The privateers that raided shipping off the New England coast in the War of 1812 were the gladiators of their day. Wealth, fame, legend – and danger – lured ships and their crews to sea. And none was more famous than Captain Joseph Barrs and his privateer ship, the Liverpool Packet.
The trade embargo of 1795 put New Englanders in a difficult spot. The region made much of its money trading, and the embargo on British goods took considerable toll. In Portsmouth, N.H. alone the value of cargo arriving in port plummeted from more than $785,000 a year before the enforcement of the treaty to less than $125,000 by the start of the War of 1812.
When war finally broke out with Britain, there was a surplus of hungry seamen eager to return to work manning the legalized pirate vessels called privateers. American sailors by the scores jumped off their fishing vessels to sign on with a privateer that could capture British commercial vessels at will. The ships were hauled into port and sold along with their cargo. Once the government took a share, the remaining profit was divided among the crew.
Likewise there were Canadian sailors equally eager to find work on privateers. Canada was somewhat slower to get her privateers in the water. A 'Letters of Marque' was required to authorize a ship to become a privateer. The letter guaranteed a captured crew of a privateer would be treated with military courtesy rather than labeled as pirates.
England was slow in issuing Letters of Marque, but when they arrived the Canadians were equally eager to cruise the coast looking for American ships to capture and bring back to the British port of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
There were many privateers, but none more successful than the Barrs brothers. Joseph was the swaggering sea captain. John was the seaman turned importer and investor. When it came to identifying lucrative targets for the privateers John knew where to find the loot. Joseph knew how to capture it.
The Barrs were backed by investors who had anticipated the windfall the War of 1812 could bring, including Canadian banker Enos Collins. Collins and his fellow investors had purchased a speedy schooner, the Liverpool Packet, in 1811. The ship had been seized and auctioned as an illegal slave-trading vessel. Joseph Barrs took command of the vessel, and it became the terror of the New England coast.
Joseph's knowledge of shipping and his daring combined to make him public enemy number one among New England ship owners. In one week alone in October of 1812 he captured 11 ships and returned with them to Halifax. The city was alive with celebration as ships sailed into the harbor, their crews drunk on stolen wine. The ships' cargoes, including paychests, belonged to the crew of the privateer that captured them. Barrs was celebrated.
In New England, the situation was dire. The cost of insuring ships flew through the roof. Shippers were using horse and wagon to move goods up and down the coast. Grass was growing on the wharves of Boston, observers lamented. One newspaperr would brand Barrs 'the evil genius of our coasting trade.”
When traffic off Cape Cod slowed down, Barrs took his Liverpool Packet north to Massachusetts' North Shore and to the coast of Maine. Rumors surrounded the Canadian captain. Some speculated that he had crew aboard with knowledge of New England harbors. That explained his ability to navigate so skillfully in and around the hazards he encountered.
Others speculated that his ship was backed, secretly, by wealthy Boston families who profited by investing in the privateer ships that were crippling their own country.
In Portsmouth ship owners were furious that one ship should prove so lethal to their trade. Sea captain Thomas Shaw took up the job of capturing the Liverpool Packet.
The legend of the Liverpool Packet had grown beyond measure. Though she was hugely successful, Barrs did not capture the 450 ships that legend credited him with.
One story told of the captain's uncanny prowess in navigating New England ports. The ship ducked into the harbor at Newcastle, N.H. and pulled alongside the fish flakes where fishermen put out their catch to dry. The privateer crew loaded fish onto the vessel and left a note of thanks from the crew, “lending their regards to the people of the town for thus providing for our wants.”
The inevitable finally happened in June of 1813. Shaw and his ship the Thomas, larger than the Liverpool Packet, tracked the vessel down off the coast of New Hampshire and overtook it after a grueling six-hour chase and brief battle.
What should have been a peaceful surrender turned ugly when the crews of the two ships broke out fighting before the two captains put an end to it. The Canadian ship was towed into Portsmouth Harbor. Crowds cheered as Barrs and his crew were marched through the streets to jail. And the mighty Liverpool Packet was auctioned and renamed the Portsmouth Packet, sailing as a privateer under a captain from Dover, N.H.
But of course the story didn't end there.
Epitaph of a Privateer
The Liverpool Packet stayed at sea under the American flag for less than two days. It was recaptured by the British and repurchased by Enos Collins and his investors who returned it to service as a privateer. Collins, founder of the Halifax Banking Company, would become one of the wealthiest men in Canada. He disliked discussing the privateer days.
Joseph Barrs returned to the seas as captain of another privateer. This broke the rules of the parole under which he was released. He was recaptured and this time imprisoned for the duration of the war. He never fully recovered his health following his imprisonment and died in 1824 in Halifax.
John Barrs' wealth would continue to grow and he, as well as his brother James, served terms in Canada's parliament.