Whether adventurers or fishermen, fighters or businessmen, all crewmembers on a privateer ship had to go to sea.

Thus, most privateers were recruited amongst sailors and fishermen. Usually between the ages of 17 and 50, they became privateers for the money-and, sometimes, for the glory!

Although they were expected to place the interests of State above their own, it is a fact that, in reality, it was the lure of profit that won them over. Which explains this complaint by the Governor of Plaisance, Costebelle, to the Minister of Marine:

They are more concerned with money than with glory, and be they only equal in strength, they seldom engage, they seldom engage in any fierce combat.

LAC, MG1 C11C, 10.11.07

The loot for privateers in North America was quite different from that of their counterparts in the West Indies. In the North, cod was gold! Although it could be profitable, cod could also unfortunately go bad and the profits would disappear. In short, privateer crews had no assurance they would get their share of the booty.
Whether adventurers or fishermen, fighters or businessmen, all crewmembers on a privateer ship had to go to sea.

Thus, most privateers were recruited amongst sailors and fishermen. Usually between the ages of 17 and 50, they became privateers for the money-and, sometimes, for the glory!

Although they were expected to place the interests of State above their own, it is a fact that, in reality, it was the lure of profit that won them over. Which explains this complaint by the Governor of Plaisance, Costebelle, to the Minister of Marine:

They are more concerned with money than with glory, and be they only equal in strength, they seldom engage, they seldom engage in any fierce combat.

LAC, MG1 C11C, 10.11.07

The loot for privateers in North America was quite different from that of their counterparts in the West Indies. In the North, cod was gold! Although it could be profitable, cod could also unfortunately go bad and the profits would disappear. In short, privateer crews had no assurance they would get their share of the booty.

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

Seaman's hat, late 18th century

This hat, which is made of straw, is covered in tarred canvas to make it waterproof.

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem

no M995
© Peabody Essex Museum, Salem


Privateer crews were often made up of professional seamen. To privateer, one had to know how to navigate and very well, at that. In fact, privateers had to know how to steer their ship as quickly and accurately as possible. In addition to speed, they also counted on the element of surprise. To approach a ship without attracting notice, they had to tack the ship well.

Privateer crews came from different ports. The main ports were Louisburg in Île Royale, Plaisance in Newfoundland, Port Royal in Acadia and Quebec. Some privateers have even been traced back to Montreal. At times, privateer captains would also recruit in more than one port. The population was not very large and good sailors were sometimes hard to find.

Morin and His Crew Winter Over

Privateer: Le Trompeur
August 1712
Captain: Jacques François Morin dit Bonsecours
Homeport: Quebec

Le Trompeur weighed anchor in August 1712, with a few crewmembers, including two "savages" and Quebec men calling themselves freeboote Read More
Privateer crews were often made up of professional seamen. To privateer, one had to know how to navigate and very well, at that. In fact, privateers had to know how to steer their ship as quickly and accurately as possible. In addition to speed, they also counted on the element of surprise. To approach a ship without attracting notice, they had to tack the ship well.

Privateer crews came from different ports. The main ports were Louisburg in Île Royale, Plaisance in Newfoundland, Port Royal in Acadia and Quebec. Some privateers have even been traced back to Montreal. At times, privateer captains would also recruit in more than one port. The population was not very large and good sailors were sometimes hard to find.

Morin and His Crew Winter Over

Privateer: Le Trompeur
August 1712
Captain: Jacques François Morin dit Bonsecours
Homeport: Quebec

Le Trompeur weighed anchor in August 1712, with a few crewmembers, including two "savages" and Quebec men calling themselves freebooters. The remaining crewmembers would be recruited later in Cape Breton.

At sea, they seized two English ships: the Mutine and the Gaillarde. Since it was too far from Quebec to go back up the river before it froze, the crew decided to winter with their prizes in Acadia.

