Thursday 19 May 2016

Ahoy Captain!

Captain McKay & his sextant.
A recent donation to our collection consisted of a fascinating sextant that belonged to Peter McKay. Captain Peter McKay was born in 1818 in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia to Alexander McKay and Ann Nash. After pursuing his interest in navigation throughout his teen years, he soon became a sea captain around the age of 20. Captain McKay was at sea for 44 years, from the 1840s to the 1880s. When he retired from sailing, Peter moved to Sussex to be near his son William Bennett McKay who had been working at the Whites General Store and later married into the White family. In his retirement Peter bought the Intercolonial Hotel in Sussex (we also received the Guest Book from this hotel!). In 1903 Captain Peter McKay passed away – his body was embalmed and shipped by train to his home of Bridgetown, Nova Scotia the same day. As well as a sea captain sailing out of Nova Scotia for years, Peter was a strong prohibitionist and he had been very successful as a temperance speaker,

            While some of you may know what a sextant is, with GPSs, iPhones, google maps and other navigation tools available now, we wouldn’t be surprised if not everyone did. To put it simply, a sextant is an instrument that measures the angle between two objects. One of these objects is usually the horizon, and the other is something in the atmosphere, like the sun or moon. By using the two mirrors on the sextant, and moving another piece of the instrument, one is able to find the angle between the two objects. Taking the angle and the time it was found, one can then use a nautical chart to find a position line. Since we also received many of Captain McKay’s nautical charts we can assume this is what he did!

            The sextant that was donated to our collection was made by Crichton Bros. of London, England. Their company name is displayed on an ivory nameplate on the instrument. The sextant also came with its wooden case that is believed to be made of mahogany. Inside the lid of the case is a label for Robert H. Cogswell, Chronometer Establishment, est. 1830 at 175 Barrington Street, Halifax, NS. The initials “PMK” are also in pencil on the inside lid. For an artifact used during the 1800s this sextant is in excellent shape – considering their accuracy and therefore extreme value to a captain, it is no wonder that this sextant is in such pristine condition.

            For anyone who is interested in how the sextant works or would like some more information, we have included a few links that we used for information, as well as a short video that demonstrates how a sextant is used.


  1. This is an interesting story and the photos add so much. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing this story. A very nice addition.

  3. Fascinating history! Owning a hotel as a retirement plan - an ambitious man to be sure!