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.

Privateers and Navies versus Merchants

“USS Bon Homme Richard vs. HMS Serapis on 23 September 1779,” by Anton Otto Fischer

After the declaration of war by the French, matters grew worse increasing the losses of ship-owners, freighters and consignees. The Lydia, Captain Dean, from Jamaica to Liverpool, serves as an example, for she was seized, taken to Maryland and sold with her cargo for £20,400. British privateers were also captured, as we shall see, but typical was the capture of Warren & Co.’s Dragon which, under Captain Briggs, had herself seized a number of rebel American and French ships. One of the latter, taken in February 1779 was La Modeste and she had been secured by members of the Dragon’s crew swimming across to her to take possession, since a the sea was running too high to launch a boat. The Dragon did equally well under Captain Reed the following year but in September 1781, Captain Gardner was obliged to strike her colours to a French frigate and submit to being taken in to Brest.

French frigates were particularly dangerous, often sailing as fast as a privateer, particularly as wind and sea rose, and usually of far greater fire-power. The 32-gun British frigate Minerva, having been captured and commissioned by the French in 1778, fell in with the Belcour of Liverpool, Captain Moore, in May 1779. Moore bore a Letter-of-Marque and had the previous year taken a schooner worth £1,000 and a French brig valued at £2,500. Now, on a passage from Halifax to Jamaica, the tables were turned and Moore found himself fighting for his life.

We engaged [the Minerva]…full two hours and a half, the furthest distance she was off was not more than pistol shot, a great part of the time yard arm and yard arm, as we term it, but that you may better understand it, her sides and ours touched each other, so that sometimes we could not [with]draw our rammers. The French, I assure you, we drove twice from their quarters, but unluckily their wads set us on fire in several places, and then we were obliged to strike. You may consider our condition, our ship on fire, our sails, masts and rigging being all cut to pieces, several of our men severely mangled. The French seeing our ship on fire, would not come to our assistance for fear of the ship blowing up, as soon as the fire reached the magazine, which it did five minutes after I was out of her. The sight was dreadful, as there was(sic) many poor souls on board. You will be anxious to know how we that were saved got out of her. We hove the small boat overboard in a shattered condition…and made two or three trips on board the frigate before she [the Belcour] blew up. The next morning, we picked up four men that were on pieces of the wreck…

Moore goes on to list the dead: the third mate, the surgeon and his mate, eleven seamen, ‘three Negroes and a child, passengers’.

Another successful French frigate was the 28-gun L’Aigle which, in the spring of 1780 took the Liverpool privateer Tartar, Captain Butler, ‘after a chase of eight hours and an engagement on one hour and a quarter’. In three weeks L’Aigle seized nine prizes, a fact lamented by Butler from prison in Bayonne in a letter to his ship’s owners. A heavier French cruiser, the Fripon of 44-guns, took the privateer Patsey off the Hebrides on 31 May 1781. During a fight lasting ninety minutes before her colours came down, Captain Dooling, his sailing master and six of the Patsey’s crew were killed and a number wounded. That October a French 44-gun frigate engaged the merchantman Quaker off Newfoundland. Despite her pacifist name, the Quaker’s master, Captain Evans, had furnished her with a Letter-of-Marque and in the autumn of 1781 she had arrived at Halifax with a 13-gun American privateer as her prize. Early the following year she took three prizes in to Antigua where they realised £21,000 and it was while returning north that, again on the Grand Banks, she fell in with the French frigate in a fog. Undaunted, Evans exchanged a broadside – in which one of the ship’s boys was killed and another wounded – then made all sail. After a chase of twelve hours Evans threw his pursuer off and got clear away and in the New Year of 1783 he captured another prize, a Letter-of-Marque brig from Martinique to France with a cargo of sugar, coffee and cocoa worth £10,000. Such men were redoubtable and one of the most renowned was Nehemiah Holland.

