"Why did men go a-pirating, or 'on the account' as the pirates called it? The sailors said it was few ships and many men, hard work and small pay, long voyages, bad food and cruel commanders." — Introduction
Whatever their reasons, large numbers of pirates plied the waters off the coast of New England on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, plundering merchant vessels and often inflicting grievous injuries on captains, passengers, and crews.
Now the grim saga of these maritime marauders comes to life in the pages of this meticulously researched study. Drawing on detailed information from documents in state archives, admiralty records, printed reports of trials, articles from contemporary newspapers and other sources, these accounts recall the infamous exploits of a murderous band of brigands: the notorious William Kidd; George Lowther, who captured 33 vessels in 17 months; Charles Harris, who was hanged at Newport with 25 of his crew; John Phillips, who became a pirate and died a gentleman; John Quelch and his crew, who were hanged at Boston and their gold distributed; as well as the sinister doings of Ned Low, Thomas Tew, Samuel Bellamy, William Fly, and others.
Enhanced with nearly 50 contemporary engravings and rare maps, this exciting narrative will fascinate maritime history buffs and any lover of thrilling real-life adventure on the high seas.
Read an Excerpt
The Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630-1730
By George Francis Dow, John Henry Edmonds
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1996 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE BEGINNINGS OF ENGLISH PIRACY
"AS in all lands where there are many people, there are some theeves, so in all Seas much frequented, there are some Pyrats." So wrote Capt. John Smith, the one-time Admiral of New England, when commenting in 1630 on the "bad life, qualities and conditions of Pyrats," and this characterization remained true for many years after his day. Piracy was as old as the art of transportation by water and until suppressed by force in comparatively recent times it was a favorite trade among seamen when times were hard or temptations great.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) was characterized by a great development of the maritime power of England. This was the time when Drake and Hawkins and other great navigators fought with the ships of Spain and brought fame and fortune to English seamen. Much of the fighting at sea, however, was but little removed from freebooting and it is now difficult to judge what was legalized warfare and what was piratical capture. Notwithstanding the frequent opportunity for brave men to attack rich Spanish ships common piracy flourished and in 1563 there were over four hundred known pirates sailing the four seas.
When James I (1603-1625) came to the throne he resolved to live at peace with all nations and so found little employment for a navy. In the first year of his reign he recalled all "letters of marque," and two years later, by proclamation, forbade English seamen to seek employment in foreign ships. In consequence many poverty-stricken seamen became pirates, urged on by their necessities. "Some, because they became sleighted of those for whom they had got much wealth; some, for that they could not get their due; some, that had lived bravely, would not abase themselves to poverty; some vainly, only to get a name; others for revenge, covetousnesse, or as ill; and as they found themselves more and more oppressed, their passions increasing with discontent, made them turne Pirats."
By 1618, there were ten times as many pirates as there had been during the whole reign of Queen Bess. About the only voyage open to an English seaman at that time was the fishing venture of Newfoundland, which was toilsome in the extreme and full of exposure and hardship. The dirty carrying trade to Newcastle, for coals, while a good school for seamen, was despised and thought beneath the ability of an active man, and the long voyage to the East Indies was tedious and dangerous. As for the navy—berths were few and the food poor, the pay was small and the service a kind of slavery. Ordinary seamen received only ten shillings a month, which was raised to fifteen shillings when Charles I (1625-1649) became king. But even this small wage was subject to a deduction of six pence for the Chatham Chest founded in 1590 for the relief of injured and disabled seamen.
Peter Easton was one of the most notorious of the English pirates during the reign of James I. In 1611 he had forty vessels under his command. The next year he was on the Newfoundland coast with ten of his ships where he trimmed and repaired, appropriated provisions and munitions and took one hundred men to man his fleet. On June 4, 1614, Henry Mainwaring, was at Newfoundland, with eight vessels in his fleet. Mainwaring became even better known than Easton and a few years later was pardoned and placed in command of a squadron and sent to the Barbary coast in an unsuccessful attempt to drive out the pirates located there. While he was on the Newfoundland coast he plundered the fishing fleet of carpenters and marines and the provisions and stores that he needed. Of every six seamen he took one. From a Portuguese ship he looted a good store of wine and a French ship supplied him with 10,000 fish. Some of the fishermen deserted their vessels and voluntarily went with him. In all he took four hundred men, many of whom were "perforst-men," and then sailed back across the Atlantic to continue his impartial plundering of the ships of Spain and other nations.
