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.

Pirates Attack A Mughal Convoy 1695

averyHenry Every


Every Chasing the Great Mughal Ship – The Sea (1887)

Seeing great potential in the Indian fleet, Henry Every and five other pirate captains conspire to attack the convoy heading to Mocha and loot the treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawai. One by one, they pick off parts of the Indian fleet with ease until they reach the Ganj-i-Sawai and its escort, defeating and taking up to £600,000 in gold and silver – the biggest haul ever seized by pirates. Naturally, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb is not happy. He blames the British for their countrymen’s actions and holds the EIC personally responsible. Four of the company’s factories are attacked and taken by the emperor. So, to mollify the ruler, a £1,000 bounty is placed on Every’s head and he is made exempt from any possible royal pardon or amnesty.

English mutineer and pirate, last seen at New Providence in the Bahamas. Every—whose name has sometimes been erroneously rendered as ‘‘John Avery,’’ or even ‘‘Long Ben’’—was apparently born to John and Anne ‘‘Evarie’’ in the village of Newton Ferrers, a few miles southeast of Plymouth, England, in August 1659.

The details of his early career are unknown, until he enters the books of the 64-gun HMS Rupert as an experienced mid- shipman under Captain Francis Wheeler in March 1689. In all likelihood, Every must have taken part in the capture of a large French convoy off Brest that summer, the first year of the War of the League of Augsburg or King William’s War, and at the end of July was promoted as chief mate to Rupert’s sailing master. In June 1690, Every transferred to HMS Albemarle of 90 guns when Wheeler became its commander, doubtless seeing action in the disastrous Battle of Beachy Head two weeks later. In August of that same year, Every was discharged from the Royal Navy.

He next appears in 1693, as the mate aboard the heavily-armed private frigate Charles II, which was lying at Grave- send in anticipation of making a salving expedition to the West Indies. An Irish officer named Arthur O’Byrne, after long service in the Royal Spanish Navy, had secured permission from King Charles II of Spain to work wrecks in the Americas. O’Byrne then sought financial and technical support in Lon- don, as England and Spain were temporarily allied against France. The command of this flagship, named in honor of the Spanish monarch and flying his colors, was held by John Strong, who had served with Sir William Phips in a highly lucrative operation on the treasure-ship Concepcion on six years previously.

This latest expedition was also intended to attack French possessions and trade with Spanish-American ports, so was to sail well-armed. In addition to the flagship, there were the frigates James and Dove, as well as the pink Seventh Son. After lengthy delays, this flotilla put into the Spanish port of La Coruna early in 1694, only to remain at anchor for another three months. Strong died, and was succeeded as Flag-Captain by Charles Gibson, with Every as first mate. The English crews grew restless at being thus long unpaid, so that at nine o’clock on a Monday night, May 7, 1694, with Every acting as ringleader, they rose with their flag- ship and slipped past the harbor batteries. Next morning, he set Captain Gibson and some 16 loyal hands adrift in a boat, saying: ‘‘I am a man of fortune, and must seek my fortune.’’ Every then convened a meeting of the 85 mutineers left aboard Charles II, whom he persuaded to embark on a piratical cruise into the Indian Ocean (perhaps in emulation of the well-known exploit of the Rhode Island freebooter Thomas Tew, of that same year). The ship was renamed Fancy, and fell down the West African coast to round the Cape of Good Hope. After a year-and-a-half of adventures in the Far East, Every succeeded in boarding the enormous Mogul trader Ganj-i-sawai off Bombay on September 8, 1695, pillaging it of the immense sum of £200,000.

He and his men then sought a means of escaping with their ill-gotten booty, by returning into the Atlantic, and making for the West Indies. In late April 1696, the weather-beaten Fancy dropped anchor at Royal Island off Eleuthera, some 50 miles from New Providence (modern Nassau) in the Bahamas. Every sent a boat with four men to call on the corrupt local Governor, Nicholas Trott, ostensibly giving his name as ‘‘Henry Bridgeman’’ and alleging that his ship was an ‘‘interloper’’ or unlicensed slaver come from the Guinea Coast with ivory and slaves. Privately, this official was offered a bribe of £1,000 to allow the vessel into port and the pirates to disperse. He signaled his acceptance and Every quickly sailed Fancy into harbor, where he and the Governor furthermore struck a deal as to the disposal of the craft itself. Still maintaining the fiction that this was a legal transaction, Every made the ship over into the Governor’s safe-keeping, ‘‘to take care of her for use of the owners.’’ Once this deal was struck, Fancy was stripped of everything of value—46 guns, 100 barrels of powder, many small arms, 50 tons of ivory, sails, blocks, etc.—and allowed to drift ashore two days later, to be destroyed by the surf.

With this tell-tale piece of evidence obliterated, Every and the majority of his followers disappeared from the Bahamas aboard different passing ships, hoping to blend back into civilian life. He was one of the few rovers who ever fully succeeded in eluding justice, which may be why so many myths have attached themselves to his name, both during his lifetime and since. More typical, perhaps, was his crewman Joseph Morris, left behind on the Bahamas when he went mad after ‘‘losing all his jewels upon a wager.’’


Baer, Joel H., ‘‘‘Captain John Avery’ and the Anatomy of a Mutiny,’’ Eighteenth-Century Life 18 (February 1994), pp. 1#23.

Eustace the Monk


From Sorcerer to Clergyman to Pirate to Admiral, the Remarkable Life of Eustace The Monk.

The loss of Normandy, which made the Channel into a new political frontier, combined with general political instability and uncertainty to produce just the conditions which favoured adventurous, entrepreneurial sailors in their enterprising activities. These men were useful to the various authorities because they were able to react spontaneously and exploit political situations immediately, as they unfolded. The other side of the coin was that they lost no opportunities to make profits on their own behalf. The earliest of these to be recorded was Eustace the Monk, a nobleman from Boulogne, who first appears in 1205. He is a somewhat legendary figure who filled the roles of both pirate and mercenary. His story is derived from a combination of some ten of the medieval chronicles, which included a ‘romance’, or biography, which was written in the Picardy dialect, but even that not until 1284, some seventy years after his death. The chronicles are notorious for dramatisation and exaggeration, and no doubt the stories became embellished in the telling as they were handed down from one generation to another. They contain many contradictions. As with other colourful, larger-than-life historical characters, including the medieval outlaw Robin Hood, in the story of Eustace fiction became well embedded in fact. The following account, based on three secondary sources which were themselves based on the chronicles, is what seems most plausible.

Eustace was born into a noble family near Boulogne, probably around 1170. It is said by the Romance (and only, it seems, by that one source) that in his youth he visited Toledo in central Spain, which had been under Moorish domination for some three centuries until 1085. There, he studied the Black Art so successfully that he was without equal in the whole of France. Be that as it may, he is said to have appeared in a variety of disguises and terrified his opponents who knew of his reputation for his ‘power to become invisible’ as well as for his violence. Early in his life he also spent some time as a monk in the abbey of Samer, near Boulogne, in spite of the fact that one record describes him as ‘demoniac’. But, however unsuited to that occupation he may have been, it must have been that which was used later on by chroniclers as a title by which to identify him. He escaped from that life, apparently leaving in 1190 when he heard that his father had been murdered, in order to pursue the murderer.

