Pirates For Hire
THE EXPLOITS OF ATLANTIC CANADA’S PRIVATEERS.
Privateers were legalized pirates, fighting for both profit and patriotism during wartime.
ASCHOONER EMERGED ON THE HORIZON off Massachusetts, its black hull so low to the water that it was almost invisible. The interloper was small, just fifty-three feet bow to stern. “In size and appearance,” Maine’s Portland
Gazette newspaper later noted, it looked “like one of our Gun Boats.” Even though Britain and America were at war in 1812, few aboard the Yankee fishing boats and merchant vessels cruising near Cape Cod saw the unfamiliar ship as a threat — until it was too late.
The newcomer was the Nova Scotia privateer Liverpool Packet, under the command of Captain Joseph Barss Jr.; both names were soon reviled all along the New England coast. In the summer and fall of 1812, Barss and his forty-man crew scooped up dozens of American merchant vessels, including eleven in one week that October. He later commandeered nine fishing schooners in a single day. The Packet was the most successful privateer on either side during the three-year conflict, seizing about one hundred vessels — more than the combined captures of the rest of Nova Scotia’s privateering fleet — and bringing at least fifty back to Halifax to be sold off, cargo and all. One prize, the American schooner Lucretia, yielded a valuable cargo of fishing gear, candles, soap, and shoes. Canadian historian Faye M. Kert, an expert on the history of privateering, estimates the schooner earned its owners, investors, and crews at least a million dollars, an astounding sum at the time.
The Americans were incensed. “That an insignificant fishing schooner … should be suffered to approach the harbour of the metropolis of Massachusetts, capture and carry home in triumph 8 or 9 vessels of sail,” the Boston Messenger fumed on
New Year’s Day, 1813, “should seem utterly incredible were the fact not placed beyond any doubt.”
In Portsmouth, Maine, ship owners outfitted a privateer of their own, the schooner Thomas. If it ever caught up with the
Packet, it would be a formidable foe — it was twice the size of the Nova Scotia marauder and carried a crew of eighty. It also bristled with ten cannons, double the number ready to fire from the Packet’s deck.
Then, in June 1813, the captain of the Thomas spotted a vessel off Cape Cod: a small, low-slung schooner with a black hull. The chase began.
Like pirates, privateers preyed on merchant vessels and profited from the plunder they won. But there is a distinction between them that made a difference — privateers operated only in wartime, under legal authority, and within strict rules of engagement. They were, in essence, private contractors retained to disrupt the enemy’s trade as part of the war effort, freeing up naval vessels for the front-line work of blockading, bombarding, and duelling with warships. Their motivation to join the fight was profit, not just patriotism. As the Liverpool Packet’s lucrative career showed, there was money to be made.
The romantic, swashbuckling image of privateers was brought down to earth in 1976, when Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers released his signature sea shanty, “Barrett’s Privateers.” It quickly became a staple of music festivals and tavern singalongs, with its well-known refrain, “I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier/The last of Barrett’s Privateers.” It tells the fictitious story of a young Nova Scotia fisherman who joins the crew of a leaky sloop, the Antelope, during the American Revolution, lured to privateering by the promise of easy money. “I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold,” the narrator says, “we’d fire no guns, shed no tears.” The Antelope’s first engagement with an armed American merchant ship is its last, and the fisherman loses both legs in the battle.
“Barrett’s Privateers” is set in 1778, but the British government commissioned Nova Scotia’s first privateers two decades earlier, at the outset of the Seven Years War against France. Letters of marque — official decrees authorizing the seizure
of French vessels — were issued in 1756, just seven years after Halifax was founded. Sea captains and merchants were “encouraged in every way,” Nova Scotia writer George Nichols noted in an early account of the practice, “to fit out privateers to distress and annoy the enemy.” At least fifteen privateering vessels were based in Halifax, and prominent businessmen such as Joshua Mauger and Malachy Salter armed and dispatched vessels to Caribbean waters in search of prizes.
