On June 5th, the Custom House is going to make note and honor the brave souls of Newburyport who participated in Privateering. Rather Appropriately, the port food for that evening will be from Halifax, Nova Scotia. A host of privateer ships assembled and attacked Fort Cumberland in Nova Scotia with the intent of off-loading soldiers to take the province for the Americans. Unfortunately, a British Man-of-War showed up with an entire contingency of British marines and routed the invading force.
The trouble with most visitors and residents of Newburyport is a total lack of understanding of the huge importance of Privateering. Unless you have watched the Horatio Hornblower series on A&E a few years ago; the significance is totally lost on most people. This is because privateering was banned internationally in 1922. Privateering only was conducted from the 16th to the 19th century.
So, first of all, we need to know the definition of one. Private citizens with special letters of mark allowed them to seize enemy ships. The booty and the ship would be brought back to a home port and approximately half would go to the government and the rest would be kept by the Captain and crew by a previously agreed upon percentage.
This letter of marque is a document by which a country recognizes the private ship as an auxillary military force. The privateer acts for the service of his country. If he is captured, he shows his letter of mark, which avoids him the rope and gains him the treatment of a legitimate prisoner of war.
Privateering ships were incredibly fast and were often called ‘clipper ships’; ‘clipper’ meaning a fast or swift vessel. The phrase, “He went along at quite a clip” still survives today in our common usage. These were breathtakingly beautiful but heavily armed vessels that were an absolute scourge against the British during the Revolutionary War.
Recently, a letter was found written by George Washington hither to unknown writing to Newburyport thanking them for their privateers interdicting the British supply lines during the Battle for Boston. So hurtful was our city’s efforts that during the War of 1812; a British ship was stationed outside Newburyport with the intention (unfortunately rather successfully) of bottling up our vessels from attacking the British!
To get a full appreciation of these magnificent vessels, please watch this video.
Be sure to come out and hear about these brave men who sacrificed so much for their country. It is estimated that as much as 1,200 Newburyporters gave their lives during the combined efforts of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.