THE   PIRATE   LIFE
1713 – 1724

“ … a Merry life and a Short one : that shall be my Motto !”

A quote from a Pirate Captain, Bartholomew Roberts


The end of the war in 1713 between England and
Holland on one side and France and Spain on the other saw many privateers now out of work. ‘Pickings’ (both legal and illegal) had been so good that many seamen aboard privateers did not wish to retire from so profitable a trade : denied their commissions and bases on the mainland of North America, they turned pirate and moved to New Providence Island in the Bahamas

In the last decade of the 17th Century, privateers based in New York had previously sought fresh plunder as many Caribbean sources dried up : the old Spanish bases attacked by buccaneers had now disappeared with the remaining ports on the ‘Spanish Main’ heavily fortified, and most ships now carried cargoes of trade goods and agricultural produce rather then silver and gold. Spawning what became known as ‘The Pirate Round’, ships sailed across the Atlantic and south along the west coast of Africa, passing the Cape of Good Hope and looking for prizes in the Indian Ocean. Two very successful prizes were taken by the privateer-turned-pirate Thomas Tew in 1692 (who was killed by a cannonball on a return voyage from a prize that decided to fight) and Henry Avery in 1694 (who then mysteriously disappeared, with or without his plunder) which attracted other pirates such as Dirk Shivers and Robert Culliford. William Kidd’s ‘pirate-hunting’ privateer venture out there caused more harm than good and finally ended in disaster but the uproar Kidd caused resulted in the entire Indian Ocean becoming far too hot for pirates as The British East India Company and the Royal Navy sent warships there to destroy any pirates they managed to find. When the war between England and France broke out in 1702, many of the pirates had already returned to New England and the Caribbean seeking colonial commissions as privateers.

During the pirates’ time in the Indian Ocean, a base and trading-post of sorts was established on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa in the natural harbour of ‘Ranter Bay’ and others on the islands of Mauritius and Reunion to the east. After a lull of almost two decades, pirates returned to this base in 1718 after the re-possession by Britain of New Providence and once again began to capture ships : Christopher Condent took a prize off Bombay worth £150,000 resulting in each of his crew getting a share of £3000.  Condent was followed by Edward England and John Taylor, La Bouche, Thomas Cocklyn and Howel Davis who resurrected the old ‘Pirate Round’.

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In August 1720, England and Taylor captured several prizes - sailing to Johanna Island near Madagascar to share out the loot, they discovered two East India Company ships anchored there. One managed to escape but the other ship - Cassandra - put up so much of a fight that a large number of pirates were killed and ended in most of the ships’ crew being killed or wounded with the pirates then boarding the ship and slaughtering any survivors who hadn’t jumped over the side. Cassandra was taken over and became a pirate ship : Edward England rather chivalrously spared the captain of the ship, which later saw England ‘deposed’ for showing such mercy and cast adrift by his crew, who then elected Taylor as their captain. In April 1721, Taylor and la Bouche joined forces and took a rich prize in the form of a damaged Portuguese ship anchored at the Isle de Bourbon. The Nossa Senhora do Cabo carried a kings’ ransom in gold, silver and jewels, spices, silks and other valuable commodities - worth in total over £1million and giving each pirate a share of over £4000. ‘European’ retaliation followed - to back up the East India Company a squadron of British ships eventually arrived and destroyed the pirate bases on Mauritius and Reunion, French warships cruised in the Persian Gulf and Dutch warships patrolled the Red Sea. By the end of 1721, pirates had virtually disappeared from the Indian Ocean.

Back in the Caribbean, complaints from the British Governor in the Bahamas about New Providence Island saw an expedition sent there by the British Government under the command of Woodes Rogers, a former successful privateer. Most of the pirates upon the arrival at Nassau on New Providence Island of Rogers’ small fleet accepted the royal pardons that were offered by Rogers if they would give up piracy and lead honest lives : most saw that the ‘good old days’ were coming to an end and piracy was becoming a risky business and accepted. One pirate that didn’t accept was Charles Vane who impudently left New Providence with his ship and crew and headed north to continue his piracy. Vane’s ship was wrecked by a hurricane off Honduras in early 1719 but he survived - after being picked up from a deserted island he was recognised, arrested and hanged in Jamaica ; but by then the anti-pirate focus had temporarily moved from the Caribbean to the east coast of North America due to the activities of Blackbeard.