This initial foray into privateering, Nichols wrote, set the ground rules for future conflicts. Privateers registered with Nova Scotia’s Admiralty Court and returned all captured vessels to Halifax, where a judge would decide whether the seizure was legal. If it turned out the vessel was not registered to enemy owners, or if the cargo was destined for British buyers, these would be restored and the privateers earned nothing. Ships and cargoes condemned as prizes of war, however, were sold, and the privateering vessel’s owners and crew shared the windfall. Fortunes were made. War, Nova Scotia’s merchants discovered, was good for business.
Privateers had to adhere to a rigid code of conduct. They could not fly the Royal Navy’s colours to impersonate one of His Majesty’s warships, and when they returned to port they were expected to share “any valuable information obtained about the enemy” that was gleaned during their outings. Most importantly, once a battle ended or after an enemy vessel surrendered, these legalized pirates were to behave like gentlemen. Captured crewmen and passengers were not to be mistreated. “No persons taken or surprised in any vessel, though known to be of the enemy,” Nichols explained, “were to be killed in cold blood, tortured, maimed, or inhumanely treated contrary to the common usages of war.”
During the American Revolution, the colonies that would one day form Atlantic Canada were targets for enemy attacks on vessels and outports. Privateers from New England raided Yarmouth, Lunenburg, Charlottetown, and other communities, sometimes looting private homes, burning forts and barracks, and taking local officials hostage. The Nova Scotia government fought back in 1777 by issuing a letter of marque
to the commander of the aptly named Revenge. At first the thirty-gun schooner was ordered to defend the province’s coast, but soon it and other privateers were authorized to hunt for American prizes. “Seamen and able-bodied landsmen who wish to acquire riches and honour,” said one enticing advertisement in the Nova Scotia Gazette in 1779, “are invited to repair on board the Revenge, private ship of war.” Large crews were needed, as men would be transferred to each captured vessel so it could be sailed back to Nova Scotia. With scores to settle and trading ties to the American colonies severed, plenty of idled fishermen and sailors were eager to sign on. There was another inducement — crewmen of privateers were protected from the press gangs scouring Nova Scotia waterfronts and kidnapping sailors to serve on Royal Navy ships.
In 1778, privateers returned to Halifax with captured vessels at the rate of one per week. Seizing unarmed fishing boats and merchantmen was easy and bloodless, but sometimes rival privateers battled toe to toe. In July 1780, off Sambro Lighthouse
Wat the mouth of Halifax Harbour, the Nova Scotia brig Resolution squared off against the more heavily armed American privateer Viper. The two vessels raked each other with cannon fire for ninety minutes before the Resolution was forced to surrender. At least eight sailors were killed, and dozens were wounded. There were also examples of kindness and camaraderie. When HMS Blonde went aground off remote Seal Island in 1782, the captains of two American privateers helped to rescue the survivors, then set them free.
Privateers were again dispatched in the 1790s, ahead of the Napoleonic Wars, this time in search of French and Spanish ships. Liverpool, on Nova Scotia’s south shore, joined Halifax as a major privateer base. One Liverpool-based vessel, the
Charles Mary Wentworth, returned in 1799 with four prizes, including a fourteen-gun Spanish privateer captured after an hour-long fight. One of the fiercest battles of the war, however, was waged by the Liverpool brig Rover and its crew of fiftyfour men and boys, under the command of Captain Alex Godfrey.
In September 1800 a Spanish task force — the armed schooner Santa Ritta and three smaller gunboats — ambushed the Rover in the Caribbean. Stalled in a light breeze and about to be boarded, Godfrey nimbly swung his vessel to fire on the gunboats at close range, then boldly attacked, boarded, and captured the Santa Ritta.
The Spanish suffered horrendous losses, but none of the Rover’s crew was killed or injured. The engagement, naval historian William James wrote in the 1820s, clearly proved “how well the hardy sons of British America could emulate their brother-tars of the parent country.”