He is next heard of in the employment of the Count of Boulogne but he fell out with him and left, swearing vengeance. Outlawed from there, in 1205 he crossed the Channel to England and offered his services to King John. The king is said to have equipped Eustace with a number of galleys, who then established himself on the island of Sark, from where he could raid the coast of Normandy, encouraged by John, who was hoping for retribution, having so recently lost that duchy. During that time Eustace carried out at least one major and daring raid, in which he penetrated some distance inland up the Seine, and then escaped from his pursuers by retreating west to Barfleur. One account says that as a reward for that raid he was given a rich ‘palais’ in London, although another suggests that this ‘palais’ may in fact have been in Winchelsea, since that was his home port when in England. He was evidently receiving royal favours, and it seems that, one way or another, Eustace had also amassed a personal fortune, presumably on the proceeds of piracy.

Then, sometime between May 1212 and November 1214, he changed his allegiance for the second time. He crossed the Channel again, in order to support France. The reasons given for that move are contradictory. One source suggests that by 1212, having apparently overstepped the mark, he was expelled from the Channel Islands by the English keeper, Philip d’Aubigny, and escaped in disguise to France, taking five galleys with him. An alternative account of his defection says he went voluntarily. This seems not unlikely, as he would have been disenchanted with John’s vacillation and weakness as a leader, and simultaneously attracted by the more positive approach of Philip Augustus.

From 1211 onwards both kings were jockeying for positions in Flanders. John still hoped to reconquer Normandy, while Philip Augustus had designs on England. Both of them needed a stepping-off base in Flanders, especially access to the harbour of the Zwin, and to Flemish mercenaries. Early in 1213 the Pope, after a long altercation with John, excused his English subjects from their allegiance to him and strongly encouraged all Christian leaders to unite in efforts to depose him. This, as described by the chroniclers, gave Philip Augustus the justification he was seeking for planning an invasion of England.

Events then led up to the episode known as the Battle of Damme, perhaps better described as an important raid. In the spring of 1213, Philip Augustus moved his land forces north and invaded Flanders. He devastated Bruges and attacked Ghent, at the same time ordering a ‘large’ fleet to move north up the coast. How large this force really was is not known, but it probably consisted mainly of sailors from Poitou, who were far from home and by no means entirely dependable.

John, having decided the best form of defence was attack, sent his half-brother William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, over at the head of a considerably smaller fleet to reconnoitre and, if possible, to intercept the French. They probably sailed in mid-April, and would have reached the mouth of the Meuse (the Zwin) in a couple of days, where Longsword was surprised to find the port full of vessels. Having established that the ships were indeed French, he took the opportunity to capture or burn the larger ones anchored out in the middle of the channel leading up to Damme while the sailors had apparently gone ashore to plunder what remained of the wealth of Bruges.

Hearing the news of this disaster and concerned particularly about the fate of his pay-chests which were on board one of the ships, Philip Augustus broke his siege of Ghent and hurried to Damme, where he found the remainder of his fleet, the smaller ships, still pulled up on the mud. However, confronted with the difficulty of getting those ships away from Damme in the face of the English fleet lying in wait outside, and mistrusting the mercenaries from Poitou, who might turn traitor and change sides at any moment, he burnt the rest of his own boats rather than let them fall into English hands. As a result, he was without a fleet and had to abandon any thoughts he may have had of invading England that year.

Although Philip Augustus could not prevent John landing in Flanders the following year, he defeated him and the armies of his allies, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne, in a decisive battle (on land) at Bouvines, between Lille and Tournai. This was the first great encounter between alliances of medieval European powers, and has been described as one of the most important in the history of medieval Europe. From the point of view of operations in the Channel, not only was John repulsed and thrown back on the defensive, but the way was laid open for the French (who were now led, for diplomatic reasons to satisfy the Pope, not by Philip Augustus, but by Louis, his son) to pursue their plans to invade England. They were further encouraged by the political situation in England, where John’s tyranny was so intensely unpopular that a large faction of the English barons invited Louis to cross the Channel and claim the crown of England.

This was where Eustace, whose experience of dealing with ships and shipping, tides and currents in the Channel was evidently second to none, was indispensable. He was employed by Louis to assemble another substantial fleet, suitable for carrying a large force over to England. That was the official side of his activities. On the other side of the coin he played on his well-known personal reputation for inspiring uncontrolled terror, which was well illustrated by the caveat Philip Augustus gave to the papal legate, as reported by Matthew Paris, one of the more reliable of chroniclers: ‘Through our land I will willingly furnish you with a safe conduct, but if by chance you should fall into the hands of Eustace the Monk or of the other men of Louis who guard the sea-routes, do not impute it to me if any harm comes to you.’

In 1215, the year better known for the signing of Magna Carta, the international balance of power in the Channel was becoming critical and Eustace had begun preparations for their campaign. He took certain ‘machines of war’, possibly trébuchets, counter-weighted catapults to be mounted either on land or on the ships for throwing heavy stones at castles or onto the decks of enemy vessels, over to Folkestone to support the English barons. His fleet was then used to ferry Louis and his army over to Sandwich, of which they secured control in the summer of 1216. On 10 July Louis began to lay siege to Dover Castle but as that was skilfully defended by Hubert de Burgh, he failed to take it, and had to concede a truce on 14 October. Meanwhile, his forces went on to join up with the rebellious barons and together they gained control of a large area of north-east England.

At the same time, John’s fleet of galleys (incidentally one of the largest maintained by any of the medieval English kings) was feinting in the Channel with the French fleet. Considerable raiding and counter-raiding took place, but neither side seized an opportunity to confront the opposing fleet when they saw it emerging from port. It was easier to inflict damage on enemy shipping by raiding them while in port, with less likelihood of damage being sustained by the attacker.

In January 1217, in response to the critical situation, Philip d’Aubigny, described by then as a veteran seaman, was appointed to defend the coast of south-east England. According to one account, it seems that with the help of an irregular band commanded by one Willikin of the Weald, some of the Cinque Ports men managed to shut Louis up in Winchelsea. But at the end of February Eustace and the French broke out through that blockade. The town was apparently burnt, and one chronicler describes a dramatic rescue of Louis by Eustace.

Whatever the truth of those stories, Louis then spent some two months in France, during which time he lost some support in England. He returned to Sandwich at the end of April, and by 12 May he was besieging Dover once more, control of which was highly important to him. But while there, on 25 May, news came through that his land forces had been disastrously defeated in a battle at Lincoln. To compound his difficulties, most of his ships were driven back to Calais by a storm. Louis could do little without reinforcements. He proceeded to London while Eustace retired to Calais and gathered together a new fleet which had been rapidly reinforced with more ships by the energetic wife of Louis, Blanche of Castile. On 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day, 1217, Eustace was sailing north up the coast of Kent at the head of this fleet, apparently bound for London in order to join up with Louis and the remaining land forces.

