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LEIGH, CHARLES, merchant and voyager, first Englishman to attempt to establish a colony on the St. Lawrence; third son of John Leigh and Joan Oliph of Addington, Surrey; b. Addington, 12 March 1572; d. 1605.

Nothing is known of Leigh’s early life though it is probable that he spent some years at sea and in trading abroad before he appears as a colonial entrepreneur in 1597. He had by then come under the influence of the Brownist separatists against whom church and state had turned hostile (George Johnson spoke of “master Leigh . . . a brother in the faith unto us”). He was also associated with two Dutch merchants, Abraham and Stephen van Harwick, settled in London, the former of whom may possibly have had sympathies with the Brownists, but who had metalworking interests at Rotherhithe, Surrey, as well. There Abraham van Harwick could have encountered the Master Peter Hill who had invested in 1593 in an unsuccessful walrus-fishing expedition to Ramea (the Magdalen Is. in the St. Lawrence), it would seem at the instance of Lord Burghley [see La Court de Pré-Ravillon, Fisher, and Wyet].

Since Ralph Hill, a London goldsmith and perhaps a relative of Peter Hill, was concerned in the expedition of 1597, it is logical to see it as the continuation and elaboration of the project for a walrus fishery in the St. Lawrence, first aroused by the capture of a Breton ship in 1591. The difference between this and earlier attempts was that a permanent settlement was envisaged, to hold the islands against both Bretons and Basques and to begin the fishery early in the year before ships could penetrate into the gulf. The personnel of the colony was to be supplied from an imprisoned group of Protestant separatists led by their pastor Francis Johnson who wished to gain their freedom, and yet live under the queen’s allegiance. How Leigh came to be entrusted with the delicate task of taking these “Brownists” to America is not known. (It is not at all unlikely to have been the work of the aged and ailing Lord Burghley.) In any case the four leading Brownists [see George Johnson] were to go out with Leigh, and were to stay over the winter on the Magdalens with one ship (and presumably some walrus-hunters), where they would be joined by the rest of the congregation in the spring of 1598. They were obliged to promise to obey Leigh and not to return without his permission.

The 120-ton Hopewell of London, with Leigh as captain, William Craston as master, and Francis Johnson, Daniel Studley, and Ralph Hill as passengers, and the 70-ton Chancewell, Stephen van Harwick captain and Stephen Bennet master, with the other two Brownists on board, left the Thames 8 April and Falmouth 28 April or just after. The ships made a good Atlantic crossing, arriving together on the Grand Banks on 18 May. They lost each other briefly in fog but made a rendezvous at Conception Bay, on 20 May. Leigh worked down the coast trying to buy boats – shallops for fishing and hunting – from English fishermen at Farillon (Ferryland) and Renewse, but getting only one damaged pinnace. After repairing it, they turned Cape Race and in foggy weather the ships lost each other 5 June at the entrance to Placentia Bay. The Hopewell, which is likely to have had a pilot who had previously been to Ramea, continued alone, sighting Cape Breton on 11 June, and working into the gulf. Leigh was the first Englishman to remark on the great bird colonies on Bird Rocks; his party also saw many walrus on the rocks; off Île Brion they caught good cod. It was not until the 18th that they rounded the southwestern end of the Magdalens and finally penetrated into the inner harbour, Basque Harbour, which they called by its Basque name, Halabolina (between Amherst Is. and Grindstone Is.), showing clearly that some of the men had been here before. The Hopewell did not find the Magdalens unoccupied. In Halabolina were two Breton ships (perhaps representing La Court de Pré-Ravillon’s 1591 syndicate) and two Basque vessels from Ciboure, on the French side of the border. There were other Basque and Breton ships in the other harbour (now Grand Entry Harbour). Moreover, there were cod-fishing stages on Île Blanche so that more than walrus-hunting was in progress. Nor were there only Europeans on the islands: large summer fishing parties of 300 Indians (evidently Micmac from what is now Prince Edward Island and the mainland) were trading with the French as well as fishing.

