G’day there!

Remember last week, when I said that this week I would reveal how – thanks to a bit of a merit and a great deal of luck – I finally managed to land a contract all on my own? Well, I changed my mind and decided to call an audible. That’ll be fodder for next time – hurray for you. But today, we need to return to some unfinished business.

This past Tuesday, November 17, marked the 240th anniversary of the infamous raid on Charlottetown carried out by a gang of privateers from Marblehead, Massachusetts. It was then that I remembered I had yet to finish the story I began nearly two years ago, despite a few promises to the contrary; however, now seems like as good a time as any. So, in honor of the occasion, here’s the final bit of the tale.

But first, let’s bring ourselves back up to speed with a quick recap.

If you’ll recall, the American Revolution was in its infancy when, in October 1775, George Washington commissioned Captains Nicholas Broughton and John Selman as privateers and sent them and two crews to intercept a pair of British brigs. These vessels, bound for Quebec, were stocked to the gunwales with arms, ammunition, provisions etc. for forces stationed there. Washington needed these transports to be waylaid; if they succeeded in reaching Quebec, it would be nothing for British troops to march down the Hudson River Valley and cut the Thirteen Colonies in half, conceivably putting an end to the fight for independence.

Through no fault of their own, Broughton and Selman were unable to intercept their targets. Poor weather continually hampered their progress, and by early November they were adrift in the Gut of Canso between present-day mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. It was then they learned, by sheer happenstance, that on a nearby island by the name of St. John’s (Prince Edward Island), British recruitment was in full swing (an exaggeration, although it was happening on a small scale). Deciding to show some initiative, they put in at Charlottetown, entirely uninvited and unopposed, at which point all hell broke loose as they proceeded to pillage and plunder their way through the capital. Helping themselves to quite a bit, including the colony’s most important government symbol, its seal, they also took as prisoners of war Phillips Callbeck, at the time acting Governor, and Thomas Wright, senior councillor, Justice of the Peace, and Surveyor-General. Then it was up with the anchors and back to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Now, the rest of the story…

Despite their high-profile captives, the kidnapping was not finished just yet. As Broughton and Selman passed through the Gut of Canso once again, they came across a ship that had been sitting at anchor awaiting a favourable wind. On board was John Russell Spence, his family, and servants, heading to the Island where he was to take up a position in government council; Theophilus DesBrisay, chaplain; and the ship’s owner, a man by the name of Higgins (likely David Higgins, a prominent merchant, coming from London with supplies and the like). Spence managed to wrangle his party’s release, as did DesBrisay; Higgins, however, wasn’t so lucky. His ship and goods were seized, and he found himself joining Callbeck and Wright, another unfortunate prisoner of war.

After a two-week journey, the captives were handed over to Washington’s custody. For their part, Broughton and Selman must have felt they were in for some sort of Roman triumph akin to those in days of yore, when victorious commanders would parade through the streets basking in the admiration of the masses. True, they’d missed out on their primary objective; however, surely their raid on Charlottetown, the “disruption” of recruiting efforts, and their captives – two of them well enough placed within government that they might cough up a few juicy secrets after a bit of interrogation – would be more than enough consolation. It only makes sense, right? Not exactly. Instead of the anticipated accolades, what they got was admonishment – severe admonishment.

Remember, Washington had entertained the idea of convincing British citizens in present-day Canada to join him in his rebellious efforts  – and the two Marblehead captains had gone and seriously jeopardized the notion. At the time it had seemed feasible (but as we know, would never come to pass); however, in order to preserve the possibility of such an alliance, Broughton and Selman had been under strict orders to not harass British citizens north of the border. Ships flying British colours were fair game, but they’d taken it too far: they’d raided a tiny backwater colony, stole a goodly number of provisions and its most important government symbol, and kidnapped two of its most senior officials.

Portrait of George Washington. But you knew that already.

Callbeck would later write that Washington received them in a manner befitting a gentleman, and even listened to their tale of woe; in fact, as a sign of good faith, and wishing to undo some of the injustice done to them, Washington subsequently released Callbeck and Wright from their bondage (it appears Higgins may have been let go sometime before). And that’s when Callbeck saw an opportunity to kill two birds with a single stone: to make amends lest his superiors in Britain, for any reason, find fault with his handling of the raid; or, should that turn out to not be the case, to possibly get in good with said superiors and move up the career ladder.

Exit Callbeck the hapless POW. Enter Callbeck the (sort of) spy.

Yes, espionage. Strangely, Washington set Callbeck and Wright free on what was technically enemy soil and left them on their own to devise a way home. He was trying to make nice in light of what had happened, I suppose, but he must also have felt the pair, despite being well positioned politically, posed little threat – a risky move, considering what Callbeck had in mind.

