Canada’s Piracy History

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CraigBaird

When we think of pirates, we think of the pirates who sailed their ships in the Caribbean, creating legends that live on to this day. Canada is never really part of the conversation when it comes to pirates, but before, during and after the Golden Age of Piracy, Canada too played a part.

Today, I am looking at Canada’s pirate history.

One of the first recorded pirate to operate in Canadian waters was Peter Easton, who conducting a series of raids against the English, French and Portuguese, who were fishing in the harbours of Newfoundland over the course of three years from 1611 to 1614. Easton got his start as a privateer commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to protect the Newfoundland fishing fleet. As part of his commission, he could press-gang fishermen to work for him, and he was given free rein to attack the Spanish as he saw fit. Everything changed when James I succeeded Elizabeth I, and peace with Spain was reached. This ended the role of privateers, but Easton was not having any of that. He would sail from Newfoundland, attacking the Spanish and even the English throughout the world. In 1612, he came back to the Colony of Newfoundland with ten ships, anchored in Harbour Grace. Where he once protected the waters for the English, he now began to raid the English without a thought. Sailing through the harbours of Newfoundland, he would raid English ships and ships of other countries, while press-ganging fishermen into his service. Over the course of his piracy in the area, he is believed to have had as many as 1,500 fishermen for his ships, most of whom were there voluntarily. One of his most legendary exploits was raiding 30 ships in St. John’s, while taking Sir Richard Whitbourne hostage. He would release Whitbourne on the condition that he would go to England and obtain a pardon for Easton.

The exchange is described as such, quote:

“Endeavour the procurement of a pardon for him in England, for his many piracies. In expectation of this, he hovered for some time on the coast, but his patience being at last tired out, by slow James and his peaceable court, sailed through the straits of Gibraltar and was taken into the service of the Duke of Savoy.”

Whitbourne was eventually successful, but by this point Easton, as we saw in the previous quote, was long gone from Newfoundland, never to return to the area. Over the course of his three years raiding the area, he rarely caused any injury, but he caused an estimated £20,400, or £5.4 million today, in damages.

During this time, piracy was rampant around Newfoundland. In 1616, some of the Portuguese ships in Newfoundland waters were relieved of their wine and other provisions, with only bread left over. That same year, pirates took a French and Portuguese ship. Another piracy incident in 1620 is described as such, quote:

“Certain English fishermen entered aboard a Portugal ship in the night in St. John’s Harbour with swords and axes wherewith they cut many of his ropes. A great combat between some insolent English and certain Portugals in Petyte Harbour.”

John Nutt would arrive in Newfoundland as a gunner on a Dartmouth ship around 1620 and settled in the area, moving his family onto the island. He then organized a small crew and they soon seized a small French fishing boat, along with two other French ships in 1621. After returning to England, he would draft unemployed sailors, and even some from the Royal Navy by offering better pay. For the next three years he would raid ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, always evading capture. He would eventually request a pardon from John Eliot, the Vice Admiral of Devon, who agreed in return for a £500 bond. When he went to pay, Nutt was arrested and sent back to England, where he was tried and convicted of piracy. George Calvert, the Secretary of State, was able to prevent the hanging of Nutt, as they had been friends back in Newfoundland. Nutt was instead given his pardon and given £100, while Eliot, was imprisoned for his betrayal.

By this point, the mayor of Poole in Newfoundland was demanding piracy be dealt with in Newfoundland and England would send several ships to the area to serve as guards for the harbours.

From 1612 to 1620, the damage done by pirates to fishermen in Newfoundland was estimated at £40,800, or £12 million today. The mayor sent a letter on Aug. 8, 1625 to the Privy council stating that unless protection was afforded to the Newfoundland Fleet of 250 sail of the western ports, they would be surprised by the Turkish pirates. On Aug. 12, 1625, the mayor informed the council that 27-ship sand 200 men had been taken in the last ten days.