Having realised the very serious implications if the French reinforcements were to reach London, once the French had passed, Hubert de Burgh put to sea from Dover with a small fleet consisting mainly of royal galleys, reinforced by ships of the Cinque Ports. They started out on an eastern course, which gave the impression that they were making for Calais. But Hubert had a different object in mind. He made sure he had given himself the critical tactical advantage of having the wind and the sun behind him, and then turned north. The story goes that Eustace’s ship was the largest and was weighed down by a trébuchet, with the result that it was lagging behind the rest of the French fleet. Be that as it may, somewhere in the narrow space between Sandwich and the Goodwin Sands the English caught up with the French fleet and English crossbowmen began the action. They followed this by hurling pots of finely pulverised lime which blinded and paralysed the French, enabling the English sailors to board the French ships and slash down their rigging. As described by one of the chroniclers, this trapped everyone on deck ‘like a net [falling] upon ensnared small birds’. Eustace was found hiding in the ship’s bilges. Described by Mathew Paris as a ‘master-pirate’, he was a confidence trickster who in changing sides had inevitably made many enemies. He could expect no reasoned justice. He was brought out and summarily beheaded on his own ship, possibly by Richard, a bastard son of King John, possibly by Stephen Crabbe, a one-time friend whom Eustace himself had trained, who was now a rival pirate based at Sandwich To sum up, Eustace made the most of the opportunities offered by rapidly changing political circumstances. Very little is known of his life before 1204 but, in the light of what followed, he must have made very good use of that early period, becoming exceptionally proficient in everything concerned with sailing ships and with navigation in the eastern half of the Channel. This can only have been the result of extensive experience at sea. Courageous and fearless, he established a fearsome reputation among other mariners and also, it seems, respect among the national leaders. He was flexible and adaptable and, unhampered by any sense of long-term allegiance, he offered his services wherever and whenever adventure and commercial opportunity arose.

Was it a coincidence that he appeared in England almost as soon as John had lost Normandy? Probably not. He lacked one thing, and that was ships of his own. It is probable that he saw England as a good source of ships with which to follow his piratical inclinations. Then, when Philip Augustus began to plan to invade first Flanders and then England, and John was on the defensive, Eustace went over to the French side in search of an alternative source of ships, more profitable adventure, and probably greater rewards. In both instances his maritime experience proved indispensable, so much so that he seems to have had a hand in planning, and certainly in executing, the French invasion plans.

It was perhaps unfortunate for Eustace that he was eventually defeated by a chance combination of circumstances, by the determination and the political and strategic acumen of Hubert de Burgh, and by a direction of wind which, although it favoured his final voyage, also proved conclusively helpful to Hubert. If the French plan had succeeded, and had Eustace arrived in London to be greeted by rebellious English barons as well as Louis with the remnants of the French troops who had survived the Battle of Lincoln, France would have had a strong foothold in the contemporary turmoil of English politics, and the succession to the English throne might well have been different. As it was, John died in 1216, and his 9-year-old son, Henry III, succeeded to a throne which was independent of France, with William the Marshall as his first regent. After this period of acute uncertainty, the Channel was firmly established as a political frontier – and a good hunting ground for pirates.

Portrait of a Pirate: John Crabbe (c. 1290–1352)


Battle of Sluys, at which John Crabbe fought, from Froissart’s Chronicles


The world of John Crabbe, 1310–40.

John Crabbe was one of a very few medieval pirates who stood out as extraordinary, independent opportunists. Unlike the majority of these men, he operated without a lifelong base. On the contrary, he sought adventure by serving several different leaders, one after another. To each of them in turn, he could be relied on for very efficient and effective service, while it lasted, but not for consistent allegiance. There was nothing which tied him down.

During the period of thirty-five years when he was active at sea, he served the heads of three states, Flanders, Scotland and England, changing sides twice, as well as living through a period when he fluctuated between Flanders and Scotland. As a result he became one of the most celebrated, the most feared and, in several quarters, one of the most hated seamen of his day. However, in contrast to Eustace the Monk, a similarly independent character, Crabbe managed to live to an advanced age and die of natural causes.

Crabbe was probably born around 1290. His family circumstances went unrecorded, but he came from Muiden (alternatively known as Mude, now Sint Anna ter Muiden), near the mouth of the Zwin, on the left bank of the channel leading from the North Sea towards Damme and Bruges. He therefore grew up surrounded by the busy commercial life of the sea. As a small boy he is most likely to have witnessed with excitement the chaos which attended the arrival of Edward I’s fleet in 1297: if not actually present, he would have heard about that soon enough.

His name first appears in 1305 or ’06 in connection with the violent seizure off La Rochelle of the Waardebourc, a ship belonging to John de le Waarde, a merchant of Dordrecht. This was just one event which reflected a long-running dispute between the counts of Holland and Zeeland on the one hand and the counts of Flanders on the other. The bone of contention was ownership of Walcheren, Noord Beveland and Zuid Beveland, then three separate islands (now united as one) lying between the two mouths of the Scheldt. On this occasion Crabbe and his companions seized 160 tuns of wine and all the other goods on board with a total value of 2,000lt, and kidnapped the crew. Despite determined requests for justice and compensation, de le Waarde received no satisfaction until seven years later, when a treaty was signed between the two opposing sides.

Shortly before 28 May 1310 Crabbe struck again, this time far up the Channel, much nearer his home base. By then he was master of the ship de la Mue (Muiden) and accompanied by a second Flemish ship, he seized a vessel carrying the possessions of Alice, Countess Marshall, the widow of Roger Bigod, hereditary Earl of Norfolk. She was planning to leave London shortly to go ‘overseas’ – which may have meant she was going to Hainault to her father, John de Avennes, one-time count of that province. She had sent her clothes, jewels, gold and silver valued at 2,000l on ahead (into a pirate-infested sea!), only to lose them to Crabbe as her ship approached Wissant. Repeated calls to Robert, Count of Flanders, for return of the goods met with no response for five years, that was until 1315, when the count replied that a number of culprits had been punished. Whether that was true or not, Crabbe himself had evidently escaped some time previously, for by then he was living in a Flemish colony in Aberdeen.

Crabbe’s first phase of living at least part-time in Scotland had begun around 1311, when the Flemings were uniting with the Scots to exploit the continuing enmity between England and Scotland. On 3 September 1311 Crabbe and a collection of men from both Aberdeen and Flanders stole eighty-nine sacks of English wool from two ships sailing together from Newcastle to Flanders. Crabbe then sent the Scots on to sell the wool in Flanders, which may imply that he himself was already outlawed from Flanders. Then, in May 1313, Edward II asked Robert, Count of Flanders, to do justice to English merchants for the robberies committed by John Crabbe and other Flemings, on the understanding that the king would reciprocate by compensating Flemings who had suffered at the hands of English pirates at Crasden and elsewhere since the time of the king’s accession.

