Captain Jack Vincent of the Avenger
Pirate and Highwayman
‘CAPTAIN JACK VINCENT’ : 1715 to 1728
It is claimed that between 1720 and 1725 Vincent in command of pirate vessels killed merchant crews and sank several vessels whenever he either knew or suspected he had been personally identified in order to retain his anonymity. Certain claims exist that Vincent deliberately passed himself off as another pirate to captured merchant crews before he released them to escape the blame for the crime. Vincent is also attributed with the destruction of a rival pirate ship off Jamaica during which Vincent was said to have attacked this vessel in revenge of thirty seamen massacred in an atrocity by the captain of the pirate vessel but none of these claims can be verified beyond rumour or local tradition.
The ‘mysterious brigantine’ described by the Governor of the Leeward Islands with the name Good Fortune is said to have actually been Vincent’s ship Avenger, after Vincent discarded the old sailor’s superstition and simply painted over the name of his ship to create confusion. Good Fortune was the name of a ship commanded in 1719 by the brutal pirate Low, described by one of his prizes in a book Four Years Voyages of Captain George Roberts, Written By Himself (published London, 1726). Good Fortune was also the new name given to a sloop named Royal Rover captured in 1720 at Devil’s Island by the infamous pirate - and highly successful - Bartholomew Roberts. In a sea-fight off Barbados with a privateer fleet comprising two former merchant ships, a galley and a sloop Roberts received heavy damage to the sloop and was forced to sail off to Grenada for repairs, abandoning a brigantine with which he sailed in concert. Where this brigantine originated from is obscure ; Roberts first heard of and pursued the brigantine from Devil’s Island but in his History (see below) Captain Johnson states he failed to find the vessel, yet a few days later the brigantine is sailing in concert with him off Barbados. A sloop would be both faster and more maneuverable than a brigantine, though able to carry fewer crew and a lower number of less powerful guns ; it is hinted that the brigantine was taken over by Vincent - by either attack or mutiny - who then unintentionally joined with Roberts in the Royal Rover off Barbados. During the ensuing confused sea-fight, the brigantine was not able to fully defend itself and by employing a subterfuge, Vincent was able to slip away with the main attention naturally being focused on Roberts. Vincent was duly elected captain by the crew and the brigantine was taken to be refitted and re-armed at an unknown base somewhere on the coast of New England before sailing south to embark on a long career as a pirate ship. Only one depiction of the Avenger is said to exist and shows a brigantine under a fore-and-aft rig, of a length approximately 80 feet weighing around 150 tons, pierced for a formidable broadside of ten 12-pounder cannon. A ship like this could easily carry a pirate crew numbering 100 men (see illustration and appendix 4).
The woodcut showing Vincent created in 1728 as an illustration to the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates written by Captain Charles Johnson (probably an alias of Daniel Defoe, see later) is a good likeness if one takes the descriptions of Jack Vincent submitted to the Admiralty Courts by both seamen and pirates to be accurate (see accompanying illustration) - but - several of these woodcuts do reflect amendment from a basic model and any real resemblance to Vincent should be taken with a pinch of salt as ‘pirate captains’ by that time had already begun to fall into the typical type-casting which by the mid19th Century had become the norm (see illustration).
Along with Bartholomew Roberts, ‘Black Jack’ Vincent - though they are not recorded anywhere as ever having physically met - had almost stopped all sea-borne trade in the Caribbean in the year 1720. Though Roberts was given the highest portion of the blame for this piracy, both captains expected Government retribution and having unloaded their hefty cargoes onto local merchants, restocked and sailed for far-off Madagascar. Before he reached the island, Bartholomew Roberts was killed by grapeshot in an engagement with the Royal Navy off the Guinea Coast in February 1722. The pirates captured with Roberts’ ships were taken to Cape Coast Castle for the largest pirate trial in history (it was claimed that Roberts’ had taken over 400 prizes during his time as a pirate). Two hundred and sixty-four pirates were captured here, of which one hundred and sixty-five were sent to trial. Of these, seventy-four were acquitted and fifty-four sentenced to death, seventeen were shipped to serve prison terms in London ( but only four arrived in England, the rest died en route ) and twenty more were sent to the gold mines ashore to serve seven years’ hard labour but all of these men died before their term had expired. Fifty-two hangings took place in batches of a dozen during April 1722 with eight pirates being tarred and suspended in chains on gibbets around the harbour to serve as a deterrent and a warning to mariners.