For a period of six months in 1692, Pierre Maisonnate Baptiste captured nine English ships off the port of St. John’s. He then sailed them to France and told anyone he met about his exploits in capturing the ships. Two years later, Baptiste came to Nova Scotia with five seized ships, while eluding capture by the English. When the French and English signed a treaty, Baptiste suddenly found he could no longer capture English ships, so the French hired him to enforce the provision of the treaty that outlawed the fishing off Acadian lands by New Englanders. He would be captured in 1702 while patrolling the Acadian waters and spent four years in captivity until he was exchanged for Reverend John Williams. He would fade from history by 1714. Throughout his privateering career, he typically had a crew of Acadians working his ship.

Any mention of pirates and Canada needs to include the fabled Oak Island treasure, which some believe was buried by William Kidd prior to his hanging in 1701. According to Kidd, he took treasure with Henry Avery and Oak Island was their community bank. There are also theories that Blackbeard buried a treasure there. Located on the south shore of Nova Scotia, the island is one of 360 small islands in the bay, rising to 11 metres above sea level, only 200 metres from the shore. The earliest confirmed European residents on the island date back to the 1750s when French fishermen settled there. Over the next several decades, more residents would move into the area as land was made available. Prior to the Europeans, the Indigenous occupied the island in the form of the Mi’kmaq dating back thousands of years ago.  Since the late 1700s, treasure hunters have been coming out to the island in the hopes of finding the fabled Kidd Treasure. Over the next 300 plus years, the theories and legends around the island have only grown, from the treasure of Capt. Kidd to religious artifacts, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, the jewels of Mari Antoinette and even the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant. For the last two, the theory is that the Knights Templar buried the items on the island, for some reason. The alleged original searchers spot was what has become known as the money pit, but searches have been done across the island. The searches for treasure have also yielded archeological finds including a lead cross and various wooden earthworks. There is also apparently a curse on anyone who attempts to search for the treasure. While hundreds have searched for the treasure over the centuries, six have died. As for the money pit, some believe that it was made by British engineers during the Seven Years’ War to store loot, acquired from the invasion of Cuba. Also related to the Seven Years’ War, other historians state that due to the size and complexity of the pit, it was probably dug by French Army engineers to hide the treasury of the Fortress of Louisburg after British forces captured the fortress during the war. I am not going to get into the theories related to why jewels, manuscripts, or anything else might be there because this episode is about pirates, not the money pit.

Several locations in the Maritimes also apparently get their names from the pirates who happened to move through, or from the ships themselves including Kelly’s Island in Newfoundland. Other Newfoundland names reported to come from pirates include Black Joke Cove, Happy Adventure and Heart’s Desire. Hall’s Harbour in Nova Scotia was reported to be the rendezvous point for Capt. Samuel Hall, who operated around Barbados typically.

Canada was an important place during the Golden Age of Piracy since there were thousands of fishermen and sailors in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, looking for work, money, and adventure. Pirates would often come in during the summer months to stock up on food, alcohol, supplies and crews.

Canada would have a confirmed brush with one of the most famous pirates in history, Bartholomew Roberts also known as Black Bart, when he began to sail towards Nova Scotia in 1720. As he passed through Cape Breton, he captured several ships before moving onto Newfoundland. On June 21, 1720, he attacked the harbour community of Trespassey, capturing 22 merchant ships and 150 fishing ships. For the crews, who were not accustomed to pirates sailing into their harbour, they abandoned their ships, allowed Roberts to seize the ships easily. The fact that the captains of the 22 merchant ships abandoned their ships greatly angered Roberts, who disliked what he saw as a cowardly action. Each morning, he had a gun fired and eventually the captains were forced to attend Roberts on his ship. He told them that anyone who was absent would have their ship burned. Later that summer, Roberts would sail off to find further plunder in the Caribbean.