Now, when spring came back, many crewmembers decided to stay in Acadia and not to go back to Quebec with the Trompeur and its takings. They sold their share of the booty to other sailors. Therefore, the crew that declared the seizure in Quebec later was different from the one that actually made the capture.

Recruitment and the Press Gang

During periods of conflict, a States had to recruit for the Navy and encourage brave inhabitants to go sailing. This resulted in competition between the Navy and the privateers.

To prevent good navy candidates from giving in to the privateers' promises of wealth and thus leaving the Royal Navy, the British Secretary for the Colonies in 1778 intervened with new orders. Privateer ships were formally prohibited from employing Royal Navy seamen on their ships.

The Press Gang

To recruit its men, the British Navy sent armed patrols into public places to "press" seamen. Capable men were practically taken by force to serve on the ships. This practice, which was used by the English authorities in the Saint Lawrence Valley, sometimes led to cruel abuse. In 1778, the press gang went too far in Quebec: a seaman was killed during such an operation.

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

The arrival of ships from France, 1660, ca. 1931

The arrival of ships from France, 1660, ca. 1931

Lawrence R. Batchelor
Reproduced with permission of Public Works and Government Services Canada (2005).
c. 1931
C-011924
© Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada


Crew list of the Trompeur, commanded by jacques-François Morin, dit Bonsecours, 1712

Crew list of the Trompeur, commanded by jacques-François Morin, dit Bonsecours, 1712

Archives nationales du Québec, Québec
1712
TL5 d482 K
© Archives nationales du Québec, Québec


Rudimentary would be the best way to describe the living conditions on privateer ships. It is hard to imagine how little space the crewmembers had. They had none of the conveniences of modern life. There was no way to take a bath, and they did not have comfortable beds either. Seamen had to sleep in their hammocks close to the galley and amongst the rats and guns.

During long voyages, the close proximity between crewmembers, the lack of vitamins and insufficient clothing resulted in the outbreak of epidemics. Many seamen died of illnesses such as scurvy and fevers.

Hygiene

Water on board the ships was a very precious commodity. As a result, crewmembers were not inclined to waste it. They would not have washed their shirts every day, or every week, for that matter!

Of course, the ship itself had to be kept tidy. Seamen swept the decks, but with everything the ship contained, it was not easy to maintain a healthy environment. Over time, the ships became permeated with bad odours. Sometimes they were so filthy that they had to be destroyed!

Food
Read More
Rudimentary would be the best way to describe the living conditions on privateer ships. It is hard to imagine how little space the crewmembers had. They had none of the conveniences of modern life. There was no way to take a bath, and they did not have comfortable beds either. Seamen had to sleep in their hammocks close to the galley and amongst the rats and guns.

During long voyages, the close proximity between crewmembers, the lack of vitamins and insufficient clothing resulted in the outbreak of epidemics. Many seamen died of illnesses such as scurvy and fevers.

Hygiene

Water on board the ships was a very precious commodity. As a result, crewmembers were not inclined to waste it. They would not have washed their shirts every day, or every week, for that matter!

Of course, the ship itself had to be kept tidy. Seamen swept the decks, but with everything the ship contained, it was not easy to maintain a healthy environment. Over time, the ships became permeated with bad odours. Sometimes they were so filthy that they had to be destroyed!

Food

The seafarer's diet had little variety and the typical ration was essentially ship's bread and wine. That was for breakfast! At lunch, the seaman ate a little salted bacon, beef or cod. Sometimes, a few vegetables were added to the broth when cooking the salted meat. Finally, at supper, in addition to the wine and bread, seamen were given an average of four ounces of vegetables, such as beans or peas.

Clothing

Privateer crewmembers did not wear a uniform and, all too often, did not have spare clothes! Sometimes they even went to work without shoes, and their old clothes completely soaked.

To face the North Atlantic climate, seamen had only a shirt, cotton breeches and hat. Some were lucky enough to have a jacket, wool socks and clogs or shoes.

Positions Aboard the Ship

Captain: Responsible for commanding the ship and making the expedition run smoothly.

