"Barrett's Privateers" is a modern folk song in the style of a sea shanty, written and performed by Canadian musician Stan Rogers, having been inspired after a song session with the Friends of Fiddler's Green at the Northern Lights Festival Boréal in Sudbury, Ontario. Although Barrett, the Antelope and other specific instances mentioned in the song are fictional, "Barrett's Privateers" is full of many authentic details of privateering in the late 18th century.
|Song by Stan Rogers|
|from the album Fogarty's Cove|
|Recorded||September 23–24, 1976|
|Genre||Sea shanty, folk song|
The song was released on the album Fogarty's Cove in 1976 and has since gained popularity as a drinking song, with cover versions by many bands. It also appears on later Stan Rogers live albums Home in Halifax and Between the Breaks ... Live! The song makes use of mixed meter, regularly switching back and forth from 2
4 to 3
4 time. It is regarded as one of the Royal Canadian Navy's unofficial anthems, the unofficial anthem of Atlantic Canada and also often heard sung at many Atlantic universities including (west to east) Acadia University, University of New Brunswick, Mount Allison University, Dalhousie University, Saint Mary's University, University of King's College, St. Francis Xavier University, Cape Breton University, and Memorial University of Newfoundland.
"Barrett's Privateers" is sung from the point of view of a young fisherman who, in 1778 at the age of 16,[note 1] enlisted on Elcid Barrett's ill-fated Antelope, with the promise that the resulting trip would be a pleasure cruise with no violence. The Antelope is described as the "scummiest vessel [he'd] ever seen", and the song describes the many faults of the decrepit sloop, which had just received a letter of marque from George III to operate as a privateering ship.[note 2]
The sloop leaves on June 4 (the king's birthday) and takes three months to make it to Montego Bay, Jamaica. After a five-day layover, the Antelope returns to sea and encounters an American merchant ship loaded down with gold. Because of the poor state of the sloop, it takes the Antelope two days to come within firing distance of the American vessel, which ultimately turns out to be far more heavily armed than they are. The Antelope is capsized with one volley from the American vessel, and the narrator witnesses Barrett's gruesome death. The rest of the crew also dies in the wreck; only the singer, who loses use of both his legs when the truck of the mainmast carries them off, survives.
The closing verse moves ahead to 1784, as the survivor has only the day prior returned to Nova Scotia, still bitter at having been lied to and lying broken on a pier in Halifax, longing to go home to Sherbrooke.
From the very opening line of the song, Rogers paints a plausible and mostly authentic image of a privateering vessel. He sets the tale in 1778, at the height of the American Revolution, when privateering was a common activity on both sides of the war. Rogers's choice of names, nautical terminology, and details of weapons and places all accurately reflect historical fact, with some exaggeration on the loss of life. The song's mentions of Halifax, Nova Scotia, are also historically accurate, as Halifax was a well-known port for privateers operating on the east coast and out of Nova Scotia at that time.
The meaning and accuracy of some parts are open to discussion. The refrain of "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" is one example. If he is referring to a town, then there is a conflict with the date of 1778 (or 1784, the year in which the narrator is said to be telling his story), because most towns named "Sherbrooke" were named after John Coape Sherbrooke, who was only 20 years old in 1784 and would not achieve fame until the War of 1812. Another possibility is that this reflects Stan Rogers's artistic license in tribute to his family origins near Sherbrooke, on Nova Scotia's eastern Shore.
Encounters of this nature were uncommon in privateering, as the aim was to capture an undamaged merchant ship. However, a privateer out of Halifax engaged in one of the bloodiest battles in the history of privateering in a naval battle off Halifax in 1780, resulting in 51 deaths and the disabling of both vessels. Other privateers (such as the Rolla) were lost with all hands in shipwrecks. Some American privateers met with disastrous fates off Nova Scotia at the hands of the Royal Navy (e.g., see the story of the Young Teazer, as well as the naval battle off Halifax of 1782).
"The Antelope" is described as a sloop in the song, with a total of 21 crew, all of whom were formerly fishermen. She is armed with several "cracked" four-pounder cannons. The Antelope has many other faults: she lists to port, and constant pumping is needed to keep ahead of the many leaks in the poorly maintained wooden hull. The Antelope's sails are described as being "in rags", suggesting poor upkeep.
Many vessels of the period bore the name "Antelope", including several in the British Royal Navy named HMS Antelope. As the name of an exotic animal, it conveyed a sense of the vessel's speed, although in this case it is an ironic moniker.
Sloops were often used by privateers because they were good for short-range assaults. Their range was extremely limited by their small size, although even a small sloop normally warranted a crew of at least thirty, so that there might be enough hands to crew a captured prize. Given the Antelope's state of repair, the smaller crew could be taken to mean that it was difficult to recruit for such an obviously unreliable vessel.
The precise afflictions of the Antelope — listing to port, ragged sails, constant leaks, and an evidently incompetent crew — are all likely problems. Many ships either damaged in storms or barely seaworthy to begin with had constant rotations of crew pumping out water. While stored, sails could be damaged by rats or insects. Without good maintenance, they might also become eroded in the normal course of use. The cook is described as having the "staggers and jags", a colloquialism for delirium tremens resulting from alcoholism; this was an all too common condition for sailors. Additionally, the listing to port could also have been caused by poor ballasting by the crew.
The Antelope is armed with cracked "four-pounders", common privateer weapons. As smaller guns, they allowed the privateer great speed, although it also meant that they lacked range. Given the poor armament of most merchant vessels, a skilled captain could use them very effectively. While some debate has been raised over the fact that cracked cannons would be difficult to fire, resulting in a claim that Rogers's original was "crack four-pounders" using the slang of "crack" meaning "the best", recordings of Rogers show him singing "cracked". Furthermore, it is more in keeping with the description of the Antelope for the cannons to be in disrepair rather than exceptionally good.
The assumed authenticity is often so great that other performers have either been confused by it or played off it to fool unsuspecting audiences. In one of their recorded performances of the song, famed Scottish folk singers the Corries state during a preamble that the song is in fact from the 18th century. However they also claim that it is the story of a Scottish exile, changing the line "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" to "I wish I was in Edinburgh now" even though no such references appear in the lyrics, and that the Antelope's captain was "Cid Barrett" not the correct "Elcid".
The popularity of "Barrett's Privateers" has inspired cover versions by many bands, such as the metal band Alestorm on their third album, Back Through Time. This cover also features a guitar solo by Heri Joensen from Týr.
The Celtic punk band the Real McKenzies cover the tune on their 2012 release Westwinds.
Covered a capella by the Kingston Trio in their 2012 album, Born at the Right Time.
Covered by Blackbeard's Tea Party on their 2011 album Tomorrow We'll Be Sober.
Covered by Fisherman's Friends on their 2002 album Home From the Sea.
- The final verse notes that six years after departing, he was in his 23rd year—i.e., 22 years old.
- Sloops, single-masted fore-and-aft–rigged vessels, were mainly used by short range privateers in Atlantic Canada and fared poorly in West Indies cruises.
- "Stan Rogers: 10 Years Gone". Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 1993.
- Conlin, Dan "Sloop Frances Mary" Canadian Privateer Homepage Archived May 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
- Sherbrooke Village - Research / History Archived June 26, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
- Snider, C.H.J. Under the Red Jack, Musson Books (1926), p. 245
- "YouTube". www.youtube.com. Retrieved February 6, 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "Barrett's Privateers, The Corries Official Website". www.corries.com. Retrieved February 6, 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)