Vincents’ Avenger had previously sailed south around Cape Horn to Madagascar, before aiming for the Red Sea and India. It is speculated that when the news of Roberts’ death and these trials was received by Avenger, Vincent and the crew knowing a pursuit was close behind them took the decision to slip out of the Red Sea to avoid almost certain capture and sailed around India into The China Sea. Unknown to Vincent at that time, the pursuit by Commodore Matthews reached no further than Madagascar where they traded with known pirates before returning to England where Commodore Matthews was later court-martialed and thrown out of the Royal Navy. Between 1722 and 1726 Vincent somehow managed to avoid British and French warships, Corsairs, Arabian raiders and Malayan pirates - albeit narrowly according to Hoyle’s papers - to return briefly to the Caribbean in 1726 (via Ranter Bay in Madagascar and nearby Johanna to replenish stores and water) before sailing west around Africa back to the Caribbean then north into Chesapeake Bay and then onto New York and Newport, Rhode Island (1). The story that Vincent and his crew buried part of their oriental plunder on ‘Banquilla’ (2) before sailing up the east coast of North America is not verified. For the same reason, just why Vincent sailed into Chesapeake Bay remains a mystery but he must have had either a pilot or someone who knew those waters well aboard at the time and the enduring legend of Vincent and his crew burying treasure here before going their separate ways still remains a local tradition in the bays and creeks around modern Plimoth Plantation. Vincent’s crew is said to have reduced by fifty per cent upon the arrival of Avenger off New York, but when and where these men went remains another mystery.
Somewhere between mid-1726 and mid-1727 - again for an unknown reason - the Avenger sailed to England and of all places took a terrible risk in anchoring at Bristol. The reason for this is unknown but it is very likely that prior to undertaking this voyage, Vincent had taken only ‘volunteers’ from his original crew and then re-crewed, refitted and re-named Avenger. It is possible that it was a second ship with the same name, a vessel acquired by Vincent in the usual pirate fashion to replace a rather worn and teredo-ridden original which was probably over ten years old at that time and passed off as a merchant ship. For an unknown reason, William Spry appears not to have rejoined Vincent or sailed with Avenger from Bristol but stayed behind in England. Hoyle’s notes suggest that Spry visited Nottingham on at least one other occasion before 1730 but after which date Spry also ‘disappeared’.
1. This is by far the longest period of all the recorded ‘disappearances’ of Avenger. The alleged sighting of Avenger in March 1723 off Barbados - where a prize was taken and Vincent accused - complicates the examination of where Avenger actually was or did from March 1722 to May 1726. However, it is possible that Avenger sailed back to the Caribbean in 1723 then returned to the Indian Ocean in 1724 on a well-known voyage commonly named ‘The Pirate Round’ - but where ‘Slippery Jack’ Vincent went in Africa, the Caribbean or North America to restock Avenger during a voyage which would have covered over 25,000 nautical miles remains a complete mystery.
2. There are several islands with similar names - this spot could possibly the island NW of ‘Hispaniola’, now modern Haiti. Buried pirate treasure is thought to be a later fabrication expounding on just two instances and mostly fable (to which Kidd and Blackbeard have also been subjected).
