Henry Every I

An Englishman named Henry Every, alias John Avery, alias “Long Ben” Avery, called in his time “the Arch-Pirate.”

In May 1694, when King William’s War against Louis XIV was in its fifth indecisive year, the English privateer Charles II lay at anchor in the port of La Coruña, in Spain.

A swift-sailing, well-armed fighting ship, the Charles II carried forty-six cannon and a crew of 120 tough veterans of privateering campaigns in the Caribbean. She had been chartered in Bristol by the Spanish government, England’s new ally against the French. Her mission was to intercept French smugglers operating in Spain’s Caribbean colonies.

It was not much of a charter, for there was little chance that French smugglers, even if they could be caught, would yield much plunder. Prize money, therefore, would be meager. On the other hand, privateering ventures had become scarcer than sober sailors since the war with France had commenced. For that reason any seafarer who wanted to avoid service in the navy or aboard a merchant ship was glad to take whatever privateering berth presented itself, even if it was only a punitive expedition against smugglers. Recruiters, therefore, had had no trouble signing men aboard the Charles II.

The Charles II, however, was not a happy ship.

Although her crewmen—as employees of the Spanish government—had been promised regular pay (in addition to shares in any booty they might capture from French smugglers), they had received no salary since signing aboard and they were grumbling openly.

But despite the complaints of the crew, the commander of the Charles II, a certain Captain Gibson, did nothing to improve the situation. According to that omniscient chronicler Daniel Defoe, Captain Gibson was a man “mightily addicted to Punch,” and usually drank himself into a stupor each night. It is likely that Gibson was too drunk or hung over most of the time to know, or care, about the plummeting morale of his crew.

Further aggravating the unhappiness aboard the Charles II was the fact that neither Captain Gibson nor the Spanish government seemed in any hurry to speed her on her mission to the Caribbean where her disaffected crew would at least get a chance to obtain some plunder. Although it was months since Spanish officials had chartered her, the Charles II had still gotten no farther than the port of La Coruña where, as the month of May waned, she was delayed again, waiting this time to take on additional passengers and stores for the long voyage across the Atlantic, while her crew seethed with resentment.

If Captain Gibson was unaware of—or unconcerned with—the tension aboard his ship, there was one officer of the Charles II who was very much aware of it. This was the ship’s forty-year-old sailing master, or first officer, Henry Every, who was soon to become the most celebrated pirate of his time.

According to contemporaries, Every was a man of middle height, stocky, with a tendency to run to fat. Clean-shaven, as the fashion was, he had a florid complexion—one that would redden, rather than tan, in the sun—and cold eyes that looked out upon the world with unswerving directness from under heavy lids. In dress he was far from a dandy, usually favoring a rather plain costume by the standards of the time: a tricorn hat, breeches and buckled shoes, and a plain, longish waistcoat that did not flatter his somewhat corpulent figure.

Every more than compensated for his physical shortcomings, however, with an intimidating personality, a cunning intelligence, and a frigid and ruthless competence that caused other men to defer to him. Although Every’s associates acknowledged his courage and his daring in action, all recognized that it was his capacity to contrive clever plans and then to execute them with cold, undeviating purposefulness, that truly set Every apart from the simple men who sailed with him.

The incidents of Every’s career reveal him as one of that rarest of human creatures: a completely selfish man. He seems to have known at all times exactly what he wanted, and exactly what to do to obtain what he wanted. Nor did he scruple at any wrongdoing to achieve his ends. He was a man who always maintained control of himself. He did not drink, for example, although he operated in an environment in which drunkenness was a way of life. He seldom betrayed anger either, although he would occasionally feign it for effect. Self-disciplined himself, Every overflowed with contempt for the weak-minded and ignorant men around him. Yet he managed to hide his disdain behind a mask of good nature in order to get these simpler souls to do his will.

(At least one contemporary source says that Every was often “insolent” and that he gave himself the airs of a monarch. As if to underscore this judgment, he is depicted in some old woodcuts wearing fancy clothing and accompanied by a black slave who holds a parasol over his head to shield him from the sun. Given the character of Every that comes through in his career, however, it seems highly unlikely that he ever really adopted such royal airs. It is far more probable that, if he ever did behave in this manner, it was a pose he employed to achieve some devious purpose of his own. Other contemporary illustrations show a rather portly, heavy-lidded Every with a cynical half smile on his face. These portraits seem much more characteristic of the man. It is easy to imagine the smile of this Every turning into a snarl. It is also easy to imagine the man depicted in these illustrations speaking soothing, convincing words in a soft, velvety voice—and then cocking his pistols and coolly blowing his hearer’s brains out.)

While it is necessary to infer much of Every’s character from contemporary accounts and from events in his career, a few solid facts do exist about his early life.

He was born near Plymouth, England, about 1653, the son of poverty-stricken parents. He went to sea as a boy some time around 1665 and is supposed to have served in the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Bright and willing, he learned to read and write, a rare accomplishment among ordinary sailors of the time. He also had a predilection for mathematics, and became a first-class navigator. While still a young man—despite the pervasive prejudices of the day—he became a ship’s officer, serving aboard a series of merchant vessels. At one point he served aboard a slave ship that worked the west coast of Africa in the service of the royal governor of Bermuda. He apparently employed his native ruthlessness and persuasiveness to good effect in filling the holds of his ships with human cargo, for he soon gained a reputation along the coast as a most successful practitioner of the gruesome trade in “black ivory.” He must have remained in the slave trade for a number of years, because as late as 1693, a Royal African Company officer wrote: “I have no where upon the coast met the negroes so shy as here, which makes me fancy they have had tricks play’d them by such blades as Long Ben, alias Every, who have seiz’d and carry’d them away.”

Probably it was while employed in the vile slave trade that Henry Every gained both his knowledge of command and the deep streak of contempt for humanity that was so evident in his piratical career.

In any event, Every had long since made himself into a master mariner and a practiced manipulator of men when, in May 1694, he found himself serving aboard the privateer Charles II.

Although nominally second-in-command under the drunken Captain Gibson, there is little doubt that Every was, in fact, the real leader of the discontented crew of the Charles II. He had helped recruit many of the ship’s crew off the docks of Bristol. Many of them, no doubt, had sailed with him on slaving voyages in the past. They would have had no hesitancy about disclosing to Henry Every their dissatisfaction about the Charles II’s cruise—and he would have had no scruple about manipulating the crew’s ire for his purposes.

The men aboard the Charles II must have already heard the first reports of the voyage of Captain Thomas Tew in the Amity, and the rich score that he had made. There must have been many nights, as the Charles II lay at La Coruña and Captain Gibson lay drunk in his cabin, when Henry Every whispered to his shipmates that they too might become rich. They had only to seize the Charles II and take her to the East.

Doubtless Every, using such blandishments, had little trouble recruiting a full complement of mutineers.

(It is not beyond the realm of possibility, as some suggest, that Every had planned to seize the Charles II from the very outset of her cruise. Given his devious nature, he might very well have recruited some of his old Bristol shipmates from slaving days specifically for purposes of mutiny.)

Having made sure of sufficient support among the crew, Every set forth a simple straightforward plan for taking the Charles II.

Every’s plan revolved around the fact that it was captain Gibson’s habit to go ashore almost every night and get blind drunk in a favorite tavern. He suggested that the mutineers simply wait for a night when the tide would be running out to sea and the moon obscured. While Captain Gibson was ashore getting drunk, they would take control of the ship and set adrift any dissenters to their enterprise. Then, after riding the tide far enough offshore, they would set sail and be away to gain their fortune. All agreed with Every’s scheme.

But on the designated night, Captain Gibson did not go ashore. Instead he got drunk in his cabin.

The cool Every merely altered his plan.

He waited until the captain had drunk himself into his usual stupor. Then Every and his mutineers weighed anchor—so stealthily that they neither woke the drunken captain nor disturbed other members of the crew asleep below.

They headed the Charles II out to sea on the tide. Defoe tells the story from this point on in crisp detail.

The Charles II was far offshore when at last the motion of the ship and the sound of the sails being worked finally roused Captain Gibson.

The befuddled captain rang the bell in his cabin, signaling for his second-in-command. Every, who had been expecting the summons, entered the captain’s cabin accompanied by two of his mutineers. (It is easy to imagine the portly Every, with a cocked pistol in his belt, smiling down on the confused, disheveled Gibson sprawled out in his nightshirt on his bunk.)

“What is the matter?” asked Captain Gibson, sitting up and pointing to the lamp in his cabin, swinging with the movement of the ship. “What is the matter?”

“Nothing is the matter,” Every replied smoothly.

“Something’s the matter with this ship,” insisted Gibson, emerging now a little further out of his alcoholic fog. “What weather is it?”

“No, no,” soothed Every. “We’re at sea with a fair wind and good weather.”

“At sea!” the captain cried. “How can that be?”

“Come,” Every murmured, the smile remaining on his face. “Don’t be in a fright. Put on your clothes, and I’ll let you into a secret.”

Now, as the astounded Captain Gibson listened wide-eyed and struggled into his clothes, Every matter-of-factly spelled out the new status of the Charles II and those who sailed in her.

Said Every: “You must know that I am captain of this ship now, and this is my cabin; therefore you must walk out. I am bound to Madagascar, with a design of making my own fortune, and that of all the brave fellows joined with me.”

Every, maintaining his tone of sweet reason, then went on to explain that Captain Gibson had only two choices open to him. He could join the mutiny as Every’s second-in-command (provided he was willing to give up drinking), or Every would give him a ship’s boat and let him find his way to shore.

Captain Gibson recognized that he no longer commanded his ship. He chose to be set ashore. Every agreed. The mutiny was over.

Now, with his purpose accomplished, Every and his mutineers called together the rest of the crew. Every explained what had happened, and the mission he now proposed for the Charles II. The great majority of the crew overwhelmingly approved Every’s enterprise and enthusiastically elected him captain.

