Imagine living in a fishing port in the Maritimes during the early 18th century. You’re poor and spend your time working in the harbour. One day you see a large fleet of ships on the horizon. They’re not flying British or French colours, rather their flags are black with a skull and cutlasses on them. What would you do? Run? Warn others? Or wait until they dock and ask the first pirate you see, “Where do I sign up?”
This actually happened in Trepassey, Newfoundland in 1720. Legendary pirate Bartholomew Roberts, better known as Black Bart, attacked the small fishing port over the course of two weeks. When he left, Black Bart had gained a lot more than plunder; numerous fishermen joined his crew and together they would sail off to ransack and terrorize other seaside communities. This was not just a one-off incident. Rather, the history of Canada’s maritime provinces are steeped in piracy.
A kylix (a two handled cup with a stemmed base) depicting a merchant vessel being attacked by another ship, (Greece, c. 520BC-500BC). [Source]
Piracy on the high seas has been around since the fourteen century BC; the earliest documented instances include raids by Turkish pirates along the coast of Asia Minor and both Greek and Roman pirates attacking ships in the Mediterranean. Likely though that its history stretches further back however, since we first began to travel by sea. The heyday of pirates though did not occur until well over two millennia later; the Golden Age of Piracy lasted from the 1650s to the 1730s. It was during this time that piracy underwent a major expansion. Why? Colonization. The exploration and settlement of the “New World” enabled piracy in four major ways:
- If the colonial powers’ navies weren’t busy with exploration efforts, they were usually busy fighting in European wars. This meant that new seaside towns popping up in the Caribbean and North America were largely under-protected, making them attractive targets for pirates.
- Wealth and resources were traveling to and fro between the “New World” and Europe. These ships were also easy targets unless they were protected by warships.
- European powers employed pirates to attack enemy ships during wartime. These pirates were known as privateers.
- Disillusioned members of various European navies would sometimes become pirates themselves; their experience and knowledge made them excel as seafaring criminals.
“A New Chart of the Coast of New England, Nova Scotia, New France or Canada” by Thomas Jeffreys, (c. 1745). See all those ports listed along the coastline? Forget gold, pirates were interested in people living there. [Source]
Hence, piracy thrived during this time of overseas expansion and with the reasons listed above, you can see why the Maritimes got caught up in the chaos. Canada’s east coast was one of four areas that was central to the Golden Age. Not for treasure, but for manpower. Historian Dan Conlin notes that the fisheries of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were home to thousands of fishers and sailors. During the summer months pirate crews would replenish their numbers by recruiting in these areas. They also stocked up on food, alcohol, and other supplies before leaving the region once the cold weather began to arrive. Stocking up was crucial unless you wanted this to happen mid-winter.
In addition, ships involved in the transatlantic trade between France and New France were forced to sail from or through the Maritimes, making the area even more of a prime location for pirates. In the earlier half of the Golden Age, New France lacked a proper government and navy which made it difficult to stop pirates from getting away with their crimes. Also, with King William’s War and later Queen Anne’s War going on, you also had Britain and France utilizing privateers along the east coast. Many of these individuals continued their acts of piracy postwar which only increased the overall problem in the area.
It was not until the eighteenth century rolled around and regional governments began to get stronger that things started to change. The first pirates adjusted by breaking all ties to land and sticking to criminal activity and recruitment on the high seas. By the 1730s though, the European powers said enough was enough. Both Britain and France sent over naval ships and set up serious court systems to properly address the issue of piracy. Captured pirates were swiftly executed. As such, it only took a couple years to clean pirates out for good. Sporadic pirate attacks did happen afterwards, but they were few and far between.
So who were some of the scallywags connected the Maritimes?
- Peter Easton – Originally commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to protect her fishing fleet in Newfoundland. When King James I succeeded her and cancelled his commission, Easton said to hell with the British and carried on pirating. By 1612 had established a land base on Newfoundland. Eventually he commanded hundreds of men and amassed a fortune of two million pounds. He retired in the south of France and died peacefully in his bed.
- Robert Chevalier – At the age of seven, he ran away from home and lived with the Iroquois for a bit before being found by his parents. His desire for adventure persisted as he grew older and he became a pirate. Unlike Easton, he met a early end. A notorious womanizer, he died in a duel over a love interest.
- Pierre Baptiste – A French privateer who captured many English ships during King William’s War. Postwar the French employed him to prevent the English from fishing too close to Acadia. He was captured by the British during Queen Anne’s War, making him a prisoner of war. He was exchanged for another POW and continued to work for the French until 1713. He disappeared from historical records in 1714.
Hamlet Bartholomew Roberts in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. [Source]
- Maria Lindsey and Eric Cobham – A married pirate couple who terrorized the St. Lawrence after the Golden Age ended. Described as “wreckers” they preyed on shipwrecks—either causing them or murdering the survivors of ones that happened without their assistance. The two were known for torturing their victims before killing them. Due to limited historical records they may or may not be real.
- Black Bart – Considered the most successful pirate of the Golden Age, Black Bart didn’t get started until he was 36. The ship he was working on was captured and when that pirate captain died, Roberts was selected to replace him. He spent the rest of his life terrorizing the Atlantic. He captured close to 500 ships and built an fearsome reputation. He raided various coastal towns in Newfoundland and reportedly he was so feared that when he came to Trepassey, all of the 100+ ships in the harbour had been abandoned. Many mark his death from a gunshot wound to the neck during a battle in 1722 as the end of the Golden Age.
Dan, Conlin, Pirates of the Atlantic: Robbery, Murder and Mayhem Off the Canadian East Coast, Halifax: Formac Publishing Company Limited, (2009).
Porterfield, Jason, Modern-Day Piracy, New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, (2010).
Vallar, Cindy, “Pirates of Canada,” Pirates and Privateers, The History of Maritime Piracy, 2001. Accessed from: http://www.cindyvallar.com/canpirates.html