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11 - Story of George Pearcival
Newfoundland's Swashbuckling Pirate

 

 

from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

It was a foggy September night in 1712 that the pirate cruise of the ten-ton gangboard fishing smack "Lily Ann" began at Great Paradise, Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The wind blew strongly from the south-west and the sea was short and choppy outside Haricut Island.

George Pearcival smiled cunningly and rubbed his deeply-cracked hands together.Soon, very soon, he would put an end to his frustration. Impatiently he paced the gangboard deck of the little fishing smack in which he was to begin his swashbuckling career. Little did even he realize that within the short space of twelve months he was destined to sail almost eighteen thousand miles, capture thirty-old ships, with cargos worth the staggering sum of approximately 150,000 pounds in English money, and leave behind him a story of blood and adventure, the equal of which has seldom been told.

George Pearcival looked landwards and wiped his eyes to pierce the inky blackness. Everything on shore appeared quiet, just the way he wanted it. He rubbed his hands together again, and he noticed that they felt rough and cracked. His career as a fish salter would soon be over. He twisted his nose in disgust. No longer would he break his back laying in bulk fish, and with his sore hands forces to shovel salt upon them. No longer would sheer hunger force him to dip sour bread into the fat rendered out of salt pork mixed with molasses, or drink cheap tea which literally stung his mouth and throat. "No more of this belly-wash," he said inwardly. "I've had my fill of that."

Pearcival's first voyage abroad had been on an English trading ship bound for South America in June, 1709, but before the ship had reached mid-Atlantic, the captain and crew turned pirate, and for almost a year young Pearcival promised himself that when he had an opportunity he would escape from the ship and make his way back to England to enjoy his easily-won riches. But fate decreed otherwise. During the month of April, 1710, a vicious storm broke over the Atlantic and Pearcival's ship, being near land at the time, was driven ashore and smashed to pieces on the middle head of Haricut Island. Pearcival alone survived that wreck, and from him the story has been handed down.

After roaming the island almost a month, Pearcival was rescued by a fisherman, Martin Brumwell, the man from whom he later stole the "Lily Ann" to begin his piratical career. For a while Pearcival tried to be a good fisherman, but he couldn't quite forget his first taste of piracy. From time to time his head and heart would fill with dreams of easily-won wealth and in these dreams he could picture himself the star of the show. The six roughnecks to whom he he confided his daring plan for piracy were all on board now. And with the fog as thick as pea soup to act as a curtain on the first act of their drama, they cut the mooring lines of the little craft and let her drift noiselessly out to sea.

Once outside the harbour, they were completely hidden by fog and darkness and, under the stinging commands of buccaneer Pearcival, every yard of canvas was hoisted to the masts to increase their speed.

A quick get-away was essential if their scheme was to succeed. Besides Captain George Pearcival, the crew consisted of long necked Jim Quinson, a good navigator who was made chief mate; Bowlegged Richard John Cook; Martin Goldsworthy, carpenter; Michael Craig and Archie Curria, sailors. These men were all peaceful fisherfolk who had settled in Great Paradise some years before Pearcival appeared on the scene, and until they heard Pearcival expound his theory of how to get rich quickly, they were contented in their way of life. It was a small company for a pirate crew, but daring George Pearcival deemed it big enough, at least until he had secured a larger ship.

The Lily Ann's armament consisted of five flintlock muskets, ten pounds of gunpowder, thirty rounds of round shot, and two hundred gun caps.

Like most pirates of that dim and distant past, Pearcival coached his crew in hand-to-hand fighting to capture a ship. With his previous knowledge of how knives could be effectively used against unskilled sailors, the daring captain soon had his men schooled in this manly art.

For a flag, Pearcival cut the back out of one of his red flannel shirts, painted a skull and cross-bones on it with white paint, and then hoisted it to the mast. Thus organized, with every detail regulated, the little pirate ship headed out into the shipping lanes where Pearcival hoped that the picking would be good. But what the daring skipper didn't count on was the fury of the Atlantic. When they were only six days at sea a furious storm broke and the little ship was buffeted by the mighty waves. She was taking water badly and the chance of Pearcival and his crew surviving the storm looked mighty slim. At the crucial moment, however, a ray of hope shone forth for them when they saw a ship appear on the horizon.

"We'll play it cagey now," said Pearcival, as he gathered his little crew around him. "We'll haul down the pirate flag and hoist a distress signal. If they decide to come for us, we'll break a hole in the planking and let her down. She served our purpose and now's our chance to get rid of her. Besides," he added cunningly, "we need a bigger ship for our work. The gun powder, caps shot and muskets we'll divide between us. It will be easier to carry on that way. If the captain asks any questions, we'll tell him that we were bound for St. John's, got caught in a storm and were driven out to sea. We can explain we took along the muskets for protection because out boat was small and we heard that there were pirates on the coast. That story should satisfy the old bloke that we are honest fisherman."

And thus it was that within a few short hours the crew of the "Lily Ann" found themselves safely on board a Spanish barquentine, a peaceful trading ship bound for America. The wily Pearcival knew from the beginning of his voyage n the "Lily Ann" that she was unsuitable for the plans he had in mind, and now that she was gone he did not lament her loss. In fact, he was jubilant over his good fortune in finding such a seaworthy ship.

The Spaniards treated their new shipmates with kindness and comradeship, and wily Pearcival took advantage of every opportunity to instil into the weaker members of the crew a hatred for discipline and oppression.