The Capture & Execution of Captain ‘Jack’ Vincent
Vincent appears to have been identified by ‘someone who recalled him from their days together’ on a visit to Nottingham in 1726-1727 ; later reported to or by a local thief-taker for the reward, Vincent was taken by the Magistrates and a party of several parish constables without a fight at an un-named house whilst allegedly ‘drunken and abed with two common whores’. The location of where Vincent was imprisoned isn’t stated but ‘a large crowd gathered to look upon this famous Thief’ near The Butter Cross in Nottingham so is likely to be the old ‘Town House’ (partially collapsed in the 18th Century and now demolished) or in a cell beneath the old Shire Hall - the assembled ‘mob’ caused some concern to the local magistrates as rumours were reported to them of an attempted break-out by Vincent’s ‘pirate crew’; as a result one mariner was arrested at Trent Bridge but later released. It will probably come as no surprise to the reader that this mariner was none other than William Spry, who seemed to have convinced the magistrates he was a Royal Navy seaman visiting ‘his grandfather’ (not altogether a lie). Though Hoyle doesn’t say so in his manuscript - it would after all implicate Hoyle in perjury and conspiracy - Spry may have used Hoyle to verify this story and as a reverend churchman Hoyle would be a respected witness ; Spry may not have told Hoyle about Vincent at the time but Hoyle would have found out by reading or hearing the following day’s news and obviously put two-and-two together. Despite Spry’s ‘seafaring’ appearance and obvious local knowledge coupled with the fact that he had no official certificates (and no regular uniform was worn by Navy ratings until after 1760) but having a statement backed up by a senior local clergyman seem to have satisfied the magistrates, who then dropped the charges and released Spry.
Vincent was quickly tried at Nottingham and found guilty of the charge of ‘highway robbery’ was sentenced to be hanged at the crossroads on ‘Gibbet Hill’, nowadays ‘Church Rock Cemetery in Nottingham. As previously stated, all suspected pirates were sent to the Marshalsea Prison in London to await trial by the Courts of Admiralty who held the jurisdiction over crimes committed on the high seas or between the high and low water tide-mark and as far upstream any river as the first bridge crossing it and the reason why thieves operating below London Bridge on the River Thames when caught were tried as pirates not robbers. Pirates were usually executed in London at Wapping Old Stairs opposite Rotherhythe (becoming known as ‘Execution Dock’ and marked today by the site of the Captain Kidd Tavern). This is the reason why Vincent was tried in Nottingham on a charge of ‘highway robbery’.
Vincent seems to have escaped execution under very mysterious circumstances as the body delivered to the surgeons for ‘dissection’ was found not to be Vincent but the thief-taker who was alleged to have ‘sold’ Vincent to the Nottingham magistrates. Vincent’s execution appears to have taken place amidst an entertainment of ‘a bonfire and fireworks which unfortunately gave off such a cloud of smoak as to render the gallows indiscernible, to the great disappointment and complaint of the assembled persons’. Vincent is supposed to have arranged and paid for these unfortunate ‘fireworks’ granted as his ‘last wish’ from a carrier named - ‘Moore’ (Spry’s family name). Wealthy people were ‘invited’ to visit Vincent in his prison cell - for a ‘donation’ of tuppence to the jailer - and this was probably how Moore/Spry got to see Vincent in jail and his escape from execution planned ; the use of basic chemistry in ‘stink-pots’, ‘smoke-bombs’ and ‘hand-grenades’ by pirates in the Caribbean to throw onto the decks of their intended targets is well-recorded.
Whether or not Jack Vincent was aboard at the time, Avenger sailed from Bristol to be pursued by two Royal Navy sloops in the English Channel before being lost in a fog in the Bay of Biscay and reportedly wrecked on the coast of Spain leaving behind accusations of conspiracy and collusion by the local authorities in Vincent’s escape from the gallows in return for shares in his pirate plunder. These accusations are likely to be the reason why most of the papers relating to Vincent’s trial and execution ‘mysteriously disappeared’ in 1727. Vincent was supposed to have been the intended follow-up model for a second book by Daniel Defoe after the success of his previous book and stage-play based on the life of the pirate, Henry Every. In 1720, Defoe wrote and published The Life, Adventures and Pyracies of Captain Singleton ; attracted by the obvious notoriety and escape of Vincent, Defoe is said to have amassed lengthy notes - including ‘personal remembrances’ - to pen another work based on Vincent. Defoe’s death in 1731 prevented any publication and any manuscript was subsequently lost but before his death the book was tipped by Defoe to equal the fame of his previous works, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe. Though Defoe is traditionally held to have met real pirates no record of these meetings exist and Defoe is now popularly claimed to be the real author of Captain Johnson’s History of the Most Notorious Pirates published in 1724, often plagiarized but remaining in print today and a curious blend of actual fact and obvious fantasy but from which almost all pirate knowledge is gained.
