Living under the protection of the Canadian navy and in a world safeguarded by international conventions, it’s hard for us to imagine that terror once lurked in the waters off the coast of the Maritimes. Yet when Marsters uses that word in his title, he’s not exaggerating. For three hundred years, during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, people living on the Atlantic coast were regularly at risk from marauding privateers.
The line between privateering and piracy was sometimes thin. Both pirates and privateers preyed on ships and coastal towns. And privateers were occasionally as ruthless as pirates in the treatment of their captives. The critical difference between them was the privateer’s Letter of Marque. As long as they followed the rules laid out in that official government commission, privateers could legally attack both enemy ships and ships trading with the enemy in time of war.
They brought these ships or “prizes” back to port to be condemned, which meant that a judge determined whether or not the cargo was enemy property. Any condemned goods belonged to the individual or corporation that employed the privateer, and the employers usually auctioned the cargoes off and pocketed the profit. It was “the merchant’s way of waging war.”
Marsters quickly gets these and some other explanations out of the way at the beginning of his book, because his focus is not on privateering in general but on the stories of individual privateers. He highlights their personal histories, their adventures, and their influence on the times in which they lived. During the early years of French colonization, for example, forts and settlements were often severely undermanned and the governors had to rely on privateers to protect the fledgling colony. Even more important, when trade was cut off from France because of armed conflict, the cargos captured by privateers kept the colonists from starving.
Pierre Morpain was one such hero. He spent much of his fifty year career defending the colonies of Port Royal and Louisbourg against the British. His cruises took him from Newfoundland to Haiti in search of prizes, and he inspired the New England colonists with so much dread that for years after his death they still remembered “Morpang the Pirate.”
The story of Morpain is typical of this book. The chapters are arranged roughly chronologically, focusing either on individual privateers or on particular conflicts that saw the reemergence of privateering. We read about d’Iberville’s brilliant battle strategy in his attacks along Hudson’s Bay. We see how privateers were involved in the destruction of Acadian settlements. And we learn about the predatory actions of American privateers during the Revolutionary War. They fell upon the town of Liverpool in one instance, looting the houses, burning the homes of people who resisted, and sailing off with their plunder. The citizens had to bear their losses at that time, but they did exact revenge some forty years later. During the War of 1812, the Liverpool Packet turned the tables on the Americans and terrorized the coast of New England.
Marsters has interspersed these romantic sea stories and historical accounts with a generous number of illustrations. His experience as an interpreter at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic must have been stood him in good stead as he assembled this collection. Paintings of battles, seaports, and ships under full sail combine with contemporary maps and photographs of artifacts related to privateering life. The result is a visually captivating book, well deserving of its place on the shortlist in the non-fiction category of the Atlantic Book Awards.