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Nova Scotia's Rebels-Pirates and Privateers

Kerri Leier

    During the course of history people have taken up trades for different reasons. Most of the time it’s based on economic times and financial need. There have been periods of time when women have taken up hunting, hangmen have been required, and mummifying has been used. The occupations of pirates and privateers rose out of economic and financial need. The first documented occurrence of piracy was 140 BC. The earliest definition of piracy was a Greek historian named Plutarch who described pirates as those who attack without legal authority, and not just ships but maritime cities as well. ( Pirates-Fact)

    Privateering has been occurring for about that long. Privateers were pirates hired by the crown to attack enemy ships, whether they were military or merchant. They were very useful in times of war and when economical times in a country were hard.(Privateering Homepage) Pirates and Privateers had their own culture, language and codes. In fact, the nonsense song "Sing a Song of Sixpence" was used to recruit new pirates. (Isle of Tortugo)

    Pirate and Privateer weapons were similar. Both carried a cutlass (a short broad bladed knife), a musketoon (a short barreled musket, which was good for short ranged fighting), a flintlock pistol (light- weight and good for an attack on a neighboring ship) and a powder horn (a horn shaped container for gunpowder). (Quest for a Pirate)

    Pirates were an important part of the everyday life. Without Privateers many battles would be lost and many countries would fall into the crack. Sir Francis Drake, hired by the British crown to explore, acted as a privateer around North America. He was involved with a number of attacks and captured many ships for the British Crown.

    Nova Scotia had one of the most prosperous privateering industries. Because of Nova Scotia’s maritime dependency it was up to privateers to keep the Nova Scotian waters clear of threats and to bring in any extra ships that were in places that they shouldn’t be. Canada owes a great deal to the privateers because of their involvement in the War of 1812. Nova Scotian privateers saved the day by closing the blockade of American ports. With larger vessels, the Royal Navy was more effective at high seas blockade. The numerous captures of American ships in Nova Scotian waters gave the Canadian forces a chance to beat the Americans back. Nova Scotian privateers played a significant role in demoralizing New England communities, undermining their support for the war and putting pressure on them to push for peace. Their involvement also inspired Stan Rogers to write a song about a mythical group "Barrett’s Privateers". (The Canadian Privateering Homepage)

    Nova Scotians were also the victims of American privateers who were violent, often killing their victims. One particularly violent case occurred on November 17,1775. Two American schooners arrived in Charlottetown where they kidnapped Governor Callbeck and looted his house, slitting the throat of his pregnant wife. (Choyce, 132) Unfortunately due to the attacks made on Nova Scotia during this time, food prices soared, fishing boats stolen, trashed or taken for a ride. Contact between ports was eliminated and the lack of communication caused ports to close.

    As the harassment continued not even the smallest port was spared and the privateers became more brazen. They often left their victims naked for amusement or greed because they took everything they could get their hands on. Another famous privateer to grace the shores of Nova Scotia was Captain Amos Potter, a Yankee, and his crew. After capturing the ship "Resolution" Potter’s crew attempted to board an English vessel. The English heard of his scheme and upon his boarding the ship he was captured by the English. Potter’s crew went to avenge his capture by looting Annapolis, a small port which was forever being plundered and kidnapping a prominent member of the community. (Choyce132-133)

    Privateers often helped the war effort by attacking supply ships for the opposing side. In fact privateers brought in the funding for a new government house. Although they weren’t always dependable, they risked their lives for their country, although they often enjoyed their adventurous life. It was not unusual for privateers to be attacked by a ship in the Caribbean, see members of their crew go threw a press gang (another gang of privateers with knives who would all gang up and attack) and then sail home to capture an enemy ship. (1798 Cruise Report)

    The life of a privateer was harsh but legal and most of the privateers followed the rules of their leader. They were cruel and acted like pirates at times but lacked the absolute "killer instinct" that pirates had. Pirates pillaged and burned, raped and plundered and didn’t have any loyalty to anybody. Pirates in Nova Scotia were not an unheard of occurrence. There were many rumored to have sail around our coastal shores. However, actual evidence of any kind is hard to come by.

    Everything about pirates and their way of life was done to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. Although the Jolly Roger (skull and crossbones) was feared, nothing terrified victims more than the red flag, which signified no mercy. Although the stereotypes of pirates on land tell us they drank their treasure away, in actuality there was work to do when they reached the shore. Their boat had to be sea worthy and there was a lot of work to complete to keep it that way. Holes from canon fire and scraps from bumping against another ship meant major repairs, and it was up to the pirates to complete them. Despite their law breaking ways, they had specific codes of conduct, which were highly respected and upheld. Beware the pirate code. (Isle of Tortugo)

    One of the pirates rumored to have lurked around our little province was Captain Hall. Captain Hall used, what is now called, Hall’s Harbor as his main port for his loot. Just above the harbor was the main camping ground of his Native American girlfriend. After one of Hall’s pillages, he obtained a box of presents for her. Unfortunately the British, tired of being plundered, had arrived before Hall and convinced the Natives that they were friends of Hall’s. As Hall approached the camping ground the British opened fired and the box was buried between Baxter’s Harbor and Hall’s Harbor.