A new test of the mettle of colonial privateers, against an old enemy, lay ahead. hen Britain and the United States went to war again, Enos Collins was ready. Born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, he had served as an officer on board the Charles Mary
Wentworth as a young man and was familiar with the business of privateering. His ambitions “outgrew the opportunities offered even by the thriving seaport of Liverpool,” as his biographers have noted, and by 1812 Collins was a successful merchant and ship owner in Halifax.
That’s where he first spotted a schooner named Severn, which had been seized for contravening British laws that banned the transportation of slaves. It had been built for speed, with masts angled toward the stern as if bent in the wind and a long bowsprit to carry as much sail as possible — think of Nova Scotia’s famous schooner Bluenose II, only smaller and sleeker. Collins, wrote Kert in her book Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the
War of 1812, “knew a good privateer when he saw one” and bought it at auction for £440. Renamed Liverpool Packet, the
schooner ferried the mail between Liverpool and Halifax until the outbreak of war in June 1812. Collins was among the first to apply for a letter of marque.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick contributed more than forty privateering vessels, and by mid-1813 Newfoundland had commissioned nine. Over the course of the three-year conflict, these raiders would bring home more than two hundred enemy vessels. At one point, according to historian W.S. MacNutt, thirty captured American prizes were tied up in the harbour at St. John’s, and bottles of seized champagne were plentiful enough to be used for target practice. One enterprising Newfoundland merchant, saddled with a cargo of American grindstones, took advantage of the lean winter months and forced customers buying bread to pay an extra two dollars for a stone.
The United States countered with some five hundred privateers of its own, inflicting heavy losses on British and colonial shipping. Kert estimates American privateers captured at least 1,400 vessels and suspects the number may have been closer to two thousand. The Yankee, a sixteen-gun brig operating out of Bristol, Rhode Island, led the pack with fifty-eight vessels seized. The Americans also suffered one of the deadliest disasters to befall a War of 1812 privateer, and it was self-inflicted. A British warship trapped the New York-based Young Teazer in Nova Scotia’s Mahone Bay in April 1813. Boarding parties were approaching when the vessel exploded, killing twenty-nine of the thirty-seven men on board. Survivors reported that a ship’s officer, who had been released after an earlier capture and faced the gallows for violating his parole, had ignited the vessel’s powder magazine.
In Halifax, meanwhile, Collins moved quickly to outfit the
Liverpool Packet for war. The vessel embarked on its first cruise authorized to “apprehend seize and take any Ship vessel or goods” belonging to the enemy. It was said to be armed with five rusted cannons that were serving as gateposts until brought out of retirement. It returned with two prizes and earned enough profit to buy proper guns. Collins also found a new captain who could make the most of the Packet’s potential as a privateer.
Joseph Barss Jr., an experienced Liverpool mariner in his mid-thirties, was the logical choice. He had commanded two privateering vessels during the Napoleonic Wars — he was “the colony’s own Francis Drake,” wrote historian Edward Butts — and his brothers, John and James, were shareholders in the
Packet. Dark-haired and five feet ten, with a sturdy frame and intense grey eyes, he would be hailed as a hero in Nova Scotia and condemned as an “evil genius” in the American press. Barss “prowled up and down the New England coast,” by one newspaper account, “carrying off prizes under the noses of navy brigs, revenue cutters and commerce raiders” flying the Stars and Stripes. It was a perfect marriage of daring skipper and swift vessel. “No spot was too perilous for Joseph Barss to reach if there was a prize to be made,” noted Charles H.J. Snider in
Under the Red Jack, a 1920s account of East Coast privateering. Barss’s preferred hunting ground was the approaches to Boston Harbour. The Packet was off Cape Cod and on its tenth cruise on the morning of June 11, 1813, when it was spotted by the Thomas. The ships exchanged fire until the Packet ran out of ammunition. Barss ordered his crew to dump four of the five cannons to lighten the vessel, then it fled. After a fivehour chase, and with no hope of escape, he surrendered. The
Thomas’s trigger-happy crew continued to fire on the defenceless Packet, killing three members of its own boarding party.
