Sir John Coape Sherbrooke: Military Hero, Governor General, Clairvoyant?

Last year, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) acquired an important collection of documents relating to the Canadian career of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke (1764-1830). His pivotal role in the defence of the British colonies that would become the Atlantic Provinces during the War of 1812 led to his appointment as Governor General of British North America in 1816. However, his arrival in Nova Scotia in October of 1811 was not his first time in Canada.

Detail from an engraving. Portrait of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke

Portrait of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke (Mikan 4310479)

The Ghost and Captain Sherbrooke

In 1785, Sherbrooke was an officer in the 33rd Regiment of Foot which was fighting on the British side in the American Revolution. By late October, the 33rd Regiment had taken up winter quarters in Sydney, on Cape Breton. At that time, Captain Sherbrooke was close friends with Lieutenant George West Wynyard. On the evening of October 15, as Sherbrooke and Wynyard were sitting in the latter’s quarters, they were stunned by the sudden appearance of a ghostly figure. After recovering from his initial shock, Wynyard exclaimed that it was his older brother John. Sherbrooke and Wynyard immediately searched the premises but could find no further evidence of the apparition. After discussing the event with another officer, Lieutenant Ralph Gore, Sherbrooke and Wynyard both noted down the date and time of the ghostly appearance.

On June 6, 1786, ships from England finally arrived, bringing supplies and correspondence from friends and family. Sherbrooke received a short note from an army surgeon, asking him to inform Wynyard that his brother John had passed away at the family’s apartment in Kensington Palace on October 15th. He had died on the same day and at the same time as the apparition had appeared before Sherbrooke and Wynyard in Cape Breton.
For over 200 years, writers and readers have been fascinated by the tale of the Wynyard apparition, and it is among the most well-known ghost stories in Great Britain. While some people thought that the officers must have been drunk or ill when the incident occurred, others argued that it was a true story. Sherbrooke’s status and success as a military officer and colonial administrator caused many to believe in the veracity of the tale.

The Sherbrooke Collection at LAC

For those interested in learning more about Sherbrooke’s career in Canada, consult the Sir John Coape Sherbrooke Fonds (MIKAN 104985) where you can access digital copies of textual documents, maps, plans, works of art and objects related to Sherbrooke’s time as the Governor of Nova Scotia and as the Governor General of Canada, as well as his activities as the commander of the Atlantic forces during the War of 1812.

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