In July 1777 Captain Nehemiah Holland of the Sarah Goulburn, who had distinguished himself in the previous war, took the Sally of Charleston, South Carolina, when on her way to Nantes with rice and indigo. Throughout the war the trade between the rice plantations in North America and France was a rich hunting-ground for British privateers, capitalising on the rebel necessity to establish new markets for their produce. Tea, silk and wine went the other way and several privateers would form an ex officio squadron, agreeing to share prize money. In the winter of 1778/9 the Liverpoolmen Molly, Captain Woods, the Wasp, Captain Byrne, and the Bess took a number of prizes, though the Molly was, long afterwards, captured by a brace of French frigates. Captain Ash of the 20-gun Terrible seized two valuable prizes on a single day that spring, and also recaptured the Leinster Packet, which had been taken by the American privateer Rocket the previous day when bound from Bristol to Galway. A few days later, on 28 February, Captain Grimshaw, in command of Hall & Co.’s 14-gun Griffin, entered the Mersey with a French prize, Le Comte de St Germain which he had captured after a spirited running action lasting eight hours. The two vessels had been evenly matched in fire-power, though the Frenchman carried a smaller complement. The prize contained a cargo of tortoise-shell, indigo, sugar, molasses, coffee, cotton and cocoa. Other privateers profiting from this trade route were Wagner & Co.’s Dreadnought, Davenport’s Sturdy Beggar; and Captain Allanson’s aptly-named Vulture. However, success itself ran its own risk, as Captain Leigh of the Mary Ann discovered. Having taken thirteen prizes valued at £10,000, the Mary Ann was homeward-bound when she struck the Tusker Rock off the east coast of Ireland. Fortunately most of her cargo of indigo was salved and all her crew saved.

Many privateers, like the Griffin, performed a useful service in retaking captured vessels from the enemy. On 10 December 1778 the privateer Atalanta, 16-guns, Captain Collinson, recaptured the brig Eagle from Newfoundland to Cadiz with fish, and the following winter the Rawlinson and Clarendon, lying off Land’s End, retook the Weymouth Packet ‘which had sailed from Jamaica without convoy and had been taken by the General Sullivan privateer, of Portsmouth, New England’. The importance of recovering such a vessel, with mails, bills of exchange, currency and so forth is self-evident. Later, in May 1781, the 10-gun Ferret, Captain Archer, having been seized by a French corsair, was retaken by the privateer Vulture from Jersey. A few prizes were recovered by their own people, such as the Grace, Captain Wardley, seized in the Irish Sea by the privateer Lexington but carried to Torbay instead of France; and the Lively, which is discussed later. Such exertions were often risky. When in April 1781 the Balgrove was captured by a French corsair a prize-crew of sixteen men were put on board. The Balgrove’s mate was unwilling to submit and, with only four men to help him, overpowered the prize-crew and took the ship into the Cove of Cork.

Nor had the Royal Navy’s cruisers been idle; taking 203 American merchantmen between 11 July 1777 and I January 1778, and recapturing fifteen British vessels in rebel hands. Privateers from several British ports had also done their utmost to counter the enemy, but the anxieties and losses drove insurance rates inexorably upwards, a state of affairs only exacerbated by the entry of France into the war, along with her swarms of corsairs, and after her the other European maritime states. The American privateers, ‘though of limited naval value, certainly contributed to the Revolutionary cause, striking at the British merchant class, who, in turn, ventilated their opposition in Parliament’. This is a naval view, disparaging to the effort and effect of America’s private war on trade. The function of a nation’s maritime force, howsoever composed, is to destroy the enemy, attack his commerce and thereby ruin his economy. This was a view current at the time, for Thomas Jefferson considered that privateering was a national blessing ‘when a Country such as America then was, was at war with a commercial nation’. American analysis concludes that the 676 privateers commissioned under the new ensign of thirteen red stripes took ‘over 1,600’ British merchantmen. This, of course, excludes captures by the small but efficient Continental Navy and the very much greater impact of French corsairs, and of her men-of-war after 1778.

Such was the alarm in high places that all British merchant vessels were ordered to sail under convoy, though this was never fool-proof. When the man-of-war Falcon, the escort to a West India convoy, became separated from her charges, two of the merchant ship-masters, Captains William Buddecome and George Ross, undertook the defence, for which they received gifts of silver plate. Convoy, when carried out efficiently, proved its value.

In the third week in September, 1778, it was announced that all the principal fleets [i.e. mercantile convoys] had arrived safely, namely, The Jamaica fleet at Liverpool and Bristol; the Leeward Islands fleet at Plymouth, and the Lisbon and Spanish fleets in the Downs. The arrivals that week were the largest that had been known for many years. In October the London underwriters calculated that the losses sustained by the French since the proclamation of reprisals amounted to upwards of £1,200,000.

When the outward-bound West India convoy sailed in March 1779 it did so under the not inconsiderable escort of two 74-gun line-of-battle-ships, a 50-gun ship and two frigates. This was not the case in August the following year when, as will shortly be related in relation to the East India Company, the combined convoys bound to the East and West Indies were abandoned by their naval escort commanded by Captain John Moutray and captured by Admiral Cordoba’s squadrons. Significant among the fifty-two vessels taken by the Spanish were the Government-chartered victuallers and store-ships, four of which – the Lord Sandwich, Eliza, Friendship and Brilliant – carried stores for the army in the Leeward Islands; eleven of them – the Sisters, Nereus, John, Susannah, Jupiter, Lord North, Eagle, Hambro’ Merchant, Charming Sally, Charlotte and James and Jane – bore provisions for the naval squadrons in the West Indies, while the Arwin Galley and Hercules were loaded with ‘camp equipage and naval stores’. Excepting the five Indiamen captured by Cordoba and mentioned in Chapter Two, the remaining twenty-nine of his prizes consisted of ‘the trade’.

