Wright, Fortunatus (DNB00)

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WRIGHT, FORTUNATUS (d. 1757), merchant and privateer, of a Cheshire family, son of John Wright, master-mariner and shipowner of Liverpool (d. 1717), seems to have served in early life on board merchant ships or privateers, and later on to have been in business in Liverpool. Owing to some lawsuit or political entanglement, the details of which are unknown, he left Liverpool in 1741 with his wife and family, went to Italy, and finally settled at Leghorn as a merchant, probably making occasional voyages. Whether he was the Captain Wright who commanded the Swallow, trading from Lisbon to London, which was captured by a Spanish ship in the Soundings on 18 Jan. 1743–4 (Gent. Mag. 1744, p. 260), must remain doubtful; but the association with Captain Hutchinson makes it probable. In 1746 he commanded the privateer Fame, a brigantine fitted out by the merchants of Leghorn, making a large number of prizes, the value of which was greatly exaggerated by common report. It was said that they were worth 400,000l., his share of which would have made Wright a rich man, and this he never was. William Hutchinson (1715–1801) [q. v.], in his treatise on seamanship, speaks of Wright as a master of the art, and describes his method of cruising in the fairway of the Levant, which, mutatis mutandis, was very exactly copied more than a hundred years later by Captain Semmes of the Alabama on the coast of Brazil. On 19 Dec. 1746 the Fame captured a French ship with the Prince of Campo Florida's baggage on board, and sent her into Leghorn. In some way she had a pass from the king of England, but she was not named in it, and Wright maintained that it was a good capture, and refused to restore her on the representation of the consul. Eventually, on the suggestion of (Sir) Horace Mann [q. v.], the English minister at Florence, the matter was referred to the naval commander-in-chief, who decided against Wright.

Early in 1747 complaints were made from the Ottoman Porte that English privateers had made prize of Turkish property on board French ships, and, specifically, that on 26 Feb. 1746–7 the Fame had so seized Turkish property on board the French ship Hermione. The English consul at Leghorn called on Wright to explain, which he did. The Hermione, he said, was a French ship, under French colours; she had made stout resistance and had been captured in fair fight; she had been legally condemned in the admiralty court, the ship and her cargo had been sold, and the money distributed. On this the Turkey Company procured an order from the home government to the effect that Turkish property was not prize, even on board a French vessel, and this order, dated 30 March 1747, was sent out to the Mediterranean, where Wright urged that it could not be retrospective, and positively refused to refund. Another order was then sent out for him to be arrested and sent to England. The Tuscan government anticipated this and put him in prison on 11 Dec. 1747, and kept him there till 10 June 1748, when an order came from Vienna to hand him over to the English consul. There was just then no opportunity to send him home; and before one occurred a fresh order came to set him at liberty, as he had given bail in the admiralty court to answer the action commenced against him. Two years later the suit was still undecided, and seems to have been at last included in some general settlement with the Porte. All that can be said with any certainty is that Wright did not pay.

At this time he and Hutchinson were engaged in buying and fitting out the old 20-gun ship Lowestoft, which made several voyages to the West Indies and the Mediterranean under Hutchinson's command. In May 1756, when war was again declared, Wright was ready with a newly built vessel, which he named the St. George; but the Tuscan government, in the interests of Austria and her ally, took measures to prevent such English ships as were at Leghorn increasing their crews or armament, with a view to either offence or defence. Wright, whose purpose was clearly known, applied to the authorities to know what force he might have on board, and was formally permitted to take four small guns and twenty-five men. Wright urged them to make sure that he had no more, got a certificate from the governor, and put to sea on 28 July 1756, with four merchant ships under his convoy, which, in addition to their cargo, carried an efficient armament and ship's company for the St. George. As soon as they were clear of the land these were hastily transhipped, but were scarcely well on board before they sighted a large French ship of war, which had been specially fitted out by the merchants of Marseilles to put a stop to Wright's cruising, and now expected an easy victory. Under all the disadvantages, however, Wright beat her off and put her to flight; after which the St. George, having apparently received a good deal of damage, returned to Leghorn. There she was arrested by order of the Tuscan government, as having violated the neutrality of the port, and, notwithstanding Mann's protest, was detained, as also all the other English ships there, till, on Sir Edward Hawke's coming out as commander-in-chief, two ships of war were sent to bring them away, by force if necessary. The governor, not being in a position to repel force by force, yielded after a feeble protest, and on 23 Sept. 1756 the two ships of war, with the St. George and sixteen merchantmen in company, sailed from Leghorn.

After a short cruise the St. George put into Malta, where French influence was strong enough to prevent Wright getting any stores or supply of provisions, or even taking on board some English seamen who had been put on shore by French privateers. Finally, Wright was obliged to put to sea without them on 22 Oct. After that he made several prizes, which were sent into Cagliari. On 22 Jan. 1757 Mann wrote to Pitt that the Leghorn government, recognising that their action had ruined the trade of the port, had given permission for Wright to send his prizes thither, and that he had written to Wright to that effect. Whether Wright ever got this letter is unknown. It was reported in a Liverpool newspaper of 19 May 1757 that the St. George had foundered in a storm on 16 March; but later letters were said to report that the ship had arrived with a rich prize at Messina on 26 May. On 2 July 1757 Mann wrote conclusively of Wright: ‘It is feared by some circumstances, and by his not having been heard of for some months, that he foundered at sea.’

Wright's daughter, Philippa, married Charles Evelyn, grandson of John Evelyn [q. v.] of Wotton; her daughter, Susanna, married Wright's nephew, John Ellworthy Fortunatus Wright, a lieutenant in the navy during the American war of independence, and afterwards master of St. George's Dock at Liverpool, where he was accidentally killed in 1798. The present representatives of Evelyn and Wright are now settled in New Zealand.

[The details of Wright's story, worked out from information from the family and from the Foreign Office papers in the Public Record Office, are told in the present writer's Studies in Naval History (1887, pp. 206 et seq.), to which Mr. Gomer Williams, in the Liverpool Privateers (pp. 40 et seq.), has added some further particulars gleaned from Liverpool newspapers and other local records.]

J. K. L.