In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More about the privateers' attack on the island

The American privateers who ransacked Benjamin and Alexander McNutt's house were part of a pattern.

In the years before the Revolution, settlers had moved from the fishing towns of Massachusetts to this Nova Scotian shore, the opposite shore of their own familiar cod fishing grounds. During the Revolution these settlers -- their roots in New England -- were often supporters of the colonies or maintained a kind of practical evenhandedness between support of the rebels and of the crown. To tell the truth, these Yankee fishermen, now of Yarmouth and Cape Sable and Barrington and Port Roseway and Liverpool, were not trusted by either the Americans or the British.

The American privateers looted and terrorized up and down the coast to disrupt the British in any way they could. Once war was declared no legal trade was allowed between the Americans and the Nova Scotians. Cut off from their means of income -- the trade of fish --and further robbed by privateers of their boats and their food supplies, the settlers sank into poverty and distress.

The attack of privateers on the island came on June 22, 1778. The energetic and aggrieved Alexander wasted no time taking his complaint to the Massachusetts Bay Council and appeared there less than two months later, on August 17th. In the meantime he had done his own investigation. The privateer, McNutt told the council that day, was the armed schooner Congress, out of Boston, its scurrilous captain Thomas Francis -- even more of an insult, a Welchman!

It had been a trial to get to Boston from Port Roseway to seek justice, and McNutt wanted the council to hear about it: his passage on an English frigate interrupted when the vessel was chased onto shore by two tenders, then hitching a ride on board a whale boat to Falmouth, and from there to Boston by land "on foot, having been deprived of the means of travelling more agreeably by the aforesaid robbers." The privateers were nothing but armed ruffians, he says. I have to say, McNutt was impressive in his first appearance before the council: grand, insulted, demanding.

Eleven months later McNutt appears before the council again. Now he tells them how he went to the Boston house of the ship's owner, Mr. Oliver, determined to get back the stolen goods. Probably Mr. Oliver professed to be shocked, shocked, at McNutt's story. Together they had gone to the privateer captain's house and searched it, and found some of McNutt's things, "marked with my name," he adds. Oliver had promised McNutt that he would take care of the stolen possessions they had found, and do whatever he could to find the rest.

But Oliver was perfidious. Captain Francis managed to sail away to South Carolina. He took with him everything that belonged to McNutt. What would have happened to all those pretty treasures after that? Sold down south, I imagine, as spoils of war. I wonder if a silver spoon that once lay upon the table at Roseneath Island now rests in some Charleston museum.

The McNutts may have been targeted by the privateers because of their reputed wealth and because the island was easy pickings. But they were not the only victims in the Port Roseway vicinity. In the fall of 1779 Alexander McNutt passed on to the council a petition from several settlers on nearby Ragged Islands, in Jordan Bay, a few miles east of his home on Roseneath Island. His initial swagger is gone by now, or else he has become so familiar to the council that he no longer feels the need to impress them.

The inhabitants of Ragged Islands had suffered a similar attack, and lost boats, cod fish, "four barrels of salt, three salmon nets, sixty pounds of butter, one green hide, five dressed skins and some cheese, and a great many other things." The settlers added: "These things are very surprising that we in this harbour that have done so much for America, that have helped three or four hundred prisoners up along to America and have given part of our living to them, and have concealed privateers and prizes too from the British cruisers, in this Harbor. "

McNutt's last recorded appearance before the council was in June of 1780. It had been nearly two years since the privateer attack. McNutt seems to have given up on the possibility of any redress for his own losses. Now he asks instead for help for fourteen families in Port Roseway -- living near him, he says, in extreme poverty. In response the council allows McNutt to export for their benefit sixty bushels of grain, one hogshead of molasses, one barrel of rum, one loaf of sugar, and "several small articles of crockery such as milkpans, porringers and butter pots" -- a sad little list of things.

It could be that these fourteen families, for whom McNutt felt some responsibility, were the citizens of New Jerusalem. I hope they got their grain and their rum and their butter pots. But we don't really know whether they did or not.

Detail of Captain Holland's New Navigational Chart, 1798, courtesy of NSARM. McNutt's appearances before the Massachusetts Council can be found in Annals of Yarmouth and Barrington Nova Scotia in the Revolutionary War, compiled from original manuscripts, etc., by Edmund Duval Poole, Yarmouth NS, reprinted from the Yarmouth Herald, 1899. You can read an overview of this era of privateering in Roger Marsters' Bold Privateers: Terror, Plunder and Profit on Canada's Atlantic Coast ( Halifax, Formac Publishing Co Ltd, 2004), pp. 85- 96.

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