What made the commander of the escort’s conduct so reprehensible was that shortly before falling in with Cordoba, Captain Moutray had met a north-bound convoy under Captain George Johnstone in the Romney, man-of-war. Johnstone, an unpleasant man and afterwards an outspoken MP, commanded a heavy escort covering ‘forty sail, carrying 10,463 pipes of wine’ homeward from Oporto and it seems he warned Moutray of the activity of enemy squadrons. Even when he was apprised of enemy ships in the offing on the 8th, Moutray dismissed them as ‘nothing but Dutchmen’. However, in mitigation, it should be noted that when Moutray belatedly discovered his error and hoisted the signal for the convoy to tack and stand to the northward, most of the merchantmen failed to see or to obey the order and only those that did, the British Queen, the brig Rodney ‘and two others’, escaped Cordoba. However, nightfall and a hazy dawn combined with light winds probably prevented most of the convoy from being aware of Moutray’s signals, an opinion given in evidence at Moutray’s court-martial by Captain William Garnier of H.M. Frigate Southampton. Damningly, Moutray did not send either of his two frigates to recall the convoy, standing away to the north as disaster overtook his charges.

Indeed, between the Spring of 1779 and the late summer of 1780, the enemy struck at British merchantmen with near-catastrophic results. ‘It was,’ according to Gibb in his official history of Lloyd’s, ‘the heaviest blow that British commerce had received in living memory, the downfall of many respectable firms and the direct cause of half the underwriters in Lloyd’s Coffee-House failing to meet their obligations’, a summation Gibb attributes to one of them, John Walter, who afterwards founded The Times newspaper. A consequence of this turmoil on the insurance market was that the underwriters, of whom there were then less than one hundred and who now owned Lloyd’s Coffee House and had formed the Society of Lloyd’s, revised their standard marine insurance policy with three enduring additional clauses – waiver, war risks and frustration.

Further destruction of shipping contributing to the general air of ruin was caused by one man in a remarkable twenty-eight day cruise round the British Isles. Captain John Paul Jones was an unsavoury character, a renegade Scot who was disliked by his peers, but who possessed a savage fighting instinct. Born in 1747 in Kirkudbrightshire, he began his career in the British mercantile marine apprenticed to a Whitehaven ship-owner. On his first voyage Jones visited his elder brother who had emigrated to take up tailoring in Fredericksburg, Virginia, opening Jones’s eyes to possibilities in the colonies. When Jones’s employer went bankrupt his indentures were broken and Jones shipped in a slaver. By the age of nineteen he had risen to chief mate but he then gave the trade up in the West Indies. Taking passage home from Jamaica, Jones took command of the vessel when the master and mate both died. The ship’s owners granted him and the crew ten percent of the freight and offered Jones the position of master of the John of Dumfries.

Jones made several voyages to the West Indies in the John, on one of which he flogged the ship’s carpenter for neglect of duty. The man afterwards died and Jones was accused of murder by the carpenter’s father and consequently arrested. Tried in Dumfries, he was acquitted, found employment as master of the Betsy of London and by 1773 was back in the Antilles. Jones’s conduct towards his men provoked a mutiny when the Betsy lay off Tobago, evidence that Jones was typical of the harsher master of his day. His later apologists claim that in the confrontation the ring-leader of the mutineers ran upon Jones’s sword but among the seamen of the islands his name stank, particularly as he avoided facing charges by escaping to lie low in America. Here he was unemployed until the outbreak of the rebellion, when he went to Philadelphia to help fit-out the first Congressional man-of-war, the Alfred. Ingratiating himself with two congressmen involved with establishing what became the Continental Navy, Jones was offered a commission as lieutenant in December 1775 and served in the Alfred without distinction until, in 1776, he was given command of the Providence. It was now that he began to take prizes with the dash and élan that ultimately ensured his place in the pantheon of American naval heroes. As a consequence of his success he was given a small squadron, promoted to captain and repaid the confidence by taking sixteen prizes.