Who Blackbeard actually was remains vague : some historians have him being born in Bristol but others place him coming from Jamaica or Virginia, with his real name being Edward Teach, Thatch, Tache or Drummond. By joining a pirate crew under Benjamin Hornigold, Blackbeard as he became known later sailed from New Providence in late 1716 and cruising between Honduras and Virginia had captured twenty valuable prizes, some of which he retained as ‘consorts’. By successfully blockading the port of Charleston in South Carolina in the spring of 1718, Blackbeard raised his profile to a high degree and in attracting the attention of Colonial Governors and the Royal Navy, left once again for Honduras. In June 1718, Blackbeard’s fleet comprised four main ships and an assortment of smaller vessels used as tenders, altogether commanding 500 pirates : his flagship was now a captured Dutch-built 40-gun French trader Concorde which Blackbeard jocularly renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge due to the war with France. In November 1718, one of Blackbeard’s former associates Stede Bonnet was captured along with twenty-two crew and were all hanged. Blackbeard himself returned to South Carolina in late 1718, but Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground and despite attempts to refloat her had to be abandoned in favour of a captured sloop, Adventure. This ship was caught in the Ocracoke Inlet by two Royal Navy sloops sent from Virginia and in the ensuing fight, Blackbeard was killed : thirteen pirate survivors from the fight were later hanged along with forty-four other pirates taken by the Royal Navy in one month along the coast of Virginia and South Carolina. Blackbeard’s association with Governor Eden of South Carolina and several local merchants was partly ‘hushed-up’ but after Blackbeard’s short reign of deliberately instilling total fear (which included his crew) through both his behaviour and his personal appearance ; and after the successful expedition to New Providence Island it instigated plans in the American Colonies and in England to finally crush piracy once and for all. The ‘pirate world’ would soon become even smaller : major rumours had circulated in 1718 during the resumption of war of a Spanish invasion fleet comprising twenty-nine ships and 5000 soldiers from Cadiz to seize a port and land in Scotland in support of ‘The Old Pretender’ - the Catholic claimant to the English throne,  James Stuart.  Though this fleet set sail, it was dispersed by a bad storm in the Bay of Biscay and the ships forced to turn back. Louis XIV of France had died in 1715 and his infant great-grandson has been left as his heir, leaving France weak in mind and body at the end of the war - so in late 1718, the time seemed ripe for stern measures from England to totally eliminate the threat from pirates…

‘Calico Jack’ Rackham (sometimes ‘Rackam’) was formerly a member of Charles Vane’s crew and was caught anchored off Jamaica in October 1720. Though a petty thief in comparison to Blackbeard, he had been a pest to local fishermen and traders. At the trial of his crew, two of his crew were found to be women - Mary Read and Ann Bonny - a sensation that has fascinated pirate historians ever since. Rackham was tried in Kingston and after execution hanged in chains at Plumb Point on a tiny island just off the south coast of what was once Port Royal (the actual spot is known today as “Rackham’s Cay”). The capture and execution of yet another infamous pirate was just the springboard required for the introduction by the British Parliament in 1721 of The Piracy Act : this statute not only made it unprofitable for merchants and corrupt colonial governors to have any dealings with pirates (if caught taking bribes or handling stolen goods, they would now be charged with piracy themselves) but greatly improved colonial administration and also ended certain abuses by certain captains in the Royal Navy towards escorting merchant ships. A Spanish attempt to recruit English pirates as privateers operating in the Caribbean when discovered - it was an English pirate who blew the whistle - saw orders sent to the Royal Navy to seek out and destroy all pirates ; any ex-pirate captains who had accepted pardons were now commissioned by British colonial governors to hunt down pirates. Two pirate ships cruising off New York were immediately attacked by the guardship resulting in the capture of one and leaving the other pirate ship crippled, and the Governor of New York exclaiming in triumph : “This blow - with what they have previously received - will I hope clear the seas of these accomplished villains !”  By June 1723, the far stricter measures and the activity of the Royal Navy and pirate-hunting privateers meant that pirates had all but disappeared, with only two pirate ships reported by a local Governor to be still at large in the Caribbean - the first of these was captained by George Lowther and was tracked down and the crew all taken by a privateer in October 1723 with Lowther shooting himself with a pistol to avoid capture ; and the other pirate ship sank with the loss of all hands in 1724 during a hurricane after casting adrift in an open boat the notoriously cruel pirate captain Edward Low (who was never seen again) - but - it had been an event in February 1722 on the other side of the Atlantic that really signalled the end of ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’…


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The African ‘cruising waters’ of early 18th Century pirates
 