Marine and non-marine officers: Responsible for the four main aspects of sailing a ship: piloting, gunnery, maintenance and manoeuvring.

Surgeons: Rarely present on board privateer ships, surgeons practised only a rudimentary form of medicine. They certainly knew how to dress wounds, but they also practised blood-letting and purging, which was believed to have a curative effect. We now know that these practices weaken the sick rather than cure them.

Sailors: Handle the sails and anchors, and fire the guns.

Ship's boy: The jack-of-all-trades!

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

Salted Lard, 1760

This salted lard was found in a barrel at the site of the Machault wreck. At the time, since refrigeration was impossible, meat and fish were preserved by salting, smoking or drying.

Parks Canada Agency, Machault Wreck

© Parks Canada Agency


Since privateering is first and foremost an act of war, it requires the right equipment. Without a well-armed ship, there could be no privateering.

The crew, for its part, had to handle various types of weapons. In addition to bladed weapons, such as cutlasses, daggers and boarding axes, privateers also used pistols, blunderbusses, muskets and sometimes musketoons.

Usually not soldiers by profession, the members of the privateer crew often provided their own weapons. As a result, the weapons used were very diverse, unlike the Royal Navy who benefited from regulation equipment, which was more homogenous.

The Ship's Weapons

The privateer's greatest challenge was to chase down enemies of the State. Thus, most privateer ships had only 10 to 20 guns and were rather small.

Given the choice, privateers preferred short guns over long ones. There were also a lot of swivel guns, which are small mobile gun mounted on pivots. It generally took an average of five men to man the guns.

Various projectiles were used. The traditional round balls were used most often, but they were not the only Read More
Since privateering is first and foremost an act of war, it requires the right equipment. Without a well-armed ship, there could be no privateering.

The crew, for its part, had to handle various types of weapons. In addition to bladed weapons, such as cutlasses, daggers and boarding axes, privateers also used pistols, blunderbusses, muskets and sometimes musketoons.

Usually not soldiers by profession, the members of the privateer crew often provided their own weapons. As a result, the weapons used were very diverse, unlike the Royal Navy who benefited from regulation equipment, which was more homogenous.

The Ship's Weapons

The privateer's greatest challenge was to chase down enemies of the State. Thus, most privateer ships had only 10 to 20 guns and were rather small.

Given the choice, privateers preferred short guns over long ones. There were also a lot of swivel guns, which are small mobile gun mounted on pivots. It generally took an average of five men to man the guns.

Various projectiles were used. The traditional round balls were used most often, but they were not the only ones. To damage the masts and the rigging, seamen used staked shots that spiralled through the air. When these balls are wrapped in a cloth soaked in oil, they are called firebombs. There were also star projectiles that spun rapidly and tore the sails. Lastly, there was canister and grape shot, consisting of projectiles that blew apart into a dozen or so tiny pieces.

Personal Weapons

Cutlasses and swords
Swords and cutlasses served many purposes, the first of which was clearly to wound or kill an enemy during combat. Swords and sabres were also used by seamen during boarding attempts to cut and break the rigging that was in their way.

Boarding axes
Amongst other bladed weapons, there was the boarding axe, which in addition to being an offensive weapon, could also be used to damage the hull of an enemy ship and to cut the rigging.

Boarding pike
One of the most popular and efficient weapons was the boarding pike. It was used during privateer attacks to wound the enemy while maintaining one's distance. As a defensive weapon, it could prevent the enemy from boarding the ship.

Grapnel
Used specifically for boarding, the grapnel is thrown so that its barbs hook onto the enemy ship. It is used to pull the ship being boarded closer and maintain it along the flank of the invading ship, so that privateers can board.

Firearms
Very useful during boarding and on land raids, firearms were used specifically to wound or kill an adversary. Pistols, often worn at the belt, were held on with hooks. Privateers also used muskets, musketoons and blunderbusses.

