Nova Scotia Archives

Spoils of War: Privateering in Nova Scotia


War dominated much of Nova Scotia's early history. For thirty-seven of the sixty-five years between 1750 and 1815 the colony's settlers were in conflict with the forces of imperial France, rebellious America, revolutionary and Napoleonic France and finally, the United States. Outstanding among the host of both villains and heroes found in that violent era were Nova Scotia's privateers. These wooden-hulled and sail-powered vessels, owned and crewed by civilians, went to sea in search of enemy merchant craft which, when caught, were brought back to home ports as prizes and there sold, with the proceeds going to the captors. A controversial business, said by its critics to be little better than legalized piracy, privateering has defenders who point out that this enterprise, sanctioned by the standards of the day, generated important income while also protecting the colony from danger.

Think about that debate as you proceed through the exhibit which follows. It deals with the period from 1793 to 1815, years generally regarded as the golden age of Nova Scotian privateering. The exhibit has been designed to provide an overview of the main features of privateering through presentation of a sample of the documents on privateering held at the Nova Scotia Archives. As background for your exploration of the documents we provide here an introduction exploring how historians, over the years, have viewed privateering in wartime Nova Scotia.

Scholars were slow to develop an interest in privateers. For example T. C Haliburton, author of what is regarded as the pioneer work on Nova Scotian history (Historical and Statistical Account of Nova-Scotia, 1829), had almost nothing to say about the colony's private war at sea. Despite his living at a time filled with stories of privateer adventures and serving in the Nova Scotian legislature with two of the most famous of our privateer captains, Haliburton's book largely ignores their exploits. Similar neglect of privateering is found in Beamish Murdoch's three-volume History of Nova-Scotia or Acadie (1865-67), although a close examination of his appendices reveals three significant documents (reproduced in this exhibit).

The first is correspondence from a mid-nineteenth century Halifax magazine, arguing (apparently for the first time in print) that Nova Scotia's privateersmen deserved to be remembered as heroes. In support of that argument, the editor reproduced in print a first-hand account (document number two) by Captain Alexander Godfrey, captain of the privateer Rover, telling of a bloody encounter he had in 1800 off the coast of Venezuela against Spanish militiamen. The third document consists of a memorial poem, written in 1866 by William A. Calnek, a Nova Scotian journalist and historian, which symbolically places Captain Godfrey in Nova Scotia's "temple of fame." Ironically, such had been Nova Scotia's neglect of privateering that Calnek got his hero's first name wrong!

Why Murdoch relegated this material to an appendix is a puzzle. Perhaps it was because at an international conference in 1856 privateering had been abolished, thus giving it the appearance of an activity which violated the rules of war. Alternately, it might have been because Nova Scotia's most famous living privateersman, Enos Collins (he died in 1871 at age 97), had become a figure of great controversy in the province, thanks to his opposing both the coming of modern democracy in the 1840s and the achievement of Confederation in 1867. It also did not help that Collins was a close-mouthed fellow, whose standard reply when asked to reminisce about his privateering adventures in the Caribbean was, "You will observe, sir, that there were many things happened we don't care to talk about."

Whatever its cause, Murdoch's reticence was not shared by the generation of historians which emerged early in the twentieth century. Thanks to a rising tide of Canadian nationalism, sentiment stirred up by economic prosperity and the spread of pro-British imperialism, Murdoch's successors had no hesitation about celebrating Nova Scotia's privateering legacy. Led by Archibald MacMechan, who had come from Ontario to teach at Dalhousie University, they began to retell the adventures of sea dogs like Godfrey, in the process making them appear as unqualified patriots. This interpretation is reflected in the words of Robert J. Long, who in 1926 declared: "The story of the heroism of Capt. Alexander Godfrey and his heroic fishermen of Liverpool, cannot be too often retold. The boys of to-day need such examples in times of peace as much as they do in times of war."

The tradition of telling heroic tales about the life and times of privateering climaxed in the 1950s with the work of novelist-historian Thomas Raddall. He, like so many others, was inspired by the atmosphere of the South Shore town of Liverpool, once home to the province's largest concentration of privateersmen. There today, during "Privateer Days," the town's past glory is celebrated by actors wearing the costumes and brandishing the weapons that had featured during Nova Scotia's private war at sea.

One of the earliest to join the chorus of those championing the privateering legacy was George E. E. Nichols. Born in Liverpool like Long, Nichols came to Halifax where he worked in law, real estate and finance until his death at age fifty-four in 1930. Home-town legends seem to have provided him with an enthusiasm for history, particularly as it related to privateering. Having joined the Nova Scotia Historical Society (eventually rising to executive rank in that organization), in 1904 Nichols gave a presentation entitled "Notes on Nova Scotian Privateering," a paper published four years later in the Society's Collections.