However, Jones was a man of touchy pride and a notion of his own superior abilities. His placing as 18th on the seniority list of the Continental Navy irked him and he began to make himself unpopular until Congress gave him command of the Ranger and sent him to France. Here he was to have assumed command of a larger, Dutch-built man-of-war, but found the ship had been given to the French by the American Commissioners in Paris so, leaving Brest in disgust, he headed for the Irish Sea, landing and raiding Whitehaven on 27-28 April 1778, burning the shipping in the harbour before crossing the Solway in an attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk. The earl was disobligingly absent, so Jones and his crew helped themselves to what they wanted before heading for the Irish coast. Off Carrickfergus the Ranger fell in with HM Sloop-of-war Drake. In a furious action in which Jones lost eight killed and wounded to his opponent’s forty, he took the Drake and returned triumphantly to Brest on 8 May with another seven prizes. The alarm his raid – particularly that upon Whitehaven – caused along the British coast was augmented by reports of sightings of other rebel vessels. Jones’s presence with his prizes in Brest, demonstrating weaknesses in Britain’s seaward defences as it did, occurred as the French ministry were meditating revenge upon Britain for her victories of 1759 by a declaration of war. Jones was summoned to Paris for consultations. On 4 February 1779 he was informed that he would be put in charge of a former French East Indiaman fitting out as a man-of-war which Jones renamed as the Bonhomme Richard, a tribute to the American envoy in Paris, Benjamin Franklin who had once edited a New England periodical called Poor Richard’s Almanac.

In addition to the Bonhomme Richard, Jones was given a small squadron of French officered, manned and financed vessels with which to repeat his raid upon the British coast. His French colleagues – officers of the ancien régime – disliked Jones for his ill-bred manners, regarding him as a parvenu, but his successes spoke for themselves. Leaving L’Orient on 14 August 1779, Jones’s squadron returned to the Irish Sea, striking terror by the seizures of coasting vessels, rumours of which exaggerated the effects of his raid so that Jones’s successful cruise against merchant shipping around the British Isles added to the unsettlement of the entire British countryside for the whole of that summer.

[I]t was announced in the newspapers that the Duchess of Devonshire, and Lord and Lady Spencer, on their return from taking the waters at Spa, had arrived safe and sound at Harwich, although their ship had been attacked on the passage by two French cutters. The enemy had been beaten off by the Fly sloop, under the command of Captain Garner, after a long engagement in which an officer of the British vessel had been shot dead, and several of her crew killed and wounded; and it was allowed on all hands that the ladies had behaved admirably.

Even the sight of the homeward Jamaica convoy caused confusion in Brighton, where ‘the quality’ took it for an invasion fleet. The actual and imminent descent of a combined fleet of French and Spanish men-of-war had been reported, Spain having opportunistically joined the war in meditation of recovering Minorca and Gibraltar, and avenging herself for the loss of Florida and the coast of Honduras. This enemy fleet in the Channel was, in fact, a more significant threat than that of John Paul Jones (or indeed the Spanish Armada of 1588) and was aimed at Britain’s naval heart: Portsmouth, but the Combined Fleet dithered, so it was August before the twin forces of the fleets of France and Spain, along with Jones’s little squadron, were at large. The British Channel Fleet under Sir Charles Hardy, operating in misty weather, caught sight only once of their enemy as they slipped past, and the allies might have affected the landing so anxiously desired by Choiseul and Vergennes, had not a lack of supplies exacerbated by outbreaks of scurvy and disagreement between the French and Spanish commanders forced them to retire. Thus did inefficiency snatch defeat from the jaws of possible victory.

John Paul Jones had better luck. His ships worked north, through the Hebrides, where: ‘Our Northern sea-board was everywhere exposed to insult. The packet which plied from Tarbet to the Western parts of Argyllshire was captured in the Sound of Islay’. After his appearance before Leith, which he unsuccessfully attempted to ‘lay under contribution’, townsfolk all along the coast feared his coming. A public assembly was called in Kingston-upon-Hull to arrange defences for the River Humber and the Marquis of Rockingham promised to ‘treat the town with a battery of eighteen-pounders’.

Jones’s presence was an affront to the Royal Navy, particularly when on 23 September 1779 he fell upon a Baltic convoy off Flamborough Head. Jones’s ships succeeded in defeating the escort, H.M. Frigate Serapis and her consort, a sloop-of-war, in a fierce, celebrated and bloody action which ended in the surrender of Captain Pearson and the sinking of the Serapis. Within hours the shot-battered Bonhomme Richard also foundered, drawing Jones’s teeth, but he escaped with his prizes to reach the Texel. While Jones had established a legend, Pearson had at least largely succeeded in defending his convoy and, at terrible cost, ended Jones’s cruise.

