Piracy is traditionally defined as the seizure and robbery of craft at sea or in the air. Though piracy had only a small role in Canada’s history, it has been the subject of legendary tales over the years. Pirates traversed the Atlantic coast of the country during the 17th and 18th centuries, plundering and causing mayhem wherever they went. Stories about pirates like Peter Easton and Bartholomew Roberts remain a part of local histories. While maritime piracy is no longer a significant threat in Canada, it remains so in parts of Asia, Africa, South America and Central America. The Canadian Armed Forces have assisted in anti-piracy missions in various parts of the world. In the modern age, piracy has taken on new forms, such as virtual crime and digital theft. Online piracy poses threats to the Canadian people, industries and economy.
History of Piracy in Canada
During the 1600s and 1700s, pirates and privateers (private individuals authorized by governments to wage war against enemies of the state) were drawn to parts of Canada’s East Coast. There, they ransacked and raided fisheries, ships and settlements and recruited local men to their crews.
One of the best-known pirates to make his mark on Canada was Peter Easton. In 1612, Easton embarked on a series of raids on European fishing fleets in coastal harbours in Newfoundland and Labrador from Trinity Bay to Ferryland. He turned Harbour Grace into his headquarters and destroyed a Basque fleet that was intent on capturing his fort there. Pardoned by King James, Easton abandoned his Newfoundland base and settled in Savoy.
Bartholomew Roberts — also known as Black Bart — was another well-known pirate, who attacked Trepassey, Newfoundland and Labrador, in June 1720. He captured a fleet of 22 fishing ships and plundered the town before moving south down the coast. Roberts, who captured more than 400 ships during his three-year career, was killed in 1722 by ships of the Royal Navy off the coast of Guinea, West Africa.
Much of Canada’s pirate history centres on tales of buried treasure. A fabulous treasure ascribed to William Kidd (hanged in 1701) is reputed to be buried on Oak Island, off Nova Scotia’s South Shore. The history of pirates is also steeped in lore and tales of the supernatural. According to legend, Louis-Olivier Gamache, a sailor from Île d'Anticosti in Quebec, escaped his pursuers by turning his ship into a fireball. Pirate Eric Cobham and his wife, Maria Lindsay, were said to have been active in Newfoundland from 1740 to 1760, but their exploits haven’t been confirmed by historians.
Did you know?
Thousands of pirates were active along the east coast of North America, the Caribbean, the west coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean between 1690 and 1730 — a period that became known as the Golden Age of Piracy.
By 1730, the Golden Age of Piracy had come to an end. Nations had increased their naval and military presence and were enforcing international anti-piracy laws. Privateering from Canadian ports ceased in 1815 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814. (See Privateering During the War of 1812.) Privateering was ended by international convention with the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law in 1856.
In the 19th century, Halifax was the site of two piracy trials. In 1809, Edward and Margaret Jordan and a sailor named Kelly were tried for seizing the Three Sisters and murdering several members of the crew. The schooner had originally belonged to the Jordans but was seized by merchants looking to recoup money loaned to the Jordans. The vessel’s captain, John Stairs, threw himself overboard on a hatch cover, upon which he floated for hours before being picked up by an American fisherman. Margaret and Kelly were acquitted, but Edward Jordan was found guilty of murder and piracy. He was executed on 23 November 1809, his corpse left hanging at the entrance to Halifax Harbour.
In 1843, Captain George Fielding and his son sought passage home to England from Peru. Sailing from Valparaíso on the barque Saladin, Fielding successfully persuaded some crew members to seize the vessel and murder six shipmates. Under Fielding’s command, the Saladin — with a valuable cargo of guano, copper and silver, a chest of dollars and several money letters — set course for Newfoundland and Labrador. Fielding’s fellow conspirators were so terrified of him that they threw him and his son into the sea. The Saladin went aground near Country Harbour, Nova Scotia. The crew members were charged with piracy — a charge that was later changed to murder. Two were acquitted because they had not taken part in the murders and were deemed by the court to have been unwilling partners in the death of the Fieldings. The other four were hanged on 30 July 1844 on a knoll where Victoria General Hospital now stands.
Canada has experienced a limited number of incidents of skyjacking, or aircraft piracy. On 29 November 1974, Naim Djemal hijacked an aircraft over Saskatchewan. He assaulted a stewardess and ordered the pilot to fly to Cyprus. Upon landing for fuel in Saskatoon, Djemal handed a knife to the captain and walked off the aircraft, and he was subsequently arrested, pleaded guilty and was sentenced.
The Canadian Armed Forces have assisted countries at risk of maritime piracy. In 2009, the Canadian warship HMCS Winnipeg, which was part of a NATO anti-piracy mission, helped a ship evade pirates off the coast of Somalia. In 2018, the Canadian warships HMCS Kingston and HMCS Summerside docked in Nigeria to help that country’s navy combat the threat of piracy. (See also Royal Canadian Navy.)
With the rise of the internet, the definition of piracy has expanded to include digital and virtual forms of stealing, such as the illegal downloading of music and movies. While the onset of affordable streaming services has decreased unauthorized streaming, it remains a problem in Canada and elsewhere.