It was an easy matter for the English pirates to obtain bread, wine, cider and fish and all the necessaries for shipping on the Newfoundland coast as the fishermen were unarmed and moreover did not stand together. Not many pirates went there, however, as the voyage across the Atlantic was long and the prevailing winds apt to be westerly or northwesterly during the summer months. Notwithstanding, the fishing fleets suffered so much from these attacks that by 1622, men-of-war were sent out to convoy and remain on the station during the fishing season. In 1636, three hundred English fishing vessels were in the fleet that sailed for home under convoy.
The Irish coast was another favorite resort where pirates went to careen and obtain provisions from the country people. Broadhaven was a favorite rendezvous. The Irish coast not only was a good place to provision but also there "they had good store of English, Scottish and Irish wenches which resort unto them, and these are strong attractions to draw the common sort of them thither."
Mainwaring in his account of English piracy at this period, supplies an interesting description of their methods of attack.
"In their working they usually do thus: a little before day they take in all their sails, and lie a-hull, till they can make what ships are about them; and accordingly direct their course so as they may seem to such ships as they see to be Merchantmen bound upon their course. If they be a fleet, then they disperse themselves a little before day, some league or thereabouts asunder, and seeing no ships do most commonly clap close by a wind to seem as Plyers. If any ships stand in after them, they heave out all the sail they can make, and hang out drags to hinder their going, so that the other that stand with them might imagine they were afraid and that they shall fetch them up. They keep their tops continually manned, and have signs to each other when to chase, when to give over, where to meet, and how to know each other, if they see each other afar off.
"In chase they seldom use any ordnance, but desire as soon as they can, to come a board and board; by which course he shall more dishearten the Merchant and spare his own Men. They commonly show such colours as are most proper to their ships, which are for the most part Flemish bottoms, if they can get them, in regard that generally they go well, are roomy ships, floaty and of small charge."
Mainwaring also comments on the ease with which successful pirates might obtain a pardon and of this he spoke with personal knowledge of how it was done, writing, "if they can get £1000 or two, they doubt not but to find friends to get their Pardons for them. They have also a conceit that there must needs be wars with Spain within a few years, and then they think they shall have a general Pardon."
Capt. John Smith in his "True Travels," relates that the pirates prospered exceedingly and became a serious menace to trade so that "they grew hatefull to all Christian Princes." Their increase in number finally induced them to establish a rendezvous on the Barbary coast in Northern Africa. Ward, Bishop and Easton, all Englishmen, were among the first to go there, and were soon joined by others,—Jennings, Harris and Thompson and some who were hanged, at last, at Wapping on the Thames. The Mediterranean was the center of a rich commerce and these outlawed seamen banded together in small fleets, plundered impartially the vessels of Genoa, Malta, England or Holland. Success brought on indolence and the riotous, debauched life they led after a time deprived them of leaders of spirit, so that the Moors began to dominate their operations. Some pirates were enslaved, others became renegades and accepted the Mohammedan faith and all, at last, became merged into the Barbary corsair and for nearly two centuries sailed out of ports in Algiers and Tunis and were the terror of mariners, not only about the Strait of Gibraltar but for some distance up and down the Atlantic coast,—robbing, enslaving or exacting tribute from all so unfortunate as to fall into their hands. Another group of rovers made their home port at Sallee harbor, on the west coast of Morocco. The "Salley rovers "were a great danger to vessels engaged in the Guinea trade.
From this it will be seen that piracy in European waters, in the early years of the seventeenth century, had its origin in a lack of legitimate employment for seamen. This condition was brought about by a period of peace and aggravated by an imperfectly developed maritime commerce that could not be quickly increased in order to find occupation for idle men. "I could wish Merchants, Gentlemen, and all setters forth of ships," concludes Captain Smith, "not to bee sparing of a competent pay, nor true payment; for neither souldiers nor Sea-men can live without meanes, but necessity will force them to steale; and when they are once entered into that trade, they are hardly reclaimed."
Another contributing factor, that later helped to supply suitable material for piratical ventures, may be found in the character of the shifting population of the American colonies. In all frontier settlements, in all parts of the world and at all times, there exist irresponsible and lawless elements sloughed off by more perfectly controlled governments. This was true in the early days of the seaport towns along the Atlantic coast. Prisoners of war, poor debtors, criminals from the gaols and young men and boys kidnapped in the streets of English towns, were shipped across the Atlantic and sold to planters and tradesmen for a term of years under conditions closely approaching servitude. It became a trade to furnish the plantations with servile labor drawn from the off- scourings of the mother country. Even the English government took a hand and in 1661 "a committee was appointed to consider the best means of furnishing labor to the plantations by authorizing contractors to transport criminals, beggars, and vagrants. Runaway apprentices, faithless husbands and wives, fugitive thieves and murderers were thus enabled to escape beyond the reach of civil or criminal justice." Once landed in the colonies and having tasted the hardships of forced labor, a roving disposition was soon awakened and run-away servants were almost as common as blackbirds. Numbers of these men joined marauding expeditions and eventually became pirates of the usual type.