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

Privateer sabre, general view, 1740-1750 Le Conardel, Charles (18th century)

This boarding sabre probably belonged to the captain of the Aimable-Grenot, a privateer frigate (1741-1749).

Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux, Armoire de prêt
1740 - 1750
© Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux, Armoire de prêt


Caronade, 1805

Carronades were shorter and lighter than cannon, and very effective in close combat. This projectile's greater speed inflicted more damage, both to enemy vessels and to the crew manning it, many of whom were wounded by numerous wood fragments.

Naval Museum of Québec

© Naval Museum of Québec


Star Shot and bag, 1760

As the bag disintegrated, the shot inflicted maximum damage on the enemy's cordage and sails, and also injured the crew.

Parks Canada Agency, Machault Wreck
1760
© Parks Canada Agency


Staked Shot

This type of shot was used to inflict damage on the sails and masts of enemy ships.

David Saint-Pierre

© Quebec City Archaeological Collection


Boarding Axe, 18th Century

A very popular weapon among privateers. Easy to handle, it has a blade at one end and a spike on the other.

Gilles Sirois
XVIIIth Century
© Fonds d'exposition de l'Association des descendants de capitaines corsaires, France


Muskets

Top: French, 1774-1777 Centre: American, 1775-1778 Bottom: English, 1765-1775

Carol Highsmith

no VAFO 124; 137; 109
© George C. Neumann Collection, Valley Forge National Historical Park


Boarding Hook, 1770

The boarding hook was used to pull a ship and hold it in place during boarding.

Stewart Museum, at the Fort Île Sainte-Hélène
1770
no 1966.11
© Stewart Museum, at the Fort Île Sainte-Hélène


Though spectacular, naval combat represented a small part of the privateer's duties. In fact, privateers travelled long distances and did not always encounter the enemy.

Thus, even if privateers wanted to take control of a ship, they would not systematically resort to violence.Moreover, shipowners and outfitters, who invested in the transportation of merchandise, generally encouraged sailors not to resist. The privateers themselves would rather be made prisoners than give up their lives. Thus, even if privateers wanted to take control of a ship, they would not systematically resort to violence.

However, there was the occasional battle. With a warning shot across the bows, the privateer ship gave an order for the enemy ship to surrender. If it fired back or refused to comply, it was "clear the decks for action!"

A Newfoundlander against an English Privateer

The Notre-Dame de Grâce
5th May 1708, at first light
Homeport: La Rochelle, France
Location: One and a hal Read More
Though spectacular, naval combat represented a small part of the privateer's duties. In fact, privateers travelled long distances and did not always encounter the enemy.

Thus, even if privateers wanted to take control of a ship, they would not systematically resort to violence.Moreover, shipowners and outfitters, who invested in the transportation of merchandise, generally encouraged sailors not to resist. The privateers themselves would rather be made prisoners than give up their lives. Thus, even if privateers wanted to take control of a ship, they would not systematically resort to violence.

However, there was the occasional battle. With a warning shot across the bows, the privateer ship gave an order for the enemy ship to surrender. If it fired back or refused to comply, it was "clear the decks for action!"

A Newfoundlander against an English Privateer

The Notre-Dame de Grâce
5th May 1708, at first light
Homeport: La Rochelle, France
Location: One and a half leagues West-South-West of Belle Isle

With its crew of 97 men and its 10 small-calibre guns, the ship is on its guard. Suddenly, the crew spots two English frigates at its heels.

They are under attack! The English privateer bombards the French fishing vessel for three quarters of an hour. Waiting for just the right moment, the Newfoundlander responds to the English fire as the Englishmen attempt to board the ship. Thanks to the musketry and strategic cannon fire, the crew succeeds in repulsing the privateer's attack!

Unfortunately, the captain, Noël Lhomme, was hit just above the right eye by musket fire. He died three days later. At least the crew remained safe and sound.