Leigh was the intruder in the harbour, but he offered hospitality to the other captains. The Bretons responded; one of the Basques appeared and satisfied Leigh that his ship was French, from Ciboure, the other remaining under suspicion of being a Spanish Basque and therefore a lawful prize. Leigh demanded that the Basques should hand over their powder and ammunition as proof of good faith and when this was refused sent a boarding party into one vessel. Leigh stopped their pillaging and returned all except the munitions. But the men, apparently led by William Craston, an old privateering seaman, were planning to seize the Basque vessel when a force of Bretons and Basques appeared on shore, on 20 June. There were some 200 men, gathered from the ships in both harbours, who mounted 3 guns on land and brought out some 300 Indians as well. The “battle” could have been only intermittent firing between ship and shore. Finally Leigh sent Ralph Hill and the bosun’s mate on land to parley. Capt. Charles, from a Breton ship, came to demand their small pinnace, got at Farillon, and tried to manoeuvre his own ship so as to board the Hopewell, though this move was thwarted. Leigh handed over the pinnace but did not get back the two hostages. Not till he cut his cables did the French let Hill and his companion go. By that time the Hopewell had drifted on to a rock and Leigh was too busy to seek revenge. (It is noteworthy that the French were satisfied with his withdrawal and did not attack further.) The Hopewell was got clear on the 21st and moved up the coast to Île Blanche to try to get back her boat and her anchor but was warned off by a shot from a cannon mounted on shore. The French had won and were seen to be too well entrenched for any colony to be possible. Leigh now tried to set course for Grande Coste (probably the gulf coast, northwest of Anticosti) to prospect for an alternative site for a settlement, but the master, William Craston, was now in control of the ship and refused to take her further, so it was decided to work back to Cape Breton. They reached Menego (St. Paul Is.) on 25 June, worked along the coast towards the cape, and, on the 27th had the extraordinary luck to encounter the Chancewell’s shallop, sent out, as George Johnson recounted, to attract the attention of their heaven-sent rescuers. Since the Chancewell had been wrecked and looted by Basque fishermen, her men had little but their shallops left. All were now taken on board the Hopewell. The four pilgrim Brownists were reunited and it was probably here, at or near St. Ann’s Bay, that Leigh formally released them of their promise to stay in Canada and so brought the colonizing project to an end.

Leigh now began a long and arduous campaign to get back from the Basque ships some of the gear stolen from the Chancewell. Some he recovered from a Ciboure ship in the bay; later he got more from the Spanish Basque vessel, Santa Maria de San Vicente, at English Port (Mira Bay?) though, when it looked as if he might try to make a prize of her, Basques and Bretons again combined to chase him away. Meantime he did some cod-fishing and made contact with the Indians, taking a birch-bark canoe and giving it back with presents when the Indians returned to request it. This in turn brought down the local chief and his wife and followers to the shore. Leigh learnt that his name was Itarey and the harbour called Cibo (from Ciboure?), so that it seems likely that the Indian spoke some French. Presents were again given and Leigh clearly tried to establish good relations, perhaps with the idea of returning subsequently to Cape Breton.

Craston and the men on the Hopewell were determined to take a prize by some means or other, so they now turned to the Basque shore on southern Newfoundland which Wyet had visited in friendship in 1594. On 18 July in St. Lawrence’s Bay (apparently Great St. Lawrence) Craston surprised the 120-ton Spanish-Basque Catalina, of Orio, laden with fish and oil. Next day Craston was trying to restore contact with the Hopewell, when he was captured by the crew of a Rocheller, who held him and his men as hostages for the return of the Catalina. This was arranged after some complex bargaining and the Hopewell finally left for St. Mary’s Bay where her last attempt at prize-taking, on 25 July, was successful. After a fierce but not very bloody fight in which Capt. Leigh narrowly escaped injury, a 200-ton ship of Belle-Isle, a Catholic League port in Brittany, and probably a lawful prize, was captured, Leigh himself taking over the prize. He then insisted on making for home, not raiding northern Newfoundland as Craston wished. On 5 August the Hopewell sailed by way of the Azores to seek further prizes, Leigh and the Pilgrims reaching the Isle of Wight on 5 September, where Francis Johnson and the rest of the Pilgrims went on shore, while Leigh took the prize to London to be appraised and the spoil divided.

