that Turkish property aboard French vessels was not prize.

Wright refused to allow this order to be retrospective, and declined to give up the money. Orders came from England to arrest him and send him home. The Tuscans imprisoned Wright in Livorno Fortress but it was for Wright more like an hotel than a prison as ge was able to pay well for all services, so for six months they refused to hand him over to Goldsworthy. In June, Goldsworthy was ordered to free Wright because the privateer was prepared to stand trial which would never happen. The Seven Years' War, in many ways a continuation of the War of the Austrian Succession, broke out in 1756.

Wright built a vessel, the St George, to bring the war to the French. A French privateer had been cruising off the harbour for a month: Louis XV of France had promised a generous reward to whoever took Wright, dead or alive. Wright applied for a permit for four small guns and twenty-five men. Obtaining it, he sailed out of Livorno with four merchant vessels. Outside Tuscan waters, he bought more guns from the merchants and got fifty-five of their men to come aboard his ship. Next morning, the French privateer bore down on them. In the battle, Wright lost his lieutenant and four men, but a lucky shot carried away the prow of the French privateer on which thirty men were trying to board the St. George. Two other enemy privateers appeared and stopped Wright from pursuing. Wright brought the merchants back to safety. The English merchants in Livorno rewarded Wright, but the Tuscans detained him for breaking the arms agreement.

The Governor ordered him to come within the harbour or be brought in under force. Wright refused. Two ships anchored alongside the St George and took charge. The English captains were angry, but Wright chose to place himself in the hands of Sir Horace Mann, British Resident at Florence (capital of Tuscany). Livorno's governor charged Wright with deceiving the authorities and disobeying orders to come within the harbour. Mann pointed out that the battle took place twelve miles off besides, the Frenchman was the aggressor.

Admiral Hawke, naval Commander-in-Chief, sent Sir William Burnaby to demand Wright be given up. Wright was released and carried off in triumph. Later he put into the port of Malta. The Maltese proved as partial to the French as the Tuscans, and Wright was not allowed to buy slops and bedding for his men. The St George left Malta without stores. A day later it was pursued by a large French privateer that had been in the harbour. Wright played with the larger ship, sailing round her – the St George was twice her speed. In the next two months Wright harried French shipping, winning many prizes. Louis XV fitted out two ships, while the Marseilles Chamber of Commerce prepared another ship, to seek and destroy Wright.

The Hirondelle of Toulon also set out after him and they fought in the Channel of Malta. Wright defeated the French ship and both put into Malta to refit. His own vessel had taken several shots under the waterline, but the Maltese refused to allow Wright to repair his ship and delayed him allowing the French ship to depart Malta with ease. Mann had been working hard to convince the Tuscans that their restrictions on British shipping were ruining trade. He obtained permission for Wright to send his prizes to Livorno, and wrote to him to inform him that he could return safely. It is not known if Wright ever received this letter. On 1 April Burnaby released Wright from Malta.

They sailed for Livorno, where a French man-o- war and frigate were attacking English shipping. But on 16 April the ship met with a great storm. Wright and sixty men all went to the bottom. Later in the same month, a letter from Livorno to a Liverpool merchant claimed that Wright was well and had taken another prize since leaving Malta. He had also been seen in Messina with a prize. Despite this "the fate of the hero remains a mystery to this day." In his History of England, Tobias Smollett called Fortunatus Wright "this brave Corsair", while Gomer Williams referred to him as the "ideal and ever-victorious captain around whose name and fate clings the halo of mystery and romance".

In his day he was famed as the privateer who defied the French and won rich prizes. His philandering and his troubled second marriage were revealed when Bulkeley's diary was discovered in the early twentieth century. Wright is even remembered in Finnegans Wake. But in Wallasey, the town of his birth, Fortunatus Wright is entirely forgotten Whilst in Malta Wright became a Master Peiran and knew only to well when and how to dissappear.