Six crewmen who did not endorse Every or his program were then put into an open boat along with the deposed Captain Gibson and allowed to row back to La Coruña. (By the time they reached the safety of the port, and told their story, Every was far out of reach.)

Every now renamed the ship the Fancy—a name soon to become famous. He then ran up the flag of St. George—a banner flown by many English ships—and his own personal flag: four silver chevrons on a red field, a flag soon to become infamous. He then set a course that would take Fancy around the Cape of Good Hope to the East, where Tew had won his fortune.

It was not long before Fancy took her first victims. In the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa, Every halted three English ships and helped himself to supplies from their larders. Although minor in scope, this offense against English ships was, in fact, an unpardonable act of piracy, one that put Every and his men irrevocably outside the law. Perhaps the devious Every deliberately chose to plunder these English ships in order to commit his men to him and to their mission. In any event, Fancy continued on her voyage southward along the African coast. Along the way she took two Danish ships, which yielded only a few ounces of gold for each man in Every’s crew. But it was a taste of what was to come.

After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Every fetched up at Johanna Island, a pleasant, well-watered island just off the northwest corner of Madagascar. Johanna was a popular place for mariners to victual, water, and clean their hulls. Here Every careened the Fancy and scraped her hull of marine growth so that she would slide more smoothly through the water. He also took this opportunity to remove much of Fancy’s “upperwork” such as her deck cabins, forecastle bulwarks, and hatches. The idea was to achieve a “flush” deck that would give her more speed—a crucial requirement, Every felt, for success in the mission ahead.

While at Johanna an incident occurred that further illustrates Every’s capacity to make swift, unsentimental judgments for the benefit of himself and his enterprise.

A French pirate ship, loaded with loot taken from Mogul ships, came into Johanna for water.

Every quickly assembled his men and pointed out that England and France were at war. He then suggested that it was their duty to their king to seize the French pirate. To the ordinary sailors who heard Every, the proposition seemed plausible, not to mention attractive. Without hesitation Every’s men piled aboard the French pirate, and soon took control of the ship and her contents.

Every then invited the defeated French crew to join the crew of Fancy. Most of them, along with a dozen other Frenchmen, who had previously been shipwrecked at Johanna, did so with alacrity, obviously impressed with Every. They no doubt saw clearly that service with a captain who knew what he wanted and how to get it would bring considerable profit.

While at Johanna, Every also composed a cunning letter that he gave to a native chief to pass on to the first English ship that arrived in the harbor after he had departed. It is classical Every:

To All English Commanders:

Let this satisfy that I was riding here at this instant in the ship Fancy, man-of-war, formerly the Charles of the Spanish Expedition who departed from La Coruña 7th May 1694, being then and now a ship of 46 guns, 150 men and bound to seek our fortunes. I have never as yet wronged any English or Dutch or ever intend whilst I am Commander. Wherefore as I commonly speak with all ships, I desire whoever comes to the perusal of this to take this signal, that if you or any whom you may inform are desirous to know what we are at a distance, then make your ancient [ship’s flag] up in a ball or bundle and hoist him at the mizzen peak, the mizzen being furled. I shall answer with the same, and never molest you, for my men are hungry, stout, and resolute, and should they exceed my desire I cannot help myself. As yet, an Englishman’s friend, At Johanna 18th February 1695

Henry Every

P.S. Here is 160 odd French armed men at Mohilla who waits for opportunity for getting any ship, take care of yourselves.

This mixture of threats and assurances was received by the English captain of an East Indiaman only a few days after Every sailed north from Johanna. It was eventually forwarded to London with a request for stronger measures against the growing pirate menace in the Indian Ocean.

Every’s purpose in writing this cleverly contrived letter was to confuse the authorities regarding his purpose. He had hoped, also, to give the impression that if his men committed crimes, it was beyond his power to stop them, and he should not be held accountable. Always thinking of himself above all, Every appears to be trying to disassociate himself personally, in advance, from the crimes that he knew he and his men would soon be committing. By adding the postscript about the French threat at Mohilla (Mohéli), he was probably attempting to convince the ultimate readers of the letter, the authorities in London, that despite all appearances to the contrary, he remained a loyal Englishman in service to the king.

But Every’s ploy, which he had probably regarded as a long shot in any case, failed to achieve its purpose. The authorities in London set Henry Every down in their books as an outright pirate.



Henry Every II

The “Ganj-i-Sawai”, being pursued by several smaller pirate ships, including “The Fancy” Avery’s pirates waited by the Red Sea to hijack the ships carrying the valuable cargo, treasures, and pilgrims.; but proceeded to kidnap some locals who confirmed that the “Moor[ish]” fleet was making its way to Surat from Mocha. The Mughal Fleet passed by the pirates under the cover of night, but Avery had found this too late, launching an immediate and zealous pursuit. One of their ships, “The Dolphin”, could not pick up significant speed and so was abandoned and burned. Whatever crew was left from this ship was added to “The Fancy”. The other ships that were able to carry on were the “Pearl”, “Portsmouth Adventure” and “The Amity”; the others were similarly left behind. The “Fateh Muhammed”, not knowing “The Fancy” was full of pirates came within a pistol shot of the pirates who overtook its autonomy. The cargo from this ship alone was worth between £50,000—£60,000 pounds, including having carried silver and gold. The “Ganj-i-Sawai” (anglicized; “Gunsway”), was better armed with 40—80 cannons/guns and 400—500 fighting men, and was also personally owned by Emperor Aurangzeb. The battle lasted for 2—3 hours. Tragically, the “Ganj-i-Sawai’s” attempts to set fire to “The Fancy” fell through when one of its own guns exploded killing many on board, causing significant damage. The pirates guns also managed to ruin the mainmast, rooting the ship to its spot. This gave the pirates an immense amount of morale. Afterwards, Avery’s men said they would give mercy on the condition of surrender, however the pirates raped and murdered for at least a week after.

Meanwhile, Fancy was on her way northward, bound for the mouth of the Red Sea. Every’s plan was to patrol the narrow Gulf of Aden where he hoped to seize a rich, Moorish ship on her way to or from India. (English-speaking sailors began around this time to call all Muslim vessels “Moorish.”)

On the voyage from Johanna to the Red Sea, Fancy was joined by two smaller pirate ships from America. It was agreed the two Americans would operate jointly with Fancy, and that Every would serve as overall commander of the little fleet.

In August 1695, Every and his companion ships arrived at their destination and began their predatory patrol. Every soon learned from Muslim fisherman he had captured that the annual convoy of the Great Mogul’s treasure ships was due to leave soon from the Red Sea port of Mocha for the return trip to India. The Arab prisoners said that in addition to precious cargoes of gold, jewels, and silks, the Mogul fleet would also be carrying wealthy pilgrims, returning home to India after visiting the Holy City of Mecca. Every ordered a round-the-clock watch for the Moorish convoy.

Now, as Fancy and her consorts waited for their Mogul prey to appear, two more American ships came into the area. One of them turned out to be the famed Amity, under the celebrated Captain Tew. The newcomers also agreed to join the pirate flotilla under Henry Every’s command.

Day after day the pirate ships cruised, scouring the area for their victims. Although each ship patrolled independently, each kept within range of the flagship, the Fancy.

Then, on a moonless night, the Mogul convoy sailed. Despite the sharp vigil being kept aboard the pirate ships, the Mogul fleet, twenty-five ships in all, slipped past the pirate lookouts unseen.

When the sun rose the next morning the enraged pirates discovered that most of the long-awaited convoy had gotten too far beyond their picket lines to be caught. Every, however, refused to allow disappointment or anger to cloud his judgment. Examining the retreating convoy through his glass, he decided that two of the Mogul ships might still be within range. The nearest of these possible victims was a small vessel, while the other, farther off, was an enormous ship, clearly so powerfully armed that she would outgun any of the pirate fleet—including Fancy—by a wide margin. Nevertheless, Every ordered his ship to pursue the fleeing Moors.

Aboard Amity, which was closer to the two Mogul ships than Fancy was, Captain Tew also decided to pursue. Crowding on all sail, Tew chased after the smaller of the two Moors. Fancy followed.

After a time Amity caught up with her quarry, whose Arabic name was Fateh Mohamed. There was an exchange of fire. Both ships recoiled from the shock. Men screamed oaths. Muskets cracked. Then, suddenly, Amity disengaged. A cannon shot from Fateh Mohamed had killed Captain Tew. The men of Amity, shocked by the death of their captain, turned away.

Fateh Mohamed sailed on. But she did not escape.

Every’s speedy Fancy overtook her. His tough crew swarmed aboard her. The Fateh Mohamed’s crew, outnumbered and outgunned, this time decided not to fight. Every’s men quickly ransacked the Mogul vessel, bellowing with joy when they discovered that the Fateh Mohamed carried some £50,000 in gold and silver, which they quickly transferred to Fancy.

Now Every exhibited the daring and steely resolve that was also part of his character. He saw that the other Moorish ship—much larger than the Fateh Mohamed—was still within range. It seemed to him that this great ship now lumbering toward the horizon might be carrying a cargo even more valuable than the treasure they had just taken from the Fateh Mohamed, for surely a ship so large and so heavily armed must be transporting the dearest treasures of the Great Mogul himself. As formidable as this Moorish giant might be, Every told himself, she was also the sort of prize that freebooters could hope to encounter only once. He sensed the chance of a lifetime—and he seized it without hesitation.

He broke out every scrap of sail. Fancy began the chase.

In fact, the ship Every was pursuing was the Gang-I-Sawai.

She was, in the words of Indian historian Khafi Khan, “the greatest ship in all the Mogul dominions.” She carried sixty-two guns and five hundred soldiers. She also carried six hundred passengers among whom were a number of high-ranking officials of the Great Mogul’s court who were returning from their pilgrimage to Mecca. She was also carrying, in her capacious holds, 500,000 gold and silver pieces. Her destination was the port of Surat on India’s west coast.

