No Colony for Old Men: Peter Easton in Conception Bay

Regarding the early history of Conception Bay, few stories get as much traction as that of Peter Easton, the privateer-turned-pirate whose power in the area knew no bounds. However, the story is fraught with discrepancies, and local folklore often plugs any gaps in the official history. Most of what we know comes from primary sources—namely letters and early writings—and even these are sometimes contradictory. For instance, one source says Easton was a man “of low birth,” another that he was “late of London, gent.” Pedigree is but one example of mystery clouding history. But through the cannon smoke, a narrative has emerged, a tale of murder, kidnappings, battle and, of course, treasure.

Brueghel the Elder, 16th Century Ship

Brueghel the Elder, a sixteenth-century ship. (Photo credit: hallnjean.wordpress.com)

When He Was Good

According to sources, Easton’s time in Newfoundland began around 1602, when Queen Elizabeth I sent a British Royal Navy fleet to the island, to protect the migratory fishery from attack. At the time, the Anglo-Spanish War had been raging for 17 years, and English fishing vessels were fair play for the Spanish, who had also made inroads into the New World, along with the French, Basques, and Portuguese.

As an admiral in the navy and a certified privateer, Easton had carte blanche to raid and steal from any rivals of the English—a profitable venture for a seafarer in seventeenth-century Newfoundland, where neither law nor organized religion presided.

During this early period of the Easton story, one usually encounters the legend of Princess Sheila na Geira and Lieutenant Gilbert Pike. So who was Sheila na Geira, and who was Gilbert Pike?

Short answer: Definitively, it’s tough to say. If you’re speaking to locals, the Coles Notes read something as follows. When Easton was still a privateer under the auspices of Elizabeth I, he captured a Dutch pirate ship off the coast of France; and this Dutch ship had recently ransacked an Irish ship, on which Sheila na Geira was travelling. According to legend, na Geira was the daughter of the Chieftan of County Connacht, Ireland, hence the appellation ‘Princess.’  Na Geira herself was on the way to France, where her aunt was an abbess in a convent. After rescuing na Geira, Easton and his men continued to Newfoundland, their original destination before the encounter with the Dutch warship. During the voyage, na Geira fell in love with Gilbert Pike, a well-bred lieutenant on Easton’s ship, and were subsequently married by the fleet’s chaplain. Once in Newfoundland, Pike and na Geira decided to remain in Mosquito (now Bristol’s Hope), a suburb of Harbour Grace. Most of this history comes from an early scholar of Conception Bay, William A. Munn, and his meticulous study of Harbour Grace. (Munn was also one of the first to posit the idea that Vinland could be Newfoundland.)

Other stories mix and mingle with the accepted history. Some say na Geira and Pike’s child was the first European progeny born in North America (unlikely, considering the birth Snorri Thorfinnsson in Vinland, circa 1004 – 1013); that Pike and na Geira stayed in Mosquito because the former would not join Easton in a life of piracy; that Pike and na Geira moved to Carbonear in 1611, to escape from Easton on his return to Conception Bay; and that Easton wanted na Geira for himself.

So, who knows. It’s a fun story anyway. The myth has been around for centuries, inspiring dramatic plays, poems, novels, and the general culture of Conception Bay. If you’re interested in parsing fact from fiction, Philip Hiscock’s article “A Perfect Princess: The Twentieth-Century Legend of Sheila na Geira and Gilbert Pike,” published in volume 18, issue 2 of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, is definitely worth the read. (Hyperlink and PDF courtesy of University of New Brunswick’s e-archives.)

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Sheila na Geira (bottom) features prominently in the Town of Carbonear’s Coat of Arms. (Photo credit: Philip Hiscock / Town of Carbonear)

A Pirate’s Turn

Back to the Anglo-Spanish War for a second. After Elizabeth I passed in March 1603, James I ascended to the English throne. One of his first orders of business? Ending the war and significantly reducing the size of the Royal Navy.

For someone accustomed to unbridled power and wealth, Easton found it difficult to stop attacking rival ships—so he continued. But without leg to stand on legally, Easton crossed the opaque line between privateer and pirate, and a warrant was soon issued for his arrest.