The Great Famine of 1315–17 hit all the northern countries, but Flanders probably suffered especially badly on account of its large, concentrated, urban population. The count reacted to the situation by assembling a fleet to send to sea at public expense ‘to acquire victuals for the sustenance of the men … where there is great need and famine’. In other words, this was state-sponsored piracy, and such was Crabbe’s reputation as a fearless and successful pirate that in this state of emergency he was recalled and, having been swiftly pardoned of all his previous wrongdoings, he was made leader of this Flemish fleet. He set sail on Ash Wednesday, 24 February 1316. Five days later they captured two Yarmouth ships on their way home from Rouen laden with provisions. It seems highly probable that other victims followed.

Crabbe was still in the southern area just before Christmas 1316, because then he captured a wine ship in the Downs off Sandwich. The Bona Navis de la Strode (Strood, on the Medway in Kent), with John Springer as master, had probably reached the end of her voyage when Crabbe and his associates attacked and made off with both the ship and the cargo – 86 tuns, 25 pipes of wine belonging equally to two merchants, Aymer de Insula, a merchant of Bordeaux and Arnold Dosyngham, described as a citizen of Bazas, 50km south-east of Bordeaux. The value of the wine was quickly established by the Sheriff of Kent at 788l sterling. Other goods and merchandise belonging to various merchants together with the ship’s tackle and beds and chests and other small belongings of the master were valued at 210 marks. The king immediately ordered the sheriffs of London, Lincoln, Norfolk and Suffolk to arrest various proportions of goods belonging to the Flemings up to this value, allowing 8l per tun and 4l per pipe of wine, and to keep them safely. Three demands met with no response from Robert, Count of Flanders before he eventually replied in April 1318. He was, he said, ignorant of the whole affair. This was greeted with astonishment in England, since it was well known that at that time Crabbe stayed in Flanders whenever he chose, that the count had appropriated the wine for his own use and had already passed the ship on to someone else. It was not until July 1332, sixteen years after the seizure of the ship, that Edward III finally instructed the sheriffs of Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk to produce the sums from Flemish cargoes which they had impounded, so that he could indemnify the merchants and owner in full.

Soon after his capture of the Bona Navis, and apparently banished from Flanders for murder, Crabbe began his second Scottish phase. Ever since the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, bitter fighting had been taking place on the Border, and on 1 April 1318 Berwick-upon-Tweed was captured from the English and became a vital Scottish outpost. Crabbe was certainly living there by August 1319 when the English tried to recapture it. His help in strengthening the town fortifications was invaluable, and he carried on serving the Scots, harrying the English on land and at sea.

A change in his fortunes, however, happened in 1332, coinciding interestingly enough, with the effective beginning of the reign of Edward III. The English destroyed all the ten Flemish ships Crabbe had taken north to the Firth of Tay in response to a request for support by the Scots, and later that autumn he himself fell into their hands during a skirmish near Kelso. Being extremely unpopular with the English, his life was in jeopardy. The parliament which was convened at York in January 1333 was in angry mood, demanding recompense and retribution from this man who had robbed their merchants and hanged their seamen from their own masts for many years past. They demanded that he pay the full penalty, and meanwhile he was to be kept in chains. It was an ignominious beginning to the final, English, phase of his life.

The English were then besieging Berwick, and Crabbe played the only card available to him. Against strong odds, he persuaded Edward III that his knowledge of the defences of that town would be useful. In the event, his inside knowledge and practical help proved so valuable that the king saw fit to pardon him of ‘all homicides, felonies and other offences of which he might possibly be accused, whether on land or sea’. He was also created constable, for life, of Somerton Castle, Lincolnshire. Seen in retrospect, his survival and recovery was remarkable. But his former friends, the Scots in Berwick, were furious at his treachery and apparently vented their wrath by killing his son.

Crabbe continued to provide advice and materials for the English war against Scotland. In March 1335 he assembled a fleet of ten ships, complete with 1,000 mariners and archers, to go to sea to try to prevent French support reaching the Scots. In December 1337 he was to be paid 100s for his expenses incurred while staying in Berwick, and all the engines there were to be repaired according to his specification.

In February 1339 he was to be paid a further 24l for surveying the construction of certain engines and ‘hurdis’, which were either siege towers or wooden galleries to attach to the castle, at Dunbar. This payment seems to have been for clearing up matters prior to his departure, since he was about to set out on the king’s service overseas. That June he was paid for going north with another hundred archers ‘for the defence of the realm’ and, described as the king’s yeoman, he was also allowed 100l to repair his houses at Somerton.

In the meantime, in 1337 war with France had begun. As Edward III was hoping to use the Low Countries as a base for invading France, it was highly important to keep the sea lanes in the North Sea open and free of French marauders. To that intent Crabbe, the former pirate who probably understood more than anybody else about the geography of the Zwin and about navigation in the North Sea, was brought south in the summer of 1339 to work with Robert Morley, a Norfolk knight who had recently been recruited as admiral of the fleet north of the Thames and was to become one of the most able and energetic of naval commanders. It was this somewhat improbable combination of two men who, that year, took a convoy of ships carrying supplies of money, wool and military reinforcements over to Sluys. There they did raid an enemy merchant convoy and took numerous prizes, but they also attacked without discrimination neutral Flemish and Spanish escort vessels which they had been expressly told not to tamper with. To make matters worse, when they returned to the Orwell, they quarrelled over the division of the spoils of their plunder, and the fleet which had only been assembled with difficulty scattered and some of the vessels sailed off, beyond recall.

Edward III was still hoping to take an army across from the Orwell to Flanders, but he suffered repeated frustrations when his hoped-for force of men, supplies and ships failed to materialise. While he was delayed, Philip VI of France was also frustrated, because the Genoese who had added their important support to the French for nearly two years had mutinied and taken their ships back to the Mediterranean. Thus weakened, Philip fell back on the only policy open to him – using those ships which remained at his disposal to block the mouths of the Scheldt. At least the English would not be able to enter and anchor there.

Edward too had only a limited force, and in view of the great risks to the king himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened and strongly advised him to be cautious about going. The king turned to Morley and Crabbe looking for more encouraging support, but he found that their advice confirmed that of the archbishop. In spite of this unanimous advice to the contrary, Edward pressed ahead and on 22 June 1340 sailed out of the Orwell estuary accompanied eventually, but possibly still reluctantly, by Morley and Crabbe. On the afternoon of the next day he reached the coast of Flanders, off Blankenberg. They were within 10 miles of the Zwin, probably within sight of the French galleys, which had been chained together across that estuary.