Inexorably Fancy closed the gap between herself and the giant Mogul ship. Before long the men aboard the Fancy could make out the gaping muzzles of the Gang-I-Sawai’s cannon and the heavily armed, turbaned soldiers crowding her decks. But despite being outgunned and outnumbered better than four to one, the crew of Fancy prepared for action, confident of their ability to overcome their Moorish enemy.

As her ponderous quarry came into range of Fancy’s cannon, Every broke out his flag of silver chevrons as a sign that he was willing to give quarter if the Moors surrendered. There was no response to his signal. Every then ran up a plain red flag, the “bloody flag” as his men called it, signifying that the offer of quarter was withdrawn.

The battle was on.

Fancy fired a broadside. The Muslim guns replied. But as the Moorish broadside was fired, one of the Gang-I-Sawai’s cannon suddenly exploded, killing a number of her well-trained gun crews and sending lethal fragments of metal scything across her decks, compelling her soldiers to take cover in confusion and terror. Fancy fired again. A lucky shot crashed into the Mogul ship’s mainmast, disrupting her rigging and slowing her even more. With her rigging badly damaged, the Gang-I-Sawai soon became almost unmaneuverable.

Fancy now broke off firing and swung in alongside her much larger quarry whose gunports towered over her. As soon as the two ships touched, Every’s crew, cutlasses and pistols at the ready, scrambled up the sides of the Gang-I-Sawai and hurled themselves against the Muslim soldiers who awaited them.

The pirates’ ferocity made up for their lack of numbers. With cutlasses ringing on steel scimitars, the pirates fought for the ship for two hours.

Smoke, explosions, and the screams of dying and wounded men filled the air. The decks of the Gang-I-Sawai ran with blood as the Indian soldiers fiercely resisted the pirate onslaught. At one point in the confusion of battle, the Gang-I-Sawai’s captain, Ibrahim Khan, fled below to a cabin where he had secreted a number of Turkish girls whom he had bought in Mecca to add to his harem. Apparently intending to safeguard his property from the marauding pirates who were still battling his troops on the decks above, the Mogul captain wrapped turbans around the girls’ heads, hoping thereby to fool the infidel outlaws into believing they were boys. But the pirates, who burst into the cabin in the wake of the captain, were not fooled by the ruse. They dragged the girls up on deck where the pirates were now gaining the upper hand in the bloody battle.

By degrees the fighting diminished as more and more of the Muslim soldiers and sailors threw up their hands in surrender. Finally, the fighting ceased altogether.

In the wake of the noise of combat, an eerie silence now descended over the Gang-I-Sawai. The dead lay everywhere. Wreckage littered the decks. The Gang-I-Sawai creaked in the sudden quiet. Every’s men had gained the victory but at the cost of fifteen to twenty dead comrades—a fact that so infuriated them that they began a vengeful orgy of murder, rape, and torture as they ransacked their prize.

Every’s men had little compunction about meting out brutal treatment to their captives. Muslims, in their view, were only “black heathen,” sinners who denied Christ and therefore deserved the harsh treatment they got.

Every’s men stripped their captives, both men and women, of all their clothing and possessions. They tortured any captive they suspected of withholding valuables. In some cases the infuriated pirates simply killed their victims after taking their money. A number of the women, however, were dragged off to be gang-raped. One of those treated in this manner was the elderly wife of a high-ranking Mogul official who also happened to be a relative of the Great Mogul himself. Some of the women died under their savage treatment. Some threw themselves overboard rather than submit to ravishment. Some, feeling themselves shamed forever, later stabbed themselves to death with daggers.

Throughout the butchery, Every himself remained aboard the Fancy. He knew better than to take part personally in these brutalities. In any case, he was not temperamentally given to such outbursts of vengeance-seeking, although he had participated in the thick of the battle for the Gang-I-Sawai.

As the rage of the pirates spent itself, and as cooler heads began to restore order, it became clear that—as Every had anticipated—the Gang-I-Sawai was a mother lode of booty. The loot that was now piling up on her bloody decks included gold, silver, ivory, jewels, damasks, and even a saddle set with rubies, which had been intended for the Great Mogul himself.

Now Every, taking command again in the aftermath of his crew’s explosion of violence, ordered all this wealth—and the surviving women as well—transferred to the Fancy.

When this was accomplished, Every ordered the Gang-I-Sawai cut loose to join its consort, the previously pillaged Fateh Mohamed, for the long, lugubrious voyage home.

Eventually both ships put in at Surat, the Great Mogul’s chief port and the East India Company’s main trading station in India. The tale of the pirate terror that the two ships’ survivors told outraged the Great Mogul. The Mogul’s fury, in turn, sent a chill of fear through the men of the East India Company who depended upon his goodwill for their continued prosperity.

Although the Muslim Indians were sympathetic toward the civilian victims of the pirate terror, they wasted little sympathy on the soldiers and sailors who had lost the Gang-I-Sawai.

Mogul historian Khafi Khan viewed the pirate victory as a disgrace for Mogul arms and he blamed the ship’s captain for not putting up a better fight. “The English are not bold in the use of the sword,” he wrote, “and there were so many weapons aboard that, if any determined resistance had been made, they had been defeated.”

Meanwhile, Fancy, after rejoining the other ships of Every’s fleet, set off southward for safe waters where Every planned to share out the loot and plan his next move.

Fancy and her consorts eventually made landfall at the island of Bourbon (later to be renamed Réunion) almost 2,500 miles away from the scene of the battle. At this time Bourbon, although claimed by France, was virtually devoid of French presence, let alone French law.

Here Every and his men divided the plunder from the Gang-I-Sawai and the Fateh Mohamed. The East India Company later estimated Every’s loot at some £325,000—a truly imperial haul.

Each man in Every’s company received more than £1,000, plus a number of jewels. The apprenticed seamen who sailed in the fleet, most of them boys between twelve and fifteen years of age, received £500 each. Every himself was awarded the pirate captain’s usual double share. There is no record of the fate of the women taken from the Gang-I-Sawai. More than likely they were left stranded at Bourbon.

Now, with the loot divided, Every’s fleet broke up, with each ship going its own way. Every himself wanted to take Fancy to the Bahamas. He knew of a local governor there, he said, who would help them sell their stolen goods for cash. But members of Every’s crew wanted to go to Brazil instead. As usual Every finally won the argument, although about fifty of his men elected to remain in Bourbon rather than voyage farther. To fill their places Every took aboard a consignment of black slaves. Then, in April 1696, he set off for the Bahamas.




James III of Scotland did not enjoy a popular reign. His difficulties with the magnates were not resolved after the cull on Lauder Bridge and festered till a further and final confrontation in the campaign and Battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June 1488, when the king was assassinated in murky circumstances following the rout of his forces. His son’s biographer, Norman Macdougall, has observed that, during James III’s reign, naval hostilities continued despite any prevailing truces:

As the Treasurer’s accounts are lacking for almost all of James III’s reign, these examples may not give a fair balance. What they show clearly, however, is that the principal menace to Scots shipping in the North Sea was the hostility of the English. For sea-warfare, even in time of truce, tended to form a category of its own.

The plain fact is that sea-raiding and privateering were highly profitable activities for successful captains, and the niceties of diplomacy could not be allowed to intrude upon such lucrative enterprise. At Bamburgh on the Northumbrian coast, Bishop Kennedy’s fine ship Salvator ran aground in March 1473 and was relieved of her cargo by James Ker, despite his Teviotdale name, an Englishman. It required negotiations spanning a year and a half before James III, who may have been a stakeholder in the vessel, managed to lever any compensation. Gloucester’s cog Mayflower had taken Yellow Carvel, a ship later to be associated with Andrew Wood of Largo. Sir John Colquhoun of Luss was also despoiled of shipping by Lord Grey. John Barton, brother of Andrew, had one of his vessels taken off Sluys by Portuguese pirates, who stripped the valuable merchandise and murdered a number of those on board.

In October 1474, James had succeeded in brokering a rather flimsy alliance with Edward IV, which finally broke down six years later, and the war of 1481–1482 saw a considerable amount of action at sea. In this the advantage lay heavily with the English. In 1481, Lord John Howard took his squadron into the Firth of Forth and secured a number of valuable prizes, eight Scottish vessels, taken from Leith, Kinghorn and Pittenweem. He then took up Blackness, which was thoroughly spoiled and torched, capturing another and larger vessel. This aggression did not go unopposed, for Andrew Wood led a flotilla which engaged the English, apparently gave a very good account of themselves and inflicted numerous losses. Next year, to support Gloucester’s invasion, Sir Richard Radcliffe, an intimate of the duke’s who was to rise in his administration, led a second expedition, probably placing his flag on the capital ship, Grace Dieu. He was able to occupy Leith and contributed significantly to the English victory on land and the recovery of Berwick – the final time that much beleaguered town was to change hands. Dunbar, an important bastion on the coast of Lothian, was handed over to the English in 1483 by James’s traitorous sibling the Duke of Albany and remained in their possession for a couple of years. Being a coastal fortress, the English could rely on their maritime supremacy to facilitate re-supply.

Andrew Wood had been rewarded for his zeal in opposing Howard with the feu-charter of Largo, granted in 1483. The king needed Sir Andrew within his affinity in the campaign which led up to the king’s defeat and subsequent death in the spring of 1488. It was Wood’s ships, Yellow Carvel and Flower, which twice transported royal forces across the Firth of Forth and carried the battered survivors back. James may well have been in flight towards these ships when he was overtaken and killed. Both of Sir Andrew’s ships were sizeable vessels of around 300 tons, and he was soon in action again against the English when, in 1489, his squadron took on five English raiders and captured them all in a brisk engagement off Dunbar. Wood was well rewarded for his victory, but Henry VII resented the humiliation of so sharp a reverse and commissioned Stephen Bull, an experienced mariner who commanded three competent vessels, to take up the gauntlet.