Pirates were enough of a problem that in the mid-1720s, the governor of the Fortress Louisbourg requested extra naval protection due to a fear of pirates. One pirate of that time was Ned Low, who terrorized Nova Scotia harbours through the 1720s and is believed to have hid treasure in Nova Scotia. In June of 1722, Low and his crew attacked 13 fishing vessels anchored near Shelburn, Nova Scotia. He told the crews that no mercy would be given to any fishermen who resisted, and the crews quickly submitted. Low and his men then robbed the ships and chose the 80-ton schooner, the largest of the ships, to be his new flagship that he called The Fancy. He then sank the other ships in the fleet. Later in 1723, Low was off the coast of St. John’s Newfoundland when he mistook a fully armed man-of-war for a fishing boat and nearly lost his life in the process. He then moved on to the Grand Banks and captured several boats before traveling across the Atlantic. The crews in Canadian waters were likely glad to see the last of Low, who was known for being a bloodthirsty psychopath that thought nothing of torturing the crews he captured.  

Sometimes pirate just wanted the navigational services of local fishermen. An example of this was seen in the 1780s, as described here, quote:

“One day while Mr. Jack Cook was out fishing, he was captured by the noted Paul Jones. The pirate compelled Mr. Cook to pilot him around the coast and show him the way into certain harbours, using thumbscrews and other persuasive powers to affect his object. He was thus unwillingly employed for three weeks, and then set on the shore.”

Another story regarding Paul Jones comes from when one of his ships, with sixty guns, was sighted at Chedabucto Bay by two other vessels, which were heavily armed. The incident is described as such, quote:

“Jones saw that escape in this case was impossible, so a large amount of treasure was quickly lowered into the long boat, which was rowed into the Fox Island Shore. The men followed in other boats, and to the astonishment of the pursuers, the pirate ship was seen gradually sinking till she disappeared beneath the waves. They had scuttled her, to prevent her capture. The men were followed but beyond the discovery of a boat submerged in a pond, no clue to their whereabouts was ever ascertained.”

Often, the stories of pirates can be shrouded in myths and tall tales as their legends grow through the years. For Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsay, two pirates that operated in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not only are their exploits a source of debate over accuracy, but their very existence is as well. They tell an interesting story though, so I thought to include them in this episode. The Golden Age of Piracy had ended just before Eric and Maria came on the scene in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and anti-piracy laws were in place to deter pirates from their trade. The couple had met at the seaport of Plymouth, England and were immediately attracted to each other. Cobham would eventually work with a group of smugglers, and he found his partner-in-crime with Maria. Philip Grosse would write in his 1924 book, The Pirate’s Who’s Who, quote:

“Cobham, calling in at Plymouth, met a damsel called Maria, whom he took on board with him, which at first caused some murmuring amongst his crew, who were jealous because they themselves were not able to take lady companions with them on their voyages.”

On the west coast of Newfoundland in 1740, the Cobhams would begin their reign of terror, conducting raids, mostly on French ships moving into the St. Lawrence River. For 20 years, the couple ruled the waves of the area and were known for being extremely cruel. While many pirates did not kill crews who surrendered to them, the Cobhams killed everyone, ensuring there were no witnesses. After collecting their plunder, they would sink the ships to the bottom of the ocean. This is one reason the couple may have been able to last if they did. With no survivors, and the ships below the waves, the ships were recorded as presumed lost at sea with no survivors.

Gosse would write, quote:

“The English Channel becoming too dangerous for Cobham, he sailed across the Atlantic and lay in wait for vessels between Cape Breton and Prince Edward Isle, and took several prizes.”

According to another story, Maria once poisoned the entire crew of a captured ship so she could watch them die in agony as the ship was sunk. Another set of sailors were said to have been sewn into gunny sacks and thrown into the ocean to drown. Sometimes, according to the legends, she would simply shoot captured sailors for target practice.

Gosse would write, quote:

“Maria took her part in these affairs and once stabbed to the heart, with her own little dirk, the captain of a Liverpool brig, the Lion, and on another occasion, to indulge her whim, a captain and his two mates were tied up to the windlass while Maria shot them with her pistol. In fact, she entered thoroughly into the spirit of the enterprise.”

