Canada's History

Pi­rates For Hire


- By Dean Jobb Fishing · Outdoor Hobbies · Hobbies · Massachusetts · Maine · Portland · United Kingdom · United States of America · Nova Scotia · Liverpool · England · New England · Halifax Regional Municipality · F.C. Halifax Town · Boston · Portsmouth · Government of the United Kingdom · France · Royal Navy · Atlantic Ocean · Canada · Charlottetown · Sambro · F-16 Fighting Falcon · Cape Cod · Portsmouth F.C. · Stan Rogers · George Nichols · Royal Navy · Lunenburg, MA

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.


 ??  ?? 22 This map shows prin­ci­pal ports used by privateers dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and the War of 1812.
22 This map shows prin­ci­pal ports used by privateers dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and the War of 1812.
 ??  ?? Above: Por­trait of Cap­tain Joseph Barss Jr., skip­per of the famed pri­va­teer ves­sel Liver­pool Packet.
Above: Por­trait of Cap­tain Joseph Barss Jr., skip­per of the famed pri­va­teer ves­sel Liver­pool Packet.
 ??  ?? The Liver­pool Packet was built for speed, as ev­i­denced by its an­gled mast and long bowsprit. This paint­ing of the Packet dur­ing the War of 1812 is by Thomas Hay­hurst.
The Liver­pool Packet was built for speed, as ev­i­denced by its an­gled mast and long bowsprit. This paint­ing of the Packet dur­ing the War of 1812 is by Thomas Hay­hurst.
 ??  ?? A sailor heav­ing the lead in John Atkin­son's 1807 Cos­tumes of Great Bri­tain. Atkin­son wrote and il­lus­trated the book.
A sailor heav­ing the lead in John Atkin­son's 1807 Cos­tumes of Great Bri­tain. Atkin­son wrote and il­lus­trated the book.
 ??  ?? Cap­ture of Snap Dragon by The Martin, 1813, by Ir­win John Be­van, shows a bat­tle be­tween privateers dur­ing the War of 1812. En­trepreneur­s from Saint John, New Brunswick, bought the Amer­i­can ship Snap Dragon and made it part of their pri­va­teer­ing fleet.
Cap­ture of Snap Dragon by The Martin, 1813, by Ir­win John Be­van, shows a bat­tle be­tween privateers dur­ing the War of 1812. En­trepreneur­s from Saint John, New Brunswick, bought the Amer­i­can ship Snap Dragon and made it part of their pri­va­teer­ing fleet.
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