Once Upon a Time in Newfoundland: The Legend of Princess Sheila NaGeira
The legend of Princess Sheila NaGeira is well known throughout the Canadian Province of Newfoundland. The story has inspired numerous articles, books, a poem, and even two musicals. The town of Carbonear has named its community theater after her. But just who was this mysterious person?
There are several versions of the legend but the most popular goes, with slight variations from telling to telling, that Sheila was an Irish Noblewoman who, in 1602, was sent to France by her family to protect her from the invasion of her homeland by the English forces of Queen Elizabeth I. Another very similar version claims that she was headed to a french convent to be educated. Either way, she had been traveling from Ireland to France. While crossing the English Channel the ship that she was a passenger on was overtaken by Dutch Pirates. Sheila, along with the ships crew, were taken prisoner. The ship was pillaged and sank.
Fortunately for Sheila NaGeira, and the other prisoners, Captain Peter Easton, then a privateer, was passing through the channel with a fleet of three ships and a mandate from Queen Elizabeth to go to Newfoundland to keep British law in the colony. He also carried a Letter of Marque from the queen which allowed him to capture ships belonging to countries that were enemies of England.
Thus armed Easton attacked, and quickly defeated the Dutch pirates, and rescued the prisoners. With all hands safely aboard his ships the English privateer continued his journey across the Atlantic to the Island colony.
During the long sea voyage Sheila met, and fell in love with, Gilbert Pike, Peter Easton's Lieutenant. They were married aboard ship by Captain Easton, and arrived in Newfoundland as husband and wife. Shortly after this, Gilbert left Easton's service, and the couple settled in Newfoundland permanently. At first making their home in Harbour grace, then moving to nearby Carbonear, where they spent the remainder of their days.
Life in Newfoundland
According to the legend the couple settled well in to domestic life in the small Newfoundland community. Gilbert gave up the military life for that of a fisherman, and was apparently quite successful. Sheila, who became known as the Carbonear Princess, became the model seventeenth century settler. It has also been claimed that she had given birth to the first child of European decent to have been born in Newfoundland, though official records show that this distinction actually belongs to the wife of Nicholas Guy, who gave birth to a son in the colony on March 27, 1613.
There is actually no official record of any child being born to Gilbert Pike and Sheila NaGeira. In fact, there is no official record that either of these people actually existed at all. Though many in Newfoundland, especially those in the town of Carbonear where the couple purportedly lived, treat the legend as historical fact there is no proof whatever to support this claim.
The Origin of the Legend
The origin of the legend is unknown. The story has been a part of the oral history of the Pike family of Carbonear for generations but only began appearing in print in the 1900's. It is clear that the several articles, and at least one book, that were written on the topic were taken directly from stories collected from people in the area, with no corroborating evidence.
In his 1934 article, in the Newfoundland Quarterly, William A. Munn tells the story much as it is presented here, with the same timeline. However, P.J. Wakeham, in his 1958 book Princess Sheila; a Newfoundland Story, sets the scene nearly 100 years later. Details also vary greatly from the Munn article. Many historians over the years, on both sides of the Atlantic, have searched for evidence to prove the legend, or that Sheila NaGeira or Gilbert Pike actually existed, but to date no such evidence has been found.
What of the headstone that supposedly marks the princess's final resting place? In the mid 1900s, near an old plantation house in Carbonear known as Pike House, an old headstone was discovered. Though the writing was pretty much eligible Mr Wakeham claimed that the headstone read, "Here lies the body of John Pike who departed this life July 14th, 1756, also Julian his wife. Also Sheila Nageria, wife of Gilbert Pike and daughter of John Nageria, King of County Down, Ireland, died August 14th, 1753, at the age of 105 years." This is quite convenient for Wakeham as the facts and timeline fit with those of his book. The town of Carbonear used this information to construct the new grave marker. This information, however, is false. In 1982 the Canadian Conservation Institute confirmed that the original headstone belonged to that of a John Pike, and contained no mention of Sheila NaGeira.
Is there any truth to the Princess Sheila legend? Unless someone discovers some solid evidence to substantiate the story it would seem that the answer to this question is no. There may have been some small element of truth to some part of the tale at some point in the Pike family history, but, as is the way with oral histories that get past down from generation to generation, the story tends to grow with each new telling.
Though it seems that the story is untrue it has become a part of the folklore of the people of Newfoundland, and has, for one small Newfoundland community, given them something to build a tourist industry on, and a theatre community around.
Hiscock P. (2002). A Perfect Princess: The Twentieth Century Legend of Sheila NaGeira and Gilbert Pike. Journal of Newfoundland Studies, Volume 18 Number 2.
Hanrahan M., Butler P. (2005) Rogues and Heroes, St. John's, NL, Flanker Press Ltd.
Yetman S. (2017) 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Carbonear. Http://carbonear.com/10-things-you-didn't-know-about-carbonear/
Howell R. (2017) Sheila NaGeira Should Be Regarded As Folklore, Letter To The Editor of The Beacon
Piercey T. (2002) Sheila Na Geira Pike, transcribed from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories, Maple Leaf Mills Ltd. 1961
Ossian's R. (1997) Captain Peter Easton, English Sailor & Pirate, http://thepirateking.com/bios/easton_peter.htm
© 2018 Stephen Barnes