So, did they exist? Some historians think they did but that their exploits were exaggerated. If they did exist, they were probably wreckers, a sub-group of pirates who would attack vessels in distress, murder the survivors on the ship and loot the ship before it sank. Eventually, the couple relocated to France and Eric was appointed as a judge, according to some accounts. Maria is said to have not been able to handle the adjustment and killed herself or may have been killed by Eric. On his death bed, Eric is said to have confessed his sins to a priest before he died and requested that his life story be printed after his death. His family attempted to buy the book and destroy it but there is allegedly a copy in the national archives of Paris. In 1891, Howard Pyle, in his book Buccaneers and Marooners of America, mentions Cobham in passing, stating that Eric and Maria had attacked a Spanish ship and sewn the crew into the mainsail and thrown them into the sea.

During the Napoleonic Wars, there is the story of The Polly that was nearby to Prince Edward Island. According to the story, a suspicious looking ship was sighted by the crew of The Polly and began to gain on them during The Napoleonic Wars. The crew soon realized that it was a pirate ship, but thankfully the Polly had once been a Man of War ship, and the decision was made to open the port holes and the crew and passengers were given specific instructions to give the impression that they were preparing for defence. The ruse worked and the pirate ship sailed away.

Pirate trials have also occurred in Canada, two of which would happen in Halifax. The first was the trial of Edward and Margaret Jordan, along with a sailor named Kelly. Edward had been born in Ireland in 1771 and after he received a pardon from participating in the Irish rebellions of 1797-98, he would try to start a new life as a fisherman in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, by 1809, he was heavily in debt and the merchants of Halifax would hire a merchant schooner to seize his ship. When the merchant ship arrived, Jordan said he wanted to sail it one last time, into Halifax, where his family could relocate for a new life. Captain John Stairs agreed to this. One crew member of the merchant ship was a sailor named Kelly, who was befriended by Jordan and agreed to overthrow Captain Stairs and take his ship. Three days into sailing towards Halifax, the plan was put into motion. Jordan, his wife, and Kelly took pistols from the captain’s trunk. Jordan would shoot Captain Stairs in the face, but the bullet only grazed his cheek, but killed Tom Heath behind the captain. Ben Matthew, the other crew member, was shot by Jordan and killed. Captain Stairs knew he was going to die, so he jumped overboard, and Jordan assumed the cold water would kill him. Jordan then sailed his ship to Newfoundland to gather a crew and sail on to Ireland. Unknown to Jordan, Captain Stairs was rescued by a passing boat and explained what happened upon his arrival in Nova Scotia. A bounty was put on the head of Jordan, his wife and Kelly and several ships were sent out to find them. Around this same time, Jordan began to suspect Kelly of flirting with his wife and the two would come to blows in a tavern in a small Newfoundland town. Kelly fled knowing he could be killed by Jordan. He was eventually captured. Jordan and his wife were able to find sailors to help sail across the Atlantic but on the day of departure, the HMS Cuttle arrived and was able to capture the ship, along with Jordan and his wife. At the trial, Margaret claimed that Edward had been abusive their entire marriage and she only acted out of fear of her husband. Both Margaret and Kelly were acquitted, but Edward was found guilty of murder and piracy and hanged on Nov. 23, 1809. His tarred and chained corpse was put at the entrance of Halifax Harbour as a warning to others. His skull would eventually find its way to the Nova Scotia Museum and then the Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

The second pirate trial came in 1843 when Capt. George Fielding and his son persuaded the crew of the Saladin to seize the vessel and murder six shipmates. Sailing from Peru to England, the Saladin had a cargo of guano, copper, silver, and a chest of money. As they sailed towards Newfoundland, the crew, scared of Fielding, threw him into the sea with his son. The Saladin would then run aground at Country Harbour, Nova Scotia. The crew members who had aided Fielding were charged with piracy. Two were acquitted but the other four conspirators were hanged on July 30, 1844 at the site where the Victoria General Hospital now stands in Halifax.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, HeadStuff.org, Canada’s History, Wikipedia, Nova Scotia Maritime Museum, CindyVallar.com, Our Island Story, the Cod Fisheries, the History of Nova Scotia or Acadia Volume 1, The History of the County of Gusyborough, A History of the Island of Cape Breton,

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