Growing up, I was told that my mom's grandfather, Henri Amirault, had been a rumrunner. Annoyingly, that was all the details my family could give. Nothing more. One day in 1997, about a year before she died, I thought to ask Henri's daughter-in-law, my Grandmere, Linda Amirault. I asked her about Henri and the rumrunning rumours. She didn't say much about rumrunning but she did say "Oh, Henri had lots of boats. He named them after all his children. He had the Abel A, the Eddie James, the Nelson A, the Francis Lucy and one called Spindle I think."
I'd heard of the Nelson A, but not the others, and certainly not the Abel A., as that was my Grandpere's name. The Nelson A, was sunk by a German U-boat in WWI . The crew survived, and Henri Amirault later received compensation from the Canadian government for loss of property during a war. But this was the first I'd heard about these other vessels. I figured he maybe a had a few boats, but according to Grandmere, he had a fleet.
Since Grandmere was known to stretch the truth. I needed proof, so I headed to the Yarmouth Archives. Yarmouth is the town in Nova Scotia where my mother is from. Her father's family, the Amiraults are Acadian, first arriving from France, in what is now Nova Scotia in the 1600s.
In the old Acadian way, if she was asked who she was, my mom would reply, Gloria á Abel, á *Henri, á Jacques Amirault'. In this way she named her father's line up to her great grandfather, to distinguish her from other Amirault's (of which there were lots at the time). Henri Amirault was born in Pubnico, about 40 kilometres from Yarmouth, in 1866.
Historical Aside: Jacque Amirault's great, great grandfather (also named Jacque) was hauled off during the Acadian Expulsion by the English. Jacque and family were reportedly captured in their Pubnico beds by English troops in 1756, forced onto the aptly named Vulture, a ship that was used to move many Acadians out of what is now known as the Maritimes.(1) But unlike those who were sent to Louisiana, to become known as Cajuns, these Acadians were sent to Boston, survived in exile there for ten years, then returned to Pubnico. Descendants of these families still live in the area today, and they boast about their tenacity through highway signs that state: Pubnico: Oldest Acadian Village Still Acadian.
Back at the archives, with a little digging on my own and the help of some stalwart archivists, I soon had some solid evidence of Henri Amirault's raging business and evidence of rumrunning during prohibition.
It turned out that Grandmere was mostly right about Henri's ships, though she did get some of the names wrong. He did own many vessels, and he did name some of them after his children. But he also had something else, a large, successful business, the Yarmouth Trading Company.
I suppose it is not surprising that this part of our family history had dropped out of our oral history. I think if this had been a story from Grandmere's side of the family, we would have all known about it in shocking, colourful detail. But because it was Grandpere's side, he being a man of few words and dying 17 years before his wife, there wasn't as much opportunity for storytelling. To illustrate this family dynamic, here's an overheard snippet of dialogue between my grandparents:
Grandmere: Abel, you don't say a word!
Grandpere: Good Lord, woman you don't give me a chance.
Back to our story. Henri Amirault married Louise Duon November 20, 1895, They had seven children:
Compare their names to some of Henri's ships:
You can see that Henri did in fact name some of his vessels after his children. Though it's a bit of a stretch, I like to think 'Mabel A' was a backhanded tribute to Grandpere, Abel U., but that's probably wishful thinking.
Archivist Janice Stelma had pulled out the shipping records to determine what Henri owned. Fittingly, it was her keen eye that finally found proof that Henri was rumrunning. She found two of Henri's ships mentioned in the local rumrunning literature. The Eddie James is linked to rumrunning in, Duty-Free A Prohibition Special by Geoff and Dorothy Robinson and in Rum War at Sea by Malcolm F. Willoughby:
On March , the Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, schooner Eddie James sailed dejectedly into Halifax harbour. Some days earlier, she had left Halifax for the Jersey coast with 600 cases of liquor. She had anchored to dispose of her cargo and some had been delivered. Not long afterward, at dusk, a launch from a large and powerfully built steamer drew alongside, and five sturdy men armed to the teeth came over the side brandishing their pistols. They fired a volley, hitting and wounding the supercargo. Two of the pirates then held the crew at bay while the others removed the entire remaining cargo, and took $8000 in cash for good measure. The pirates then escaped, taking with them the wounded man. Eddie James headed back to Halifax.
While I was digging into all this, Uncle Billy, the baby of the family and last remaining child of Henri and Louise, was still living. Uncle Billy remembered Henri lamenting over ever getting involved with criminals, even chastising himself out loud for letting his vessels be used to move liquor to the United States.
Henri must have seen things were going wrong, that the successful business he built from scratch was in jeopardy. Why he risked his business and his family's well-being, I don't know and may never know. Like anything you start to look into, I'm left with more questions than answers.
One answer I did get was how Henri's business, the Yarmouth Trading Company, ended up in the hands of Laurence Sweeney. (This little nugget of information was told by Kent Sweeney to archivist Janice Stelma). In 1925, Henri declared bankruptcy. He owed $28,000. Bidding started at $5,000, with Austin Nickerson and Laurence Sweeney as the only bidders. Sweeney was the successful bidder at $5,500 because Henri's men backed him. Nickerson had an existing building with workers, and Sweeney did not. Henri's men knew they'd be out of work if Nickerson won the bid. Sweeney won the bid and kept Henri's workers. And that's why the painting of Henri Amirault's Yarmouth Trading Company hangs today in the W. Laurence Sweeney Fisheries Museum.
Henri Amirault died in 1926, a year after he lost the business. His obituary says: "...for several years prominently associated with the fish business of Yarmouth town and county, died at his home, on Second St., ... he had been in poor health for over a year."
1. Seven Centuries of Amirault Family History, The Acadian Corner by Claude Cregheur.