Elements of Historical Realism in the Song ‘Barrett’s Privateers’ by Stan Rogers
A new history suggests he hit the mark
The best novelists of seafaring history can make us feel the groan of the ship in storm swells and the lashing of the wind while accurately describing the work of seafaring in a historical milieu. C.S. Forester, author of the famous novel series centered on the career of his original character Horatio Hornblower in the Napoleonic era Royal Navy, fills his metaphorical sails with details of life at sea. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the 2003 film starring Russell Crowe based on the famous book by Patrick O’Brian, leaves viewers almost seasick with realism. These fictive creations fill a gap between our intellectualizing knowledge of the past and our yearning to experience it firsthand.
Like many such authors, Eric Jay Dolan is not an historian by training, but an accomplished marine biologist and an excellent popular historian. Reading his new book Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution, I was put in mind of yet another cultural treasure related to his topic, the song “Barrett’s Privateers” by Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers. The United States was born as a privateering nation by necessity, and Dolan has told that story very well, yet he has also pointed at a narrative historical lacuna that Rogers has filled for him with verse: the experiences of Canadian privateers in the American Revolution. Just as one might begin from an appreciation of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to contextualize the historic dangers of shipping on the Great Lakes, the lyrics of Rogers’s song provide an alternate vantage point from which to contextualize Dolan’s history.
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Here are those lyrics, as printed on the liner notes of Rogers’s 1976 breakout album Fogarty’s Cove. With the exception of one word, explained below, they are identical to the lyrics printed in typeset on the liner notes of Rogers’s 1979 Between the Breaks…Live! LP right down to the punctuation. On the earlier recording, Rogers adds under the title that his song is based on “a story told to me by Bill Howell in Halifax.” We are hearing the final form of a sea-tale, possibly half true or half remembered, now lost. Rogers’s nameless narrator sings with the despair of a man crippled for life and destroyed by the experience of captivity, but the tragedy is set within a satire of the worst things one might encounter in the privateering life. We are laughing at the narrator’s pain even as we feel it. This powerful tension within the lyric is one reason why “Barrett’s Privateers” has become a global phenomenon among fan communities such as the renaissance fair circuit and reenacting groups. Second only to “Mary Ellen Carter,” it has become the most-recognized and most widely-known Stan Rogers lyric:
Oh, the year was 1778, (How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
A letter of marque come from the king
To the scummiest vessel I've ever seen
God Damn them all!
I was told we'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns – shed no tears
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers.
Oh, Elcid Barrett cried the town
For twenty brave men all fishermen who
Would make for him the “Antelope's” crew
The “Antelope” sloop was a sickening sight
She'd a list to the port and her sails in rags
And the cook in the scuppers with the staggers and jags
On the King's Birthday we put to sea
We were 91 days to Montego Bay
Pumping like madmen all the way
On the 96th day we sailed again
When a bloody great Yankee hove in sight
With our cracked four pounders we made to fight
The Yankee lay low down with gold
She was broad and fat and loose in stays
But to catch her took the Antelope two whole days
Then at length we stood two cables away
Our cracked four pounders made an awful din
But with one fat ball, the Yank stove us in
The Antelope shook and pitched on her side
Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs
And the main-truck carried off both me legs
So here I lay in my 23rd year
It's been 6 years since we sailed away
And I just made Halifax yesterday
To be sure, there is something cartoonish about the battle in this song. It is a caricature of the privateer experience. Just as some room for drama and story is permissible in historical fiction, we can give the poet license to do this. As we can observe from reading Dolan, Rogers has drawn this caricature from real features. Whatever its third-hand origins and humorous character, Rogers’s story does have verisimilitude in each discrete part, according to Dolan.
Begin with Elcid Barrett. The first name is a contraction of El Cid, the famous Spanish conqueror, and in the satirical context of the lyrics we can take Rogers to mean it as a joke. A voracious reader, Rogers was reputedly a fan of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Like the famously senile hero of the novel, Barrett is a comic disaster. The record shows that adventurers like Barrett abounded in the privateer trade. Revolutionary leader William Whipple Jr. deplored his type as “generally the most profligate fellows that are to be met with, and if by chance a man of a fair moral character engages in the business, he very soon degenerates and falls into the vices of his associates.”
A talented captain with a good ship, good luck, and a tight crew could indeed make a great fortune. That Barrett apparently kept his ship beating against the gulf stream current for three months suggests that he was neither an informed navigator nor a talented captain. He was hardly the only one. In a 1776 letter to his wife Abigail, Whipple’s colleague John Adams observed that a veritable flood of adventurers was bound to produce some disappointments. “Thousands of schemes for profiteering are afloat in American imagination,” he wrote. “Out of these speculations many fruitless and some profitable projects will grow.” Barrett’s speculation, apparently shared by the crew that the narrator damns, is a get rich quick scheme.
