Privateering was a veritable "prisoner-making machine"! When a privateer captured an enemy ship, it would often take the crew hostage and under its wing. While those extra mouths to feed were very costly, they were also currency: prisoners were used as bargaining chips. Moreover, invaluable information about enemy movements could be obtained from these prisoners during interrogations.

These prisoners were generally treated with a great deal of respect and housed with settlers or the privateer owner. But of course, privateering being an act of war, prisoners were sometimes mistreated.

The Capture of Mgr de Saint-Vallier

In 1704, Mgr de Saint-Vallier was returning to Quebec from a four-year trip to Europe when he was captured by an English fleet, which included some privateers. He was held captive in England for five years. He was respected because of his rank and was treated well. However, he remained in captivity while the English negotiated a trade in which he would be returned for some compatriots held by the French.

The negotiations regarding the exchange of Mgr de Saint-Vallier for the Bishop of Liège, a prisoner whose "value" was equivalent to that of the Bishop of Quebec, were extremely complicated. Saint-Vallier did not return to Quebec until 1713.

Theft on a Privateer's Prize in Quebec

As was common at the time, many prisoners in Quebec were housed at the privateer owner's house or at a dwelling that he considered appropriate. This situation sometimes led to amusing stories!

For example, in the fall of 1712 an important theft took place on a captured vessel anchored in Quebec Harbour: some ropes and other tackle were stolen from the Catherine. However, the only witnesses the authorities had to expose the thief or thieves were...some English seamen from the Catherine who were being held prisoner in a home at the Cul-de-Sac of Quebec!

Prisoner Exchanges

During times of conflict, the authorities negotiated to save subjects who were held prisoner by the enemy. One side would thus release some prisoners so that the enemy would do the same.

In November 1744, the Governor of Île Royale in Acadia wrote a letter to the Governor of Massachusetts to propose an exchange of prisoners:

I am returning in the same ships all the prisoners taken by a privateer from your region and from various ships except a part of the 67 I sent to Plaisance to be traded for fishermen and others there.

LAC, MG1 Fonds des Colonies. Series C11A. Correspondance générale. 15/09/1744

Felix O'Hara, a Political Prisoner

To compensate for the lack of regular troops to defend the country, local militias were established in various regions of Canada, as was the case at Percé in the Gaspé Peninsula.

In the summer of 1782, American privateers dealt a severe blow, attacking the post at Percé repeatedly. The Americans even came ashore and pushed the militia's only cannon off the cliff into the water below. As they left, they burnt every vessel they found and captured the leader of the Percé militia, the merchant Felix O'Hara. They dragged him to their ship, where they subjected him to a mock trial before an improvised court. Among other things, the merchant was accused of being rich! He was treated quite harshly, acquitted and sent back to shore in a canoe.

Highly politicized, the American privateersmen administered a "justice" based on the ideals of the American Revolution. In Canada, their sworn enemy was the British merchant, who in their view exploited the French Canadian settlers and the Native peoples. This is why O'Hara, a merchant as well as a militia commander, was treated in such a fashion.
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