The most experienced of the French seamen, Barbavera, had pointed out the dangers of a large fleet being shut inside that inlet without room to manoeuvre, but this was a piece of good advice which the French admirals Quiéret and Béhuchet chose to ignore. Having held back until conditions were right, on the afternoon of 24 June, Edward seized the combined advantages of having wind, tide and sun all strategically behind him and went into the attack. The French were indeed trapped inside the estuary, unable to manoeuvre, and by nightfall they had been nearly annihilated by the hail of arrows from English longbows. Both French admirals lost their lives and 190 of the 213 French vessels were captured. Towards the end of the engagement, Crabbe was given forty ships with which to chase a few French ships which had escaped led by a notorious pirate called Spoudevisch.

This victory, which came to be named after the port of Sluys, seems to have marked the end of Crabbe’s maritime career, although subsequently he continued to work on land for the king. He collected taxes, a highly important duty since the Crown was once again bankrupt, and he took into custody at Somerton Castle one of the many important Scottish prisoners taken at the Battle of Neville’s Cross near Durham. His last years seem to have been spent peacefully at his castle, and he died in 1352.

Crabbe was a remarkably gifted man, who combined a high level of skill in seamanship and navigation with equal qualifications as a military engineer. In other words, he was particularly unusual and useful, being an expert in warfare both at sea and on land. He was also an adventurous, independent spirit and a political strategist. In him we see an excellent example of a symbiotic relationship, in which a medieval pirate was able to exploit various rulers to achieve his own ends, while simultaneously those same rulers were using his expertise to further their own objectives.

Piracy, Galleys, and Sailing Ships


GALIOT (GALLIOT) Mediterranean
In the 16th century, a galiot was a type of ship with oars, also known as a half-galley. The Galiot was long, and sleek with a flush deck. Then, from the 17th century forward, a ship with sails and oars. As used by the Barbary pirates against the Republic of Venice, a galiot had two masts and about 16 ranks of oars. Warships of the type typically carried between two and ten cannons of small caliber, and between 50 and 150 men. She was used by the Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean.


The greatest threat to Italy was piracy. Mediterranean pirates and privateers were both Christian and Muslim, and there was little difference between them in violence and cruelty; but Italians generally considered the Muslim pirates their major enemy. Barbarian regencies of Tripoli—in Libya—Tunis, and Algiers in North Africa were centers of piracy. In theory, they were dependencies of the Ottoman Empire, but the Sultan’s authority was weak and Istanbul far away. The Uscocks, Croatian pirates, preyed upon Adriatic shipping, as their ports lay on the Dalmatian coast under Habsburg protection. Venetian and Turkish vessels were their primary targets.

There was a difference between pirates and privateers. Privateers were formally permitted by a sovereign to fight against that sovereign’s enemies. They could only attack vessels under an enemy flag. Pirates attacked everything, independently of flag. When captured, privateers were considered as prisoners of war; pirates could be killed or hanged. Death, however, was not enough to stop them. Northern African regencies needed piracy because it was their primary source of revenue. Their domestic economy was largely agricultural and few goods produced were exported.

In fact, pillaging a vessel or a coastal town gave them money and goods to be sold for money, and, above all, slaves. Before steam power, the easiest and cheapest available manpower was the slave. Captured seamen and passengers, or peasants, fishermen, and citizens were carried to northern African and Ottoman ports to be sold. Wealthier captives were often ransomed. Many of the strongest slaves were not sold but used on galleys as oarsmen. Slavery substantially disappeared in Italy in the Middle Ages, but Muslim prisoners were used largely as oarsmen, or galley slaves. As the need for oarsmen became greater, Italian coastal states condemned their criminals to serve on the galleys as oarsmen, hence the word “galley” became synonymous with “prison” as well the term “bath”—the place where the slaves normally stayed—for “penal bath.”

Pirates had vessels set for their tasks. Their targets had to be taken by surprise. A coastal town had to be reached in spite of low waters, and the vessel had to be able to move as quickly as possible to escape as well as to reach an enemy. This meant small and light ships were generally employed for purposes of raiding. Moreover, light ships could move by oars no matter the weather, and the Mediterranean had less wind than the Atlantic. Sometimes the ships had an opposite wind or no wind at all. That’s why the ancient galleys, for two thousand years, were propelled by sails and oars. A galley could be as fast as a sailing ship—as the Venetians tested—and it moved also without wind. Of course, it needed a lot of men—slaves, voluntary oarsmen, seamen, marine infantrymen, gunners—and this meant a high consumption of food and water, so that the ship had only a four-to-seven-day sea range. The Mediterranean, however, is relatively compact; its shores can be quickly reached to find water and fresh foods, thus galleys were the best choice. And galleys were integral parts of Italian navies until the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. They disappeared only after 1814, when the Royal Sardinian Navy abandoned them. As piracy was a persistent menace and the galley the only good weapon to fight it, all the Italian navies were primarily composed of galleys. Of course, many possessed sailing ships, too, but they were not as relevant as galleys in quantity and importance. Naval officers serving on galleys held a higher rank than those serving on vessels.

Since the seventeenth century, Italian fleets were divided into Squadra delle Galere—literally being the Italian the word squadrone used only for cavalry, the “squad of galleys”—and the Squadra dei Vascelli—the “squad of vessels”—or, as the Venetians referred to them: the Light Squadron and the Heavy, or the Big, Squadron, also called “the Big Army,” and the “the Light Army.” The Heavy Squadron included all the square-sailed vessels; the Light one included rowing ships—galleys, galleasses, half galleys, and galliots—as well as the lateen-sailed vessels like schooners, tartans, and ketches. In all the Italian states, except Venice, the Light Squadron comprised the entire fleet and usually had no more than six galleys.

If we consider Italy’s long coasts, it was impossible to patrol blue waters to protect merchant traffic and the coast with so few ships. The Adriatic was generally safe. The Republic of Venice protected the northern Adriatic, her fleet was strong and, moreover, the Most Serene Republic had an agreement with Istanbul: No man-of-war under sultan’s formal authority—which included Barbary pirates—was allowed to sail in the Adriatic. This agreement remained in effect until the fall of the republic in 1797. Venice maintained permanent naval squadrons protecting her commercial routes. The “Guardia in Candia,” based in the capital of Crete, controlled eastern Mediterranean waters. The “Guardia in Golfo”—guard in the Gulf—at Corfù, protected the entrance to the Adriatic Sea, at that time proudly called “the Gulf of Venice.”