According to Dolan, such dreams were a potent force attracting the American privateer during the Revolution. However, one side of the war enjoyed much more lucrative results than the other, and Barrett was on the wrong side of that economic equation. A fair number of ventures went bust, some of them in spectacles almost as cartoonish as the one Rogers sings.
More than a petty legalism, the “letter of marque” from King George implies a cargo. That is, the Antelope would have been laden with goods in order to ply the trade lanes looking for targets of opportunity. Privateers without letters of marque tended to use large ships and large crews, whereas ships with letters of marque tended to be smaller, with “fewer cannons and a smaller crew than a conventional privateer, although it usually took along enough crewmen to man a few prizes,” according to Dolan. This certainly describes the Antelope. Furthermore, as sailors under letters of marque were ostensibly merchantmen, they received a base salary in addition to prize money, whereas regular privateers sailed on pure speculation.
It is unclear whether Rogers understood the subtle difference. However, he was correct about the sociology of privateering in the Atlantic world. Fishermen, like other maritime occupations, suffered greatly in the deepening war between colonies and king. Royal Navy impressment was bad enough — indeed, it would carry on as a source of contention between the two nations into the War of 1812 — but the Prohibitory Act of February 1776 effectively boycotted all American trade and proved to be the final straw. First George Washington, then the states, and then the Continental Congress all began issuing letters of marque before the end of the year. Hundreds of privateer ships were at sea before the colonies had even declared their independence. In response, the king looked to his still-loyal colonies. Although the residents of Nova Scotia were sympathetic to the American cause in 1775, by 1778 the depredations of piratical Massachusetts Puritans had spurred many residents of the province to set sail themselves in revenge.
The Antelope is a sloop, a single-masted sailing ship. According to Dolan, this was not an unusual class among privateers, or even navies. The very first ships commissioned by the Continental Congress, the Chance and the Congress, were both sloops with four and six cannons respectively, as well as complements of just 40-50 sailors. Fighting spirit could overcome size difference. When the surrendering captain of the Golden Eagle marveled at how small the crew of the Pickering was, privateer Jonathan Carnes replied that the leadership of Capt. Jonathan Haradan made the difference. Small privateers like the Antelope became a scourge in the English Channel.
Nevertheless, small privateers could and occasionally did run into more powerful vessels. The New Jersey privateer Skunk, a whaleboat armed with just two small cannons fore and aft, allegedly opened fire on a British third-rate of 74 guns under the mistaken impression that it was a merchant seaman, beating a hasty retreat under oars after losing their sail to the responsive full broadside. However, this story may be exaggerated. A second example is better documented. In 1779, the privateer Hampden approached what looked like a defenseless merchant ship only to discover the East Indiaman Bridgewater, armed with 32 heavy guns. Elcid Barrett served the British side, but still took the same risk of running into a bigger, better-armed American.
Risks abound in seafaring, yet the unhygienic Antelope is described as especially risky, “a list to the port and her sails in rags.” Although Rogers is going for comic effect here, the “gold rush” effect of Atlantic privateering during the American Revolution did in fact draw men out in craft of dubious seaworthiness. The Library of Congress has an archive of Naval Records of the American Revolution showing a total of 1,697 letters of marque issued by the Continental Congress during the war. Altogether, these letters employed 58,400 sailors and 14,872 cannons at sea. While the totals are inflated somewhat by duplication — a single ship, with the same sailors and guns, might sail under several different letters of marque — they indicate the scale of public enthusiasm for privateering. Due to the aforementioned act of Parliament, plenty of idle ships were available on the east coast in 1776 and crowds of unemployed seamen stood eager for opportunity.
Halifax and Nova Scotia were not the only loyalist domains where the economics of the war produced royal privateers. Ship owners in occupied New York made the same calculation, preying on fellow Americans for profit using vessels that were lying idle for lack of commerce. By 1778, Barrett would be entering a pricey market. His choice of a cut-rate, worn-out sloop reflects a late entry into a speculative bubble as much as his stingy purse. As per the song, some poorly-chosen privateer vessels could not keep up with their quarry and lost rich prizes because of seakeeping issues in old or poorly-engineered ships.
Rogers tells us quite a bit about life on board the Antelope in just a few words. “The cook in the scuppers” — drains cut into the railing alongside the deck — has “the staggers and jags,” i.e. he is a drunk and vomiting in the scuppers. We can thus imagine the menu was appalling as well as monotonous. Even the menu on a decent privateer, the Porus out of Salem, consisted of all the possible matches between pork or beef on the one hand and beans or peas on the other. The condition of the ship and the life of the crew are exemplified in the line “pumping like madmen all the way.” Feverish pumping of bilges in extremis, after severe hull damage or leakage to the ship, will exhaust even a large crew.