However, catching someone so mobile proved difficult. From 1602 – 1610, Easton travelled to various locations across the greater Atlantic Ocean. According to the record, historian Richard Whidbourne writes in his book Crosses and Comforts: Being The Life and Times of Sir Richard Whitbourne (Great Auk Books, 2005) that “Easton is first heard of somewhere off the coast of Ireland in 1608” (p. 70), when a fellow pirate staggered into Cork harbour, complaining of Easton “treacherously overthrowing” him. Soon after, in 1610, reports say that Easton killed Saukewell (or Salkeild), a “petty rebel and pirate,” throwing him overboard his ship. Outside of the Emerald Isle, Easton often rendezvoused at the port of Mamorra, on Africa’s Barbary Coast (today, the Maghreb), where as many as forty pirate ships manned by 2,000 Englishmen unloaded stolen cargo to local merchants. Easton also spend extended periods of time in Guinea, the West Indies, and the Azores.

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A seventeenth-century map by the Dutch cartographer Jan Janssonius showing the Barbary Coast (“Barbaria”). North Africa was a popular haunt for Easton and other rogues. (Photo credit: Memory of the Netherlands)

In 1610 Easton blocked off the Bristol Channel, forcing the ships entering and leaving the area to pay him hefty protection fees. During this time, the wealthy Killigrew family of Falmouth, Cornwall, were financing his activities, giving Easton a significant degree of latitude in a country where he was wanted. Unsurprisingly, the Bristol merchants didn’t take kindly to this taxation racket and appealed to the Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, who sent the privateer Henry Mainwaring after Easton. Mainwaring never had any luck capturing Easton and turned to piracy himself in 1614. (I sense a trend here…)

Happy Adventures

The Newfoundland leg of our story continues around 1611-12 (depending on what you read), when Easton fortified the Bears Cove area of Harbour Grace. The extent of the fortifications are open to debate—some say there was a fort, others a few cannons. Either way, the pirate did frequent Harbour Grace and docked his ship, the “Happy Adventure,” at Caplin Cove. Easton also fortified Kellys Island, near Bell Island, and Oderin Island, in Placentia Bay, and spent significant time in Renews and Ferryland, where he built a house. YouTuber ‘Newfoundland Metal Detecting‘ recently visited Kelly’s Island; his vlog of the stay gives a good impression of the rugged landscape:

In 1612, while Easton was away on a Caribbean voyage, the French Basques captured the fort at Harbour Grace. As Eastons’ ships returned to the Harbour, the Basque fleet sailed out to meet him. The two rivals clashed off Harbour Grace Island, and the Basques’ lead ship, the St. Malo, ran aground on Eastern Rock. Forty-seven of Easton’s men died in the battle, and there is reasonable cause to believe they were buried in the Bears Cove area. Several years ago, the Coughlan United Church dug a new sewer line and discovered something unexpected: a mass grave. The clothing and dating of the bodies are consistent with the period. The location makes sense, too, since Easton’s fortifications were just across the street.

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Of course, Easton wasn’t the only person in Newfoundland at the time; acting on the authority of merchants and the English crown, early colonists had established headquarters at various locations on the island. Established in 1610, John Guy‘s Cuper’s Cove settlement (now Cupids) was the first in Newfoundland, and the second oldest in North America, after Jamestown, Virginia. (The site of Guy’s colony is currently an archaeological dig and definitely worth checking out.)

In a letter dated July 1612, Guy writes of an encounter with the arch-pirate:

“Because the proceedings of one Captain Peter Easton, a pirate, and his company since, are most fit to be known, before I touch our plantation business, you shall understand what they have been unto this time. Until the seventeenth of this present, the said Captain Easton remained in Harbor Grace, there trimming and repairing his shipping and commanding not only the carpenters of each ship to do his business; but hath taken victuals, munition, and necessaries from every ship, together with about one hundred men out of the Bay, to man his ships, being now in number six. He purposed to have before he goeth, as is said, out of the Land five hundred men…

“As I sailed from hence towards Renews, in a small bark, I fell into one of their hands: and one of my company was hurt with a musket. There was one of their crew that wintered with me here the first year, by whose means, and because I was in the bark, they made show that they were sorry that they had meddled with us. And so they departed from us, without coming aboard. That which they sought after was men, to increase their number.

