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4 - Sheila Na Geira Pike

 

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

Sheila Na Geira - a princess - noble, God-fearing, and courageous - a woman to be admired in any age. A princess, whose name will be cherished for ever in the hearts of the people of Bristol's Hope and Carbanear where she lived.

In the early colonization days of this country, she was a woman without equal. Her tremendous feats of courage, and her great leadership are imprinted upon the pages of Newfoundland history.

Sheila was a beautiful princess, daughter of John Na Geira, King of County Down, Ireland.

While returning with her kinfolk from France where she had spent four years studying, her ship, the Curragh was engaged by Captain Gilbert Pike, a bold pirate on the high seas. He was in search of gold, but didn't dream of finding a queen instead.

Although he spoke rudely to her, she knew his looks belied him. So she called upon his manhood to grant them release. Seeing that she was one of Erin's fair daughters he promised a safe return to Ireland for the Curragh and crew if she, Sheila, would sail with him on the high seas. He promised her protection and told her it never was his intention to harm women or children.

In the months that followed Sheila won the love and admiration of her master, but being a shrewd woman did not press him to give up his piratical ways at once. Finally after having witnessed many bloody battles, she decided the time had come to hold him to his promise. She told him that the crew from some powerful ship would defeat him, and take all he had worked so hard to acquire. He listened to her words of wisdom, and called a halt to his piratical ways.

From then onward their love grew stronger. Although their hearts yearned for a place of protection, Gilbert could not return to his home in England; neither could he settle with his beloved Sheila in Ireland. The only solution to the problem, he thought, was to put her on shore on the Emerald Isle and let her go to her father.

Sheila seeing now, that he had proven himself a gallant lover would not leave him. With his experience, surely the freedom they sought would be found somewhere in the land of the west, she told him.

It was then, that the imprisoned love in his heart broke loose and he confessed that he had loved her from the start, and that now he would go in search of a new home in a new land.

So after a short sojourn in France, where they were married, they left and came west to an island whose coast was rugged and sparsely populated.

"Our home shall be in Cabot's Newfoundland, Sheila" Gilbert said one morning as they stood on the deck of the Anchor Spory and watched the coast come plainly into view. "I have been to this island many times. In time we will meet people form our own homeland, and we should not find it too lonely."

Little did they think then, so happy in love, that loneliness was to play a big part in the best years of her life.

This was May 1672. Bristol's Hope was a prosperous little community of fisher folk, and it was here Gilbert Pike and his beautiful princess set up her new home.

Having elected to live the life of an ordinary planter Sheila worked diligently. Her name became a household word in every settlement up and down the coast. In summer and winter, men and women came to ask her advice. Though she had never taken training in medicine or nursing she performed the work of a nurse with great honour to herself. Stories of her treatment of the sick and the sore are handed down even to this day.

While she was literally performing miracles for the sick and the afflicted, her husband, Gilbert Pike was making a name for himself in the fishing business. Clearing land was a hard task in those primitive times, but he tackled this too. With determination he made great progress. He was now a happy man. He loved his wife and he loved his new home. Up to the present fortune had smiled on their union.

But, as it so often happens in a small isolated community, there was no one with the practical experience to help when this kind and beautiful woman was on the point of death when her first child was to be born. As she lay critically ill, the only good the women could do was storm heaven with their prayers that all would be well with Mrs. Pike.

For three days a cloud of gloom hung over the village of Bristol's Hope. the lay nurse from Carbonear, a Mrs. Ainsburry, had been brought up. But after making the necessary preparations, all she could do was stand by, and wait until God's good time for the baby to be born.

Gilbert Pike was no coward, but it brought tears to his eyes to see his beloved wife suffering such agony. Since coming to Bristol's Hope his one concern was for his Princess Sheila working from dawn to dusk to make a home the equal, if not better, than any in the land.

He was also a God-fearing man now. Although Church service was seldom held in the community he tried to live the straight and narrow way. Now he wondered if his great effort and laborious work had been in vain. He prayed aloud that God might lift the cruel agony from his wife, and cast it upon him. It was while he was praying thus Mrs. Ainsburry came forward and told him to come his wife and baby were resting fairly well. In the candle light, he dropped on his knees and thanked God.

After a month of care Mrs. Pike was again able to visit her neighbours. To have a child christened one had to travel to Cupids because there was no clergyman in the district. The journey by land was a treacherous one so Gilbert decided to go by sea. Sheila enjoyed the trip as it was the first time she had been away from Bristol's Hope since their landing here three and a half years before.

For three more years Sheila and her husband enjoyed a fairly peaceful life. They had a second child. Then suddenly one night in June 1682 the bold Admiral De Ruyter sailed his well-armed ship into the settlement of Bristol's Hope under the cover of darkness.

The men fought to protect their women and children from falling into the hands of these pirates but they were no match for De Ruyter's armed hordes. While the pirates were fighting the men, the women, led by Sheila, took to the hills and hid in the forest.