Bartholomew Roberts was a merchant seaman who had been captured by pirates led by Howel Davis in late 1719 at Anamabo on the Guinea coast of Africa. As Davis and Roberts were both Welshmen, it is said they got on very well with each other ; when Davis was ambushed and killed in a raid by Portuguese troops from a local base, Roberts was elected Captain after only a few weeks ‘service’ aboard the ship. His first act was one of revenge - he destroyed the shore base, bombarded and burned the nearby town and set fire to two Portuguese vessels before setting sail for Brazil. In a daring raid at night, he brazenly captured the largest vessel in a fleet of forty-two at Bahia bound for Lisbon and in opening fire on a pursuing warship then sailed away before most of this fleet had realised what was happening : Roberts’ is said to have taken over £100,000 in this raid alone, with his own reward for the piracy being a diamond-studded cross intended as a gift for the King of Portugal, which Roberts then appeared wearing around his neck on top of fine clothing. Over the next two years, Roberts is said to have captured 400 ships and stolen (in today’s figures) over 50 million pounds-worth of goods : his daring, coolness, sea-faring skill and ability began to attract many ordinary seaman to join him in piracy. In 1722 after cruising as far north as Newfoundland, Roberts left the Caribbean and his own private little war with the governors of both Martinique and Barbados - his pirate activities had seriously disrupted trading and almost stopped all maritime commerce in the entire Caribbean - and sailed back to the Gold Coast of Africa. There he captured several French ships (including two warships that had been sent to protect their shipping) before using two ships to stage a major raid on the port of Whydah where Roberts captured eleven ships and then offered to ‘ransom’ them back to their owners for gold or a cash sum  - most accepted, leaving Roberts with several pounds in weight of gold dust but a Portuguese captain who refused to pay had to watch his ship set afire and burned by the pirates  (eighty slaves who were aboard at time were either burned to death or when they leapt over the side to escape were drowned or eaten by sharks).

Two English warships cruising along the coast in February 1722 searching for the pirates became separated : Roberts sighted one of these warships off Cape Lopez - the fifty-gun HMS Swallow - but in thinking that it was a merchant vessel or a slave-ship, ordered one of his three ships to raise anchor and give chase. Swallow went about in order to lure the pirate ship further out to sea and away from the other pirate ship, and once out of sight after a broadside from the heavy 32-pounder guns aboard Swallow which did great damage and cut down the pirate commander, the out-matched and heavily-outgunned pirates recognised their mistake and failing in an attempt to escape, finally surrendered. Swallow put the surviving pirates in irons below deck and now set a course to take the other pirate ship - caught on a lee-shore in an awkward situation, in the ensuing exchange of cannon-fire Roberts was killed by the second broadside from Swallow by a ball from a round of grape-shot which tore into his throat. Wearing all his costumed finery - said to include several gold chains and including the diamond-studded gold cross from Bahia - Roberts’ body was instantly thrown over the side by the pirate crew as Roberts had ordered them to do if he was ever killed in battle : and after doing so, the pirates having lost heart, surrendered. A total of 264 pirates from Roberts’ crews were imprisoned in Cape Coast Castle and resulted in the biggest pirate trial in history : only 13 pirates had been killed in the two actions at sea but 19 died in prison or on their way there (either from their wounds or from ‘gaol fever’ in the cramped and rather squalid conditions they were kept chained-up in), 74 were ‘acquitted’ (claiming they had been ‘forced’ to serve aboard the pirates ships), 17 sent to serve prison terms in England (two died aboard ship before reaching there), 52 were hanged and 20 men sentenced to seven years penal servitude and ‘hard labour’ in the mines of the Gold Coast (in the harsh conditions in the mines, all of these men were dead well before their sentences expired). During the trial it was claimed that only eight pirates had seen anything like ‘long service’ as a pirate (two admitted to have sailed with Blackbeard and six others were proven or admitted to have been members of Howell Davis’ original crew) and most of them were all young seamen attracted by Roberts’ reputation and very recently-joined (some were fishermen from Newfoundland but most averaged only a few months aboard the pirate ships) and the total included freed African slaves who were willingly or otherwise serving in Roberts’ crews (seventy-five were auctioned back into slavery after the trial). Eighteen of the executed pirates were hanged in chains at Cape Coast Castle and Captain Chaloner Ogle of HMS Swallow was later knighted for his role in the destruction of Bartholomew Roberts - who in terms of maritime efficiency, audacity, the number of ships he captured, the sheer scale of his plunder and the ‘appeal’ he had to many seamen - was to all legally constituted authority certainly the most dangerous pirate of them all.

For additional detail, see the educational sections : The Life and Times of Captain Jack Vincent - The Pirate Crew - Pirate Captain - Quartermaster - Pirate Hunting - Pirate ‘Articles’

For more detail on life in the 18th Century in general, see the authors book “The World of William Spry, Esquire

 

All images supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.

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