Beyond the protection of Venice, the southern—Ionian and western Tyrrhenian—seas were open to piracy. Maltese, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Sardinian, Tuscan, Genoese, and papal fleets hardly totaled more than forty-five galleys. They had no centralized command, no coordination, and they had to protect 2,600 miles of coastline. This meant that in the best possible situation, using all the galleys at the same time, there could be no more than one galley every fifty-seven miles. In fact, when considering that normally a six-galley fleet had two galleys on patrol, two galleys just back or coming back to the port, and two galleys preparing to go out, every galley had to patrol 173 miles coastline, and none in blue waters. It was clearly impossible to stop pirates. The only way to reduce the threat consisted of land-based standing forces. That’s why the Italian coast, from Nice in the northern Tyrrhenian Sea to the Gargano promontory in the southern Adriatic Sea—just out of Venetian waters—was filled with watchtowers. Every tower had cannons to fire against pirates and wood for a signal fire, to warn the towns and the villages of the approaching menace and to call infantry and cavalry from the castles in the interior. All of this, however, remained insufficient to stem the threat, and Italian coastal populations concentrated in the well-fortified port cities or escaped to the interior. Towns were built on the top of hills or mountains. Coastal routes were abandoned as well as the country near the sea. Marshes became larger and larger, especially from south of Pisa down to north of Naples, because no one drained the country as the Etruscans and Romans had. Mosquitoes increased and carried malaria—literally “naughty air” or “evil air”—and this disease, which was supposed to come from the country air, forced the people to concentrate in the cities, were malaria was not so terrible or did not exist at all.

The Ottoman Threat

In the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Sublime Porte continued to export its power into the Balkans and Mediterranean. Strategically, the Mediterranean world was divided into two spheres of influence, with Italy as its geographic bound- ary. The Muslim sphere under Turkish rule, included the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. The Christian sphere under essentially Spanish control included the western Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Italy. The sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, pursued a horizontal expansion, from east to west with Italy at the epicenter. Muslim efforts to conquer Italy had failed in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Neapolitan troops repeatedly repelled Turkish landing forces in Apulia, at the heel of the Italian boot. The last time, in 1537, an enormous Turkish fleet approached Apulia along the Adriatic coast, confident of Venetian neutrality. The entire operation failed because of the sudden appearance of a Venetian squadron. Venice later explained to the Porte that the squadron commander had misunderstood his orders, but Istanbul suspected Venetian duplicity and decided not to attempt a second invasion.

Suleiman considered an alternative strategy, not wanting to add Venice to his list of enemies. If he could not conquer Italy, or at the very least Naples, Suleiman decided to bypass the peninsula, sending his fleet into the western Mediterranean through the Channel of Sicily, between Tunisia and Sicily. This operation, how- ever, would only succeed if the Turks could seize the strategically critical island of Malta. The Knights Hospitalars of Saint John, better known as the Knights of Malta, defended the island. Malta possessed a valuable harbor and would be a critical base for the conquest of the western Mediterranean.

In the spring of 1565, 188 Turkish vessels sailed to Malta along with 48 additional war galleys from Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers. They escorted an enormous invasion fleet, which carried 38,000 soldiers, 25,000 pioneers, and powerful siege artillery. News of the Turkish assault spread rapidly throughout Europe. Venice reinforced its Mediterranean garrisons, and the duke of Tuscany, the Republic of Genoa, and the papacy sent reinforcements to the island. The duke of Savoy provided supplies and dispatched his galleys. King Philip II of Spain ordered the Neapolitan, Sicilian, Sardinian, and Spanish galley squadrons to assemble at the Sicilian city of Messina to aid Malta. The king of France, Francis II, did nothing, as he maintained a secret agreement with the Turks.

On May 20, 1565, the Turkish fleet under Piali` Pasha reached Malta. Grand Master Jean de La Valette had only 541 knights—169 of them Italians—6,000 Maltese, and 2,600 Spanish soldiers garrisoning the three forts, Saint Elmo, San Michele, and Saint Angelo. The Turks failed to take Sant’Elmo by storm for a price of 3,000 dead compared to only 120 knights. In the following days the Turks isolated and repeatedly attacked the fort, finally prevailing on June 17. No quarter was given, and the few prisoners were flayed alive. They were then fixed on planks, and the planks were launched into the sea under the horrified eyes of the knights in the two other forts. The Turks subsequently attacked San Michele. Their first assault cost 2,000 dead and failed. Piali` Pasha then employed alternate bombardment and infantry attacks. The fort held and, on September 7, a Christian fleet reached Malta. Composed of sixty galleys from Tuscany, Naples, Sicily, Savoy, Genoa, Sardinia, and Rome, they landed an expeditionary force of infantry and cavalry. Divided into three columns, 8,000 Italian and Spanish soldiers attacked the Turks. Their attempt to deploy their army for battle failed due to a charge by Tuscan cavalry, which threw the Turks into disarray, cutting them in pieces. Piali` Pasha’s army was destroyed, only 3,000 remained on the field. The routed army fled to the ships and abandoned the invasion. After a 110-day siege, Turkish casual- ties amounted to 20,000 men. The Christians lost 214 knights and some 5,000 soldiers. Malta was saved, and Suleiman’s plans for the invasion of the western Mediterranean failed.

Woode Rogers—Pirate/Privateer I


Rogers’ men search Spanish ladies for their jewels in Guayaquil.

They sighted Cape San Lucas on 2 November 1709 and took up their stations. They spread out so that between them their lookouts could spot any vessel which appeared between the coast and a point some sixty miles out to sea. The Marquiss was stationed nearest the mainland, the Dutchess in the middle and the Duke on the outside, with the bark roving to and fro to carry messages from ship to ship. As far as Rogers and his men were concerned, the only thing that mattered was locating the Manila galleon, and they were experiencing troubles of their own. By 17 November they were running short of water. They sent the bark ashore, where they found a primitive settlement of local Indians. They were given a cautious welcome and allowed to fill up their water barrels from a nearby river. There was still no sign of the galleon on 14 December. They had now been at sea for seven weeks and the Marquiss, which was under the command of Edward Cooke, was in urgent need of repairs to her hull and rigging. She was sent to refit at a place which Rogers and Cooke refer to as Port or Puerto Seguro, on the basis that this was the name given to it by Thomas Cavendish. No such place exists today and it is evident from the description given by one of Cavendish’s sailors, and by Rogers’ detailed description, that the place they were referring to was the sheltered harbour now called Cape San Lucas or Cabo San Lucas. This is situated in the lee of the cape of the same name. Rogers described the entrance of the harbour as being marked by four high rocks which looked like the Needles at the Isle of Wight – and the promontory at the end of the cape certainly does bear a striking resemblance to the Needles.

Out at sea Rogers was increasingly doubtful about seeing the Manila galleon because it was nearly a month past the time when the ship was due. The chief concern now was the shortage of bread and provisions. There was no safe place on the American coast where they could obtain supplies and they had barely enough left to last them the fifty-day voyage across the Pacific to Guam, which was their next destination. On 19 December a council meeting was held on board the Dutchess at which the chief officers decided they would have to abandon their cruise for the Manila galleon. They were bitterly disappointed and as they put their signatures to the resolution ‘all looked very melancholy and dispirited’.