When the raiders couldn't find the women they took their vengeance out on the men, and sailed away with forty bleeding and battered planters, the life blood of Bristol's Hope. Six were left to die on the beach. For this De Ruyter has never been forgotten. This was a paralyzing blow to the little community.

After recovering from their shock the women realized that the six men had to be nursed back to health. Here again we find Sheila taking the lead. Although her own grief is indescribable and she was left with two children to care for, she took upon her the job of nursing the beaten men.

Out of this awful tragedy that fell on the people of Bristol's Hope, there came the first cooperative community in the western hemisphere. With conditions at a standstill, it was important that someone with leadership would take command. Bristol's Hope consisted of forty-two women, twenty-seven children and six badly beaten men.

"The news of our tragedy must be brought to Cupids," Sheila told her friends. "We must make a protest to the Governor of the plantation over the lack of naval protection in the small communities." A chorus of voices assured her of support in anything she undertook for the welfare of the community.

The primitiveness that existed when John Cabot landed had continued well into the seventeenth century. It seemed unbelievable that the community could survive, much less make progress. Still Sheila Pike brought order out of terrible misfortune, and the results that she achieved, bear testimony to the fact that her name deserves an honoured place in our history. She never lost sight of the importance of the village being in a position to defend itself should another raid be made upon it from the sea.

They build a fort on the north side, and a stone wall on the south side at the entrance to the harbour. The loyalty of the people in anything she advanced for their welfare was always overwhelming.

The next thing Bristol's Hope had to contend with was a flu epidemic. Not a person in the village escaped the awful plague, and it looked as though there might be more loss of life. Sheila and her two children were stricken, and she must have been inspired to do what she did. She went in the forest, took the inner bark from cherry and dogwood trees. When she boiled it in a large boiler, the aroma from this liquid had an amazing effect on the sick children. On her advice the sick people drank the liquid.

Only Sheila and God alone knew the joy that filled her heart that cold February morning, when she found that the medicine had done wonders. When the villagers were restored to health, Sheila led them in prayer to thank the Lord for their safe deliverance from that awful plague.

Next, Indians made a bold attack on the settlement. When Sheila tried to tell them the white man wanted peace they carried her off with them. It was three months before she escaped in a raging thunder storm and rejoined her people at Bristol's Hope.

For her work in trying to put the community on the road to self support, the people nominated Sheila Na Geira Pike representative to the home Government.

There were threats of French raids along the coast. But Sheila had no fear. The tragedy of that winter of 1689 was the awful plague of diphtheria which claimed the lives of twelve people. There might have been more, but for a salt treatment she devised, and with the coming of spring the dreadful disease passed.

Sheila had paid little attention to the many conflicting laws and orders issued from time to time, but she was worried nevertheless over the latest piece of legislation which had been passed by the Lords of the Council forbidding the planters to inhabit within six miles of coastline from Cape Race to Cape Bonavista.

A petition which the planters had presented some years earlier asking for a resident authority to be appointed to the island had met with stubborn protest from the merchants and ship owners. She told her people to ply their trade as usual but refrain from doing anything that would incur the wrath of the fishing admirals. "Patience and tolerance" she said "will play a big part in maintaining peace between the planters and the floaters."

In due time the planters did achieve victory over the powerful fish merchants and looked forward to a time of peace and prosperity. Such was not to be their lot. It was now the summer of 1696, that news of a French attack on St. John's reached them. Sheila knew they would also attack Bristol's Hope. Sure enough on December 10th, 1696 four ships were sighted sailing down the coast. Little did they realize the wisdom and foresight of a great leader had seen to it they would face a series of stone walls.

After the last French ship sailed away, they knew it was their skill in handling the guns and their determination of purpose that won the victory.

A year later, on December 22, 1697 the people of Bristol's Hope became aware of a grim tragedy. Four survivors of a shipwreck were washed upon the beach. They all recovered, but one man a Captain Grant had to have his leg amputated. This operation was performed with the skill of a surgeon by Sheila.

When this man regained his health, he asked for her hand in marriage, but Sheila refused although she admired him very much. She always prayed and hoped that her husband would return some day.

With Captain Grant's help Sheila opened a school in her own house. The school results were amazing.

Sheila was to receive another reward for patience. For after fifteen years of absence her husband returned safe and sound. The excitement and joy that summer's day so long ago can be better imagined than described. After listening to Gilbert's story Sheila told him to invite Captain Poynter to dinner to show how grateful they were for what he did for them. After a while they moved to Carbonear and it was a sad day in Bristol's Hope when they left. But she left Captain Grant to carry on and supervise the school. They built a business and home in Carbonear. Sheila carried on her great work with wonderful results for the settlement.

She died at the age of 105 years. Carved into a large slab of stone at the rear of the house that Gilbert Pike built for his princess and himself more than two hundred and forty years ago at Carbonear will be found the words - "Sheila Na Geira Pike, wife of Gilbert Pike, and daughter of John Na Geira, King of County Down, Ireland, died August 14th, 1753 at the age of one hundred and five years."

 

 

Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

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

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