A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 5, "The War Of 1812: Eastern Theatre." TOC
Ch. 2 - Privateers, No. 1.

Where the quivering lightning flings
His arrows from out the clouds,
And the howling tempest sings
And whistles among the shrouds,
'Tis pleasant, 'tis pleasant to ride
Along the foaming brine--
Wilt be the Rover's bride?
Wilt follow him, lady mine?
For the bonny, bonny brine.

Amidst the storm and rack,
You shall see our galley pass,
As a serpent, lithe and black,
Glides through the waving grass.
As the vulture swift and dark,
Down on the ring-dove flies,
You shall see the Rovers bark
Swoop down upon his prize.
For the bonny, bonny prize.

Over her sides we dash,
We gallop across her deck--
Ha! there's a ghastly gash
On the merchant-captain's neck--
Well shot, well shot, old Ned!
Well struck, well struck, black James!
Our arms are red, and our foes are dead,
And we leave a ship in flames!
For the bonny, bonny flames!1


Piracy is robbery by force of arms on the high seas. The pirate usually attacks ships of all nations, holds no commission, and receives the protection of no nation. Piracy has existed from the earliest times. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Phoenician, and Roman commerce was plagued by it. In more modern times the Barbary pirates flourished in the Mediterranean, the Vikings harassed the commerce of the Baltic Sea and the English Channel, and English buccaneers pillaged the Spanish main. With the growth of national navies piracy declined.

In this piece we deal not with pirates but rather with privateers. A privateer2 acts as a pirate against the shipping of a warring country. It is a vessel that is privately equipped as a warship and licensed by its country to prey upon the shipping of the enemy. Such a license is known as letters of marque, or, more fully, letters of marque and reprisal. A letter of marque would likely issue if the governor was petitioned. The petition would set out the name, tonnage and armament of the vessel, together with the names of her commander and owners.3

Licensed privateers were required to report to the authorities any enemy movements observed. They had to submit logbooks showing their daily activities. They were not to fly any British flag except the Red Ensign (the Red Jack), the White Ensign being strictly reserved for commissioned British war ships. A captain of a privateer did not have the authority that a captain of a British warship had. For example, a British warship might take prisoners after an engagement, a privateer had to see that the men on the prize were put ashore as directly as might be achieved, often through the use of the smaller boats off the captured prize. Violation of any of the terms imposed on the granting of a letters of marque would mean the forfeiture of bail money which the owners were to put up at the time the license was given to assure good behaviour.4

In Nova Scotia, privateering was considered an activity to be but a gainful occupation.

"The adventure of a privateer is of the nature of a commercial project or speculation, conducted by commercial men upon principles of mercantile calculation and profit. The vessel and her equipment is a matter of great expense, which is expected to be remunerated by the probable chances of profit, after calculating the outfit, insurance, etc., as in a regular mercantile voyage."5
To have a floating investment such as was a privateer on the high seas was a worrisome matter. A storm could blow up or a fight could go badly and a great deal of money be lost. The best insurance an owner of a privateer could have was an experienced and fearless captain6 supported by a stalwart crew. At Liverpool, all the resources necessary were ready at hand, including men who could organize and were ready to put their capital at risk.7

Privateers were of the smaller variety of sailing vessels. A privateer was chosen, not for its size, but for its sailing ability. It was able to tack into the wind and generally able to manoeuver better than larger and more cumbersome vessels. Also it was of benefit to be able to hug the coast in shallow waters, to get up into the river creeks to hide themselves. Privateers were often rigged as a brig (short for brigantine). A brig was a two-masted sailing vessel, square-rigged on both masts, carrying two or more head-sails and a quadrilateral gaff sail or spanker aft of the mizzenmast. A hermaphrodite brig is a two-masted vessel, however, just the mainmast was square-rigged, the second mast to the stern was "schooner-rigged."8

The time of the Nova Scotia Privateers may be conveniently broken down into four periods.9 As this work is chiefly concerned with the years 1812-1815, the last of these four periods, discussion of the earlier periods will be brief.10

The Seven Years' War (1756-1763)

A very successful privateer during this time was Sylvanus Cobb. Cobb, we note, was particularly busy in April of 1755. He had been cruising off Cape Sable and captured the trading vessel, Wolfe, out of Plymouth. The vessel was brought into Halifax, there to be dealt with by John Collier, judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court.12 Later that month, having returned to the Cape Sable area, Cobb bagged another. She was a French vessel out of Louisbourg with war stores, likely destined for Chignecto. The French vessel, the Marguritte, had been holed and had put into Port LaTour for repairs. After going and getting help from a naval ship at Halifax (H.M. Vulture, Captain Kensy), the pair captured the Marguritte. A prize crew was put aboard and the Marguritte was sailed to Halifax. She was condemned by the court at Halifax and an order followed for the sale of the vessel and her cargo. Both the naval and the privateer crews together with their captains and officers were given prize money.13

The American Revolution (1776-1783)

In this particular conflict, indeed, within two days after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, American privateers were put to sea. On September 27th, 1776, Simeon Perkins wrote in his diary.