It is speculated that Hoyle’s manuscript may have been a form of self-confession and again may be the main reason why the manuscript after being read by his son was hidden away after Hoyle’s death from pneumonia in February 1735 and lost after his son’s premature death from ‘the consumption’ (tuberculosis) in March 1736 as the murder of the Nottingham thief-taker during Vincent’s escape was later attributed to William Spry.
The following extract from Jack Vincent’s ‘dying speech’ was taken from the broadsheet which was sold for a penny on the day of his hanging ; the speech was almost certainly never spoken or penned by Vincent, but as usual ghost-written by an anonymous poet as soon as sentence was pronounced and printed to make a profit from crowds gathering to watch the execution :
Since I must swing, I scorn –
I scorn to wince or whine
But now again my spirits sunk
I’ll raise them high with wine !
But valour the stronger grows
The stronger licquor we’re drinking
And how can we feel our woes
When we’ve lost the trouble of thinking ?
If thus : a man can die ;
Much bolder than with brandy
So I drink off this bumper
And now I can stand the test
And now you all shall see
That I die as brave as the Best !
Like Doctor Faustus, I my pranks have played -
(By Contract with his Master long since made) ;
Like him lived gay, and reveled in delight
Drank all the day and whored away the night.
But Hark ! the dismal sound - The clock strikes One
The charm is broke and all my strength is gone
The Dragon comes - I hear his hideous roar ;
Farewell my friends, for now Jack is no more.
A Chronological Biography of Captain John ‘Jack’ Vincent
Born in Beeston (Nottinghamshire) between1680 and 1690. Apprenticed to a coach and boat builder - accused of carrying out highway robberies in 1712, Vincent steals a horse and flees to Gainsborough where he ‘steals’ a boat and travels on the River Trent to Hull (*see footnote below).
1714 - 1715 Vincent leaves England from Bristol aboard Revenge, a privateer vessel destined for the Caribbean to harass and capture French and Spanish shipping. Revenge attacks and captures several French and Spanish merchant ships in the Carribean : one of which Vincent is sent aboard as part of a prize crew to sail to New York, but the captured ship is taken by pirates (Hornigold or Vane ?) off South Carolina.
1717 - Vincent is first named as a pirate as a member of the crew of Blackbeard - by 1718 Vincent commands a vessel in Blackbeard’s pirate fleet - after the death of Blackbeard in late 1718 Vincent ‘disappears’ for six months
April 1718, Vincent commanding a pirate sloop attacks a ship off Rhode Island and in December the same year a vessel off the island of St Christopher in the Windward Islands.
1719 Vincent is identified commanding a pirate ship off New England
1719-1720, Vincent is now commanding a pirate brigantine named Avenger and possibly sailing in company with the infamous pirate, Bartholomew Roberts
1720 - early 1722 Avenger sails from the Caribbean to Guinea, Madagascar, The Indian Ocean and back to Madagascar. Roberts is killed in February 1722 and Avenger disappears for at least ten months
March 1723 Avenger is alleged to have attacked and taken a prize off Barbados (see note 1, Part 4)
From early 1724 - early 1726, the whereabouts of Avenger are unknown - possibly sailing to China, Japan, Manila or the Pacific Ocean
In 1726, Avenger sails to England; Vincent travels from Bristol to London with William Spry and meets Daniel Defoe through an introduction by Spry’s shipmate, Israel Hands. They travel to Nottingham, where Vincent is betrayed and captured but escapes during his execution. Avenger - docked under an assumed name - is identified as a pirate and sails from The Bristol Channel in August 1727 to be chased by the Royal Navy but disappears off Ushant, and is reported wrecked.
1727 - Avenger with Vincent in command is rumoured to be in the Caribbean and off the coast of North America as war existed briefly between England and Spain (commissions were offered to privateers to join a Royal Navy fleet in the Caribbean but the war ended before any of these privateer commissions were actually issued).