Dolan notes that at the time of the Revolution, Americans were among the richest people in the world on a per capita basis. This is the “American gold” luring Barrett and the narrator, but for Canadian privateers, it was mostly a mirage. By Dolan’s accounting, American privateers captured three times as many ships as the king’s privateers did. Whereas the Americans could focus on the most lucrative parts of the British Empire, such as the West Indies sugar trade, most of the American vessels captured by royal privateers were themselves privateers carrying no letters of marque and therefore no cargo, and therefore poor prizes in comparison to what Americans could catch.
We might think that Barrett’s men were fools for believing they could get rich without firing a shot, but in fact most merchant ships seem to have surrendered peaceably. Usually, resistance was perfunctory, and even when battles did occur, mortality was surprisingly low. Dolan’s casualty figures never exceed single and double-digits for any engagement. Nevertheless, battles did occur, and a surprising number of them matched privateer versus privateer. This presents a tantalizing possibility for our lyric. Rogers’s narrator remembers the “Yankee lay low down with gold” — metaphorical gold, meaning cargo — but any well-armed American merchantman would just as likely have carried a letter of marque herself in 1778. Thus we may read this sea story as an encounter between a Canadian sloop and a larger American trader, both with letters of marque, for such encounters did happen. It would explain why the sailors on the supposed quarry vessel never tightened the ropes in their stays during the two-day chase: they were playing the part of a bumbling, fat prize to lure the Antelope into their trap. The predator was prey all along. This explanation lies outside the lyrical text, but the spirit of the song supports it.
Rogers has the Antelope opening fire at about 400 yards range (“two cables away”). This is normal gunnery range. Just as ships were in short supply all over the Atlantic coast of North America, however, cannons were a high demand item during the Revolution, and not all of them that went to sea were combat-ready. Rogers is being facetious when he says that Barrett’s guns were “cracked,” as actual cracks render guns unsafe to fire at all. However, worn-out and low-quality cannons did sail on privateering vessels, and sometimes they exploded. Laugh as we might, Rogers sang about serious procurement disasters that really happened within the speculative bubble of Revolution-era privateering.
Rogers intends to add a comic effect to the sorry fate of Barrett’s privateers, singing of “one fat ball” (meaning cannonball) which “stove us in,” causing the Antelope to capsize and sink. Ridiculous as the scenario may seem, it is not wholly unrealistic. As Dolan notes, if fire reached a powder magazine, a ship could in fact explode and sink. Catastrophic failures of hull planking could cause sudden flooding and capsize a ship. For example, this describes the end of the British privateer Admiral Duff in 1780. For any sailor who survived the explosion of the Antelope, say at the top of the mainmast, instead of being “smashed like a bowl of eggs” on deck as Barrett was, it would indeed seem as though the ship “shook and pitched on her side” like some great dying beast.
That the narrator was at the top of the mast seems certain, if “the main-truck carried off both me legs.” Here lies an epigraphic controversy: on his original 1976 pressing, Rogers spells the word in lower case with a hyphen, whereas in the liner notes to his 1979 live recording, Rogers spells it as a single capitalized word, “Maintruck.” Despite this minor difference, the historical meaning is clear: our narrator was on top of the mainmast, where the rigging is secured to a ring-like structure (the maintruck) under tension, and this feature caught his legs as the ship capsized, injuring him. Of course, the narrator would have bled to death from torn limbs, so the maintruck could not have literally severed his legs. Rather, this lyric implies the primitive state of medical care on privateering ships. Badly-broken legs would probably get amputated in those circumstances, especially in the case of any compound fractures.
That the narrator survived at all indicates that the American ship stopped to pick him up. Although mistreatment was not unknown, victors generally made real efforts to save enemies from drowning. After the Admiral Duff exploded, for example, her American vanquishers plucked 55 British sailors from the water at little reward. However considerate they might have been, they could not have provided premium surgical services on board, either.
Finally, we arrive at the pathos of the narrator. Angry with his dead mates, gnawing on regret, he is a young man — seventeen years old when he left home, according to the song — and just returned to Nova Scotia after six years, presumably spent in captivity. Prisoner exchange was minimal throughout the war; cartels only began in earnest after peace talks started in 1783. Given the vagaries of sea travel by sail, a captured Canadian might not return for another year.
Oddly, it is the name of the sailor’s hometown — Sherbrooke — that is the least-realistic detail of the song. Neither Sherbrooke, Quebec nor Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia had been founded yet in 1778. This seems to be a local place-name that Rogers chose without checking his chronology. Aside from this one item, however, everything in his song resonates with the very real events described in Rebels at Sea. Eric Jay Dolan has not left the Canadian privateers of 1776-1783 entirely out of his book, but the Americans are centered in it. Rogers has centered the Canadian experience of the same privateer war in rhyme and meter using a pastiche of real, if amazing, events that happened at sea during the American Revolution. Whatever the oral traditions behind the Stan Rogers lyrics were, Dolan seems to confirm their historicity.
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