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Peregrinations of an 1800s privateer

Jan 1, 2003

Enos Collins fell in love with the unusual little craft the moment he set eyes on her in Halifax Harbor. She was a U.S.-flagged "Baltimore clipper" called Black Joke seized by a British anti-slaving frigate in 1811.

With an LOA of only 53 feet and a beam just under 19 feet, Black Joke had been engaged in ferrying African slaves from large "misery" ships to southern U.S. ports. She carried a fore-and-aft schooner rig with square sails on the foremast, as well as three large head sails. Her two masts were raked aft almost 12°, making her look fast even while she was tugging at her mooring lines.

Collins followed the practical philosophy of Ben Franklin, who said a man needed only three things in life to be happy and prosperous: "an old wife, an old dog and ready money." Collins used 435 pounds of his "ready money" to purchase Black Joke from the Halifax Vice Admiralty Court. Many who witnessed the sale could not imagine Collins using her for legal trade as she was just too small for use as a freighter. But those who knew Collins' business savvy expected him to launch her into a career of coastal smuggling, evading customs duties of both Uncle Sam and King George.

However, world events in 1812 overtook Collins and his plans for his fast little "trading" vessel, now renamed Liverpool Packet. The U.S. Congress, fed up with the Royal Navy policy of "impressing" American seamen onto His Majesty's ships, declared war on Great Britain and her colonies, and quickly began issuing Letters of Marque (licenses for legal piracy) to private armed vessels (privateers) from Portland to Baltimore.

After much red tape and delay, Collins finally managed to secure a British letter of marque from the Governor of Nova Scotia. He quickly outfitted the tiny Liverpool Packet with one 12-pounder and four six-pounder cannon, about the equivalent today of mounting a 105-mm howitzer on a Volkswagen beetle.

By October of 1812 stable hands, bank clerks, teachers, and parsons, as well as the scum of the waterfronts of Halifax, Liverpool, Boston, and Portland, were eagerly signing on privateer vessels of their respective flags, hoping to make their fortunes by seizing enemy vessels and goods.

When the diminutive and heavily armed Liverpool Packet finally slipped her moorings at Liverpool, her eager crew under Capt. Joseph Barss were fairly salivating at the prospect of running down some fat, Boston-bound Yankee merchantman. In the remainder of 1812 and into 1813, Liverpool Packet sent more than 40 prizes back to sales at Liverpool and Halifax, greatly adding to Collins' fortune.

But Liverpool Packet's luck ran out in 1813 when she was overhauled and captured by the American armed schooner Thomas and was towed to Boston. Liverpool Packet was condemned and sold by marshal's sale to a group of Boston merchants who renamed her Young Teazer's Ghost. She was then outfitted as a U.S. privateer. (Incidentally, Capt. Barss was thrown into the Boston jail. When he finally did get back to Nova Scotia in a prisoner exchange, his first command was, ironically, Thomas. She had, during his time in Boston, been captured by the British, towed back to Halifax, and sold.)Young Teazer's Ghost fared badly as a privateer. Disgruntled shareholders looking for a more profitable venture decided to sell her to a Portsmouth, N.H., consortium who wished to try their luck at privateering. She now bore her fourth change of name, Portsmouth Packet. While hunting for British merchant shipping in the Bay of Fundy, she was surprised by a Royal Navy frigate and captured. When she went through Vice Admiralty Court for a second time at Halifax, none other than Enos Collins appeared at the sale, cash in hand, to purchase her yet again.

Collins refurbished his Liverpool Packet and sent her out again as a privateer, this time under the command of a Capt. Seeley, who managed to bring in 14 prizes during 1814. But profit in privateering was beginning to dry up. Collins finally had Liverpool Packet tied up, deciding to invest his privateer wealth in another form of legal piracybanking. He died one of North America's wealthiest men.