Bull took his ships into the Firth of Forth, believing, correctly, that Wood was beating back from Flanders and keeping his squadron well hidden in the lee of the Isle of May. To identify his prey, he kidnapped local fishermen who, when sails were sighted, were obliged to climb to the topmast and identify the vessels. At first, the locals temporised but, with the incentive of their release dangled, confirmed the ships were indeed Yellow Carvel and Flower. Confident of success, having numbers and weight of shot on his side, Bull broached a cask and offered his officers an additional stimulus before engaging. Undeterred by the sudden ambush, Wood cleared for action. He was surprised, outnumbered and outgunned; like his opponent he broke out the grog before the great guns thundered. With the wind steady from the south-east, the longer English guns had the advantage. Wood then beat to windward before closing the range to unleash his own broadside.

The fight which followed was both long and hard. In the constricted waters of the Firth there was little scope for extensive manoeuvring and the battle became a slogging match. Both sides sought to grapple and board, pounding each other beforehand. Amidst shrouds of foul, sulphurous smoke, seamen strove to bring the opposing vessels together, cloying air quickened by the rattle of musketry, the crash of spars and rigging as round shot tore through sails and cordage.

Battle continued all day, the combatants, like punch-drunk fighters, lurching into the open sea. Newer weapons, ordnance and handguns, were deployed alongside crossbows and broadswords. Guns added to the demonic fury of battle with their diabolical roar and the filthy, sulphurous smoke they belched out, vast clouds of the stuff, whipping and eddying in the breeze, one minute obscuring the combatants, then lifting as though with the parting of a veil. As the ships closed to grapple and board, the marines spat bolts and leaden balls from handguns Then, it was down to hand strokes. Knots of fighters boiled over gunwale and deck, screams and shouted orders bellowed in the dense-packed melee. No one had anywhere to run; axes, mallets and the lethal thrust of daggers competed in the stricken space. Darkness brought a brief lull; shattered masts and rent sails were cut free and either cobbled together or ditched overboard. Decks were littered with debris from the fight, gunwales, in several instances, awash with gore and spilt entrails. In the quiet hours, many a man slipped away and was quietly heaved towards a watery grave.

Next day, trumpets sounded and the great guns thundered again as battered vessels rejoined the fight. As Wellington would have observed, it was a very close run thing. Losses and damage were considerable on both sides, but it was Bull’s Englishmen who struck their colours. A crowd of Scots had dashed along the shoreline as the battle reached the mouth of the Tay, cheering on the home side! Sir Andrew had wisely stayed to windward, herding the Englishmen towards the Fife shore. Unaware of the risk, till too late, all three of Bull’s ships ran aground. The fight was over, the stranded keels boarded and towed in triumph to Dundee. James, delighted with his victory, could afford to be magnanimous, and the survivors were repatriated, but only after a spell as forced labour working on coastal defences! Wood survived into a comfortable retirement and even ordered the construction of a canal between his fine house and the parish church so that, as he journeyed to Mass he might be conveyed in his barge in a manner befitting so venerable a sea-dog.


Ottoman Naval Development

In the fourteenth century, the illustrious historiographer, Ibn Khaldin recorded a prediction:

The inhabitants of the Maghreb have it on the authority of the books of predictions that the Muslims will yet have to make a successful attack against the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians beyond the sea. This, it is said, will take place by sea.

This prophesy was realized in the early sixteenth century in the form of the Ottoman navy. Nonetheless, the Ottomans have yet to be granted their place in world history as a seaborne empire. This is nowhere more apparent than in depictions of the reign of Bayezid II ( 148 1- 1512). Traditional historiography has characterized the reign of Bayezid as consisting of two halves: before and after the death of his brother Cem. The first half is dominated by Bayezid’s struggle to eliminate his brother, the challenger to the throne. Cem, whose unsuccessful bid for the Ottoman sultanate was supported by the Mamluk sultan Qa’it Bay, died in 1495. Bayezid’s reign after Cem’s death has been portrayed as a less than illustrious period of quiet consolidation. If, however, the second half of Bayezid’s reign is viewed as a period during which a powerful navy was built up, a navy capable of defending and supplying an empire extending far beyond the bounds of Anatolia, then the peaceful characterization of this period becomes somewhat less believable. Bayezid’s navy was used to suppress piracy, protect commodities shipping, and intimidate his enemies, present or potential. Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean fostered the establishment of cordial Ottoman-Venetian trading relations, permitted the subordination of the Mamluk kingdoms (through naval and artillery aid) prior to the Ottoman conquest of Cairo, and allowed for a significant challenge to Portuguese seapower in the Indian Ocean. Seapower was both physical and rhetorical. The threat of the Ottoman navy was used by many states throughout the Mediterranean to gain diplomatic leverage. Nor was the Ottoman navy, as traditional historiography would have it, little more than a group of state subsidized corsairs. Seapower was a vehicle for developing Ottoman trading interests, securing the Ottoman coasts, and supporting the transport and provisioning activities required for Ottoman territorial expansion.

It was at the turn of the sixteenth century that the Ottomans firmly and decisively set out to use seapower as an avenue to “world” hegemony. Naval development began in earnest under Mehmed II. It continued under Bayezid who ordered “ships agile as sea serpents (naheng ahang gemiler)” constructed to fight the Venetians. The reign of Selim was a period during which the military and naval capabilities built up during Bayezid’s reign were utilized and expanded. The conquest of Cairo provided, in part, the revenue and the imperial ethos. Anatolia provided the construction materials and the infantrymen. Upon this foundation Selim was building a most formidable navy, and planning greater naval conquests at the time of his death. The only obstacle in his path was the shortage of skilled sailors. These aspirations became operational on a grand scale with an eastward expansion which halted only at the Indian Ocean in the reign of Selim’s son Suleiman.

After the campaign season of 1502, Sultan Bayezid launched both a major naval reorganization and a broad scale troop mobilization. This troop mobilization in the fall and winter of that year was a direct result of the military success and diplomatic challenge of Ismail Safavi in Iran. The naval reorganization was attributed by Venetian sources to the sultan’s wrath over the Venetian victory that year at Santa Maura. The overall victory in the Ottoman-Venetian wars, however, went decisively to the Ottomans and, by fall of 1502, negotiations were underway for a treaty which would leave Venice without Modon and Coron and liable for a ten thousand ducat annual indemnity to the Porte. Hence, the causes for Bayezid’s naval buildup must be sought elsewhere than in mere vengeance for the defeat at Santa Maura. These causes include the intentions to expand Ottoman Levantine possessions, to punish Rhodes for its attacks on Muslim shipping, and to provide naval support for Ottoman campaigns against the Mamluk and Safavid territories. Short years later a fourth cause was added: the provision of direct naval assistance to the Mamluks against the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

First, the Ottomans needed a navy revamped to fcus outside the Aegean and the Mediterranean. This navy was then directed to purposes of defense and expansion that later proceeded outward in concentric circles; the territorial conquests mirrored the spheres of Ottoman economic interest in the Aegean, Mediterranean, Red Sea, and eventually the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Vigorous shipbuilding activity was underway in the Ottoman arsenals during the wars with Venice from 1499 to 1503. Sadeddin mentions the preparation of a fleet of three hundred ships in the first year of the war. A German knight, Arnold von Harff, claimed, with considerable exaggeration, that he saw that same year eight hundred Turkish war galleys and countless other vessels in the harbor at Istanbul. Bayezid called in the entire Ottoman armada for repairs in the winter of 1500-1501 and ordered the preparation of for hundred ships including two hundred galleys mounted with large cannon, fifty heavy galleys, and for hundred fifty of the smaller galiots and fustas. This work took place at selected sites, with the armada at Midilli alone numbering some one hundred twenty vessels including forty galleys early in 1502. The sultan requisitioned laborers for the fleet, especially carpenters and caulkers, as well as building materials from Chios, a “request” that the Christian administration of the island could not afford to refuse.

This construction cannot be explained only as a requirement of the combat with Venice. By fall of 1502, it was apparent that a peace treaty was in the offing. In the intervening years before the conquest of Cairo in 1517, Venice and the Ottomans were at peace. Their naval relations, though characterized by a healthy distrust, were generally amicable. Yet, just as the peace treaty set aside the threat from the Porte’s primary opponent in the Mediterranean, Bayezid began a policy of naval expansion which would ultimately make the Ottomans the dominant naval power in the region. During this same time-, the French and Spanish were contenders for naval power in the western Mediterranean, the Portuguese gained control of the Indian Ocean, and the Rhodians remained an insistent, if essentially insignificant, naval threat of the Anatolian coast. Although the Spanish would become a formidable sea power, their success in the western Mediterranean was arguably a function of the direction-east-that the sultan chose for the utilization of his navy.

The Ottoman naval reorganization begun in the fall of 1502 was a three-stage operation. It involved the repair of the fleet, the dismantling of some ships for reconstruction and the building of entirely new ships. Reconstruction efforts were directed at the largest ships which were either taken apart or sold to private entrepreneurs. Materials from the ships, which were taken apart, were used to build heavy and light galleys. These efforts were aimed at producing lighter, more maneuverable ships, which were not only more adaptable to joint naval actions but were also less likely to be captured.

While these efforts were underway Bayezid ordered the mobilization of sixty to seventy thousand men, both oarsmen and sailors. This number is more than even a fleet of three hundred ships could utilize; however, it indicates that the Venetian authors of the reports were impressed with the sultan’s levy of seamen. The high number may also be an indication of the divergence between the number of sailors and oarsmen levied and the actual numbers who showed up. In order to finance the naval expansion, Bayezid combined a number of sources of income. He obtained some revenue from the sale of the largest ships. He ordered each of his sons to provide for the construction of six heavy galleys, and a number of his sancak begs to finance three light galleys each. In addition, the merchants of Salonica (both Greeks and Turks) were ordered to pay a tithe and to finance mariners. The fact that only the merchants of Salonica are mentioned as paying the special naval levy does not mean that it was limited to this city alone. There is, however, a certain logic to the idea of levies on the coastal merchants. They were likely to be engaged in commerce supplied by shipping along the Anatolian coast, from the Aegean islands, and across the Mediterranean from Beirut and Alexandria. This shipping was susceptible to corsair raiding especially on the part of the Rhodians. If the naval expansion was aimed, in part, at the protection of Ottoman shipping, then the merchants who profited from it were a likely source of revenue. The bulk of the financing for the fleet, however, came from the imperial treasury supplemented by the special levies such as the oarsman tax (kürekҫi akҫesi).