Fortunately for him he could speak the Spanish language fluently, and with the powers of persuasion which he possessed, he soon had the crew hanging on his every word. With the cunning and slyness of a thief, he set about sowing the seeds of discord that were to end in mutiny even sooner than he expected.

The story of glittering gold, shiny silver lears, pieces of eight stacked on their edges in a sea-chest, fascinated the majority of the crew, and the wily Pearcival played upon their weakness.

"Why don't we do something about getting some of this gold which Pearcival speaks about?" suggested an aggressive sailor, a leader in his class. this was sweet music to Pearcival's ears, and he encouraged the chant to be taken from there. Pearcival had done his work well, and in the dead of night, in a secluded spot on deck, he gathered his conspirators around him and held council. Under his leadership they were ready to move into their assigned places when the order was given to take over the ship.

The date decided on for the execution of their bloody deed was the night of October 10th.

With the cunning of panthers the conspirators laid low until the watch was changed at 4.00 a.m. at which time it was cleverly arranged that the deck was held entirely by the mutineers.

Pearcival grinned and clutched at his bludgeon, while he stood by the companionway and issued his orders in subdued tones.

"This is the opportunity we've been waiting for, men. Four of you go up to the focastle and up our proposition to the watch there. If they agree to join us without a fight, all right: but if they refuse, you know what to do. Larry Massen, Richard Johns and John Peters, you men stay with me. Howard Monks, you go into the cabin and tell the captain he's wanted on deck right away, as there is a suspicious ship lying just off our port-bow."

"Aye, sir" replied the sailor, as he disappeared into the cabin.

On receiving this message, the unsuspecting captain rushed up the cabin's companionway, only to meet his death at the hands of George Pearcival, who bludgeoned him the moment he put is head above the cabin roof. The three henchmen, who stood by, grabbed up the body and tipped it over the rail into the sea. With the captain out of the way, the rest of the coup was easy. The conspirators were definitely in the majority and the cutlass became the yardstick by which discipline was maintained. Once in command, Pearcival began training his crew for the brutal episodes that lay ahead. With the shrewdness of a hardened pirate he played upon the weakness of his crew by telling them how rich they would all be within a very short time, and how famous, and how important it was that they train well for their gruesome careers.

Captain Pearcival knew from previous experiences in what latitudes his greatest chances of achieving piratical wealth lay, and with this in mind he steered his ship for the busy sea lanes.

It was on the 28th of October, 1712, that buccaneer Pearcival and his well-trained crew were to match their skill against a prosperous-looking ship, the barque "Southwind", twenty days out from Liverpool. Although the Southwind carried a crew of twenty-six and had some armament, she was no match for the wily Pearcival, who boldly sailed his ship up to the barque and fired on her without warning. this surprise attack had a stunning effect on the crew of the Southwind, and after a short and bloody encounter, she was taken over by Pearcival and his crew. Now that provisions were available again in good supply, the pirates worked like Trojans to clean up whatever loot was of value. In addition to a quantity of gold which Pearcival personally seized, the ship was stripped of all her armament - two small cannons, twenty muskets, and plenty of gunpowder of which Pearcival badly in need for his muskets.

After the victory, the pickings became very poor and Pearcival decided to sail his ship south. In late November he arrived off the southern tip of Cuba, where he lay four days without sighting a ship. At dawn on the morning of December 2nd, he sighted a large square-rigged ship heading out to sea between his ship and the island. They immediately gave chase and, after a short battle, captured her. Pearcival's eyes almost dropped from their sockets when he learned that she was on her way to Spain with a valuable cargo of cloth, wine, rum, spices and perfumes. In addition she carried a shipment of gold and silver bars in strong-boxes in her cabin.

Pearcival was charmed with his catch and he boasted to his crew that this was only the beginning of a successful voyage. but after this his luck ran out again, and for four long months he cruised the Carribean without coming into contact with anything worthwhile. The tropical rains kept up their water supply, but food became short. Each man was allowed two ounces of bread and four mugs of water a day. At last, pushed by hunger, Pearcival decided to sail his ship up north again, where he hoped to make contact with the fishing fleets working around the Grand Banks at that time of the year. Within the short space of six months, in the Grand Banks area, he robbed no less than twenty-eight fishing vessels of food and whatever valuables he thought worth taking. Fish he didn't want. He had had enough of that.

By now Pearcival's ship was well laden with treasure, and the crew became anxious to get to land and dispose of their valuables to the highest bidder. but wily Pearcival had other ideas. He had to intention of sharing his wealth with the thirty-six members of his crew. The zest for the wealth was too strong within him for that. His idea was to quickly dispose of those whom he no longer wanted and to retain only those who had started the voyage with him on the Lily Ann.

By entertaining such an idea, Pearcival really let himself in for trouble. When the watch came off duty with one and two men missing several nights in a row, the reminder of the crew became suspicious of their captain, and from then onwards Pearcival was really sitting on a powder keg.

By now eight or ten of the men aboard had become disgruntled and under the leadership of John constance the plotting for Pearcival's destruction began. Soon afterwords trouble broke out across the deck and the noise of quarreling men shattered the calm. Someone yelled "Mutiny" to Pearcival, who came running from his cabin, but before he had gained the deck a mighty blow from a winch in John Constance's hand laid him low.

During the scuffle, fire broke out in the fo'castle and made such headway that the vessel was burned to the water-line and sank, taking with her the majority of the crew, as well as all her valuable cargo.

Thus it was that the voyage which began in Placentia Bay on a small fishing smack the "Lily Ann" almost twelve months before ended in disaster for the self-styled pirate king, George Pearcival.

 

 

Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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