Undoubtedly privateering was the principal training school that taught adventurous men to accept a roving commission not only against Spaniards but against men of all nations. Like pirates, the privateersmen lived on spoil and while legally restricted in their attacks to the vessels of an enemy nation it was easy sometimes to overlook the color of a flag if an honest living was not at hand and one was far from home. In fact, it has been said that "privateers in time of war are a nursery for pirates against a peace." A stirring description of an attack on a Spanish ship is given in the "Accidence for all Young Seamen," published in London in 1626, and written by Capt. John Smith, the "Admiral of New England." It may well serve as an account of what took place at that time on nearly every privately armed vessel attacking an enemy.
"A sail, how stands she, to windward or leeward, set him by the Compass. He stands right a-head. Out with all your sails, a steady man at the helm, sit close to keep her steady. He holds his own. Ho, we gather on him. Out goeth his flag and pennants or streamers, also his Colours, his waist-cloths and top armings, he furls and slings his main sail, in goes his sprit sail and mizzen, he makes ready his close fights fore and after. Well, we shall reach him by and by.
"Is all ready? Yea, yea. Every man to his charge. Dowse your top sail, salute him for the sea. Hail him! Whence your ship? Of Spain. Whence is yours? Of England. Are you Merchants or Men of War? We are of the Sea. He waves us to leeward for the King of Spain, and keeps his luff. Give him a chase piece, a broadside, and run a-head, make ready to tack about. Give him your stern pieces. Be yare at helm, hail him with a noise of Trumpets.
"We are shot through and through, and between wind and water. Try the pump. Master, let us breathe and refresh a little. Sling a man overboard to stop the leak. Done, done. Is all ready again? Yea, yea. Bear up close with him. With all your great and small shot charge him. Board him on his weather quarter. Lash fast your grapplins and shear off, then run stem line the mid ships. Board and board, or thwart the hawse. We are foul on each other.
"The ship's on fire. Cut anything to get clear, and smother the fire with wet cloths. We are clear, and the fire is out. God be thanked!
"The day is spent, let us consult. Surgeon look to the wounded. Wind up the slain, with each a piece or bullet at his head and feet. Give three pieces for their funeral.
"Swabber make clean the ship. Purser record their names. Watch be vigilent to keep your berth to windward; and that we loose him not in the night. Gunners sponge your Ordnances. Carpenters about your leaks. Boatswain and the rest, repair the sails and shrouds. Cook see you observe your directions about the morning watch. Boy. Hulloa, Master, Hulloa. Is the kettle boiling. Yea, yea.
"Boatswain call up the men to Breakfast; Boy fetch my cellar of Bottles. A health to you all fore and aft, courage my hearts for a fresh charge. Master lay him aboard luff for luff. Midshipmen see the tops and yards well manned with stones and brass balls, to enter them in the shrouds. Sound Drums and Trumpets, and St. George for England.
"They hang out a flag of truce. Stand in with him, hail him amain, abaft or take in his flag. Strike their sails and come aboard, with the Captain, Purser, and Gunner, with your Commission, Cocket, or bills of loading.
"Out goes their Boat. They are launched from the ship's side. Entertain them with a general cry, God save the Captain, and all the Company, with the Trumpets sounding. Examine them in particular; and then conclude your conditions with feasting, freedom, or punishment as you find occasion."
During the middle years of the seventeenth century the West India waters were covered with privateers commissioned to prey upon Spanish commerce. Not only did the home government issue these commissions but every colonial governor as well, so that thousands of men were out of employment when a peace was declared. Merchants then took advantage of such conditions and poorly paid and poorly fed their seamen and this bred discontent and made willing volunteers when the first pirate vessel was encountered.
