Of Pirates, Prizes and a Pinafort

Seashell pen sketch Wendy Harty February 2021

Just before he closed his eyes each night, Simeon Perkins wrote in his diary. The crusty old seaman did this for 46 years! Just like my Great Uncle Jacob Miller and his son Garrett, Simeon was a privateer, funding ships to capture the prizes during the Napoleonic War It took me an hour with a magnifying glass to decipher each of his words but the endeavor was worth it, giving me a glimpse into one week of Garrett’s life. These two entries were penned 222 years ago by Perkins, written in 1799.

June 3, 1799: Our auction of the prizes of the GMW and Schooner Fly and cargoes of the Prizes and commences the Diligence to Garrett Miller 1000 pounds. The next week on June 8th, he wrote: We have some difficulty with who bid off the prize, Brig LaLibre, on account of the inventory specifying a suit of sails complete, and examining the sails, some of them are very poor, he had a survey made. Messer’s John Kirk, Elisha Hopkins, Ephraim Dean. They passed their judgements on each sail, some half worn, some a quarter and some condemned. We made Mr. Miller several offers which he refused. Finally we agreed him to all the small things he bid off and gave him a stantiale (something used for the rigging) and two swivels (for the gun rests) and a rebate of 10 pounds. Give him a certificate of the purchase and a copy of the condemnation. Took his note for this sale due in sixty days.

Haggling. That’s what Garrett Miller was doing, besides reaping huge profits from legitimate privateering ventures. And what a treasure trove (pun intended) have I found here, Mr. Perkins! The name of the ship Diligence. Her first name was Spencer, but renamed Diligence and commissioned in November 1795. Diligence was an 18-gun brig-sloop with 16 32 pounder cannons and 2 6 pounder chase guns. The chase gun was mounted on the bow and stern and used to damage the rigging of an enemy ship to slow it down. She sailed for Jamaica in 1796. Her first capture was another privateer of six guns and 57 men. She cleared the Bahama Straits and ten leagues out fought for three quarters of an hour to capture 16 guns, 50 men and a cargo of logwood. She teamed up with ships to capture a Spanish packet ship, carrying mail. Did Garrett learn any naval secrets while opening the mail. On and on the privateering continued and by late 1798 Diligence had captured 13 merchant vessels. She took seven more in 1799, the year the diary was written. One had 30,000 pounds of coffee aboard. Another carried 45,000 pounds of coffee and was described as a Spanish schooner, coppered. At the end of this year Diligence was in the Gulf of Venezuela and destroyed a Dutch schooner, a French schooner and a sloop-rigged boat. Numerous more prizes of coffee, men and guns, then one carrying mahogany, another carrying mahogany, coffee and sugar, others with cotton, wine, raisins and one with a load of mules, were overcome, the court would deem them legal prizes and the ship and contents auctioned off.

Garrett would also feel loss. On October 8, 1800, Diligence was cruising the north coast of Cuba in search of a Spanish privateer reported to be in the area. At 7:30 at dusk, Diligence hit a reef. She remained stuck, filling with water. Daylight showed her five miles out from shore and she transferred her provisions and crew there. The next day Thunderer rescued the crew. The British set fire to Diligence as they left, she was scuttled.

On one occasion a captured American vessel had on board a pinafore. It was the property of the daughter of the US President Madison. It had been shipped from New York where the young lady had been attending school. This notable article was bought by the prize commissioner, Garrett Miller, and presented to one of his daughters and still is in the possession of the family, the Honorable Jason Miller Mack.

Uncle Jacob Miller’s oldest son was named Garrett, after his brother. This Garrett was born in 1770, in New York, before the Revolutionary War broke out. The family in including the six children escaped and as his mother said, “The bullets falling around us, she held a frying pan over the head of the youngest to shield her as they ran.” The family settled on the shores of Halifax, Nova Scotia, as Loyalists in 1776. The only son, Garrett followed in his father’s footsteps and also became a merchant and a privateer.