At this point it becomes difficult to pinpoint their precise movements. Ultimately, both Callbeck and Wright ended up in the safe haven of Halifax (Nova Scotia); Wright, however, appears to have wasted little time covering the distance by both land and sea and arrived first, about the middle of December. Callbeck’s journey took a bit longer. Here’s why.

In a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth dated January 5, 1776, posted from Halifax, Callbeck reveals how, after his release, he had opted to hang back for three days and do some light reconnaissance, taking note of such matters as rebel fortifications, troop strength, morale, provisions, arms, and prime landing zones for British offensives. It was a pattern he then continually performed for the duration of his travels through rebel territory. He even had the gall to strike up casual conversations and glean a few hearsay details along the way. How he managed to do any of it without raising suspicion is a bit befuddling, and he offered no explanation. Perhaps he passed himself off as a rebel, or a supporter of the cause. Perhaps he was just a really suave, disarming, charismatic guy. But we’re not likely to ever find out.

It all begs the question: Did the higher-ups take any of this intelligence into consideration?Or was it information with which they were already familiar? It would be an interesting angle to research. Whatever the case, it didn’t land Callbeck a posh governorship in a warm climate. It didn’t get him much of anything, really.

Once the winter of 1776 receded, Callbeck was able to make his way back to the Island, and to a state of normalcy. Thankfully, there had been no more raids during his absence, but the whole experience had been one giant reality check. Something had to give – who knew when the next such instance might occur? As luck would have it, Callbeck had already begun to grease the wheels of what would become arguably his greatest contribution.

In the 1760s, it had been decided to recall the British troops that had been stationed at Fort Amherst (previously the French Port-la-Joie), situated across from Charlottetown adjacent to present-day Rocky Point. The fort was then decommissioned and allowed to fall into ruin, leaving the harbour and the capital entirely exposed and very vulnerable. Callbeck’s time in Halifax had given him a lot of time to think, and he saw just how perilous was the situation. Putting idle hours to good use, he began to vehemently petition his superiors to re-fortify St. John’s Island (that is, Charlottetown and its harbour).

He succeeded…eventually.

It took a bit of convincing, but Callbeck managed to win them over to the idea. Naturally, government bureaucracy being what it was (and still is), the lip service came first before any noticeable change was instigated. Eventually, arms and ammunition were procured, permission was given to raise a militia of 100 men (not entirely satisfactory – he wanted actual, professional soldiers), and a temporary battery was thrown up. There was even a token naval presence now and again, but what with war on the go, it was pretty sporadic.

After spending the better part of three years doggedly advocating, the situation by December 1779 was thus: Callbeck stood at the head of a provincial company of 48 – not great, but not too shabby either. Official plans for fortifications had been drawn up by an actual military engineer in Halifax, and some had even been implemented. One, a small battery, went up in the summer of 1777, followed by the resurrection of the defunct Fort Amherst in 1778. Most of the rest would eventually be constructed.

When all was said and done, Charlottetown’s harbour was not only defensible – it was theoretically impregnable. Of course, no occasion ever warranted the use of the new defenses, so we’ll never know for certain; however, on paper at least, it was all very impressive.

As the years passed, the military presence here (both professional troops and militia) would become much more established. One by one, however, the forts, redoubts, and batteries became obsolete and fell into disuse. Today, only one such structure stands as a reminder. You’ve likely seen it if you’ve ever taken a stroll along the boardwalk in Victoria Park. Fort Edward sits perched on a tiny bluff, and is a favoured photo-op for tourists and locals alike. In 1805 it was decided to dismantle the battery that had been built at the foot of Great George Street and move it further west along the waterfront where it would command a better view of the harbour mouth and where people, for many years, have enjoyed climbing atop the cannons never used in actual defense of any kind.

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Well, there you have it – I finally finished the story. And now for a bit more…


After nearly twenty years of service to the people of the Island (marred by a couple of major political scandals involving illegal land-grabs), Phillips Callbeck passed away in February 1790 at the age of 44. Considered by many to have been a great benefactor, to this day he remains the highest profile POW in Island history. It was a fact that did not crack his epitaph.

Thomas Wright likewise found himself embroiled in the same scandals, and was eventually forced to resign from his political and judicial careers; however, he continued on in his capacity as the colony’s surveyor general until his death in 1812, aged 72. His contributions to the field, spanning nearly 50 years and a vast geographical range, were numerous.

Following an absolute browbeating from Washington, both Selman and Broughton relinquished their commissions and wound up serving in the Essex County militia. Their actions vis a vis the raid on Charlottetown? Entirely justified, in their opinion. Even forty years later, Selman refused to see it any other way.

After beating off the British, George Washington went on to become the first ever President of the United States of America. So he did OK for himself.

As for the Great Silver Seal of St. John’s Island? Despite Washington’s insistence that all stolen goods were to be returned, it was never seen again. But I like to think that, somewhere out there, it’s still kicking around. Who knows – maybe it’ll turn up again one day.

OK, now I’m done.


PEI History Guy