The Brownists made no attempt to follow up the venture and went into exile in Holland. Leigh, however, was anxious to continue what he had so unsuccessfully begun. He wrote a good account of the voyage, together with a description of the Magdalens – the first we have – in which he made clear his belief that they were suitable for settlement. Moreover, on 4 October, he set down, in his “Briefe platform,” his plan to go out in 1598 with three ships and plant a settlement which would permanently deprive the French of the islands. By getting to the Magdalens a month ahead of the French and by fortifying the small island at the mouth of Basque Harbour called Duoron (now Île d’Entrée) and a similar commanding site at the other harbour, they would keep the French away. The king of Spain would thus be deprived of fish sent him by the French, while settlers would find the islands habitable, though colder than England. The Privy Council, to which the document was addressed, offered no support and the plan was dropped, but hints and suggestions for a settlement on the St. Lawrence continued until 1602 when, it seems, the English abandoned the field finally to the French.

We do not know whether Leigh made further prospecting voyages in 1598 or 1599, but after 1599 he deserted North America. He had married young and had two children, the elder, Olyph, being born early in 1597. He was trading at Algiers in 1600–1 and, in 1601–2, led an expedition against English pirates and Spanish merchantmen in the Mediterranean. On his return from Barbary he went prospecting in Guiana in 1602 and selected the river Wiapoco (now Oyapock) as a site for a small trading settlement. This he established in 1604, maintaining himself there until relief came in 1605, but, weakened by disease, he died on shipboard, in March 1605. The colony maintained a tenuous existence until the following year.

Leigh was a man of some enterprise and vision. He was aware that small settlements must have a specific economic function if they were to have the chance of succeeding. The Magdalens provided a possible site for such an experiment, though the seasonal nature of the fishing and hunting made a colony scarcely essential, but he was unable to overcome the advantage in force and familiarity which the Bretons and Basques had built up and the close co-operation which they were prepared to display against the English intruder. His attempt to enlist the idealism of the Pilgrims was also far-sighted but it was not appropriate to the setting in which he proposed to exploit it. [For further details of the expedition see George Johnson.]

David B. Quinn

BM, Add. MS 12505, ff.474–78. Hist. mss Com., 9, Salisbury (Cecil) mss, XI. PRO, H.C.A. 13/32, Deposition of Francisco de Cazanova, 7 Nov. 1597; Acts of P.C., new ser., 1596–97, 1597, 1597–98. Hakluyt, Principal navigations (1903–5), VIII, 166–82. George Johnson, A discourse of some troubles ([Amsterdam], 1603). Purchas, Pilgrimes (1903–5), XVI.. ...      R. Douglas, “Place-names on Magdalen Islands, Que.,” Geog. Bd. Can., 17th Report (1922), 66–74. G. Leveson-Gower, “Notices of the family of Leigh of Addington,” Surrey Arch. Coll., VII (1880), 77–123, for the best account of the Leigh family. Rogers, Newfoundland. The Victoria history of the counties of England: Surrey, ed. W. Page (5v., 1902–14), II–IV. J. A. Williamson, The English colonies in Guiana and on the Amazon, 1604–1668 (Oxford, 1923). ...      For the Brownists, see Champlin Burrage, The early English dissenters (2v., Cambridge, Eng., 1962). H. M. Dexter, The Congregationalism of the last 300 years (London, 1880); – and Morton Dexter, The England and Holland of the Pilgrims (London and Boston, 1906). F. J. Powicke, Henry Barrow (London, 1900)..

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David B. Quinn, “LEIGH, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leigh_charles_1E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leigh_charles_1E.html
Author of Article:   David B. Quinn
Title of Article:   LEIGH, CHARLES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1966
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   June 10, 2023