Is the Stan Rogers song "Barrett's Privateers" true?

Well, no, not literally. There was no Elcid Barrett. There was no Antelope sloop and there wasn't even a town of Sherbrooke in the year of 1778. Stan Rogers basically made up an imaginary privateer to carry a 60s anti-war theme in a traditional folk setting. Having said all that, many of the details, ranging from the type of cannons mentioned to the letter of marque reference, are very authentic. Stan Rogers did a fair bit of reading about privateering and appears to have been influenced by the historian Archibald MacMechan, who wrote several books on Canadian privateers, as well as a privateering song of his own, The Ballad of the Rover.

For more information: Frequently Asked Questions about Privateering

Below you will find the lyrics to Stan Rogers' song with explanatory notes.
Barrett's Privateers - by Stan Rogers. Inspired by a story from Bill Howell, a Halifax poet, and influenced in style by Friends of Fiddlers Green. The following comments are intended to supply background to the period details. Further discussion about Stan Rogers and this song can be found on the Stan Rogers Website.
Congrats and best wishes to the successful Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia!

Oh the year was 1778
In the American Revolution (1775-1783) aggressive American raiding of Nova Scotian communities provoked previously neutral Nova Scotians into privateering against the Americans. Nova Scotia had a long history of privateering before and after this time.
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
Sherbrooke is a town on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore the area of Stan Rogers' family. However it did not get the name Sherbrooke until 1815 and was very sparsely settled in 1778. For more on Sherbrooke's history, check out the the Sherbrooke Village web page. Some have suggested this may in fact be a reference to a large successful privateer vessel named Sir John Sherbrooke, which the rueful singer wishes he joined instead of the scummy Antelope.
A letter of marque came from the King
A letter of marque or privateering license was issued by a colonial governor using authority conveyed by the King, in this case George III.
Here are some examples of real Letters of Marque.
To the scummiest vessel I'd ever seen
Privateer captains and owners generally chose new and fast vessels but occasionally there were hasty gambles with inadequate vessels.

God damn them all! I was told, we'd cruise the seas for American gold
Privateering was a handy mix of wartime patriotism and the chance to make your fortune. Real privateer recruiting, such as the newspaper advertisement run by the privateer Revenge in 1779, used phrases appealing to men" desiring honour and fortune".
We'd fire no guns! Shed no tears!
This was a realistic promise. Other than the obligatory warning shot the vast majority of privateer captures were completely bloodless.
But I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
Other hazards that could produce broken men, but they were more like shipwreck, disease or conscription into the tyrannical Royal Navy.
The last of Barrett's Privateers
The song exagerates the battle risks of privateering, offering us a case of a crew who all perish in battle except the singer. No Canadian privateering vessel suffered such a fate in battle. The closest match in reality is probably the schooner Rolla, which sank in an 1815 storm with all hands.

O, Elcid Barrett cried the town
There was no real Elcid Barrett. Stan Rogers, according to his mother, borrowed the "Elcid" from a friend because he liked its old fashioned sound. Barrett was a common surname in several Nova Scotian privateering communities and a Robert Barret shows up on the crew list of one privateer ship in 1799, although only as seaman, not captain!
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
For twenty brave men, all fishermen, who
Twenty men was very small for a privateer vessel. many carried crews of a hundred or more. Fishermen were often draw to privateering but so was almost every trade of the time from carpentry to medicine.
Would make for him the Antelope's crew
Even a small sloop would usually have a crew of thirty or more to man guns and crew captured ships. However perhaps the fictional Antelope was in such bad shape that few wanted to join her.
Antelope was a very common vessel name in the 1700s. It was used literally by hundreds of vessels. (As a very fast animal in a far away place, it was a great name for an owner to pick to promote his vessel's speed.) - another example of Stan Rogers' great sense of authenticity (not to mention irony!) in picking an appropriate period name for his fictional vessel.

The Antelope sloop was a sickening sight.
A sloop is a single masted sailing vessel, usually quite small. Some very successful privateers were sloops, such as the Dart from Saint John, New Brunswick. However, their small size meant they were good for only short range privateering. One privateer sloop, Frances Mary, made a disastrous cruise to the West Indies in 1800 that bears some resemblance to the fate of Antelope. Sloop also had another meaning as a class of Royal Navy warships, smaller than a frigate but larger than a schooner. However there is no little or no evidence that this meaning of sloop was used by privateers.
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
She'd a list to the port and her sails in rags
Listing means a vessel tilted to one side by leaking or sloppy ballasting, a very worrisome sign.
And the cook in the scuppers with the staggers and jags
Scuppers a small holes to drain water from decks and a logical place to find someone reeling from an alcoholic affliction.