British Convoy Attacked


Escort ship: The Fame
Convoy of British merchant ships
Homeport: London, England
Destination: Quebec

During the summer of 1780, the Fame, a lightly armed British merchant ship, took part in escorting a convoy to Quebec. Dispersed in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, the convoy was at the mercy of an American privateer, which appeared in their way.

Since the privateer was not showing his colours, the captain of the merchant ship asked that he identify himself. When the other captain replied, "Damn'd your blood!" there was no longer any doubt; this was an American privateer!

With no further explanation, the privateer opened fire with its guns. The captain of the Fame gathered up all his papers and personal effects, certain that he would be taken. Fortunately for the English, the convoy caught up with the isolated ships and managed to drive off the privateer. This time, combat was avoided.

The Attack of Le Trompeur

Canadian privateer: Le Trompeur
5th August 1712
Homeport: Quebec
Location: Gulf of Saint Lawrence

Privateers can also engage in combat on land. For example, the small crew of Le Trompeur followed three ships sailing under the British flag to the far end of a bay.

To back the enemy into a corner, the privateers decided to surprise the English by attacking them by land and sea. Pretending they were going to resist, the English escaped on two ships and left the third to the privateers.

In his interrogation following his return in June 1713, René Denault, aged 21 and a self-proclaimed freebooter living at Cul-de-Sac of Quebec, explained what the ships contained:

In both ships, about ten or twelve barrels of salt, and about two thousand filleted and salted cod of various sizes and a few papers consisting of passports and commissions.

ANQ-Q, TL5D 482 G, 1713-06-19

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

The naval vessel Le Vengeur in action on 13 Prarial (June 1,1974) 1844

The naval vessel Le Vengeur in action on 13 Prarial (June 1,1974) 1844

Victor Ferdinand Perrot

C-016225
© Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada


Ship's Log, Fame, 1780

This ship's log belonged to the English ship, the Fame. It describes the Fame's participation in escorting three cowboys between England and Quebec during the War of American Independence. The voyage of 1780 was marked by an encounter with American privateers in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence.

Philips Library, Peabody Essex Museum

no 6561779/83 f
© Philips Library, Peabody Essex Museum


Pillaging on land was part of the privateer's job description. They went after fishing stations, such as those at Percé and Mingan. Taking anything of value, they burned the fishing facilities and surrounding dwellings. This practice gradually declined at the beginning of the 18th century.

However, the "pillaging privateers" resumed their activities during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Determined to cause damage to the British economy, the Americans sacked installations belonging to major British merchants in Chaleur Bay, including the Robins and Shoolbreds. They even went as far as the Sept-Îles fishing station!

The Pillaging of Percé in 1690

Phips' fleet left Boston in mid-May 1690. This fleet included warships, and troop transport and supply ships, but also a few privateers. Its ultimate goal was to take New France. After taking and pillaging Port Royal in the Bay of Fundy, part of the fleet moved on to take the fishing facilities of Île Bonaventure and Percé.

For eight days, the privateers pillaged and set fire to the fishing stations and tiny chapels Read More
Pillaging on land was part of the privateer's job description. They went after fishing stations, such as those at Percé and Mingan. Taking anything of value, they burned the fishing facilities and surrounding dwellings. This practice gradually declined at the beginning of the 18th century.

However, the "pillaging privateers" resumed their activities during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Determined to cause damage to the British economy, the Americans sacked installations belonging to major British merchants in Chaleur Bay, including the Robins and Shoolbreds. They even went as far as the Sept-Îles fishing station!

The Pillaging of Percé in 1690

Phips' fleet left Boston in mid-May 1690. This fleet included warships, and troop transport and supply ships, but also a few privateers. Its ultimate goal was to take New France. After taking and pillaging Port Royal in the Bay of Fundy, part of the fleet moved on to take the fishing facilities of Île Bonaventure and Percé.

For eight days, the privateers pillaged and set fire to the fishing stations and tiny chapels of Île Bonaventure and Percé.

