Just after dawn on January 12, 1617, the morning watch aboard the Dolphin caught sight of a sail making toward them from the Sardinian shore. She was still a mile or so away, but as she came closer the sailor could see that she was a two-masted settee, the kind of ship which was often used by the Turks to transport men and supplies. That meant there were likely to be other Turks in the area.
The watch woke the master, a Mr. Nichols, who sent a man up into the maintop with a prospect glass, a new and useful device for seeing faraway things as if they were nearby. Sure enough, a line of five men-of-war in full sail was coming up on them before the wind. And they were pirates.
We know this because an unnamed member of the Dolphin’s crew wrote a narrative of the day’s events—one of a handful of extraordinary eyewitness accounts of encounters with pirates that appeared in the late 1610s and early 1620s, describing in vivid detail what it felt like to be attacked on the high seas.
The 280-ton Dolphin was on her way home to London and eleven days out from her last port of call, the Ionian island of Zante, an important center of trade in honey, oil, wine, and currants. She had left Zante on January 1, 1617, and in a little over a week “a prosperous gale” had carried her westward past Sicily, until she was within sight of the watchtowers which lined the coast of Spanish-held Sardinia. But contrary winds had held her there, south of Cagliari and three leagues to the east of Cape Pula on Sardinia’s southern tip. These were dangerous waters, where corsairs from Tunis and Algiers cruised with impunity.
The five pirates were “all well prepared for any desperate assault,” wrote the anonymous author of A Fight at Sea, Famously Fought by the Dolphin of London. The leading ship was carrying thirty-five guns. The other four had between twenty-two and twenty-five apiece. All five had crews which were 200 to 250 strong. The Dolphin was outgunned and outnumbered.
But she was not defenseless. She was armed with nineteen heavy guns, nine antipersonnel “murderers,” and an assortment of muskets, pikes, and swords; and her crew of thirty-six men and two boys included at least one master gunner, whose job it was in situations like this to turn ordinary seamen into soldiers. Since there was no chance of outrunning the pirates, and since they lay between the Dolphin and the safety of the shore, Mr. Nichols immediately decided to fight. Small arms and swords were handed out, and all the paraphernalia of violence was checked and distributed—the round-shot and hail-shot and chain-shot, the powder measures and ladles and rammers and sponges, the baskets to carry the shot to each piece, the barrels to carry the powder, the wedge-shaped quoins used to adjust the elevation of each gun barrel, and the fuses used to fire the cannon.
Then the crew assembled on deck and prayed together, before sitting down with remarkable sangfroid to an early dinner, which was followed by a rousing speech from Mr. Nichols.
A sea battle was a slow, complicated, and chaotic business, especially for merchantmen who weren’t used to fighting. In his 1626 manual on seafaring, An Accidence, or The Path-way to Experience Necessary for All Young Sea-men, Captain John Smith offered a dramatic description of an encounter with an enemy ship:
A broadside, and run ahead. Make ready to tack about. Give him your stern pieces, be yare [ready] at helm, hail him with a noise of trumpets.
We are shot through and through, and between wind and water [on that part of the ship’s side exposed by the rolling of the vessel]. Try the pump. Master, let us breath 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 [the stern quarter on which the wind blows]; lash fast your graplins [grappling irons] and shear off, then run stemlings [ram her] the midships. Board and board, or thwart the hawse [pull alongside, or cross her bow]. We are foul [tangled] on each other.
The ship’s on fire! Cut anything to get clear, and smother the fire with wet clothes.
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 weight or bullet at his head and feet; give three pieces [fire a three-gun salute] for their funerals.
Swabber, make clean the ship. Purser, record their names. Watch, be vigilant to keep your berth [position] to windward, and that we lose him not in the night. Gunners, sponge your ordnances; soldiers, scour your pieces. Carpenters, about your leaks. Boatswain and the rest, repair the sails and shrouds. Cook, see you observe your directions against the morning watch.
There can’t have been a man aboard the Dolphin who didn’t play out a scene like this in his head as he waited for the action to begin. By the time the meal was over it was nearly eleven a.m., and the leading pirate ships were closing. In a show of defiance, Mr. Nichols stood on the poop deck in plain view of his pursuers and waved his sword at them three times, “shaking it with such dauntless courage as if he had already won the victory.” His men followed suit; the ship’s trumpeters blew their trumpets; and as the first of the pirates came within range, Nichols gave the order for his gunner to take aim and fire.
It was very hard to hit another ship. William Bourne, whose 1587 manual on The Arte of Shooting in Great Ordnaunce was a standard text for gunners, devoted an entire chapter to the problem. In a pitching sea, when your ship was rocking from bow to stern, it was best to place your gun on the lowest deck and as near as possible to the mainmast, the point at which she “doth hang as though she were upon an axiltree.” Similiarly, if the vessel was rolling, then “the best place of the ship for to make a shot is out of the head or stern.” In either case, reckoned Bourne, “the principallest thing is that he that is at the helm must be sure to steer steady, and be ruled by him that giveth the level [i.e., adjusts the elevation of the gun], and he that giveth fire, must be nimble, and ready at a sudden.”
