Public Archives of Canada and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
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-71- Henry Kelsey: French Try Coming Ashore
Henry Kelsey was apprenticed to the HBC in 1684 and served the Company on land and at sea for most of the next 38 years, eventually becoming the HBC's overseas Governor. This excerpt is from a journal titled "A Journal of wintering by gods assistance/at Hayes river in ye year one Thousand/six hundred Ninety Six Septr ye 18th," in which Kelsey described the recapture of York Fort from the French in 1696 and its falling again into French hands the following year.
It was a very difficult time for the HBC, as they suffered from repeated attacks by the French, usually led by commander Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville. Kelsey had been a prisoner of the French in 1694 as well as in 1697.
Near the end of this journal [Item 116-117] on p97, 2nd pgh:"Thurs ye 26th...ye shore," Kelsey describes a sighting.
"Thursday the 26th. Clear weather. Wind ditto this morning. 4 o’clock our 2 pinnaces manned went to sea to make the ship, he hoisting a red Ensign at his main-topmasthead but showed no other colours.
Our boats returned. We seeing three ships more in the offing, I sent one hand to the fort to give the governor notice so came away with the shallop along with the pinnaces.
Meeting the hand I had sent who brought orders for him and two more to return to the marsh, and I with the others to go home had not been long there but saw a boat come from the French creek. So manned the two pinnaces went after her. I likewise running down along shore she put back again.
Our boats could not come up with them it being almost high water and a fresh gale left their chase and returned I also *****. Meeting those three men that was in the marsh who said they saw men landed in the marsh. So we returned with them all except one hand which parted from them into the woods. When the French boats was near this side who came home after us and the ship which rode off the river weighed and run off to sea after which we heard several great guns at four afternoon Mr. Bishop with ten men more went to the point of the marsh to the shore."
The first paragraph of this transcript refers to "hoisting a red Ensign at his main-topmasthead..." During this period it was common for states to display their enemy's flag to trick them into thinking that they were a friendly ship.
In some cases, when British boats would go out to meet the ship, the French would quickly take down the 'false colours' and raise the French flag before firing upon their enemy. These military tactics lead to the rise of another common phrase, 'to show their true colours.'