"... Mr. Foster sails for Halifax. Mr. Stevenson, and Mr. Hawkins are passengers. When they had got about abreast of Bear Island, they were met by an American privateer and carried off. ... Capt. Bartlett Bradford comes by land from Portmedway and reports that his sloop that was loading with hay in that harbour, for me, and the Freemans, was taken yesterday by the same privateer, with all the hay but about four tons they allowed Capt. Ford to take out. They released him and all his crew. One of them entered. And that they also took Capt. Smith's brig. loaded with timber for England, released all his hands, but kept him and carried him off in the brig. They also plundered a ship in ye same harbour, loading with timber. Took her sails, guns, stores, etc., but none of her men. Mr. Foster was allowed to go in his own vessel, but Mr. Stevenson and Hawkins were put on board the privateer."14
Within a couple of weeks of that, on October 16th, Perkins awoke in the morning to find that someone had taken his Betsy. Not his daughter but his boat. She was a schooner in which Perkins had a part ownership. "She was near my wharf at anchor, loading for Halifax with boards, staves, and fish." He engaged another vessel, a brig, the Minerva with nine men to go after the Betsy. He then comments: "This is the fourth loss I have met with my countrymen [Perkins was originally from Connecticut], and are altogether so heavy upon me I do not know how to go on with much more business, especially as every kind of property is so uncertain, and no protection afforded as yet, from government."

There is a tendency, due to the good diary keeping of Simeon Perkins, to believe that the bulk of the privateers operated out of Liverpool. Certainly Liverpool had a number of privateers, but we should not conclude that this community was the only one in the privateering business. Halifax had quite a number of privateers operating out of its harbour; it makes sense that there should have been. Prizes had to be registered and the nature of their cargoes had to be identified at Halifax. Further, the best market for the sale of cleared cargoes was at the dockside at Halifax.15 There were a number of privateers operating out of Halifax, including the Revenge (Captain James Grandy, 30 guns), the Sir George Collier (brig), the St. Mary (packet) and the Halifax (schooner, Captain E. Foster, owned and fitted out by Alexander Brymer).16 The primary difficulty of operating out of Halifax was that the seaman operating these privateers might be pressed into the British navy to fill up the ranks of its warships who were stationed at Halifax.

The first evidence of the Liverpool privateers comes from Perkins' diary. During October of 1778, Liverpool men were outfitting. "Freeman has not got the guns for the privateer, but expected an answer yesterday from the Governor whether he should have them out of the King's Yard. We offer him, the berth of sailing master of the privateer. He is inclined to go." Then again on the 31st, "They hoist the colours on board the privateer schooner."

So it was, that Liverpool got itself into the privateering business. There was mention of the Resolution, the Despatch and the Dreadnaught.17 The first18 Liverpool privateer, however, was the Lucy. Perkins wrote of her.

05 Jan, 1780, Wed: [A Liverpool Privateer, the Lucy sets out, first to go to Lunenburg.] "Mr. Tinkham, Capt. Collins, & Mr. McDonald, owners, go with them to Lunenburg, to assist & a boy, & a cripple, 28 in all. They salute the Battery with five guns, the Battery returns 4."
28 Jan, Fri: "... Reports that the Privateer Lucy was in Portmutton, & got John Dogget, & a son of Matthew McLarn to Enter, which makes them 33 strong. They sailed from there last Sunday, in Good Spirits.
05 Feb, Sat: "The schooner Lucy is arrived with two prizes [Sally (a sloop) and Little Joe]. ... I take Mr. Clement & Mr. Backus to my house, & distribute the people [the crew of the two prizes] as well as we can."
07 Feb, Mon: "... We have a dance at Mrs. Dexter's in the evening, and invite capt. Lathem, Mr. Clements, & Mr. Backus [members of the captured vessels]."
12 Feb, Sat: "... The Privateer Lucy sails on a cruise. ..."
08 Mar, Fri: "We have an auction of the prizes Sally, & Little Joe, & cargoes.
14 Mar, Tue: "Squally, snows. I take out of the prize sloop Sally, 30 hhds. salt, into my store. Employ the prisoners to shovel & carry into store, & also my own people.
15 Mar, Wed: "A schooner is below at anchor, said to be from Yarmouth, it is Mr. Barns. ... [Barns] comes to my store & agrees with me for 50 hhds. Salt at 25/. I take some English Hay at £ 8 per ton, Salt Hay at 80/, 100 bushel Potatoes at 3/6."
16 Mar, Thu: "Privateer Lucy is arrived with a prize sloop, taken at Tennant Harbour. Loaded with W. India Goods, Rum, Sugar, Molasses, Cotton, Coffee, worth £ 2000 or more."
17 Mar, Fri: "Conclude to keep the prize here. Run her up to Capt. Wm. Freeman's Wharf to unload her. At evening we meet the owners of the privateer, and conclude to fit her out again, in case she has a consort to go out with her. We further proceeded to take out 32 shares ... We got 21 shares engaged, & conclude to sell the sloop tomorrow, if the crew are willing. The shares are Capt. Howard, 6; Wm. Freeman, 3; myself, 2; Mr. Tinkham, 8; Mr. Stevenson, 1; Mr. McDonald,1."
19 Mar, Sun: "... A great number of small craft are in. Come I suppose on acct. of the prizes to be sold, & bring a great quantity of potatoes."
Thus we see Perkins outlining Liverpool's first venture in privateering. D. C. Harvey concluded "that the experiment was unprofitable financially, although it may have contributed indirectly to their defence, and provided a necessary rehearsal for their heroic age of privateering during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars."19

[NEXT: Bk. 2, Pt. 5, Ch. 3 - "Privateers, No. 2."]

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