By the end of the year 1503, the Ottomans had an impressive array of ships at their disposal . In his report to the Venetian Senate, the returning bailo of Istanbul, Andrea Gritti, gave a detailed account of the Ottoman fleet and its activities. Gritti counted the Galata fleet as including thirty light galleys, twelve galleys bastarda, two galeazza (unnavigable), and some assorted fustas and gripos. At Gallipoli there were sixty galleys and fustas. Three of these galleys, with thirty, twenty-six, and twenty-two banks of oars respectively, had been constructed by an Italian shipbuilder named Andrea Dere. At Avlonya in the Adriatic the Ottomans had eleven galleys which had been seized during the war and nine fustas (mostly in bad order) . At Volissa on the west side of Chios were an additional eight heavy galleys and thirteen light galleys. Gritti’s account does not include estimates of naval forces at other Ottoman ports such as Macri and Samsun, but it is clear that Bayezid had a large fleet at his disposal which had not been retired at the end of the war.

The shipbuilder Dere is again mentioned in Leonardo Loredano’s report to the Venetian Senate in March 1507. His story illustrates the continuation of shipbuilding activity, gives some insight into the training of the Ottoman sea captains, and emphasizes the competition among states for skilled craftsmen. The sultan’s shipwright told Loredano that he had prospered while in the Ottoman service. He indicated, however, that he might consider leaving Istanbul if Venice came up with a sufficiently lucrative offer. This was especially so because Dere’s superior, the kapudan (captain-general of the Ottoman fleet) Daud Pasha, had died. When Daud was alive, Dere recalled, he would call his shipbuilder to his room and go over navigation charts with him, asking all about the Aegean ports, especially about Zara (a Venetian possession) and its defenses. After hearing this story, Loredano suggested that Venice would be well advised to try to persuade Dere to return to Italy, before the Ottoman navy benefited even further from his knowledge. Good shipwrights were a prized commodity in any case in the Mediterranean, even if they were not possessed of tactical information. In the end, however, Dere, saying that he had served the sultan for many years, seemed content enough to stay where he was.

Lack of a sufficient naval opponent and the expense of keeping large fleets manned insured that much of the Ottoman armada was demobilized at any given time. In the winter, the Ottoman fleet in the Bosphorus, consisting of one hundred twenty or so vessels, was beached and guarded by a large number of sentries. Meanwhile, however, the Ottomans had not ceased to manufacture great numbers of cannon, both iron and bronze, as well as other types of naval munitions. This production was facilitated by a large number of artillery masters at Istanbul working, according to Loredano, continuously. The Porte was able to produce sufficient artillery to arm its own expanding navy and to create a surplus as well. This surplus, in turn, would allow the Ottomans to provide cannon for the Mamluk fleet being prepared at Suez to challenge the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. While the bulk of the Ottoman armada remained demobilized in various naval stations, small fleets could be mobilized as needed for the various objectives of the state. Significant among these objectives was the protection of Ottoman commodities shipping through defense of the Anatolian coastal areas. Rumors persisted throughout the Mediterranean after 1503 that the Ottomans intended to launch an armada. But the Ottomans launched no major fleet offensive until 1515. During this time of relative peace, however, fleets of from fifteen to forty vessels were kept regularly cruising in the Aegean. These fleets provided transport, security against corsairs for Ottoman shipping, and general coastal defense. They were also used for commercial purposes and for special diplomatic missions.

Piracy was endemic in sixteenth-century seas, and the newly constructed Ottoman fleet seems to have been used primarily against corsairs. Piratic acts combined with a grain shortage prompted Bayezid in 1504 to send out eight armed galleys and fustas to prevent smuggling and the seizure of grain ships by pirates. These ships were instructed to punish Kara Durmuş, a corsair, who had acquired a small fleet in the course of the Venetian wars and was now operating in the waters near Chios, apparently under the patronage of the sancak beg of Manissa, Celal Beg. Kara Durmuş, with a fleet of twenty-two fustas, a brigantine and a galiota, was interfering with Ottoman shipping and raiding the Anatolian coasts. This number of vessels seems large for a single corsair, although most of the ships were the small and maneuverable fustas which could be operated in close to shore. Kara Durmuş may have formed loose and temporary alliances with other small-time corsairs, who united for defensive purposes during some raiding activities while at other times pursuing their interests individually. In 1505, a fleet, numbering fourteen to eighteen ships, under the command of Kemal Reis, a hero of the Ottoman-Venetian wars, was mobilized and charged with the task of pursuing Kara Durmuş and preventing corsairing activities based on Rhodes. This use of Ottoman vessels in patrolling activity suggests that a uniform definition of “navy” is inadequate to explain the nature of naval action in the sixteenth century. Visions of large-scale sea battles and of shipboard Muslim crusaders must give way to a more mundane version of Levantine sea power.


Occasionally upon election of a new captain, men who favored other leadership drew up new articles and sailed away from their former mates. The social organization constructed by pirates, although flexible, was unable to accommodate severe, sustained conflict. Those who had experienced the claustrophobic and authoritarian world of the merchant ship cherished the freedom to separate. The egalitarian and collective exercise of authority by pirates had both negative and positive effects. Although it produced a chronic instability, it also guaranteed continuity. The very process by which new crews were established helped to ensure a social uniformity and, as we shall see, a consciousness of kind among pirates.

One important mechanism in this continuity can be seen by charting the connections among pirate crews. The accompanying diagram of connections among Atlantic pirate crews, arranged according to vessel captaincy, demonstrates that by splintering, by sailing in consorts, or by other associations, roughly 3,600 pirates—more than 70 percent of all those active between 1716 and 1726—fit into two main lines of genealogical descent. Captain Benjamin Hornigold and the pirate rendezvous in the Bahamas stood at the origin of an intricate lineage that ended with the hanging of John Phillips’s crew in June 1724. The second line, spawned in the chance meeting of the lately mutinous crews of George Lowther and Edward Low in 1722, culminated in the executions of William Fly and his men in July 1726. It was primarily within and through this network that the social organization of the pirate ship took on its significance, transmitting and preserving customs and meanings and helping to structure and perpetuate the pirates’ social world.

Writing to the Board of Trade in 1724, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia lamented his lack of “some safe opportunity to get home” to London. He insisted that he would travel only in a well-armed man-of-war.

Your Lordships will easily conceive my Meaning when you reflect on the Vigorous part I’ve acted to suppress Pirates: and if those barbarous Wretches can be moved to cut off the Nose & Ears of a Master for but correcting his own Sailors, what inhuman treatment must I expect, should I fall within their power, who have been markt as the principle object of their vengeance, for cutting off their arch Pirate Thatch [Teach, also known as Blackbeard], with all his grand Designs, & making so many of their Fraternity to swing in the open air of Virginia.

Spotswood knew these pirates well. He had authorized the expedition that returned to Virginia boasting Blackbeard’s head as a trophy. He had done his share to see that many pirates swung on Virginia gallows. He knew that pirates had a fondness for revenge, that they often punished ship captains for “correcting” their crews, and that a kind of “fraternity” prevailed among them. He had good reason to fear them.

Between 1716 and 1726 Atlantic pirates created an imperial crisis with their relentless and successful attacks upon merchants’ property and international commerce. Accordingly, these freebooters occupy a grand position in the long history of robbery at sea. Their numbers, near five thousand, were extraordinary, and their plunderings were exceptional in both volume and value. This chapter explores the social and cultural dimensions of piracy, focusing on pirates’ experience, the organization of their ships, and their social relations and consciousness. It concludes with observations on the social and economic context of the crime and its culture. Piracy represented “crime” on a massive scale. It was a way of life voluntarily chosen, for the most part, by large numbers of men who directly challenged the ways of the society from which they excepted themselves. How did piracy look from the inside and what kinds of social order did pirates forge beyond the reach of traditional authority? Beneath the Jolly Roger, “the banner of King Death,” a new social world took shape once pirates had, as one of them put it, “the choice in themselves.” It was a world profoundly shaped and textured by the experiences of work, wages, culture, and authority accumulated in the normal, rugged course of maritime life and labor in the early eighteenth century.

Contemporary estimates of the pirate population during the period under consideration placed the number between 1,000 and 2,000 at any one time. From records that describe the activities of pirate ships and from reports or projections of crew sizes, it appears that 1,800 to 2,400 Atlantic pirates prowled the seas between 1716 and 1718; 1,500 to 2,000 between 1719 and 1722; and 1,000 to 1,500, declining to fewer than 200, between 1723 and 1726. In the only estimate we have from the other side of the law, a band of pirates in 1716 claimed that “30 Company of them,” or roughly 2,400 men, plied the oceans of the globe. In all, some 4,500 to 5,500 men went, as they called it, “upon the account.” The pirates’ chief military enemy, the British Royal Navy, employed an average of only 13,000 men in any given year between 1716 and 1726.

These sea robbers followed lucrative trade and, like their predecessors, sought bases for their depredations in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Bahama Islands, undefended and ungoverned by the crown, began in 1716 to attract pirates by the hundreds. By 1718 a torrent of complaints had moved George I to commission Woodes Rogers to lead an expedition to bring the islands under control. Rogers’s efforts largely succeeded, and pirates scattered to the unpeopled inlets of the Carolinas and to Africa. They had frequented African shores as early as 1691; by 1718, Madagascar served as both an entrepôt for booty and a spot for temporary settlement. At the mouth of the Sierra Leone River on Africa’s western coast, pirates stopped off for “whoring and drinking” and to unload goods. Theaters of operation among pirates shifted, however, according to the policing designs of the Royal Navy. Pirates favored the Caribbean’s small, unsettled cays and shallow waters, which proved hard to negotiate for men-of-war in chase. But generally, as one pirate noted, these rovers were “dispers’t into several parts of the World.” Sea robbers sought and usually found bases near major trade routes, as distant as possible from the powers of the state.