In an era when the norm was for captured privateer crews to be quickly swapped and for captains and officers to be released on parole, New England’s public enemy number one was locked up in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, jail. American newspapers claimed his incarceration was retaliation for British mistreatment of the captain of an American privateer, but Barss’s brazen seizures and long list of prizes likely singled him out for punishment. It was months before Collins, who enlisted the aid of Nova Scotia’s lieutenant-governor, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, secured his release.
Captured privateering vessels were often used against their former owners, and the Packet soon put to sea under new names, first as Young Teazer’s Ghost and then as the Ports
mouth Packet. The Americans inherited Barss’s vessel but not his luck. Within a few months the ship was spotted by the Royal Navy’s HMS Fantome off the Maine coast, hunted down, and taken to Halifax. Collins promptly bought it back, restored its name, and sent it in search of more victims under a new captain. The reborn Liverpool Packet seized eighteen more American vessels before hostilities ended in 1815. As for Barss, he became part owner of a captured American privateer renamed Wolverine, which brought home eight prizes. The Wolverine’s original name was the Thomas — in a remarkable coincidence, it was the vessel that had captured him off Cape Cod.
Privateering survived as a form of warfare until 1856, when it was outlawed as part of the Treaty of Paris negotiations to end the Crimean War. Britain, France, Russia, and, ultimately, another fifty-two nations declared that “privateering is and remains abolished” and agreed that letters of marque would not be issued during future conflicts. The United States refused to sign on but nonetheless ended the practice, although the breakaway Confederate states authorized raiders to prey on Union shipping during the American Civil War.
Privateers may not have been pirates, but waging a form of warfare for the sake of prizes and money makes them look, to modern eyes, more like mercenaries than patriots fighting for their country. Unlike naval commanders, they could choose their battles — they could pick off easy targets and avoid armed merchant vessels or other targets willing to put up a fight. “The bottom line, not bravery, was the deciding factor” in captures, Kert has observed. Privateering offered “an opportunity to serve one’s country while conveniently serving oneself.”
It remained a risky business, however. Many privateers were killed in action or, like the unlucky narrator of “Barrett’s Privateers,” were maimed or wounded. Storms and shipwrecks were occupational hazards. There was another, more patriotic bottom line: Privateers made an important contribution to the war effort by attacking the enemy’s commerce, communications, and supply lines.
George Nichols, one of the first to chronicle the exploits of Atlantic Canada’s privateers, argued they deserve to be remembered not as “unscrupulous adventurers” but as courageous and honourable warriors. Liverpool historian Janet Mullins agreed, describing them as “daring and intrepid, self-sacrificing and patriotic mariners” whose bravery and chivalry upheld “the best traditions of the sea.” Many privateer owners and officers were leaders of their communities and held public office after the War of 1812. Joseph Barss’s brother John, for one, was elected to the Nova Scotia legislature. Enos Collins, who used his privateering profits to expand his mercantile empire, founded Nova Scotia’s first bank and became one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain’s American colonies.
Joseph Barss commanded the Wolverine on a privateering cruise to the West Indies in 1814 before retiring from seafaring. His imprisonment after the Packet’s capture, biographer Catherine Pross has suggested, left him in poor health. He settled on a farm near Kentville, Nova Scotia, in 1817 and died seven years later. The scourge of New England’s sailors and ship owners, the “evil genius” behind the unparalleled success of the Liverpool Packet, was forty-eight.
PRIVATEERING SURVIVED AS A FORM OF WARFARE UNTIL 1856, WHEN IT WAS OUTLAWED AS PART OF THE TREATY OF PARIS NEGOTIATIONS TO END THE CRIMEAN WAR.