“Before the said Captain Easton’s departure, he sent three ships into Trinity Bay, to store himself with victuals, munition, and men, who are said to be worse used than the ships here; he taketh much ordnance from them. The said Easton was lately at Saint John’s, and is now, as far as I can learn, at Ferryland, where he taketh his pleasure; and thereabouts the rest are to meet him. It is given out, that [he] will send one Captain Harvy in a ship to Ireland, to understand news about his pardon, which if he can obtain in that large and ample manner as he expecteth, then he giveth out, that he will come in. Otherwise, it is thought that he will get protection of the Duke of Florence and that, in his course here hence, he will hover about westwards of the Islands of the Azores, to see whether he can light upon any of the plate fleet, or any good rich booty, before his coming in. Albeit he hath so prevailed here to the strengthening of himself and encouraging of others to attempt the like hereafter, yet, were there that course taken, as I hope shall be, it is a most easy matter to repress them.”

Though Guy enjoyed relatively cordial relations with Easton, colonist Sir Richard Whitbourne was not so fortunate. When in Ferryland in 1612, Easton kidnapped Whitbourne and six other masters of English vessels. In captivity, Whitbourne rejected Easton’s “golden promises” of “much wealth to put in [his] hands,” but agreed to seek the pirate a pardon from James I. After eleven weeks of detainment, Whitbourne then headed for England, where he found a pardon had already been granted from Ireland, dated February 1612. Another pardon was later issued on November 26, 1612. However, neither reached Easton, whose “hovering with those Ships and riches, upon the coast of Barbary…with a longing desire, and full expectation to be called home, lost that hope by too much delaying of time of him who carried the Pardon.” (See Whitbourne’s A Discourse and Discovery of New-found-land for the full account, courtesy of Memorial University’s e-archives.)

With eight ships and five hundred men in tow, Easton left Newfoundland and headed for the Azores, hunting the Spanish Plate Fleet (or Silver Fleet). There, he succeeding in capturing three of these treasure ships—the largest successful pirate heist until that time.

Easton retired sometime between 1614-15, in Villefranche, France, on the Riviera. With his finances in the mire, the Duke of Savoy, Carlos Emmanuel I, made his ports free, in hopes that trade could be boosted through Nice and Villefranche. And for the pirates of Mamorra, the offer of free asylum and safe conduct for criminals was enticing. Striking up a kinship with the Duke, Easton agreed to pay a one-time tithe on his wealth, in exchange for protection. His penchant for violence didn’t completely stop, though. When visiting Turin, the local Duke employed Easton in his attack on the Duke of Mantua, a neighbour and rival. In this brief conflict, Easton “covered himself with glory[;] among his other achievements he is so skilful in laying guns that a few shots by him produce more effect than most gunners produce from many” (Whidbourne, p. 77). But at Villefranche, Easton finally had a truly safe haven to land his ships and wealth, with which he bought a title, the Marquis of Savoy. He soon married a rich heiress and retired in splendor.

Any references to Easton stop in 1620, when scholars suspect he died in France.

A recent CTV W5 documentary, “Pirates of Newfoundland,” covers the bones of this story, with some great shots and interviews. You can check it out here:

(Video courtesy of Canadian Diver TV.)

Upcoming: Easton’s Treasure (2017) & “Pirates to Pilots” Festival

Interest in the Peter Easton story ramps up this time of year with the tourism boost in Harbour Grace, and this summer there’s even more buzz, due to a new six-part television show, Easton’s Treasure (2017). Directed by Stafford Jenkins and filmed in Conception Bay, Easton’s Treasure follows the “Discovery Team,” a small group of Newfoundland treasure hunters eager to uncover the real story of the pirate. The series will be streamed on Amazon’s Instant Video platform, and a premiere of the first episode will be held on June 23, 2017, at the Splash Centre, Harbour Grace. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Also, be on the lookout for the Town of Harbour Grace’s upcoming “Pirates to Pilots” festival on Canada Day weekend (June 29 – July 3, 2017), which will feature various themed events relating to piracy and aviation.

 Links & Further Information

• Conception Bay Museum: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Tumblr | YouTube | Flickr

• Town of Harbour Grace: Website | History | Facebook | Twitter

• Additional Easton biographies: Dictionary of Canadian Biography | Eastwaters | The Pirate King | Canadian Encyclopedia | National Post | CTV | History of Piracy | Age of Pirates | Crossroads for Cultures | H.F. Shortis’s “All About Pirates” (ca. 1900)

Easton’s Treasure (2017): Facebook | Event | IMDb

• Oderin Island: Downhome Magazine | Day of Archaeology

• Cupids Legacy Centre: Website | Facebook

• Related fiction: Paul Butler’s Easton (2004), Easton’s Gold (2005), & NaGeira (2006)

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