EASTON, PETER, once a loyal English seaman, later turned pirate, whose well-equipped fleet of warlike ships and intensive raids on both English and foreign ships earned him the appellation “arch-pirate”; fl. 1610–20.
Easton arrived in Newfoundland 1612 “with ten sayle of good ships well furnished and very rich” and proceeded with impunity to raid coastal harbours from Trinity Bay to Ferryland at his own good pleasure. He made Harbour Grace his headquarters, where he repaired his ships, built a fort, and added men to his crews by persuasion, and, if necessary, by force. In addition to his depredations in the waters adjacent to Harbour Grace, where he took two ships, 100 men, and provisions from every ship, Easton plundered 30 English vessels in the harbour of St. John’s and raided French and Portuguese ships at Ferryland. The total damage inflicted by Easton on the fishing fleets was estimated at £20,400.
Easton’s peripatetic exploits brought him into personal contact with Richard Whitbourne (afterwards Sir Richard), a long-time, legitimate trader, and John Guy, governor of the colony at Cuper’s (now Cupids) Cove. It must be said in Easton’s favour that he did no actual harm to the settlement. Indeed, on one occasion, the settlers gave him two pigs. There was only one clash with the colonists, in which one of them was wounded by error. Easton did, however, capture Whitbourne, whom he kept on board his ship for 11 weeks, attempting all the while to convert him to piracy. He only released Whitbourne on condition that the latter should go to England and seek a royal pardon for him.
When Whitbourne arrived in England, he found that a pardon had already been granted to the pirate, February 1612, but that it had never reached him. It was re-granted 26 November. Capt. Roger Middleton was commissioned to deliver the pardon to Easton in Barbary, as the pirate had left Newfoundland to sail to the Mediterranean in search of Spanish treasure-ships. According to Whitbourne, Easton, consumed “with a longing desire and full expectation to be called home, lost that hope by too much delaying of time by him who carried the pardon.”
Easton’s pardon had still not reached him in March 1613, whereupon he sailed into Villefranche, Savoy, free port of the pirates. Because of his reputed wealth – two million pounds of “gold” – he was warmly welcomed by the Duke of Savoy, whose finances were then at a low ebb. At Villefranche Easton bought a palace, set up a warehouse for his booty, lived in luxury, and acquired the title “Marquis of Savoy.” Being at that time a handsome man around 40, according to contemporary descriptions, he crowned his career by marrying a very wealthy lady. He remained in the service of the Duke of Savoy until 1620, when he is lost to history.
Easton was the leading corsair of his day and one of the most famous in the whole annals of piracy. He possessed all the requisite skills for his infamous trade but he was neither a blood-thirsty monster nor a swashbuckling cut-throat. On the contrary, he proved himself an outstanding navigator, an able, brave, and bold seaman, an expert tactician, and highly competent in gun-laying. He controlled such seapower that no sovereign or state could afford to ignore him and he was never overtaken or captured by any fleet commissioned to hunt him down.
Nottingham University, Middleton MSS, Mi X 1/1–66. PRO, H.C.A. 1/47, 14/42 give details of his raids on English and French vessels returning from Newfoundland in 1610 and on the French in Newfoundland in 1612 (on the latter see also PRO, P.C.2/27 and CSP, Ireland, 1611–14, 383); H.C.A. 13/42 concerns his raids on the Dutch, 1612; H.C.A. 24/76, no.160; C.O.1/1, no.179; CSP, Dom., 1611–18, 119, 158; CSP, Venice, 1610–13; 1613–15; 1619–21. The life and works of Sir Henry Mainwaring, ed. G. E. Manwaring (2v., Navy Records Soc., LIV, 1920, LVI, 1922), I. Purchas, Pilgrimes (1905–7), XIX, 417. Westward hoe for Avalon in the New-found-land as described by Captain Richard Whitbourne, of Exmouth, Devon, 1622, ed. T. Whitburn (London, 1870). Richard Whitbourne, A discourse and discovery of New-found-land (London, 1620).