History speaks for itself.
Diplomatic secrecy now requires that nations have a security agency and Canada's is known as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or CSIS for short. One function of CSIS is to protect Canada's official intelligence while endeavouring to intercept and decipher that of other countries.
Highly confidential messages are protected by using cryptography, the encoding or enciphering of secret messages by mixing up symbols, characters, numerals, letters and words so that they have meaning only when unlocked or deciphered by persons privy to the contents of the message.
During World War II Britain's cryptoanalysts were vital the country's survival. Operating under the code name Ultra, Britain's secret interception organization successfully broke the codes on Hitler's cipher machine called Enigma. It was a typewriter-like device which scrambled text and was able to provide an astronomical number of alternatives for each letter. Messages typed on it could be unscrambled only by using an identical machine adjusted to the same settings.
While codes, ciphers and secrecy are commonplace in the twenty-first century, diplomatic intelligence and concealment have long existed in relations between nations. This was true in Upper Canada over two hundred years ago when relations between Britain and the United States were anything but friendly. Both countries regularly spied on each other often by intercepting official communications.
Various methods were used in the 18th century to send secret messages. These included invisible ink, with which a secret message could be written between the lines of a regular letter. Correspondents might also use veiled language, for example, writing or talking about the state of an old person's health which would have a completely different meaning when 'unlocked' by the intended recipient. Official couriers were also used to carry confidential correspondence written in cipher. It it were too important even to be committed to paper if was memorizied. Another method of ciphering messages required that both parties have a copy of the same book. When Major Andre communicated with Benedict Arnold they used Blackstone's book, Commentaries on the Laws of England. Each veiled word in their messages was represented by 3 numerals. For example, if one of the coded words was represented by the set of numerals 7.9.293, it represented the 7th word in the 9th line on the 293rd page of that particular book. Unless one knew which book was being used it was impossible to decipher the message.
During Upper Canada's early days the British Colonial Office played a decisive role in the colony's destiny. It operated in London from a dilapidated, decaying building on Downing Street through the basement of which the River Thames occasionally flowed. From these ramshackle rooms official dispatches were issued in a steady stream, bearing information and instructions to Britain's colonial administrators in far-off places. These diplomatic directions were sent in packet ships that took a month to six weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the eagerly awaited ships never did survive the long, perilous passage. The vissitudes of naval warfare and adverse weather resulted in sinkings in stormy seas with all aboard including any top secret messages lost forever in the depths of the ocean.
Other packets succeeded in crossing the ocean only to be seized off the American coast by licensed French or American privateers which flourished along the American seaboard. Privateering was first and foremost a business venture. Conditions for privateering were best in the early months of a war before British convoys and cruisers were put into use. Privateers struck when least expected and surprise was their greatest weapon.
On more than one occasion Governor Simcoe bemoaned the loss of important letters at sea.In His Own Words
"I almost give up hope that these letters may pass the Seas in safety. The French privateers are great enemies to correspondence for on one occasion they caused all my letters from Canada to be thrown overboard." This drastic action was taken in order to keep the correspondence from falling into enemy hands.
The owners of these predatory vessels were issued what were called letters-of-marque by the French and the American governments. Britain used them as well. They simply represented a licence to pirate by creating a 'Jolly Roger' navy. The documents were instruments of state which made the mayhem any privateers could cause legal. They served to increase the size of a nation's navy at no cost to the public purse by converting each piratical vessel into a "private ship of war."
One American letter-of-marque issued by President James Madison commissioned the officers and crew of one ship "to subdue, seize, and take any armed or unarmed vessel, public or private, which shall be found, with her apparel, guns and appurtenances and all the goods and effects that shall be found on board." These captured vessels, or "prizes" as they were called were brought before a government Prize Court which determined whether they were captured "in due form of law" and were, therefore, legitimate prizes.
Once the captured ship was "condemned," that is, judged to be a legal prize, the spoils were divided between the government and the owner. The larger the captured ship and crew the greater the reward which was known as "Head Money."
Privateering was an essential part of maritime warfare and the principal means at the time of destroying the enemies' commerce. It has been suggested that some historians exaggerated the value of these ships and the achievements of the men who sailed them. Their primary prey were merchant ships which were slow and lightly armed with few crew. Capturing them with speedy, well-armed, well-manned privateers was hardly heroic, but for the lucky ones it was highly lucrative. The successful ones were in the minority. Of the 526 vessels given letters-of-marque only 207 ever took a prize with 3 out of five returning empty-handed. Warships took 165 merchant ships and privateers capured a further 1344.