In practice, it was usual to fire point-blank—that is, when you were so close to your adversary that your shot would travel in a virtually straight line and you didn’t have to worry about the arc of trajectory. That meant closing to within a hundred yards or so of the target, and since that involved your target’s guns coming within point-blank range of you, it required an iron nerve, especially if you weren’t particularly experienced in combat.
All of which is by way of excusing the fact that the Dolphin’s gunner missed.
The man in charge of the pirate fleet was a one-armed Londoner named Robert Walsingham, whose addiction to piracy had led to his being forced out of Ireland and then Morocco before settling on Algiers as his base of operations. He usually hunted with two other British pirates, Captains Kelly and Sampson, both of whom were with him now. Walsingham immediately returned fire, aiming to disable the Dolphin and demoralize her crew. At noon he drew alongside and his men clambered aboard, yelling and waving scimitars, hatchets, and pikes. They hacked at the planking on the raised poop deck and tried to prize open the main hatch to get at the cargo below.
Fear and intimidation were the pirates’ most potent weapons. But the Dolphin’s crewmen held their nerve and bided their time. When they were sure of their targets they opened fire with one of the antipersonnel “murderers,” which their gunner had mounted in a cabin under the poop so as to be able to rake anyone who came into view on the open deck. In a hail of dice-shot the boarders were forced back onto their own vessel, only to come under musket fire from more of the defenders, who shot from the cover of the closed-in gallery which ran round the Dolphin’s stern below the poop deck. At the same time, the Dolphin’s gunner directed his heavy ordnance at Walsingham’s ship, now so close that it was hard to miss. The pirates returned fire; but whereas the Dolphin was intent on causing them major structural damage, the pirates had no wish to sink the ship and confined themselves to aiming rounds of chain-shot at their adversary’s masts and rigging. After several hours the pirate ship had sustained enough damage for Walsingham to break off the engagement, and as he pulled ahead of the Dolphin, she gave his vessel such a broadside that it played no further part in the battle.
The Dolphin’s troubles weren’t over yet. Captain Kelly moved up on one side, and another unnamed pirate commander came up on the other, and so they sandwiched the merchantman between them. Parties from both vessels boarded the Dolphin, “entering our ship thick and threefold, with their scimitars, hatchets, half pikes and other weapons.” One of the Turks climbed into the rigging and up the mainmast, determined to bring down the flag, “which being spied by the steward of our ship, presently shot him with his musket that he fell headlong into the sea, leaving the flag behind him.” Again the pirates were forced back to their own vessels; and again they drew off to mend their leaks, “for we had grievously torn and battered them with our great ordnance.”
The final assault came late in the afternoon. By now the Dolphin was badly damaged herself, shot through and through and leaking. Several of the crew were dead; others were hurt, including Mr. Nichols, who had been shot twice in the groin while he stood at the helm, trying to hold the ship steady for the guns. But there was still powder and shot, and the knowledge that by resisting they had forfeited any hope of mercy gave the survivors a desperate courage. They had no choice now but to fight.
As the last two pirate ships closed in, shot from the Dolphin’s guns went straight through the hull of one of them, and its pirate commander aborted the attack. The other vessel came up on the starboard quarter, and yet again Janissaries stormed aboard. They were blowing trumpets, running to and fro on the deck and “crying still in the Turkish tongue, yield your selves, yield your selves,” and throwing grenades filled with wildfire, an incendiary mixture of gunpowder, brimstone, and oil of petrol, which, “being once set on fire can hardly be quenched.” It must have been terrifying.
One ball of wildfire landed in the basin which the ship’s surgeon was using to tend a wounded man, and with commendable presence of mind he hurled the basin into the sea; but others landed on the deck in the midst of some bloody hand-to-hand fighting, and almost before anyone realized what was happening the Dolphin was burning.
Ironically, this potentially catastrophic fire saved both the ship and the lives of its surviving crew. As the flames took hold, the pirate captain called his men back. “Thinking that our ship would have therewith been suddenly burned to the water, they left us to our fortunes.” The corsair fleet fell astern, and as night came on and the crew managed to bring the fire under control, the battered Dolphin limped toward the Sardinian coast and safety. She was badly damaged in four places: between decks, in the gunroom, in Mr. Nichols’s cabin, and in the helmsman’s cabin, where the master had been standing when he was shot. Of the ship’s complement of thirty-eight, seven were killed in the battle and nine more injured. Four of these had died of their wounds by the time the ship put in at Cagliari for repairs. Mr. Nichols was one of the survivors.
There were plenty of occasions when merchant ships outran pirates, but victory in pitched battle, especially against such overwhelming odds, was a rare event. One of the survivors “that was then present and an eye witness to all the proceedings” published his narrative of the Dolphin’s encounter soon after he reached London in February 1617. He gave due thanks to God and praised “the magnanimity and worthy resolution of this our English nation.” He might also have pointed out the advantages of providing merchant ships with heavy ordnance, a decisive factor in the Dolphin’s deliverance. But his real purpose was to celebrate the courage of ordinary seamen, who were often criticized at home—particularly by the merchants and shipowners who had to bear the loss—for yielding too quickly and giving up their cargo to save their own skins. The anonymous author of A Fight at Sea was at pains to emphasize that the Dolphin’s crew chose “rather to die, than to yield, as it is still the nature and condition of all Englishmen.”