In 1802, he married Catherine, the daughter of Captain Joseph Pernette. Joseph Pernette could name drop the name Cornwallis of Britain. Pernette had been in the military service in Germany and a Colonel in France. As a Huguenott he came with Cornwallis, after Cornwallis had fought in Scotland putting down the Jacobite rebellion. Cornwallis was made the Governor of Nova Scotia, and was tasked with establishing the new town of Halifax there. There was a recruiting drive for settlers to come to the New World, from France, Germany and Switzerland. The British government provided free passage, free land and one year of rations upon arrival. Over 2000 “Foreign Protestants” came in 12 ships in the early 1750’s. Catherine’s father was an aide-de-camp during the taking of Quebec City in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. For this he awarded 22,400 acres. He settled along eleven miles at LaHave River, building a gristmill and a sawmill. He built the first ship on the river, served as justice of the peace, surveyor and colonel in the local militia, participating in the defense of Lunenburg during the Raid on Lunenburg, when privateers entered the town, 1782. Garrett Miller would visit Mr. Pernette with business. Soon his visits were encouraged as he was held in good esteem which was reciprocated by the daughter, Catherine and they married. Garrett bought the land across the LaHave River and called it Miller Estates.

What a beautiful spot in nature. As the river widened for its entry into the sea, the little white German homes of fisherman dotted along the shore of the Atlantic sea, interspersed with the white spires of churches. The pine covered hills kept watch as masts of freighters filled with merchandize skirted the islands coming into the harbor.

Garrett and Catherine Miller had 7 children: Augusta, Garrett Trafalger Nelson, Frances, Joseph Pernette, John, Elizabeth and Jacob.

Garrett Miller was also justice of the peace and was prize commissioner for privateers at Halifax from 1812 to 1815. Garrett represented Lunenburg County in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly from 1836 to 1840 as a Conservative. Miller died in office at LaHave, aged 70.

Garrett Miller 1770-1840

Ho-ho goes my mind. Jacob Miller’s son was handing out the letters of marque or privateering licenses, to 4000 others willing to invest with risk capital. One would be to his own father, no wonder Jacob became very very rich! Robbery under arms was a common aspect of seaborne trade. Queen Elizabeth I authorized sea-raiders such as Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Think of the gold and silver they captured from the Spanish treasure fleet bringing it back from Mexico. Imagine being a pirate finding a Caribbean fleet laden with the riches of gems, pearls, spices, sugar, tobacco, silk and other exotic goods. The Spanish galleons were built as armed merchant ships and man-of-wars.

During war, piracy was made legal, under King George III. Garrett Miller was delegated to issue the commissions or letters of marque, during the War of 1812. All kinds of hostility was permissible at sea. Captured ships were sold under prize law, and the proceeds divided by percentage between privateer’s sponsors, shipowners, captains and crews. A percentage share usually went to the issuer of the commission. Ho-ho, Garrett was also the commissioner.

What of the five sisters of Garrett, the daughters of Uncle Jacob Miller: Nancy, Betsy, Margaret, Mary and Abigail. I wish I knew more and won’t it be fun to write a story like Little Women about them. Nancy is a tom-boy hanging with her grievous cousin Martin, until he runs away; Betsey reads and reads; Margaret is timid and crippling shy; Mary and Abigail, the youngest and frailest, content to stay at home and are the peacemakers! The five never married, remained spinsters in the house at the intersection of Water and Morris Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia, the three oldest living into their 80’s. My mind thinks of gloved tea parties with dainty sandwiches with crusts off, served to a select invited. Mary and Abigail’s graves are in the family plot St. Paul’s Old Burying Ground, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In loving memory of Abigail Miller

Their father, my Uncle Jacob Miller, died on May 31, 1825, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, having lived a long life of 83 years. His brother, my sixth great grandfather, Garrett Miller died in August, 1823 at Switzerville, Ontario, also a long life of 84 years. What a difference in the two brother’s stories who were both raised beneath the shadow of the Castle Courtmatrix, in Ireland, by their father Adam, the Lutheran Preacher of the Irish Palatines. Both stayed Loyalists, fled the Revolutionary War, and started anew in Canada. Each had a great story to be told, and their own journey through the curves they were thrown and mileposts, each found a unique destination. I can only imagine their travelling’s and report what I find in histories pages. As young Irish lads, I doubt they imagined this story for themselves.

The right side of my brain is stimulated to imagine and I experience and analyze the world through my relative’s lives. Please leave me a like if you’re doing the same: fleeing the bullets, boarding a merchant ship and counting the prize, or dancing in the President’s daughters pinaforte.

2 thoughts on “Of Pirates, Prizes and a Pinafort

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