Almost all pirates had labored as merchant seamen, Royal Navy sailors, or privateersmen. The vast majority came from captured merchantmen as volunteers, for reasons suggested by Dr. Samuel Johnson’s observation that “no man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned. . . . A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.” Dr. Johnson’s class condescension aside, he had a point. Incarceration on a ship did not differ essentially from incarceration in a jail. Merchant seamen had an extremely difficult lot in the early eighteenth century. They got a hard, close look at death. Disease and accidents were commonplace in their occupation, natural disasters threatened incessantly, rations were often meager, and discipline was brutal, even murderous on occasion. Peacetime wages were low, fraud and irregularities in the distribution of pay general. A prime purpose of eighteenth-century maritime laws was “to assure a ready supply of cheap, docile labor.” Merchant seamen also had to contend with impressment by the Royal Navy.

Some pirates had served in the navy, where conditions aboard ship were no less harsh. Food supplies often ran short, wages were low, mortality was high, discipline severe, and desertion consequently chronic. As one officer reported, the navy had trouble fighting pirates because the king’s ships were “so much disabled by sickness, death, and desertion of their seamen.” In 1722 the crown sent the Weymouth and the Swallow in search of a pirate convoy. Royal surgeon John Atkins, noting that merchant seamen were frequently pressed, underlined precisely what these sailors had to fear when he recorded that the “Weymouth, who brought out of England a Compliment [sic] of 240 Men,” had “at the end of the Voyage 280 dead upon her Books.” The same point was made by the captain of a man-of-war sent to Jamaica to guard against pirates in 1720–21. He faithfully recorded the names of the thirty-five seamen who died during the year of duty. Epidemics, consumption, and scurvy raged on royal ships, and the men were “caught in a machine from which there was no escape, bar desertion, incapacitation, or death.” Or piracy.

Pirates who had served on privateering vessels knew well that such employment was far less onerous than on merchant or naval ships. Food was usually more plentiful, the pay considerably higher, and the work shifts generally shorter. Even so, owing to rigid discipline and other grievances, mutinies were not uncommon. On Woodes Rogers’s spectacularly successful privateering expedition of 1708–11, Peter Clark was thrown into irons for wishing himself “aboard a Pirate” and saying that “he should be glad that an Enemy, who could overpower us, was a-long-side of us.”

Most men became pirates when their merchant vessels were taken. Colonel Benjamin Bennet wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations in 1718, setting forth his worries about freebooters in the West Indies: “I fear they will soon multiply for so many are willing to joyn with them when taken.” The seizure of a merchant ship was followed by a moment of great confrontational drama. The pirate captain or quartermaster asked the seamen of the captured vessel who among them would serve under black colors, and frequently several stepped forward. Many fewer pirates originated as mutineers who had boldly and collectively seized control of a merchant vessel. But regardless of their methods, pirates necessarily came from seafaring employments, whether the merchant service, the navy, or privateering. Piracy emphatically was not an option open to landlubbers, since sea robbers “entertain’d so contemptible a Notion of Landmen.” Men who became pirates were grimly familiar with the rigors of life at sea and with a single-sex community of work.

Ages are known for 169 pirates active between 1716 and 1726. The range was 14 to 50 years, the mean 28.2, and the median 27; the 20–24 and 25–29 age categories had the highest concentrations, with 57 and 39 men, respectively. Almost three in five pirates were in their twenties. Compared with merchant seamen more broadly in the first half of the eighteenth century, there were fewer teenagers and more men in their thirties among the pirates, but not many. The age distribution among the outlaws was similar to that of the larger community of labor, suggesting that piracy held roughly equal attraction for sailors of all ages. Though evidence is sketchy, most pirates seem not to have been bound to land and home by familial ties or obligations. Wives and children were rarely mentioned in the records of trials of pirates, and pirate vessels, to forestall desertion, often would “take no Married Man.” Almost without exception, pirates, like the larger body of seafaring men, came from the lower class of humanity. They were, as a royal official condescendingly observed, “desperate Rogues” who could have little hope in life ashore. These traits served as bases of unity when men of the sea decided, in search of something better, to become pirates.

English Piracy in the Fifteenth Century



In 1374 Edward III ordered special measures to be taken for the defence of the strategically important port of Dartmouth against attack from the sea, but it wasn’t until 1388 in the reign of Richard II that John Hawley [John Hawley III of Dartmouth father], who was mayor again by this time, ordered the burgesses to begin the building of a fortalice, or coastal fort, at the entrance to the port.

It was completed by 1400, and a chain was laid across the river to Godmerock on the opposite side. This could be raised to prevent enemy ships from reaching Dartmouth. The fortalice pre-dates what we now know as Dartmouth Castle which wasn’t started until 1481 in the reign of Edward IV. On the other side of the harbour mouth sits Kingswear Castle which was begun in 1491. Little evidence of the fortalice is seen at first glance today apart from the high wall incorporating a tower seen above the car park, but Edwards points to several areas around the site where remnants and other clues remain.

Throughout Hawley’s life England and France were engaged in a long-running conflict, primarily over the claims of English kings to the French throne, that later became known as the Hundred Years’ War. In those days Kings didn’t have a standing navy; instead they issued licenses to the owners of specified merchant ships allowing them to “go to sea at their own expense to attack and destroy the king’s enemies”, the form of words used at this time for a privateer.

By 1386 Hawley was directing operations by a fleet of privateers who lay in wait off the coast of Brittany, attacking French and neutral shipping at will.

Charles VII had been gathering strength, and on 31 July 1449 he seized his opportunity and declared war. His reconquest of Normandy took only thirteen months. It was the story of Henry V’s conquest in reverse, and in mirror-image. Rouen, Caen, and Harfleur fell in quick succession and, last of all, Cherbourg capitulated on 12 August 1450. Once again, the Channel had become an international frontier.

The French then turned to Gascony, and on 17 July 1453 as the final coup they took Bordeaux, thus making it French for the first time in its history. The loss of that important, last, area of Aquitaine, which had been held in close economic and political association by England for the past three centuries, signalled the end of this chapter of history. It was also all too much for the sensitive Henry VI, who slipped into a coma that summer and remained unconscious for the following seventeen months.

During these twenty-four years in which the English were being forced to retreat, stage by stage, from Normandy, the English government was also becoming progressively weak at home. The national exchequer became increasingly impoverished, while at the same time the Church and some of the magnates were storing up massive fortunes for themselves. Defence of the coastline against raiders or invaders became a pressing issue, with mounting fear not only in the coastal communities themselves but also in government. But although the government was well aware of the need, no funds were available for defence. Law and order broke down, with corruption at all levels. This was the background, and the reason for, another intense period of uncontrolled piracy, which lasted until well after 1453.

This period was not only longer than others which have been discussed in this book, it was also more complex, as men found various devious ways to exploit situations and the law. The records are more complicated than ever before, and are therefore more difficult to interpret or to explain.

Enemy ships were legitimate prize so we are not concerned with them, but lengthy legal arguments were spun out concerning ships and cargoes of friendly countries. The statute of 1414 remained in force until 1435, although the merchants tried to get it repealed three times before that. They were chafing, complaining that it damaged English commerce. While their own hands were tied by it, foreign pirates were making off with English ships with impunity, without the possibility of retaliating with letters of marque.

In the meantime, while the English government resisted attempts to repeal the 1414 statute, they did take a rather different step in an attempt to regulate piracy. In 1426 a proclamation went out that when goods which had been captured at sea were brought into the ports, they were not to be disposed of until either the king’s council, or the chancellor, or the admiral or his deputy, had decided whether they belonged to friends or enemies. This was probably an attempt to simplify procedures. But in effect, it placed responsibility in the hands of a local official, the admiral’s deputy, giving excellent opportunities to the unscrupulous. The only recourse for wronged merchants was to complain to the chancellor, which is where we pick up their stories.

During the first seven years of the new reign, however, as long as John, Duke of Bedford, still had control of the important continental ports, life in the Channel remained relatively quiet. But even then, some members of the families who had been well known for piracy in the time of Henry IV were already back, engaged in their old trade. And their methods were already remarkably involved and devious.

John Hawley III of Dartmouth was the only son of the famous John Hawley. Although he had started out assisting his father in the last few years of his life and carried on with piracy until 1413, no major complaints were made about his activities during the reign of Henry V. He kept relatively quiet. But in 1427 he showed up again, at sea in the Bay of Biscay. Near the harbour of Oleron, he captured a ship and her cargo valued at £220 which belonged to John Lovell, a merchant of Dundee. When a commission was issued for his own arrest, he went to Lovell and bargained with him, exonerating himself but suggesting that Lovell should obtain three more commissions in which he would accuse forty other pirates who had been, in fact, Hawley’s accomplices. Hawley also agreed, using his position as a man of influence, to approach these men, to collect the money, with which he would make good all Lovell’s losses. Equipped with the new commissions, Hawley collected the money from his one-time associates but then departed with it, ensuring that none of it reached Lovell. To make matters worse for the hapless Lovell, he was left in a position from which he could make no further claims for damages in this case. Hawley, on the other hand, was in an advantageous position: he had established his innocence in that particular case. He carried on in public service. In 1430, he was appointed a commissioner to arrest more pirates, and in 1436 he was a commissioner for array in Devonshire, intended to round up men and armaments for the defence of the realm, although as he died that May, he is unlikely to have taken that up.