Father Emmanuel Jumeau watched powerless as the disaster unfolded:

They then set fire to the four corners of the church, which was soon reduced to ashes, as well as our Mission on Isle de Bonaventure, which suffered a similar fate, after they broke the images, and cut down all the ornaments with sabres.

Excerpt from a letter from Father Jumeau to Father Chestien Leclercq, dated 15th October 1690.

The Pillaging of Mingan in 1778

American privateering ship: Fame
Homeport: Salem, Massachusetts

After destroying the fishing stations in Chaleur Bay, the captain of the Fame took a young French-Canadian aboard. Acting as guide, the Canadian led the Americans to the Mingan station to steal furs.

The privateer took one other thing: the ship of Joseph Colard. The captain lost all his cargo, including 712 seal pelts. On the other hand, he and his crew were allowed to go free.

Either out of bravado or boastfulness, the privateer went so far as to make fun of the King's ships in Bic, claiming he could seize them!

Plunderage

Plunderage was a right on the open sea. When a ship was taken, crewmembers of an armed privateer ship could take, for their own personal use, the personal effects of their enemy counterparts.

Thus, the captain could take the personal effects of the enemy or opposing captain, the surgeon, if there was one, could take the kit of the surgeon on the enemy ship, the sailor could take the box of personal effects belonging to his counterpart, and so on.

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

Sealing Ring, ca. 1690

Cette bague, ornée d’une fleur de lys, provient peut-être du pillage de l’établissement français de Percé ou Port-Royal par des corsaires faisant partie de la flotte de Phips.

Photo: Marc Gadreau, Réserve d’archéologie du Québec.
Elizabeth and Mary wreck and archarological collection

© Réserve d’archéologie du Québec


Seamand Ditty Box, ca. 1812

This small box contained all of a seaman's personal effects: good luck charm, precious objects, utensils, dice, and sewing kit.

Peabody Essex Museum
c. 1812
no M950
© Peabody Essex Museum


Privateering activities had a major impact on people's daily lives and economic activities. Since privateering was a private activity that generated profits-that is, if it was successful-it became a source of additional income for the captains and sailors of privateer crews.

Conversely, the absence of a significant number of men away at sea created a social imbalance. If too many fishers and farmers left at the same time, there might not be enough manpower to till the soil and catch fish. Some families ended up suffering the consequences and, if privateering became too important, it could affect an entire city.
Privateering activities had a major impact on people's daily lives and economic activities. Since privateering was a private activity that generated profits-that is, if it was successful-it became a source of additional income for the captains and sailors of privateer crews.

Conversely, the absence of a significant number of men away at sea created a social imbalance. If too many fishers and farmers left at the same time, there might not be enough manpower to till the soil and catch fish. Some families ended up suffering the consequences and, if privateering became too important, it could affect an entire city.

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

Élie Galermont is a new sailor on the privateer ship "The T". After a raid, he realizes that his captain is leading them to crime and acts more like a pirate than a privateer in the service of the king. Élie doesn’t like this and decides to go looking for evidence to expose his captain’s activities on his return. Through various games, with Élie Galermont search the ship to find evidence to expose the captain.

Game 2
Only the best sailers can come aboard Captain Ménard’s ship. Help him select his shipmates for his privateer expedition.

Follow this link to play the game.
Élie Galermont is a new sailor on the privateer ship "The T". After a raid, he realizes that his captain is leading them to crime and acts more like a pirate than a privateer in the service of the king. Élie doesn’t like this and decides to go looking for evidence to expose his captain’s activities on his return. Through various games, with Élie Galermont search the ship to find evidence to expose the captain.

Game 2
Only the best sailers can come aboard Captain Ménard’s ship. Help him select his shipmates for his privateer expedition.

Follow this link to play the game.

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify the role and importance of privateers on the population, the economy of the colony and the development of the territory;
  • Define what makes a privateer and the differences between him and pirates;
  • Linking the events of the past to the present (continuity);
  • Develop a process of research and information processing in geography and history, enabling it to develop his critical thinking and his historical thinking.

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