Thursday, January 31, 2013

People: The Canadian Pirate

Today's pirate comes to us once again from the pages of Philip Gosse's The Pirate's Who's Who. He seems full of vigor and a lust for life that not all the characters in Gosse's encyclopedic compendium of freebooters' lives share. He is a curious sort, as well, for his birthplace; although there were probably a number of pirates from the country we now call Canada, it seems that very few have left much of a record.

Captain Nelson (Gosse does not state the man's Christian name) was born on the beautiful shores of Prince Edward Island. His father was a veteran of the "American war", which one must assume was the U.S. Revolution against Britain, and was granted "land for his services" which he turned into a successful farm. By the time young Nelson reached manhood, his father was a well-to-do member of his community, sitting on it's Council and acting as Colonel of the local Militia.

The senior Nelson bought his son farmland and acquired for him a position as Captain in the Militia. The younger Nelson married and settled into life as a farmer, at first seemingly pleased to follow in his father's footsteps. At some point, Captain Nelson attempted to add to his family's fortune by becoming a merchant sailor. He bought a schooner, and began transporting "cargoes of potatoes and fruit" to Halifax. This may be where the trouble began. As Gosse puts it:

He seems to have liked these trips in which he combined business with pleasure, for we learn that on these visits to Halifax he "was very wild, and drank and intrigued with the girls in an extravagant manner." Getting into disgrace on Prince Edward Island, and losing his commission [as Captain of the Militia], he went to live near Halifax, and became a lieutenant in the Nova Scotia Fencibles, while his wife remained on the island to look after his estate...

Nelson's wild side was out for good at this point. He met a man named Morrison and "together they bought a pretty little New York battleship, mounting ten guns." Gosse humorously refers to Nelson's new ship as a "dangerous toy" and notes that he and Morrison manned it "with a crew of ninety desperate characters." Thus armed and crewed, they all went "on the account."

Despite his Canadian background, it appears that Nelson used the port of New York as a base. Here he brought a number of captured ships and sold their goods for a profit. His chosen cruising ground was the West Indies where he plundered English and Dutch ships whose crews he treated "with the greatest brutality."

Nelson and Morrison also ventured raids on land. They ransacked and burned two Dutch plantations on St. Kitts, killing everyone who got in their way. They cruised as far south as Brazil, taking a number of ships on their way. After some time at sea, though, Nelson began to long for hearth and home. He returned, surreptitiously one has to imagine, to the family farm on Prince Edward Island where, Gosse says, "no one dared to molest him."

At this point, Nelson had been a-pirating for three years and had amassed a small fortune of 150,000 pounds. It is interesting that Gosse also notes "his Scotch partner, Morrison, being a frugal soul, had in the meantime saved an even larger sum." Both men seem to have been unusually capable of husbanding their earnings when compared to others of their trade.

Unfortunately for both men, their ship was wrecked in a fog off the island of Nelson's birth. Most of the crew, including the wealthy Morrison, were drowned. This seems to have been the event that ended Nelson's piratical career. He returned home but, ether unable or unwilling to live out the rest of his life as a farmer, Nelson brought his family to New York where, Gosse says, "he lived the rest of his life in peaceful happiness with his wife and family."

The unusually happy ending of the tale of Nelson, the Canadian pirate, is rather nice for a change. The only thing that niggles is all that "great brutality" and burning and pillaging. But then, no one ever said piracy was pretty...

Header: A Fight After the Game by Victor Nehlig via American Gallery


Timmy! said...

Hey, what's a little brutality and burning and pillaging between friends, Pauline? There is also no mention of how Captain Nelson's wife felt about being left to manage the farm while he went a pirating (not to mention his "intriguing with the girls in an extravagant manner"... I guess if he came home with a fortune then all was forgiven (except for the people he stole it from).

Capt. John Swallow said...

Remember, Timmy, pillage THEN burn!

There were a lot more Pyrates in and around Canada than folk realize - half the crews on rum running ships in the Caribbean were likely from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Maine (which was initially part o' Acadia)...not to mention all the rogues on the Great Lakes!

A great book on the subject, written by our mate Geordie Telfer, is "Real Canadian Pirates" - allegedly still available from his publisher (possibly elsewhere) -in fact we smuggled a few copies into New Orleans a few years back for some local schools!

Peter Easton was a far more notable East Coast "Canadian" Pyrate (Canada really didn't exist during most o' this era, though it was eventually Lower Canada up that end)...or "Roaring" Dan Seavey on the Great Lakes.

Come to think o' it, I'll have to hail Geordie and see if he has any copies hidden away...and get some signed ones for the coming adventures!

Of course another great book about a "Canadian" seaman (occasionally a Pyrate) who famously survived a naval catastrophe on Lake Ontario during the war o' 1812, is "Ned Myers, or A Life Before The Mast" by none other than James Fennimore Cooper (who was Myers shipmate as a youth) avail. free in digital edition

Pauline said...

Timmy!: Maybe she was a tried and true farm girl; comfortable running a farm and not much interested in what her husband was up to. Let's hope they had lots of kids to help her out.

Captain: Right you are. The Newfoundland fisheries were hard to work at that time; something akin to crab fishing in the Bering Sea these days. It's no wonder so many men deserted and went "on the account". It's just to bad we don't know more about so many of them.

Capt. John Swallow said...

As it happens, the QM is related to two men who went on the account from the East Coast - James Stewart (somewhere in the 1700's) and George Ross who sailed with Stede Bonnet and was then signed on with Blackbeard to Captain one o' the ships in his "fleet"; Ross lies in the same bog as Blackbeard!