John Mixtow of Fowey, similarly from an old-established pirate family, appears in September 1430, in a very peculiar case involving an admiral’s deputy. John Caryewe, master of the Mary of Le Conquet, who was sailing with a couple of other Breton vessels, had safely delivered a load of salt to Penzance. Soon after he had left for home with a quantity of cloth, he was captured ‘in warlike manner’ by a swarm of pirates from Marazion and other small local ports, contrary to the truce in force between England and Brittany. At that point John Mixtow and Harry Nanskaseke of Truro appeared on the scene, and persuaded the admiral’s deputy, John Moure, to arrest the ship, invoking letters of marque which had been granted by the Duke of Brittany to Nanskaseke’s father nineteen years previously. Using that as their excuse, they took possession of both the Breton ships and the cargo of cloth. We hear of that case because John Caryewe, complaining of great inconvenience, requested the chancellor to direct the Sheriff of Cornwall to ensure safe trading conditions for the Bretons. He also demanded that the chancellor should issue a writ of subpoena to John Moure, as well as Mixtow and Nanskaseke, to be examined in respect of the letters of marque they quoted. Unfortunately, there is no record of the outcome of this case but, more importantly, it is evidence that this official was very prepared to enter into collusion with the pirates.

Mixtow was to be heard of again, slightly later. In July 1433 he was leader of a gang said to number 200, sailing in the great ship the Edward and a supporting balinger off Cape St Vincent, southern Portugal. ‘Armed and arrayed for war’, they captured a Genoese caravel (also described as a carrack), laden with woad, olive oil and lye destined for the port of Sandwich and eventually, no doubt, for London. The crew had offered no resistance.None the less, Mixtow abandoned them, destitute, on the coast of Portugal, wrongly accusing them of being ‘Saracens’. Taken back to Fowey, her cargo was divided among the captors and was then distributed around Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Mixtow refused to accept the merchants’ evidence of identification, the ‘marks, charters and cockets’ on their goods, no doubt playing for time, during which the goods could be further dispersed.

Hawley and Mixtow were the forerunners of a new class of pirates, new men, who surfaced in the records from 1430 onwards (and it is remarkable that their appearance coincided exactly with the initial downturn of events in France). These were men who had never been employed by the Crown, as Eustace and John Crabbe had been. Nor were they, with one very short-term exception, sanctioned by the Crown as privateers, like the great John Hawley. They were not even, like the Alards or, again, John Hawley, leaders in society who would have ploughed some of their profits back into their communities. In contrast, they showed little or no allegiance to their roots. They were, to put it simply, full-time professional plunderers, whose sole objective was personal profit. The majority came from Devon and Cornwall, where they were well supported by men in high positions who in their turn stood to gain from their investment in the ships and the necessary victuals. But there were also others, from further east, who were playing the same game. Overall, these men were numerous, and particularly since their cases were very complex, it is only possible here to offer an insight into what was happening through the activities of a small representative sample.

They were as mobile as any of their forerunners, appearing wherever the prizes appealed. In the years up to 1436 their principal targets were the Breton ships sailing up the southern side of the Channel to Rouen and Dieppe, bringing the basic necessities to the English occupants of Normandy, and also to the Channel Islands. These amounted principally to food and wine from La Rochelle, salt from the Bay, and linen cloth and cords from Brittany, together with some commodities which had evidently come from further south, such as iron, and resin for caulking their vessels. The individual claims for compensation for goods lost to them were noticeably small in comparison to those of the previous century, which reflected the size of the ships they were using. They were relatively small barges and balingers, which had the advantage over the great long-distance ocean-going Italian ships, in that they were able to work out from, and carry their prizes into, the smaller harbours like Penzance and Teignmouth. But at the same time they were apparently able to work long distances. They appeared in the Bay of Biscay, and they also sold their goods at places all along the coast between Cornwall and Portsmouth, including the Isle of Wight, which seems to have been an important emporium, centred on Newport.

Some details illustrate how they received back-up support, and the nature of the problems this caused. In the spring of 1432 two Breton merchants complained specifically ‘to show the chancellor how well protected the wrong-doers on the sea-coasts of Devonshire were’. They said that those captors were bribing the admiral’s deputy to empanel juries made up for the most part of their own relatives and friends, together with the victuallers and owners of the ship concerned. Those juries could be relied upon to give false verdicts, for example stating that goods which had actually been stolen from the king’s friends had belonged instead to the king’s enemies. And, in return for a bribe of half the goods, the deputy could be relied on to enrol that verdict, which rendered the king’s commission ineffective. The Bretons emphasised that as long as the deputy was in league with the pirates, he was their guarantee that matters would be settled in their favour. Importantly, a second commission dealing with the same event exposed a complaint of extortion against John Baron, a merchant of Exeter, who was one of the members of that commission. The results of an inquiry into this case, which were enrolled four years later, revealed the extent of Baron’s extortion. In this case he had helped himself to a pipe of bastard wine which belonged to the Bretons. As well as that, on the pretext of the commission, he had taken one or two packs of cloth from every man in the neighbourhood to whom he bore ill will. He had the stamp of an exceptionally disagreeable and grasping individual. The upshot was that nobody dared trade without first paying him a cut. The king thus lost his customs and many people were wronged. In addition, it has emerged from more recent research that Baron had a history of warrants out for his arrest. These included one for stealing a ship which was under safe conduct direct from a Breton harbour, possibly the St Nunne, which is described below.

William Kydd was one of this new class of pirate. He rose from documentary obscurity in 1430 and subsequently flourished, travelling far and wide without much reference to his port of origin, Exmouth, at least before 1453. In October 1430 he was master of a balinger, La Trinité of Exmouth, which he had packed with other malefactors. They seized a ship as it was nearing Guernsey from Brittany with a cargo of food. The terms of the subsequent commission to the sheriff of Devon and others make it clear that the authorities were aware that the owners and victuallers of the ship were supporting the pirates because in the last resort, their goods and chattels were to be arrested. But, unfortunately for those merchants of Guernsey and for numerous others, this was a period when innumerable commissions were issued and very few indeed were acted upon. In other words, there was already unlimited immunity for the pirates.

The following year, Kydd was among a group who, sailing with a flotilla of four barges ‘armed and arraigned in the manner of war’, captured four food ships on their way towards Rouen, took them back to Dartmouth, Fowey and Kingsbridge (on the Salcombe estuary) and sold the goods locally. Similar piracy continued intensively, and built up until, on 31 March 1436, Kydd led the large group of pirates who descended in a flotilla of eight barges and balingers on the harbour of St Paul de Lyon, south-east of Roscoff, and carried off the Saint Nunne, a ship sheltering in that harbour while waiting for a favourable wind to cross to England. They escorted that ship back to Plymouth, where she still lay in October six months later, together with goods worth 100l which included white wine of La Rochelle, two types of cloth, and 24 flychys of bacon which belonged to Thomas Horewood of Wells.

In 1435, in order to respond to the crisis which was rapidly unfolding on the opposite shore of the Channel, the government had an acute need for ships. Some men concerned must have looked back regretfully to the time of Henry V, when royal or loyal hired vessels would have been used to cruise the Channel through the long summer season for the combined purposes of guarding against French ships leaving port, protecting English commerce and, if necessary, defending the south coast of England. But that was no longer an option. Even before Henry V died, those ships had become redundant and had started to decay. Back in 1423–24, the authorities, finding they were further decayed and maintenance would have been unjustifiable, and especially since there was then no pressing need for them, had sold off the ships which remained.

Therefore, when crisis was looming in February 1436 the government took the only course open to it, and issued short-term (four-month) licences to certain individual shipowners to equip certain named ships at their own expense ‘with a master, mariners, men at arms, archers, and other hibiliments of war, and victuals, to resist the king’s enemies on the sea’. They were not to be paid, but all captured goods were to belong to the captors, except for the certain ‘share’ reserved for the admiral. Of the greatest significance, a proviso was included to exonerate those who made most of this piracy possible. It was stated that if any offence should be committed against the king’s friends, the offender alone should answer for it: no responsibility was to fall on the owner or the victualler of the ship.

These commissions were mostly issued to men of east coast ports, but included one in the south-west, Thomas Gylle of Dartmouth. He was another of those who first appears in the records after 1430, although he was notable as a shipowner and merchant of some substance. He was six times MP for the town between 1433 and 1455, and one of the collectors of customs in Exeter and Dartmouth in 1439 and in 1453. Between 1431 and 1435 he had frequently served on commissions to arrest men, ships and goods brought into West Country ports. Now, in 1436, he was licensed to equip and arm two of his ships, l’Antony and Le Katerine, both of Dartmouth, together with two supporting balingers or barges. For this short time, at least, he was a fully accredited privateer.

Gylle was heard of again in January 1440, in less dignified circumstances. His ship the Christopher of Dartmouth, 320 tons, was sailing home north to Dartmouth when, already in the lee of Start Point, she turned and, with full sail, a favourable wind and three well-harnessed men in the topcastle, rammed a much smaller ship which had been following some 3 miles behind her. She ‘sliced in two’ the George of Welles, 120 tons, and sank her. In his complaint to the chancellor, the owner, an Englishman born at Lancaster but then living in Drogheda, Ireland, prayed consideration for his great poverty, loss and delays and he took the opportunity to point out that while he was ignorant of Dartmouth, Gylle had ‘great authority and power in that district’.

Snapshots of the life of Hankyn Seelander illustrate the mobility, in more than one respect, of one of this new class of pirates. Both his address and even his name seem to have been readily adjustable. He is described variously as being of either Falmouth or Fowey, and it is also evident that he had valuable connections on the Isle of Wight.

In December 1433, as Hanquin Seland, he was accused of taking certain goods at sea from a ship of Bayonne. In 1439, a group of pirates in a balinger belonging to John Selander captured a Breton ship, the Saint Fiacre, sailing towards La Rochelle laden with goods belonging to John Loven. After Loven’s letters of safe conduct had been thrown overboard, he was robbed of both the ship and the cargo. In the early summer of 1441 one Hankyn Hood, presumably the same man, was sailing as master of the Marie with John Fresshow of Falmouth, a frequent companion, somewhere south of Brittany. In company with several other Cornish vessels they captured a ship of Vannes, southern Brittany, which they took to sell her cargo in one of the ports in the Gironde.

