Gustavus Conyngham, USN: The “Dunkirk Pirate” from Donegal
Gustavus Conyngham is known to history as the “Dunkirk Pirate,” but that was the name the British gave him. It was not a name that he ever would have given himself. He thought of himself only as, Gustavus Conyngham, USN (United States Navy). He was never, in fact, a pirate. He was a commissioned officer in the new U.S Navy fighting for his country and was one of the most successful naval commanders of the American Revolution.
(Right: Captain Gustavus Conyngham, Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.)
Gustavus Conyngham was born in Larganreagh on Rosguill peninsula in northwest County Donegal in 1747. In 1763 his family immigrated to Philadelphia. His cousin, Redmond Conyngham, had arrived in Philadelphia more than two decades earlier and become part of a successful shipping company with fellow Irishman, John Nesbitt. Redmond placed young Gustavus on a ship with Captain Henderson, one of his most experienced captains, and he eventually would command his own merchant ship for the company. His cousin Redmond said of him, “his natural genius, pointed out the sea as the element on which Gustavus was to live.” Redmond and his family were staunch supporters of the revolutionary movement in the colonies. His son, David, traveled to Europe in 1774 as a secret agent for the colonies.
By 1775 Gustavus had joined in his family’s revolutionary cause and had also married Anne Hockley, the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant. He was dispatched to France commanding the brig “Charming Peggy” with orders to return with gun powder and other military items. He arrived in Dunkirk in November. Conyngham got the supplies loaded, but he’d had the misfortune of having a British ship moored alongside and his activities had been observed.