Cobham and Maria Lindsey
Among the many pirates who swarmed over the Canadian seas in the so called
Golden Age, none was more vicious than Eric Cobham, unless it was his wife and
partner in piracy, Maria Lindsey. It seems that they killed for sport, followed
a policy of leaving no survivors to bear evidence, and according to Cobham's own
account, managed to get away with piracies spread over a period of twenty years.
The Cobhams favourite base was in the Gulf of St.Lawrence, although they
ocassionally raided farther south. According to tradition, their fort and
careenage was in Bay St.George, at a place called Sandy Point. There, early in
the eighteenth century, they were safe from detection except by occasional crews
of fishermen and a few Indians and French colonists who had strayed from the
colony of Acadia.
Eric Cobham was born in Poole, one of the Channel ports of England, and went
to sea as a boy. He may well have been engaged in the Newfoundland fisheries at
the age of fourteen or fifteen, but by his late teens he was a member of a
smuggling gang running brandy from France to England. One operation that he took
part in was reported to have landed ten thousand gallons of spirits
At about the age of nineteen or twenty he was caught, flogged, and sent to a
Newgate prision, where he spent some two years. On his release he got a job
working at an inn in Oxford. There he succeeded in robbing one of the wealthy
transients of a bag of gold coins. The innocent innkeeper was hanged for the
theft, while Cobham moved south to Plymouth and bought a small ship.
Like many ships of her time, the vessel was armed. Cobham recruited a crew of
desperadoes from the docks, probably many of them his former associates in the
smuggling trade, and set off on a career of piracy.
Rounding the Lizard and heading northward to see what pickings might be found
in the Irish Sea, they ran into a great stroke of luck - an East Indianman
heading up the channel toward Bristol, carrying cargo worth fourty thousand
pounds, some of it in gold. Most pirates would have retired on the spot. Not
Cobham. He scuttled the ship and drowned the crew, showing already the
ruthlessness that marked his later career. Then he headed for the French
Mediterranean ports to establish contacts with pirate brokers. There he sold his
stolen goods and returned to Plymouth as a successful soldier of fortune.
In Plymouth he met Maria Lindsey and formed with her a partnership that
lasted the rest of their lives. There is no record of their ever being churched,
but they were certainly wedded. Shortly after they met, they enlisted a fresh
crew of renegades and sailed for the New World.
They made landfall at Nantucket and captured their first trans-Atlantic prize
there. Then they cruised northward until they found their way past the tip of
Cape Breton Island and discovered the supply route to Quebec where money going
up river and furs going downriver provided a rich killing ground virtually
untouched by other pirates!
The harbour that they chose for their careenage was far enough north of the
shipping lanes to be safe from accidental discovery. The great walrus hunts that
had reddened the waters of the Gulf of St.Lawrence a hundred and two hundred
years ago were now over. South of the Straits of Belle Isle the walrus was
almost extinct, and except for the trade route that ran past the island of Cape
Breton and the Perce Rock to Tadoussac and Quebec, the Gulf lay quiet. No one
was likely to follow them to Sandy Point, or if he did, to find his way safely
past the mass of shoals that guarded it from the sea. The long sand spit that
curves around Flat Bay just south of St.Georges would later become the capital
of western Newfoundland, an important naval base and a centre for the Gulf and
Labrador fisheries but all this was in the future.
From St.Georges Bay the pirates could reach their favourite theatre of
operations around Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island in two days sail. They
were in striking distance of all the traffic going to what are now the Maritime
provinces of Canada and all of the St.Lawrence traffic in and out of New France
(Quebec), most of which now moved through the Cabot Strait, although some still
moved by way of the Straits of Belle Isle.
At that time the Canadian fur trade was immensely valveable, and the price of
the individual furs was rising. Certain varities, then or a little later, were
literally worth their weight in gold. The trade had been subject, from its
inception more than two centuries before, to hijacking.
The Cobhams merely refined this art and added their own brand of
ruthlessness. Everything that they captured, they sold in the Mediterranean
ports, but rather than risking frequent Atlantic crossings themselves, they
probably shipped their loot second-hand by way of traders who picked up cargo at
Perce. It was said that at Perce, in season, you could buy or sell anything from
beaver pelts to crown jewels!
Cobham later boasted that he had operated for twenty years without ever being
caught, but this probably included the later years of respectability up to his
last coup in the English Channel. He attributed his good fortune to his policy
of leaving no survivors. "Dead cats don't meow", the pirates used to say! Few
pirates of the eighteenth century could ever bring themselves to operate with
the Cobhams' thoroughness. Not until a hundred years later did piracy usually
include massacre. The Cobhams murdered all hands and sank the ships which were
then listed as missing, without survivors, and presumed lost at sea.
The stories of Maria Lindsey's behaviour as a pirate strongly suggest
homicidal insanity. She poisoned one ships crew, had others sewn into sacks and
thrown overboard alive, still others tied up and used for pistol practice. Such
are the later stories told by her husband, uncorroborated by witnesses, but
quite possibly true.
When the Cobhams judged that their wealth had grown sufficiently, they sailed
for France, disposed of their final ships and cargoes, and bought a fine estate
near Le Havre from the Duc de Charters. They also bought a yacht in which they
sailed on the Baie de la Seine and along the French shore of the English
They now had a private harbour, servants, and a respectable place among the
landed gentry. But even then Cobham could not resist temptation when it fell his
way. On one cruise he found a brig beclaimed in the channel, inward bound from
the West Indies to England, and apparently defenceless. Stealing on board, he
and his servants took the crew by surprise, overpowered them, murdered them, and
dumped them in the sea. He then sent both ship and cargo to Bordeaux to be sold.
Cobham, wealthy squire and landowner, pillar of respectability, was appointed
magistrate, a judge in the French county courts, a position that he held for
twelve years. But he and Maria gradually became estranged. He took to almost
public wenching. She took to alcohol often laced with laudanum. While he made a
reputation for himself as a lover, she became more withdrawn and solitary.
Then, one day, she was missing. Her husband reported it and instigated a
search, and after two days her body was found in the sea below a cliff. A doctor
certified that she had taken enough laudanum to kill herself, and she was
assumed to have leaped over the cliff as insurance against failure in suicide.
This seems probable because Cobham, when he later confessed to everything else,
did not include Maria's murder among his many crimes.
Cobham died a natural death. When his end was near, he called a priest and
made a lenghtly confession, had the story of his life committed to writing, and
asked that it be published. His wishes were carried out, and the priest saw that
the little book dictated by the ex-pirate was published, but Cobham's heirs, by
now a respectable family, tried to supress it, buying and burning every
available copy. One somewhat defective copy found its way into the French
Archives, and this is the only primary source on Cobham. But he also had his
biographer, who supplied other details, presumeably from people who knew the
pirate in his early or late career and possibly from some who served under him
in the days when he hovered, a veritable angel of death, beside the supply line
that ran between France and Canada.