    The most famous pirate to grace Nova Scotian soil is the one we’ll never know. The mystery of the Oak Island treasure has been going on for sometime, nobody knows who left it or what "it" is for that matter. Theories from "Captain Kidd" to "Incas" fleeing the Spanish have been brought up but none of it can be proven and it is all just speculation. The mystery started when a seventeen-year old boy named Daniel McGinnis went to the island to explore. He was soon intrigued by a sawed off branch on an oak tree and a large depression in the ground. He quickly gathered a few friends and some tools and went to investigate. Four feet down they discovered flag stone, alien to the island. After digging for another six feet they found a platform of oak logs embedded into the shaft. Excited by the discovery of "pirate treasure" they continued to dig until they found another oak platform (twenty feet and another (thirty feet). Unfortunately the pit was now too deep to remove the logs and they had to give up, but they didn’t forget. (Oak Island)

    In 1803 the boys returned to the island with a wealthy businessman, who had enough money to launch a full-scale investigation. After digging past the thirty feet they found oak platforms every ten feet, but this time the some of the platforms were sealed with coconut fiber and putty. Ninety feet down a large flat stone was discovered with the inscription "Forty feet below two million pounds are buried." After removing the platform under the rock the light was fading and the crew was forced to go home. When they returned the next morning, the hole was full of water and it was impossible to continue. They attempted to tunnel their way toward the treasure but two feet away the clay walls gave out and water rushed in. Heartbroken and discouraged, they were forced to give up the project.

    There have been numerous attempts to reach the treasure, and a few even retrieved articles from the hole, but none have been successful at reaching the treasure. The Oak Island treasure has captured the imagination of millions, including Franklin Roosevelt and John Wayne but it is still an unsolved mystery. (Oak Island) Our history of privateers and pirates in Nova Scotia is vast and intriguing. Our economic state during the time of pirates and privateers required these men to work as outlaws. It was important to our war effort for these men to steal the ships of our enemies, without them many wars would be lost. Acting out of financial need, these men risked their lives everyday for their crown and country. Although they thoroughly enjoyed their jobs, they were doing a great service to their country. Despite their rugged appearance, these men did their job vigorously, when they weren’t pillaging and burning things.

    Pirates capture the imagination of millions; they have been a focus of our attention for hundreds of years. Pirates have added an air of mystery to our province and a large bonus to our tourist industry. They have given us an outlet for our imagination and an excuse for searching for buried treasure. Pirates and Privateers are probably the most exciting part of our maritime history and definitely worth our recognition and respect.



Anderson,Rick and Holt,Dr.Richard "Quest for a Pirate"

This site has many useful tidbits that apply to all pirates. It includes lots of information on weapons, history and the lifestyle of a pirate. It has a beautiful picture on the main page and lots of great links.

Bruyneel, M. "Isle of Tortugo."

 This site, although not Canadian, has a vast resource about pirates. It is a great place to learn about the general pirate life and what piracy really is about. It includes letters of marquee as well as the Rules of Ransoming. It also has a number of pirating songs. Has good definitions and links.

Choyce,Lesley. Nova Scotia Shaped by the Sea-A Living History. Toronto,1996

This book has an entire section dedicated to piracy in Nova Scotia. It is well written and informative. It has great details on specific battles and specific pirates. It also shares with us the dirty laundry of the many governors who hired privateers.

Conlin,Dan "The Canadian Privateering Homepage"

This site is well-organized and easy to search through. It has pictures, original journals, letters of marquee, history and much more. This is the only site devoted to Canadian Privateers. It is interesting and great for research. This site also contains a searchable database of all privateers/pirates so you can find out if you’re related to one.

Freeman,Joseph "1798 Cruise Report From the Privateering Ship Charles Mary


This is an actual report of a journey from the Charles Mary Wentworth. It is written by Commander Joseph Freeman and is very exciting and blunt. It is worth the time to read . It shows how dangerous the lives of these men were.

Fuller,William "Oak Island."

This site is full of fascinating information about one of Nova Scotia’s great mysteries. It includes drawings from the actual time, the entire history and a great set of links. One of the links is to all the articles written previously about Oak Island.

 P.K.M, "Legends-Sir Francis William Drake."

This site has many interesting facts about one of the most popular pirates in the world. Sir Francis spent some time in Canada and this site explains his life. This site also has links to primary source documents written by Sir Francis Drake to a friend.

Wilczynski,Krzysztof " Pirates-Fact and Legend"

This site includes special information about famous pirates, ships and has great links. It describes the different types of piracy and if you return to the main page you can choose to look at pirate myth. This site also includes a vocabulary section, which would be good to use in a project.


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