Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
By Cindy Vallar
Letters of marque and privateers originated in the 13th century when monarchs issued contracts of reprisal to protect maritime trade. Privateers gained prominence during Elizabethan times when the queen issued letters of marque to men like Sir Francis Drake. Privateering gained prominence during the constant wars fought between European powers in the 18th century. Canadian privateers first made their entrance during the War of Austrian Succession. They played a pivotal role in the War of 1812, but with the peace that followed governments equated privateering with piracy.
Privateering was an important industry into the second decade of the 19th century. Halifax licensed her first privateer, the 100-ton schooner Lawrence, in 1757. The privateers were often converted merchant ships. The dockyards supplied them with the necessary armament while Halifax tradesmen, farmers, tars, and fishermen crewed them. They received no pay unless they captured prizes, and then they were awarded shares of the booty. Privateering brought Enos Collins so much wealth that when he died, he was the richest man in Canada. By the mid-eighteenth century, privateering was a respectable family business. The entrepreneurs who owned the ships employed 1200-1500 seamen aboard 47 privateers that captured 228 prizes. Their successes bear witness to the importance of the privateer in Canadaís maritime history.
War of Austrian Succession (1739-1748) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763)
During these wars, Louisbourg was a French fortress that became a haven for French privateers. These men were instrumental in the supply and defense of Port Royal and Louisbourg from English privateers who hailed from New England. One of the more successful privateers was the Cantabre, an eighty-ton schooner with eight guns and a crew of ninety-four. Under Captain Doloboratzís leadership, she captured a provincial warship of Massachusetts.
At 400 tons the Foudroyant was one of the largest Canadian privateers based in Halifax. Captained by James Taylor, she carried a crew of 90 men and 18 guns. Another privateer was the Musketo. Her captain, Mathew Pennell, commanded a crew of 80. Her armament included 14 carriage guns and 12 swivel guns. She first set sail in 1756, but an incident of torture aboard one prize, a Dutch ship called Patience, gained her unwanted notoriety.
The Napoleonic Wars
The war that Britain fought against Napoleon Bonaparte destroyed Nova Scotiaís prosperous trade with the West Indies. To combat this, Canadian privateers attacked French and Spanish merchant ships. The Charles Mary Wentworth had much success in her ventures, especially during her first two voyages when she captured eleven ships, a Spanish island, and a Spanish fort. The prizes from her first cruise netted the owners a 92% profit while the second cruise brought them a profit of 814%. Although she sank in a storm in 1802, none of her crew lost their lives.
One of unluckiest privateers was the Frances Mary. Rather than capturing an enemy ship during her maiden voyage, she herself was captured in August 1800. When her crew was exchanged, many found themselves pressed into the Royal Navy instead of being able to return home. The schooner Lord Spencer captured two prizes and then had the misfortune of striking a reef on her first voyage. Another privateer from Nova Scotia rescued her crew of fifty-eight. Her captain, Joseph Barss, Jr., survived the ignominy of losing his ship and went on to become one of Canadaís most successful privateers.
Resolution was perhaps the fiercest of the privateers. In July 1780, she engaged the Viper off Sampo Light. When the Resolution struck her colors, both ships were badly damaged. Thirty-three of Viperís crew lay dead or wounded compared to the 18 lost among Resolutionís.
The most famous of the Canadian privateers was the Rover. The small brig sailed from 1800 to 1804 mostly under the captainship of Alexander Godfrey, who had refused a commission in the Royal Navy. All alone, she attacked a convoy of seven ships and captured three of them. Against overwhelming odds, her gunners engaged three Spanish warships off the Venezuelan coast and won the day. Her success garnered attention in The Navy Chronicle, but in 1803 under a new captain, she lost her commission as a privateer for illegally seizing several ships.
War of 1812
The Liverpool Packet was the most successful privateer during this war. A former slaver captured by the Royal Navy, she sailed from 1812 to 1814 under four different captains: Thomas Freeman, Joseph Barss Jr., Caleb Seely, and Lewis Knaut. The sixty-seven ton topsail schooner carried a crew of forty men and five carriage guns. She soon earned a reputation for speed and prowling. Her successes, which were reported in New England newspapers, caused panic among Americans because the reports of her deeds were exaggerated. When she completed her first voyage, she entered Liverpool with two prizes in tow. Her earlier 21 captures were already moored there. Her owners bought the schooner for £420. Her prizes were valued at between $264,000 and $1,000,000.
The largest and fastest privateer was a 278-ton brig. Although the Sir John Sherbrooke only sailed for one year, she captured 18 prizes, destroyed two American raiders, and captured a schooner while destroying another. When HMS Shannon engaged and defeated the USS Chesapeake, the Sir John Sherbrooke supplied the British ship with much-needed reinforcements. Her armament included boarding pikes, 50 muskets, and 80 cutlasses for her crew of 150 and 2000 pounds of powder and 1600 shot for her 18 guns.
The privateers of Nova Scotia played an integral role in closing American ports during the War of 1812. They served as an auxiliary naval force in Canadian waters. They gathered intelligence on American strength and ship movements for the Royal Navy. While 15 commissioned ships from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia failed to capture any prizes and another ten only took one each, the remaining privateers made fortunes for their owners.
© 2001 Cindy Vallar
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