Pierre Morpain


Morpain, Pierre, privateer, port captain, naval and militia officer; born c.1686 in Blaye, France, son of Jacques Morpain, a businessman and local dignitary of modest means, and Marguerite Audoire; married 13 August 1709 at Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) Marie-Joseph (died 1726), daughter of Louis Damours de Chauffours and Marguerite Guyon; died 20 August 1749 in Rochefort, France.

          Following the premature death of both his parents, Pierre Morpain went to sea in 1703.  In Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola) in 1706 he obtained his first command, the Intrépide, and a commission to cruise against British shipping in the Caribbean.  During his career Morpain recorded amazing successes as a privateer.  In 1706, on his own initiative, he sailed north to the coast of New England where he promptly took two important prizes, a slave-ship and a frigate laden with foodstuffs.  Making for the closest French harbour, Morpain sailed into Port-Royal, his prizes in tow, in August 1707.

          The arrival of the foodstuffs was viewed locally as a manifestation of Providence; in June (1707, June 6-16) Port-Royal had been besieged by 1,600 New Englanders under John March and food supplies were depleted.  Just a week after Morpain's arrival a larger force renewed the attack (1707, Aug. 22 - Sep. 1), but it too was forced to withdraw.  In a report to Pontchartrain, the minister of Marine, Governor Daniel d'Auger de Subercase stated that Morpain and his freebooters "helped us to fight them off and left us 700 barrels of flour without which we would certainly have been in difficult straits."

          Morpain returned to Saint-Domingue with his captive slaves, but in 1709, in command of the Marquis de Choiseul, a vessel belonging to the governor of that colony, François-Joseph de Choiseul de Beaupré, he sailed north again to cruise out of Port-Royal.  He had probably been encouraged to do so by Subercase.  In a single ten-day outing he sank four British vessels and brought in nine prizes.  Morpain's activities were vital to Port-Royal; preoccupied with the war in Europe, France had not sent any supplies there since 1706.  Mindful of his past services and anticipating another attack on Port-Royal, Subercase sought every means to keep Morpain and his men close by.  He reported to Pontchartrain that he had "persuaded M. Morpain... to stay here with us and even to take a wife, by leading him to hope that you would take into account his service to the colony..."

          When it became apparent that there would be no attack on Port-Royal in 1709, Morpain left some of his men there and returned to Saint-Domingue.  There he faced the wrath of his employer, Choiseul, who strongly disapproved of the use of Saint-Domingue's resources for the benefit of Port-Royal.  Shortly afterwards Morpain left the Caribbean for good.  In 1711 he was domiciled at Plaisance (Placentia, Newfoundland), where his wife joined him. That summer, while he was in command of a small privateer running munitions and supplies to Acadian and Micmac resisters around Port-Royal (which had fallen to the British the previous year and been renamed Annapolis Royal), Morpain was captured by a British frigate following a three-hour engagement.  Taken to St. John's, Newfoundland, as a prisoner, he was sent back to Plaisance in 1712.

          After attending to the large number of privateering ventures in which he held an interest at Plaisance, Morpain returned to France later in 1712 and stayed in Blaye for a year.  With the return of peace in 1713 he appears to have sought a formal naval appointment.  But in June 1715 he was named port captain at Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) and he reported to Louisbourg a year later.  He supervised all the details relating to the maritime interests of the crown in Île Royale: the construction of facilities; the building, maintenance, and outfitting of ships; and the conduct of navigation.  He also piloted the larger storeships into the various harbours of the colony and oversaw their loading and unloading.

          Although Morpain carried out his duties well, his performance on at least one occasion contrasted markedly with the swagger of the buccaneer of the first decade of the century.  In October 1717 he reluctantly agreed to pilot a detachment of officers and troops in bad weather along the rugged coast between Louisbourg and Port-Toulouse (St. Peters, Nova Scotia).  The journey took nine days during the whole of which Morpain allegedly gave unabashed vent to his fear, made a series of erroneous navigational readings, saw reefs where there were none, and finally, in mid-journey, left the helm altogether.  When the detachment reached Port-Toulouse, he was severely dealt with, being insulted and incarcerated by Louis Denys de La Ronde.  In their report to the court the governor and the financial commissary, Saint-Ovide [Monbeton] and Pierre-Auguste de Soubras, concluded that "Morpain... belied his reputation on that occasion..."

          Morpain regained the confidence of his superiors; in 1721 he received his first naval commission, storeship captain.  His principal duties continued to be the details of local crown navigation including, in 1725-27, salvage operations in connection with the storeship Chameau which had gone down off Louisbourg in 1725.  In the 1740s he taught navigation to the young mariners of the colony.

          The resumption of hostilities between France and Great Britain in March 1744 gave Morpain, despite his 58 years, the opportunity to ply the trade which had earned him notoriety.  A fire-ship captain now, he was ordered out on coastal patrol and, despite wholly inadequate equipment, had considerable success against New England shipping in April.  In May he participated in François Du Pont Duvivier's attack on Canso (Nova Scotia).  The late war had established his reputation in New England where the merchants and inhabitants now kept their ships in harbour in fear of the dreaded "Morepang."

          It was the events of 1745, however, which were to mark the zenith of Morpain's career.  Although Louisbourg had been founded as France's key stronghold in the new world, New England troops commanded by William Pepperrell were able to land on Île Royale and lay siege to the fortress in May 1745.  By that time Morpain, who had been patrolling the coast in command of the frigate Castor, had returned to his base.  The Louisbourg garrison was completely demoralized; the entire officer corps lacked the energy and boldness required to meet the occasion.  In these circumstances, Louis Du Pont Duchambon, the acting governor, was forced to rely on Morpain rather than the regular officers to direct the French defence.  His performance between 11 May and mid-June 1745 (when he was relieved of his command because of differences with the regular officers) shows that the 60-year-old privateer, however rash and unorthodox some of his manœuvres, possessed a better military mind than any in Louisbourg's officer corps.

          Morpain and Antoine Le Poupet de La Boularderie were the only persons in Louisbourg who advocated taking the offensive in order to oppose the enemy landing at Gabarus Bay on 11 May.  Morpain requested 300 to 400 men for the task but Duchambon, inept and paralysed by fear, procrastinated until the bridgehead had been secured.  He belatedly allocated 80 men to march on the Anglo-American position, but the force was inadequate and too long delayed.  When the detachment arrived at Gabarus Bay the New Englanders were already well established on shore.  La Boularderie wished to retreat immediately in the face of brisk enemy musketry, but Morpain ordered the column to press on.  It was only when his men were threatened with annihilation that he gave the order to withdraw, every man for himself.

          The following day Morpain made his way back to Louisbourg and promptly took charge of the entire defence of the fortress.  His tireless devotion to the task was an inspiration not only to the combatants but to the inhabitants as well.  His popularity in Louisbourg was matched by the awe in which he was held outside its walls.  He found his way into the victory lore of the New Englanders in 1745 and that in itself was a significant tribute to his energetic defence of New France.

          Following the surrender of Louisbourg, Morpain returned to France.  He went on at least one campaign to Louisiana in 1748, and when Île Royale was restored to France that year he was invited to return to his post.  Whatever his intentions were, his death intervened at Rochefort in August 1749.

—  Bernard Pothier, Historian, Canadian War Museum,
National Museums of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Pierre Morpain (the original article)

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Pierre Morpain (1686-1749) by Peter Landry

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