Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Review: The Island of Canada, by Victor Suthren

This could have been a whole book about pirates.

For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Canada's Atlantic coast was seething with all sorts of seaborne blackguards, and indeed, The Island of Canada started out as a book about their exploits.

There is for, instance, the astonishing story of the warlord Peter Easton, master of 1,500 men and an entire navy of pirate ships that he commanded from his fortified redoubt at Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Easton once set out in his flagship, the Happy Adventure, at the head of a fleet of 10 heavily armoured vessels and captured El Morro Castle in Puerto Rico.

Story continues below advertisement

During the early 1600s, Easton was the scourge of the seas from San Juan to the Azores, and his treasure house back at Harbour Grace was brimming with booty from dozens of Basque, Spanish, Flemish, English and French vessels.

But then an editor persuaded historian and novelist Victor Suthren that perhaps there was a larger story to be told, and so there is.

It is a bit of a conceit, the idea of Canada as an island, but Suthren makes good use of it to show the ways the oceans and the Great Lakes formed the history and character of Canada as though the country were indeed an island.

It's a work ethic and a social philosophy born of shipboard necessity

The first European colonists arrived by sea, and much of the warfare that kept Europeans at one another's throats for generations was waged on the water, for the better part of two centuries. Driven mad by stories about a Northwest Passage to the riches of the Orient, Europeans pursued their delusions through Arctic waters where Inuit people thrived as hunters and fishermen. It was the ragged Pacific coast that drew newcomers into Canada's far west, and it was that same coast, with its fog-draped forests and inlets, that had long been home to the densest concentrations of human population west of the Mississippi and north of the Valley of Mexico.

Before its collapse in the early 1990s, the great Newfoundland cod fishery was the oldest and largest saltwater fishery in human history. The Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River separate Canada's great population centres from the U.S. behemoth. They're not called the Maritime provinces for nothing; until the close of the 19th century, Canada's Atlantic fleets employed as many workers as the combined forest industries of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. At 151,492 sea miles, Canada's coastline is the world's longest.

All this water and seafaring would have had some effect in shaping "Canadian values," one would think. Suthren certainly does. He makes the case that the entwined paradox of mutual dependence and self-reliance evolved from its origins as a way of coping in an unforgiving environment (what has been called the "small boat mentality") to become a distinct Canadian survival virtue.

It's a work ethic and a social philosophy born of shipboard necessity. You do your job without needing to be hectored about it, confident in the trust you've placed in your neighbour to do the same. It is in this "wintry integrity" of social duty and mutual trust, individual responsibility and self-reliance that one's prosperity provides for the collective good.

Story continues below advertisement

You can go a bit eggheaded trying to force some grand theory out of these things, but Suthren, fortunately, is an historian by trade and cleaves close to his vocation, although he's a fine storyteller, too. Among his credentials are a stint as director-general of the Canadian War Museum, a commission in the navy reserves, several swashbuckling high-seas adventure novels, a history of the War of 1812 and a biography of the great British explorer James Cook.

Beginning with aboriginal maritime traditions, The Island of Canada takes the general form of a maritime history, from the pre-contact era through marine warfare, piracy and privateering to the growth of the shipping trade. Suthren traces Canada's engagements with the seas through the industrial fisheries, the golden age of sail, the rise, fall and re-emergence of the Canadian navy, and the tragic death of the Canadian merchant marine, killed by 1950s' "red scare" alarums about militant, unionized seamen. He winds up with some grim speculation about Canada's capacity as a shipping nation and as a serious country capable of defending its sovereignty in the Arctic.

But along the way, you'll also encounter such storybook characters as Joshua Slocum, a charming Nova Scotian who set out in 1895 in a tiny fishing smack, the Spray, determined to be the first man to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. He made it back home, four years later.

A couple of years after Slocum, John Voss, a vicious drunk, hornswoggled a naive young journalist into helping him prove a beer-hall boast that he could outfit a 32-foot Nuu-cha-nulth dugout canoe, christened the Tilikum, and sail it around the world. The Tilikum set out from Victoria and made it across the Pacific, but Voss went through several more deckhands for the journey through the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic.

For years, the Tilikum lay where it came to rest, in the mud of the Thames, near London, until some sentimental philanthropists shipped the boat back home to Victoria, where it now lies at the Maritime Museum.

Meanwhile, the pirate William Easton, of Harbour Grace, was similarly spared an ignominious end. Instead of swinging by the neck from the yardarm of some British naval brig, Easton lavished James I with presents and successfully sweetened his plea for a pardon. Reconciled to God and king, Easton settled down to a life of ease and rum as the Marquis of Savoy, on the French Riviera.

Story continues below advertisement

He lived happily ever after.

Terry Glavin is a journalist and author. His most recent book is Waiting for the Macaws: And Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to