1728 - mentioned in notes for Daniel Defoe’s follow-up book to ‘A General History of the Most Notorious Pirates’ but effectively from this before this date both Avenger and Vincent have finally disappeared
Note : the Courts of Admiralty during this period held jurisdiction over all crimes committed between the high and low water tide mark which extended from the sea and coast up all navigable rivers to the first bridge crossing them. This is the reason Vincent was charged with ‘piracy’ in 1712 though his offence took place many miles from the sea. The ‘highway robberies’ are available in no detail (see footnote 3 Appendix 1) but seem to indicate two offences on London Road south of the town, one of these later linked to the discovery of ‘a body’ nearby. The term ‘highwayman’ seems to have been applied after 1720 and the first performance of The Beggars Opera in London in terms of popular romantic fiction to conjure up the image of a man on a horse driven to crime by social pressure rather than avarice in the mould of Claude Duval - and others such as Jack Rann, Plunket, Maclean and Dick Turpin - though historical evidence does show the latter was a notoriously cruel criminal who only picked on the weak and defenceless.
“ The Devil’s Cruise ”
Captain Jack Vincent was given several nicknames by his crew ; ‘Black Jack’, ‘Fancy Jack’ - and from 1722 - ‘Slippery Jack’ ; no doubt the latter was first coined after his escape from Blackbeard in 1718, evading the Royal Navy in 1722 and later escaping from his own execution in 1726, but Avenger disappeared for several lengthy periods and may also emanate from that. After Vincent’s final ‘disappearance’ in late 1726 or early 1727 meant that neither he nor Avenger was ever reliably seen again and mariners have their own way of explaining such circumstances (1). Legend has it that a mysterious crewman was seen several times below deck by pirates aboard Avenger ; as nobody knew him or recognized this crewman - who displayed a frightening appearance - it was finally decided that this crewman was actually the Devil himself with whom Vincent had struck some sort of bargain. After Vincent’s escape from the gallows in 1726, the Devil appeared on the deck of Avenger and demanded from Vincent a reward for rescuing him - Vincent swept off his hat and giving a low bow stated that ‘if ever the Devil required his help, Jack Vincent was at his service’. This insolent reply infuriated the Devil, who then cursed the ship to cruise forever the oceans of the world without ever sighting land in search of a suitable reward - and hence is the reason given for the disappearance of Avenger. Note a similar allusion to The Devil and Faust made in the broadsheet extract from Vincent’s execution in Appendix 1.
1. Avenger was said to have been wrecked in 1726 in the Bay of Biscay or
in trying to navigate the ‘old Bahama Channel’, a short-cut to the Caribbean
Sea but a treacherous stretch of water abandoned by most Spanish flota vessels since before1650 as it is strewn with reefs and submerged
rocks. A ‘ghostly’ ship which matches the description of Avenger has been
reportedly seen around Bermuda several times by many reliable witnesses and has been linked to the
many disappearances of vessels in the so-called
The History of Avenger 1720 – 1727
Main ‘Avenger’ text is not included here but will become
available for reference in the future
REFERENCE AND FURTHER READING:
Though pirate books are plentiful, more details on the subjects mentioned here can be found in the following books :
The Buccanneers of America - Alexander Exquemelin, first published 1679
A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates ‘Captain Johnson’
(I recommend the expanded fourth edition, two volumes published in 1726)
The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Mariner - Daniel Defoe
The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe - Richard West
Daniel Defoe : Citizen of the Modern World - Richard Moore
A History of Pirates - Nigel Cawthorne
The Pirate Wars - Peter Earle
Another useful work - though very rare and a blatent plagiarism - is … A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street Robbers &c to which is added a Genuine account of the voyages and plunders of the most notorious pirates interspersed with several diverting tales and pleasant songs and adorned with the heads of the most remarkable villains from copper engravings … as this was published from 1734 in a folio edition with each weekly part costing tuppence each and included Johnson’s book (above, published in 1724) and Captain Alexander Smith’s book Lives of the Highwaymen (published in 1714) as the original folio edition remains the only work containing a mention of Captain Jack Vincent. The hitherto recently discovered slightly damaged woodcut of Vincent (see illustration) intended for a publication after 1726 was never used as all the illustrations were subsequently replaced by copperplate engravings.
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