In an early part of his article Nichols challenged the often-heard suggestion that privateering was immoral. Private vessels of war, he noted, operated under strict regulations set down by the Crown. No vessel could go on a prize-hunting cruise without first obtaining a license, known as a "letter of marque." Before obtaining that document,

particulars of a ship's tonnage, armament, ammunition, etc., together with the names of the owners, officers and men were to be given to the Admiralty Court [in Nova Scotia's case, located in Halifax] and there registered. A regular account of captures and proceedings had to be kept [in what was termed the 'log-book'], and any valuable information obtained about the enemy had to be reported ...

No persons taken or surprised in any vessel, though known to be of the enemy, were to be killed in cold blood, tortured, maimed, or inhumanely treated contrary to the common usages of war ...

Privateers were not permitted, under peril, to fly any colours usually shown by the King's ships but ... had to fly a red Jack with the Union Jack described in the upper corner. Prisoners were forbidden to be ransomed.

Before a letter of marque was issued, bail with sureties [guarantors] was required either on behalf of the owners, if residents, or the captain. The amount of bail varied according to the number of men the ship carried. If her crew numbered upwards of 150 men, £3,000 sterling [about $500,000 of today's money] was required, while if less than this number, £1,500.

Prizes were directed to be taken to any port in H. M.'s Dominions that should be most convenient, and there to be adjudicated upon [tried] by the High Court of Admiralty ... . After condemnation [being declared a fair legitimate catch], it was lawful for the captors to sell the prize in an open market [by auction] to their best advantage

Nichols' article, as well as a handwritten draft of his comments and other portions of his research, can be found at the Nova Scotia Archives. The importance of this material is that it offers what was the first comprehensive survey of privateering in Nova Scotia, an enterprise which began with excursions against the French during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), was followed by attacks on rebel shipping during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and climaxed with assaults on the merchant marine of France and eventually the United States (1793-1815).

Nichols avoided flamboyant rhetoric, thus those sections of his text which are reproduced in this exhibit tell a simple story, albeit one enriched by an abundance of factual detail on privateering vessels, their home ports, captains and owners, along with the captures they brought back to Nova Scotia. His text is presented here to provide guidance for your later examination of the selection of newspapers, government and private manuscript records which make up the bulk of this exhibit.

Those writing since the 1930s on Nova Scotian privateering generally have been content to rework the findings of people like MacMechan, Nichols and Raddall. Two major exceptions to that pattern are Dan Conlin, currently working at Nova Scotia's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and Faye M. Kert, an editor for the periodical Northern Mariner. Both have published work which opens up important new perspectives on the world of the privateer.

Conlin's work, which focuses on the 1793-1805 era, involves examination of familiar sources, in particular a log-book kept on board the privateer Charles Mary Wentworth. But that document has then been linked to other, previously neglected documents, to examine such questions as who served as rank-and-file privateers, what drew them to war at sea, and did privateering pay off well for those involved. Overall Conlin's conclusions are that, at least in the case of Liverpool, privateers were manned mainly by local volunteers drawn to warfare when enemy privateers crippled normal trade. Privateering involved danger (more often from disease and shipwreck, rather than enemy action) and there was always the risk that too few prizes would be taken to pay the costs of the voyage. But often the gamble paid off — until peace or competition from Royal Navy vessels made the hunting impossible to sustain.

Kert's work concentrates on the War of 1812 and also uses new source material, most importantly testimony taken by the Halifax Court of Vice Admiralty while adjudicating prize captures. Like Conlin, she argues that economic necessity, rather than patriotic zeal, was the primary motivation of most privateers. Her work is particularly important for establishing a comparative perspective on Nova Scotian privateering. Thus while acknowledging the importance of famous vessels such as the Liverpool Packet, notorious for raiding the inshore waters of New England, Kert points out that colonial captures were vastly outnumbered by those taken by American privateers. Moreover, what really devastated America's merchant marine during that war was not colonial privateering, but rather the blockade which Britain's Royal Navy eventually imposed from Maine to the Mississippi.

Taken together, Conlin and Kert reveal that many familiar assumptions about the who, why and so-what aspects of Nova Scotian privateering need to be reassessed. Meeting the challenge of moving into new territory on this topic requires a dual effort of searching for additional source material and more importantly, integrating that evidence into fresh interpretive perspectives to be gleaned from Canadian and international scholars working on the multiple aspects of maritime history.

What follows in this exhibit is a representation of some of the kinds of records which can be found at the Nova Scotia Archives for use by those seeking a better understanding of the world of the privateer. Preceding that display are two guides to further inquiry — first an annotated listing of sources to be found at the Nova Scotia Archives on privateering and second, a bibliography listing key authors, both past and present, who have published on privateering.

David A. Sutherland
Halifax, Nova Scotia
May 2005



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