Before heading west into the vastness of the Pacific all three ships needed to stock up with wood and water, so the Duke and Dutchess set a course for Cape San Lucas. They were hampered by calms and a contrary current and were still some way off the coast when, at nine o’clock on the morning of 21 December 1709, the lookout at the masthead of the Duke cried out that he could see a sail on the horizon. ‘We immediately hoisted our ensign, and bore away after her, the Dutchess soon did the same.’

The calm weather continued all through the afternoon of 21 December. The Duke and Dutchess made little progress towards the distant sail and there was some speculation that the ship might be the Marquiss coming out of the harbour at Cape San Lucas. This led to some of the crew laying bets on whether it was the Marquiss or the Manila galleon. They watched the Duke’s pinnace make contact with the Dutchess and lie alongside her for a while before rowing on towards the strange ship. Robert Fry was despatched in the yawl to see whether the men on the Dutchess had managed to identify the ship, and while he was away the Duke hoisted a French ensign and fired a gun, which was answered by a gun from the ship. When Fry returned he brought the good news that ‘it was the ship we had so impatiently waited for, and despaired of seeing her’.

With dusk approaching it was agreed that the two pinnaces should keep close contact with the galleon during the night and at intervals show false fires (an early form of flare) so that the two privateers, which were hampered by the lack of wind, would know exactly where they were. The ships were cleared for action and everything was made ready for engaging and boarding the galleon in the morning. Throughout the hot night the pinnaces showed their lights, which were answered by lights on the privateers. At daybreak the crew of the Duke could see the galleon on their weather bow, about three miles away. The Dutchess was beyond and to leeward of her. At 6 a.m. the pinnace returned and her crew said that during the night the Dutchess had passed close to the galleon, which had fired two shots at her which she had not returned.

There was still no wind, so Rogers ordered his crew to get out eight of the ship’s large oars or sweeps and for an hour they rowed until a light breeze sprang up. He then ordered a kettle of chocolate to be prepared for the ship’s company, before arranging for prayers to be said. While these were in progress they were interrupted by the guns of the galleon, which was slowly bearing down on them with barrels of gunpowder hanging from her yardarms to discourage the privateers from attempting to board her. At 8 a.m. the Duke opened fire, first with her bow-chasers and then, as they came closer, with her full broadside. The thundering boom of the carriage guns was joined by the rattle of small-arms fire as the crews of the Duke and the galleon fired volleys of shot at each other with muskets and pistols. Rogers was the first and only serious casualty on his ship. ‘I was shot through the left cheek, the bullet struck away great part of my upper jaw, and several of my teeth, part of which dropped down on the deck where I fell … I was forced to write what I would say, to prevent the loss of blood, and because of the pain I suffered by speaking.’

The Duke’s gun crews had been well trained and were able to fire faster and more effectively than those of the galleon. They kept on firing as the Duke swung alongside the stout wooden hull of the galleon, causing so many casualties that the galleon’s commander hauled down his ensign and surrendered. As there was still very little wind, the Dutchess, being to leeward, had difficulty in reaching the galleon. When she came within range she fired her guns and a volley of small shot, but the fight was over. As the clouds of acrid gunsmoke cleared and drifted away the three ships drifted on the calm waters of the Pacific. Edward Cooke, who watched the action from a hill overlooking the harbour where the Marquiss was anchored, reckoned the engagement lasted no more than half an hour.

Rogers sent a boat across to the galleon to bring her captain and officers over to the Duke. They learnt that the ship they had captured was called the Nuestra Señora de la Incarnación Disenganio and her commander was Monsieur Jean Pichberty, a French chevalier (in his report Rogers anglicised his name and rank to Sir John Pichberty). He was the brother-in-law of Admiral Jean-Baptiste du Casse, who had fought Admiral Benbow and Admiral Whetstone in the West Indies. On board his ship were 190 sailors and servants, ten passengers and eight black Africans. During the action they had lost nine killed, ten wounded ‘and several blown up and burnt with powder’.

The vessel which the privateers had captured was not, strictly speaking, a galleon but a frigate-built merchant ship, armed with 20 carriage guns on a single gun deck and 20 swivel guns mounted on her rails. At 400 tons burden she was not much larger than the 350-ton Duke and her captain had little option but to surrender when faced with the 30-gun Duke and the 26-gun Dutchess. From her commander the privateers learnt that she had set sail from Manila in company with a much larger galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, a newly built vessel of 900 tons armed with 40 carriage guns on two decks and an equal number of swivel guns. The two galleons had lost touch with each other during the 7,000-mile voyage but had an agreement to meet off Cape San Lucas in order to present a combined front to the privateers – the captains of both ships had received information at Manila, via English trading posts in India, that two Bristol ships were planning to intercept and attack them.

For the rest of the day and during the night the three ships remained out at sea while their crews carried out repairs, and the privateers’ surgeons dressed the wounds of the injured men on board the Spanish ship. The following day, 23 December, they headed towards Cape San Lucas and at 4 p.m. they rounded the distinctive rocky promontory at the end of the cape and dropped anchor in the sheltered waters of the bay beyond. The Marquiss was there to greet them ‘and all the company much overjoyed at our unexpected good fortune’. That night Rogers felt something clog his throat. He swallowed with great pain and presumed the object was either part of his jawbone or the musket shot which had hit him. In his journal he made light of the injury but admitted that his head and throat were badly swollen and he had considerable difficulty in swallowing the liquids he needed for nourishment. In the morning a council meeting was held on the Duke but Rogers was unable to attend. The other chief officers agreed that the Dutchess and the Marquiss would set sail immediately and cruise for eight days with the objective of intercepting the other Manila galleon. They duly weighed anchor at eight in the evening and headed out to sea.

By dawn the next day they were six miles off Cape San Lucas. Edward Cooke, commanding the Marquiss, recorded in his journal, ‘Sunday, December 25, being Christmas Day, at eight in the morning were two leagues of Cape St Luke, and saw a sail bearing S.W. distant about seven leagues, which we concluded to be the great Manila ship.’ Both ships gave chase but made little progress and by nightfall they were still several miles away. At around midnight the Dutchess came within gunshot of the galleon and opened fire. In the ensuing action the powerful guns of the galleon inflicted so much damage on the masts and rigging of the Dutchess that Captain Courtney was forced to break off the action in order to carry out repairs. The Marquiss was still some four miles from the scene at daybreak owing to the continuing lack of wind. And then, at 8 a.m., Cooke saw the Duke slowly emerging from Cape San Lucas and heading their way.

Rogers had wanted the Duke and Dutchess to go out together to intercept and attack the great galleon but he had been over-ruled. He had, however, arranged for two lookouts to be positioned on the hill above the harbour with orders to signal him if they saw another ship appear on the horizon. Meanwhile he had spent a productive Christmas Day negotiating terms with the commander of the captured Manila ship, who was clearly a man of influence. Jean Pichberty agreed to pay five bills of exchange, payable in London, for the sum of 6,000 dollars. This would cover the remaining ransom money due for the taking of Guayaquil and would enable the privateers to release the three Guayaquil hostages who were still being held as surety for the ransom.