And so he went on, being especially active and confident in 1443–44. Around midsummer 1443 Alphonso Mendes, a merchant of Portugal, sailing in a ship of Tavira (on the south coast of Portugal) lost certain goods, principally fruit and bastard wine, to pirates who were named as John Selander and Hankyn Loo, both of Fowey. Unfortunately the location of this piracy was not disclosed, but one wonders whether these two names stood for one and the same man. That September, he had stolen wine and other merchandise from another Breton ship, of which John Rous was master.

On the Sunday before Christmas 1443, a group of pirates in a barge named Le Palmer of Fowey owned by Hankyn Selander captured another English ship, Le Mighell of Dartmouth, as she was preparing to enter Plymouth harbour at the end of her voyage from Brittany. She was carrying 21 tuns of wine and 17 pieces of linen cloth for a joint group of English merchants from the Plymouth area operating in partnership, it seems, with two named men from Le Conquet, Brittany. The pirates diverted the ship with its cargo to Newport, Isle of Wight, where they ‘did their will therof’. Although the goods may already have been sold, the commission which followed included the usual empty, unrealistic threat. He was to return the ship and the goods – or be committed to prison.

Clays Stephen of Portsmouth was another similar individual. In the autumn of 1445 he joined Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth and others who came from Kingswear, and captured a ship which had been sent by the Queen of France to bring a consignment of wine, iron and other merchandise to England. In spite of the ship having letters of safe conduct from the king and there being a truce between England and France, they brought it into Fowey. They disposed of the goods easily, and the merchants were severely beaten up and some were killed.

In about March 1448 Clays Stephen had travelled further in the opposite direction and was in the Thames estuary, where he was joined by William Kydd, who had come from even further west. They combined with others to attack a ship bringing goods for some London merchants from Arnemuiden near Middleburg in Zeeland to Queenborough near Sheerness. They took that ship first to Portsmouth and then disposed of the goods on the Isle of Wight.

That summer Clays Stephen, one of two pirates said to be staying at Sandwich, was busy in a flotilla out at sea ‘between Dover and Calais’, which encountered a small convoy on its way from La Rochelle to Sluys. He was the master of a balinger which took a similar ship, the Saint Piere de Lavyon, and relieved it of 39 tuns of wine belonging to a merchant of La Rochelle. At the same time another merchant lost 27 tuns of white wine from a second ship, the Noel de Arninton.

In the autumn of 1450 another small flotilla of English pirates captured a hulk (an old-fashioned term for a vessel which was probably a successor of the cog) named the St George of Bruges, which belonged to a group of merchants of that city and was on voyage home from Portugal. Clays Stephen was master of one of the pirate ships, Le Carvell of Portsmouth: others came from Southampton and Winchelsea.

These are just a few examples of the culture of concentrated piracy which existed in the 1430s and 1440s. Numerous men were involved, and between Portugal and the North Sea no mariner can have felt safe from them.

Patriot Naval Exploits


Engagement Between the ‘Bonhomme Richard’ and the ‘ Serapis’ off Flamborough Head Artist: Richard Willis.


The courses of the opponents up to the moment just before the first sighting, early afternoon, 23 September 1779.

The campaigns of George Rogers Clark and John Sullivan gave cause for cheer among the patriots, even though the war in the eastern theater did not seem to be getting off dead center. At the same time, the exploits of the fledgling American navy represented a source of some rejoicing. With trepidation, the Continental Congress ventured into naval affairs during the fall of 1775. John Adams was among the few enthusiasts who had grand visions for a respectable American fleet, especially in challenging British war vessels sent out to blockade the coast- line and harass commercial carriers and port towns. Other delegates, however, feared the costs associated with a massive naval building program.

On October 30, 1775, Congress partially side stepped the issue by establishing its navy committee (later called the marine committee). Within severe financial constraints, the delegates authorized the committee to find and outfit armed vessels for defending the provinces. By January 1776, Congress had pur- chased eight ships and ordered the construction of 13 new frigates. (Frigates were smaller but normally faster and more maneuverable than ships of the line. The latter could carry as many as 120 guns and crews of up to 1,000; the former rarely held more than 50 pieces of ordnance and 300 sailors.) Worried about bankrupting the rebel cause, Congress gave support to what may fairly be described as a modest naval program throughout the war.

The rapid advent of various state navies, as well as privateering vessels, also militated against the need for a sizable Continental navy. All told, combined state navies never had more than 40 craft at their disposal. By comparison, over 2,000 American privateers entered the fray before 1783. Anyone with a ship who had secured a letter of marque (a license to raid enemy craft) from one of the states or Congress could join the ranks of these privately owned vessels to prey upon enemy commerce. Any prize coming from a captured and condemned vessel would be turned over to owner, captain, and crew, according to proportions of investment and crew rank on the craft. Many privateers made fortunes for their owners during the war, as long as they were not caught or destroyed by British war vessels trying to blockade the American coastline.

Privateering was nothing more than a form of legalized piracy in time of war, and its long and well-developed tradition ably served the American cause. Estimates vary as to how many enemy vessels, quite often carrying vital supplies to the British army, were taken. One figure credits American privateers with 600 prizes, with another 200 going to the American navy. On the other hand, David Syrett, in his detailed study of British transport activities, Shipping and the American War, 1775–83, points out that overseas trading operations in 1775 involved 6,000 British vessels (including American-owned bottoms). Of these, 3,386 fell into enemy hands, with 495 being recaptured and 507 ransomed back to their original owners. Permanent seizures, which also would have involved French, Spanish, and Dutch maritime exploits, amounted to 2,384 vessels. If this number is even close to accurate, total privateering and naval operations had a far more profound impact on Britain’s long- distance supply problems than has usually been conceded, even if the British transport service held up well for most of the war.

Whatever the outer limits of vessels seized and condemned, privateering “throttled development of a navy” in Revolutionary America, as Howard H. Peckham has stated. Also inhibiting the process were the many mariners who preferred privateering duty. One key reason was that all the prize money went to owners and crew, whereas Continental naval vessels had to turn over at least half of all proceeds from condemned vessels to Congress. Another was that discipline was often less rigorous on privateering ships, even though American naval regulations (like the army’s Articles of War) were not as harsh as those of European navies, befitting a virtuous citizenry-in-arms. Floggings, the standard form of discipline, could include as many as 1,000 lashes for British mariners; the American code permitted a maximum of 12 stripes, unless the crime was so severe that formal court-martial proceedings exacted a higher penalty—and then only with the approval of the naval commander in chief.

The gentlemen-sailors who commanded the American navy, beginning with phlegmatic Commodore Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island, did little to distinguish themselves or the cause of muscular naval forces, relative to more aggressive privateers. What claim to dash and élan the Continental navy earned has focused on boisterous, free-wheeling John Paul Jones, a man whom sailors considered a rigid disciplinarian but extraordinary seaman. Born John Paul in Scotland, the future “father of the American navy” went to sea at an early age and eventually took the surname Jones to cover his identity after killing a mutinous sailor. He soon joined the Continental navy and, early in the war, took many cargo prizes along the Canadian coastline. Then, at the beginning of 1778, Jones appeared in France with the 18-gun sloop of war Ranger. His timing was excellent. The completion of the Franco-American alliance guaranteed patriot naval and privateering captains outfitting privileges in French ports. Even before then, the American commissioners had urged Congress to send patriot war vessels across the Atlantic to harass British commercial carriers in the North Sea and Baltic areas—and even to raid enemy ports. Now guaranteed refitting privileges, Jones was about to gain infamy for his seagoing ventures around Britain.

In April 1778, Jones sailed north into the Irish Sea toward Scotland and raided the English port town of Whitehaven, while attacking British merchant vessels along the way. In the immediate shadow of the French alliance, an intrepid patriot-mariner had carried the war into the vitals of the parent nation. “For the first time in more than one hundred years,” as historian William M. Fowler, Jr., has remarked (Rebels under Sail), “a British port had actually come under close attack by an enemy.” Jones’s raiding expedition helped unnerve a civilian population heretofore isolated from the war and spurred a wave of antiwar protest in Britain. It also underscored the important harassing role that the American navy, however limited in strength, could play. With the French alliance, the allies could strike the extended British empire at almost any point, inflicting nasty wounds from the Caribbean islands to India. After 1778, the global maneuver- ability of allied naval and privateering fleets made the newly defined British military task of protecting the vitals of a far-flung empire that much more of a perplexing challenge.

Jones’s raid was a symbolic warning of the plight facing the British war machine. In 1779, the commander boldly issued a second manifesto. After his Irish Sea activities, Jones returned to France, dallied with a number of French women, and sought a better vessel with which to carry on further seafaring ventures. The French government finally offered him an old merchant hulk. Jones transformed this craft into a 40-gun warship, calling it the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac character “Poor Richard.” On September 23, 1779, while sailing in the North Sea, the American commander engaged the Royal navy’s better-armed (50 guns) frigate Serapis off Flamborough Head. What followed was one of the most memorable naval confrontations of the war. The outgunned Richard nearly sank under withering fire but somehow stayed afloat as Jones and his mariners finally forced the Serapis to capitulate (the Richard sank two days later). The Serapis had been taken within sight of England, some 3,000 miles from North America, which certainly fed fears among English subjects, especially in light of the rumored French invasion, that the war could easily spill over into their homeland.

The Bonhomme Richard against the Serapis was a major capstone to American naval action during the Revolution and represented, as historian James C. Bradford has written, “one of the few glimmers of hope” for the patriot cause “in an otherwise dark year for the young United States.” Certainly, too, isolated, small-scale ship battles on the high seas, especially after the French alliance, exacerbated the problems faced by Great Britain in its attempt to supply its armies and reconquer the North American continent. The unremitting harassment provided by Continental, state, and especially privateering vessels made the Royal navy’s blockade of the American coastline even more paper thin. The Continental fleet was never strong enough to become a truly menacing force, since Congress lacked the resources to underwrite a comprehensive naval program. That is just one more reason why the French alliance was so important in buttressing the rebel cause. Along with critical troop reinforcements on land, the French provided significantly expanded naval capacity, both of which played an indispensable part in bringing the war to a successful conclusion for the American patriots.