On the King's birthday we put to sea
King George III's birthday: June 4. Often celebrated by privateer owners with flags and cannons, although marked less enthusiastically by average folk
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
We were ninety-one days to Montego Bay
In Jamaica, but actually a poor privateer base as it was too close to navy ships who might conscript your crew and too far removed from American trade routes.
Pumping like Madmen all the way
Ships damaged in storms, or in this case, a worn-out, leakly vessels had to be pumped continuously, a wearing and backbreaking task. Rogers was perceptive in this reference. Privateer logbooks on long cruises to the west Indies often attest to heavy pumping. Pumping was usually helped by rhythmic work songs called chanties. Barrett's Privateers could be used as a chanty, but the rhythm is not ideal.

On the ninety-sixth day we sailed again
Five days meant a quick top-up of supplies and hopefully some repair work to the Antelope's undersides!
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
When a bloody great Yankee hove in sight
A large merchant ship was always the sought-after prize. Many privateers under 100 tons but captured 400 or 500 ton enemy vessels.
With a our cracked four pounder we made to fight
Very accurate description of a favoured size of privateer cannon, the four pounder. A small gun, about the thickness of a telephone pole and firing a ball weighting 4 pounds, these guns were lightweight, making a vessel fast and sea-worthy. The drawback was their very limited range. Some privateers armed mainly with four pounders, such as the brig Rover and the ship Charles Mary Wentworth, enjoyed very successful careers, but it took a very skilled commander and gunner to deploy them effectively.

The Yankee lay low down with gold
This is stretching possibilities as the rebellious colonies had little or no gold to ship, let alone enough to weight a ship down, although one could perhaps suggest a gold payment headed to their friends, the French, to pay for supplies. Of course a valuable cargo like rum or whale oil would be nearly worth its weight in gold.
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
She was broad and fat and loose in stays
An authentic gender touch here - seaman often used the same language to describe a vessel as to describe a woman, so the image of a large overweight woman is used to convey a large slow ship. This is re-enforced with the description of rigging. Stays are the lines used to support masts from the bow (Shrouds support masts from the sides.) but the word stays also referred to corsets (a women's undergarment covering the waist), hence the image of a large, sloppy woman. Hardly non sexist language, but appropriate to its 18th century setting! There is another layer of nautical terminology here. "Stays" and "in stays" also refer to the process of tacking, zig zagging as you sail into the wind. A vessel that is "loose in stays" could refer to one that is slow and clumsy in coming about while tacking, and thus should be easy for a privateer to catch, that is any privateer aside from the woeful Antelope.
But to catch her took the Antelope two whole days
Privateer chases usually took only hours, such as a typical chase by the Duke of Kent, but sometimes days and obviously in this case, the ragged sails and loose rigging of the Antelope eroded her speed.

Then at length we stood two cables away
That would be 400 yards. (1 cable = 1/10th of a nautical mile or 100 fathoms and 1 fathom = 2 yards)
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
Our cracked four pounders made an awful din
Even a 4 pounder in good condition would be at the edge of its range at that distance and its destructive power would be minimal, so the Antelope's guns would indeed make some nice loud noises but accomplish little of use.
But with one fat ball the Yankee stove us in
Highlighting the chief disadvantage of a 4 pounder! You had to rapidly close in or an enemy with longer range and heavier guns could make a mess of you.

The Antelope shook and pitched on her side
Actually pitching refers an up and down movement. A vessel would roll on its side, but that perhaps is nit-picking.
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs
Such a vivid metaphor! And a grimly accurate way to illustrate the carnage of a naval battle which usually resulting from the splinters and wreckage sent flying by enemy shot.
And the main truck carried off both me legs
There are several possibilities here. "Truck" is an old nautical term for a round or cylindrical piece of wood (Falconer's Marine Dictionary - 1780) such as the round cap found at the very top of the mast, in this case the mainmast, hence "main truck" which we can assume came crashing down with great violence as Antelope disintegrates. A truck also refers to the heavy round wheels on the carriages holding a cannon. Eric Ruff curator of the Yarmouth County Museum once discussed this with Stan Rogers, who at first told him that "main truck" meant gun carriage but later took Eric's advice and decided use to use the explanation that it refers to the very top of the mast.
So here I am in my twenty third year
This is very close to the average age for privateer crewmen that I calculated in my MA thesis, based on studies of crew lists.
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke Now!)
It's been six years since we sailed away
Privateers were treated as POWs and would only be held for the duration of the war, in this case another four years, and often less as prisoner exchanges usually let them return within a year of capture. However one can imagine that this lad was perhaps stranded in perhaps the French Caribbean and spent two years working money and passage to return home.
And I just made Halifax yesterday
Halifax of course being the major British North American port after the loss of the 13 colonies and a logical place for a POW to return.

For a look at sources, have a look at my privateering Reading guide and Bibliography based on my MA Thesis on Canadian Privateering. Thanks for comments and suggestions from Chris Gabbett, Mark Murphy and Jim Roberts among many.

Comments, suggestions or corrections? Drop me a line.
Dan Conlin

The Ballad of the Rover (Another privateering song)

Back to Privateer Home Page

Copyright 1997 Dan Conlin
Last Revised January 30, 2001