Not infrequently it was difficult to separate privateering from piracy. John Quelch, who was hanged in Boston for piracy, in 1704, preyed upon Portuguese commerce as he supposed in safety and not until he returned to Marblehead did he learn of the treaty of peace that made him a pirate. In 1653, Thomas Harding captured a rich prize sailing from Barbadoes and in consequence was tried in Boston for piracy, but saved his neck when he was able to prove that the vessel was Dutch and not Spanish. In 1692, the Governor and Council of Connecticut were informed that "a catch and 2 small sloops, with about 30 or 40 privateers or rather pirates," were anchored off East Hampton, Long Island, and had sold a ketch to Mr. Hutchinson of Boston and bought a sloop of Captain Hubbard, also of Boston.
Newport, R. I., sent out many privateers. In 1702 it was reported that nearly all of the able- bodied men on the Island were away privateering. The town also profited frequently from the visits of known pirates, as in 1688, when Peterson, in a "barkalonga " of ten guns and seventy men, refitted at Newport and no bill could be obtained against him from the grand jury as they were neighbors and friends of many of the men on board. Two Salem ketches also traded with him and a master of one brought into "Martin's Vineyard," a prize that Peterson "the pirate, had taken in the West Indies." Andrew Belcher, a well-known Boston merchant and master of the ship "Swan," paid Peterson £57, in money and provisions, for hides and elephants' teeth taken from his plunder.
The ill-defined connection between privateering and piracy was fully recognized in those days and characterized publicly by the clergy. In 1704 when Rev. Cotton Mather preached his "Brief Discourse occasioned by a Tragical Spectacle in a Number of Miserables under Sentence of Death for Piracy," he remarked that "the Privateering Stroke so easily degenerates into the Piratical; and the Privateering Trade is usually carried on with an Unchristian Temper, and proves an Inlet unto so much Debauchery and Iniquity."
The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, by which peace was made between England and Spain, was signed in 1668, but the colonial authorities were so little concerned by the depredations of the English privateers on Spanish commerce in the West Indies that their commissions were not revoked until 1672 and even then, for a time, the doings of the adventurous, privately armed vessels were not scrutinized too closely.
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Table of Contents
TABLE OF CONTENTS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"INTRODUCTORY BY CAPT. ERNEST H. PENTECOST, R.N.R."
I. THE BEGINNINGS OF ENGLISH PIRACY
II. "DIXEY BULL, THE FIRST PIRATE IN NEW ENGLAND WATERS AND SOME OTHERS WHO FOLLOWED HIM"
III. "JOHN RHODES, PILOT OF THE DUTCH PIRATES ON THE COAST OF MAINE"
IV. "THOMAS POUND, PILOT OF THE KING'S FRIGATE, WHO BECAME A PIRATE AND DIED A GENTLEMAN"
V. "WILLIAM KIDD, PRIVATEERSMAN AND REPUTED PIRATE"
VI. "THOMAS TEW, WHO RETIRED AND LIVED AT NEWPORT"
VII. "JOHN QUELCH AND HIS CREW, WHO WERE HANGED AT BOSTON AND THEIR GOLD DISTRIBUTED"
VIII. "SAMUEL BELLAMY, WHOSE SHIP WAS WRECKED AT WELLFLEET AND 142 DROWNED"
IX. "GEORGE LOWTHER, WHO CAPTURED THIRTY-THREE VESSELS IN SEVENTEEN MONTHS"
X. NED LOW OF BOSTON AND HOW HE BECAME A PIRATE CAPTAIN
XI. CAPTAIN ROBERTS' CURIOUS ACCOUNT OF WHAT HAPPENED ON LOW'S SHIP
XII. THE BRUTAL CAREER AND MISERABLE END OF NED LOW
XIII. THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF PHILIP ASHTON
XIV. NICHOLAS MERRITT'S ACCOUNT OF HIS ESCAPE FROM PIRATES
XV. "FRANCIS FARRINGTON SPRIGGS, THE COMPANION OF NED LOW"
XVI. "CHARLES HARRIS, WHO WAS HANGED AT NEWPORT WITH TWENTY-FIVE OF HIS CREW"
XVII. "JOHN PHILLIPS, WHOSE HEAD WAS CUT OFF AND PICKLED"
XVIII. "WILLIAM FLY, WHO WAS HANGED IN CHAINS ON NIX'S MATE"
XIX. PIRATE HAUNTS AND CRUISING GROUNDS
XX. PIRATE LIFE AND DEATH
I CAPTAIN PLOUGHMAN'S COMMISSION
II CAPTAIN PLOUGHMAN'S INSTRUCTIONS
III DYING SPEECH OF CAPTAIN QUELCH
IV JOHN FILLMORE'S NARRATIVE
V "AN " ACT OF GRACE "