In a proclamation to the citizens of Upper Canada dated May 14th, 1793 Simcoe invited themIn His Own Words
"to distress and annoy the French in any way they could by making capture of their ships and destroying their commerce."
To legalize this piracy and to motivate men to act His Majesty was pleased to order Letters-of-Marque or Commissions of Privateers and to reward the owners of all armed ships and vessels with "His Majesty's share of all French ships and property" which might be captured. In other words the privateer was allowed to keep all the loot.
Governments were naturally very interested in receiving any highly sensitive documents discovered in the mail on board these captured ships. In order to prevent this from happening highly secret documents were thrown overboard to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. An example of this occurred shortly after war had been declared by the United States. It took months for this news to reach the hundreds of British ships at sea and American privateers were quick to take advantage of this situation. An unsuspecting British naval schooner Whiting was at anchor off the American coast when an American privateer Dash approached and persuaded the British crew to surrender. Before doing so the British crew immediately threw official dispatches overboard. When a subsequent investigation revealled that these dispatches were intended for the US government the captain of the Dash was ordered to release his prize.
In an attempt to prevent such piracy from taking place His Majesty's mail was often sent in British ships of war, powerful ships-of-the-line that few flimsy pirate vessels would dare to approach let alone attack. Privateers had no desire to confront a warship but they would fight fiercely if cornered.
Another means of ensuring that the mail got through was to make duplicate copies of all correspondence and dispatch them on different packet ships, the theory being that at least one ship with is set of secret messages would get through to its destination.
The flood of paper that drifted from Navy Hall at Newark across the Atlantic Ocean to Downing Street in London included memoranda, requisitions, petitions, memorials and various requests. This correspondence usually resulted in new instructions being forwarded by return mail from officials at the Colonial Office. Depending on its importance this correspondence came either as regular or as 'private' mail. Highly secret communications of a critical or a controversial significance were designated, "Most Private and Secret" and always sent in cipher.
In a letter dated September 1793 and designated 'Private,' a worried Governor Simcoe warned his superior, Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for Home Affairs, that in the event of the anticipated hostilities with the United States little help could be expected from the poor, dispirited people of the Province many of whom
Simcoe was referring to the losses the Loyalists had suffered during the American Revolution. He also advised London that no recruits could be raised in the Province because "the Price of Wages is so high" and few men would opt for service in the military for less money. Candid comments such as these regarding colonial morale and military might were not meant for enemy eyes and so were sent in code.
In August 1794 Simcoe sent word to his superior in London that he had received a message from the governor of Vermont which indicated that the people of Vermont wanted to remain friendly with Great Britain and in the event of war between Britain and the United States Vermont might be willing to remain neutral or even to help Great Britain. In an urgent and top secret reply the Duke of Portland warned Simcoe to desist from any attempt to win Vermont's support for Britain since this might very well "endanger the completion of successful negotiations," which were then taking place in London between the United States and Britain. These negotiations eventually resulted in Jay's Treaty which ensured peace between the two countries for 18 years.
Under date of 24 July 1795 Simcoe advised Dundas that the conduct of the United States seemed to indicate war was coming. If this occurred Simcoe wanted to know if: "B, 160 lm 3dp 10 d of the sq n s c 12 q 158 r ts 38 516 1 ny." This ciphered message asked British officials in the event of war occurring was it permissible to use the services of a particular group of people who were "superior in quantity and of great utility with proper management." Simcoe was referring to the Native warriors.
In correspondence dated October 24 1795, marked "Most Private & Secret" and sent totally in cipher the Secretary for Home Affairs alerted Simcoe to the possibility of "a British rupture with Spain" and directed him to cultivate carefully and cautiously a close relationship with the leaders of English-speaking settlers who had settled in Spanish territory in the hope that if hostilities did break out between the two countries, these settlers would support Britain against Spain.
Even when packets did sail safely into port there was no guarantee the dispatches they contained would be securely delivered overland to the intended recipient. This was particularly important in the case of official documents for which a trustworthy delivery person was critical. When a reliable courier became available the writer usually began his letter with the words: "Having a safe opportunity by so and so". Because secret messages were frequently passed between the British ambassador to the United States and Governor Simcoe the British ambassador was overjoyed to learn that Simcoe had found a trustworthy courier to deliver their top secret communications.
The name of this "confidential person" was a citizen of this area, a man named Jonathon Pell. Pell's father, Joshua, was a friend of Governor Simcoe and Simcoe knew the son could be trusted. Jonathan Pell was a United Empire Loyalist and a local resident of note after whom Pell Street in Chippawa was named.
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