During the afternoon of 25 December the lookouts on the hill above Cape San Lucas made the agreed signal with flags to indicate that a third ship had appeared in addition to the distant sails of the Dutchess and the Marquiss. Rogers was determined to put to sea at once. Arrangements were hastily made to secure the large number of prisoners now in their hands, and at 7 p.m. the Duke set sail. His officers had tried to persuade him to remain on board the prize in the harbour but to no avail. He remained in command in spite of the injury he had sustained, but admitted, ‘I was in so weak a condition, and my head and throat so much swelled, that I yet spoke in great pain, and not loud enough to be heard at any distance.’

There was so little wind that the Duke was still nine miles to leeward of the galleon at noon the following day. Her crew watched helplessly as the diminutive Marquiss moved in to attack. She was dwarfed by the galleon but her sailors gave three cheers, fired a broadside and raked her massive sides with volleys of small-arms fire. She was joined by the Dutchess, which came up under the stern of the galleon and poured in a broadside before drifting away. For several hours the two privateer ships attempted to make some impression on the apparently impregnable galleon, moving in to attack and then falling away out of range of her guns. By nightfall the Marquiss had almost run out of ammunition. According to Cooke, they fired ‘above 300 great shot, about 50 cross bars, and two great chests of steel bars, besides abundance of partridge small shot, and above nine barrels of powder’. Not till the early hours of the next day was the Duke close enough to send a boat across to find out what sort of condition her two consorts were in. The boat returned with the news that the foremast of the Dutchess was seriously damaged and her crew had suffered many casualties. The Marquiss had escaped lightly but Rogers arranged for three barrels of gunpowder and a supply of shot to be rowed across to her.

At daybreak on 27 December the three privateers made a combined attack on the great galleon, later recorded in graphic seaman’s language by Cooke:

Captain Courtney in the Dutchess, stood close up, gave his broadside and volleys and then ran ahead. The Marquiss coming up under her quarter, did the like, and the Duke next performed the same along her lee-side. We kept raking of her fore and aft, and then wore to get out of the way of the Duke’s shot, still firing, as did the other ships … The enemy fired at us all three at once, but slow, seldom missing our masts and rigging, and sometimes hulling us. After lying near half an hour along the chase’s side, the Dutchess lay by to stop her leaks, and secure her foremast being much disabled, having 25 men killed and wounded and the sails and rigging much shattered.

In addition to the damage caused by the guns of the galleon, the privateers were also subjected to a hail of hand-grenades (described as ‘stink pots’) which blew up several cases of powder on the quarterdeck of the Duke and started a fire on the Marquiss which the crew managed to extinguish before it spread. Around 11 a.m. the Duke broke off the action after her mainmast had received two direct shots. Rogers made the signal for the other captains and senior officers to come aboard his ship for a meeting. There was still a general determination to continue the action but the ships’ carpenters warned that the foremast of the Dutchess and the mainmast of the Duke were likely to go by the board and take the other masts with them. The Dutchess had thirty men killed or wounded, and the Duke had eleven wounded, including Rogers, who had been hit in the ankle with a wood splinter which exposed his heel bone. He had lost a lot of blood and was unable to stand. It was evident that they had little chance of taking the great galleon. Between them they had fewer than 120 men fit for boarding the enemy, which, according to information they had obtained from the prisoners they had taken in the smaller galleon, had around 450 men on board, including a large number of Europeans, ‘several of whom had been formerly pirates, and having now got all their wealth aboard, were resolved to defend it to the last’.

The problem was that the privateers’ guns were making no impression on the powerful teak hull of the galleon, which towered above them and made it difficult to cause significant casualties among her crew. According to Cooke, ‘we might as well have fought a castle’, and Rogers noted that the ships built at Manila were much stronger and had thicker sides than ships built in Europe so that ‘few of our shot entered her sides to any purpose, and our small arms availed less, there being not a man to be seen above board’. It was agreed that it was better to secure the prize they had already taken than to resume the action and risk losing more men and further damage to their battered ships. As always the resolution was drawn up in writing and was signed by the captains commanding the three ships as well as eleven other officers, including William Dampier, Robert Fry and Alexander Selkirk.

On the evening of 28 December the ships limped slowly back towards Cape San Lucas. On the Duke it was necessary to take down the main topgallant mast and secure the mainmast with additional stays and runners, while the other ships also carried out running repairs. Contrary winds and currents slowed their progress and not till the evening of the following day did they reach the safe haven of the harbour in the lee of the cape. As they anchored alongside their Spanish prize a light shower of rain swept across the bay.

During the next two days negotiations were concluded with Jean Pichberty and the three Guayaquil hostages, all of whom signed a document to the effect that they had been well treated and that the financial transactions made for the payment of the ransom had been carried out voluntarily and with their full consent. On 1 January the hostages and the captain and crew of the Manila galleon-sailed for Acapulco in the Jesus, Maria y José, the thirty-five-ton coasting vessel the privateers had captured off Lobos Island. The Spaniards were supplied with water and provisions for the voyage and the captain was allowed to retain all his books and instruments, ‘So that they parted very friendly, and acknowledged we had been very civil to ’em.’

The captain took with him a letter from Rogers to Alderman Batchelor and the other sponsors of the expedition. The letter eventually reached Bristol and is preserved among the other documents relating to the voyage of the Duke and Dutchess. It is addressed from California, dated 31 December 1709, and provides a brief account of the taking of the smaller Manila galleon and the unsuccessful attack on the larger galleon: ‘This ship was too strong for us, and has wounded all our masts …’ Rogers mentioned the death of his brother and his own injuries, but, being aware that the letter must pass through enemy hands before it reached its destination, he gave no information about the value of the captured galleon’s cargo, nor did he describe the raid on Guayaquil or the taking of other prizes. He ended, ‘My endeavours shall not be wanting on all occasions when please God to restore me to my strength.’

Before leaving Cape San Lucas and setting sail for home, Rogers had to face another mutiny. This time it was orchestrated by Thomas Dover and concerned the command of their valuable prize, which had been renamed the Batchelor Frigate, in honour of their chief sponsor. Rogers made it clear that he wanted an experienced sea officer to take command of the galleon on the homeward voyage. Dover wanted the command himself and persuaded a number of other officers, including Courtney, Cooke and Dampier, to support his claim. There followed a paper war in which both sides recorded their arguments at length. Rogers and his supporters made it clear that Dover, who was no seaman, was utterly incapable of acting as commander of a sailing ship, and Rogers further pointed out that ‘his temper is so violent that capable men cannot well act under him’. In the end it was agreed that Dover be given nominal command but that Robert Fry and William Stretton would be responsible for navigating and sailing the ship ‘and that the said Capt. Thomas Dover shall not molest, hinder or contradict them in their business’. Alexander Selkirk was appointed to the key post of master of the ship.