The day after Jones’s victory the French corsair Dunkerque, Capitaine J.B.Royer, took the merchantman Three Friends of Liverpool, Captain Samuel Maine, who was caught off the Island of Jura. Not only the French and the Americans, but the Irish were active, the Black Prince taking the Lively, Captain Watts, in the English Channel in January 1780. However, a high sea was running and the prize-crew was unable to board, so Watts was ordered to follow his captor. He did this until darkness enabled him to run, but two days later the Lively had the misfortune to be captured by a 44-gun French frigate. Watts and most of his crew were removed and an officer and twelve seamen were placed on board, joining three of the ship’s boys who had been left behind. The Lively now grew leaky and the prize-crew tired of incessant pumping, fell asleep, whereupon the three boys seized some cutlasses, repossessed themselves of their ship and, shortly afterwards arriving off Kinsale, making a signal of distress. This was seen by the local population who opportunistically boarded the Lively and began plundering her but, with the help of local pilots, the Lively was brought into port where Captain M’Arthur of the Hercules, a Letter-of-Marque, took her over and beat off the looters.

The appearance of rebel Irish on their doorstep prompted the Liverpool merchants to petition the Admiralty for better protection and Their Lordships responded by increasing the number of cruisers in the Irish Sea by two frigates and a brace of cutters. There was much need for this. The scandal of enemy privateers operating in home waters with impunity was bad enough, but greater opprobrium attached to a navy that failed to protect tax-paying merchants from a home-grown menace. Although Edward Macartney had lived in France for some years and his ship, the Black Princess, flew the Bourbon ensign and carried a French Letter-of-Marque, her commander had been born in Ireland. Macartney’s Black Princess seized the John of Newcastle off the Mull of Galloway in July 1780 despite a spirited defence by Captain Rawson and his crew. Badly hurt and with his second mate also wounded and one man dead, Rawson hauled down his colours. Taking possession of his prize, Macartney agreed to the John’s release upon a surety for a ransom of £1,000, a sum which Rawson considered rapacious, refusing to sign the requisite documents. At this opposition Macartney withheld the services of a surgeon from the wounded and, on Rawson’s further protestations, gave the intimidating order to burn the John and her crew with her. Rawson capitulated. Some time later Macartney was captured and imprisoned at Plymouth.

A more notorious Irish privateer was Patrick Dowling who cruised in the Western Approaches and among whose prizes was the Olive Branch outward-bound from Liverpool to Charleston in 1781. She was ransomed for 7,700 guineas but Dowling, like Macartney, appears to have adopted extreme measures, perhaps because unlike his countryman who flew the French flag, Dowling could not avail himself of the prize-system and was more pirate than privateer. At the time of his taking the Olive Branch he had on board his own ship some seventeen ‘ransomers’ out of a tally of twenty-two prizes. The five who would not – or could not – oblige Dowling, were sunk. Clearly Dowling found ransom satisfactory, restoring his captures to their owners – at a price – and banking large sums himself, presumably thereby avoiding attracting too much unwelcome attention. The William of Bristol was released for 900 guineas, the Elizabeth, bound for Cork raised 800, the Sally for Guernsey 700, and a Maryport vessel put another 750 guineas in Dowling’s pocket.

Dowling and Macartney were by no means the only Irish commerce-raiders attacking British shipping in those last years of war. Nor were the Irish the only practitioners of ransom: the French were equally good at it. When the corsair Le Comte de Guichen was taken by HM Frigate Aurora, Captain Collins recovered a sheaf of ransom documents: the Peace of Whitehaven, 2,000 guineas; the Spooner of Glasgow, 1,800; the Six Sisters from the Isle of Man and Fortitude of Greenock, 1,500 each; the Sally of Strangford, 500 guineas; the two Workington vessels Lark and Glory, 450 between them, with two other bottoms adding 1,610 guineas to the total.

It was a see-saw war on both sides, but despite the serious effect the enemy’s war on trade had upon the British economy – the aspect most emphasised in conventional assessments – the British privateering war on American trade was itself of some countervailing significance. Our old friend William Boats, in partnership with William Gregson, commissioned several privateers and employed a number of energetic and able captains. One of these was Captain Jolly who in early 1778 commanded the Ellis, in which he took the Endeavour and Nancy, both loaded with sugar and rum. Later, handing over the Ellis to Captain Washington, he transferred to the Gregson and then cruised in company with his old vessel. Both these privateers were substantial, the Ellis of 340 tons burthen, 28-guns and 130 men; the Gregson of 250 tons, 24-guns and 120 men. Between them they took La Ville du Cap, from St Domingo to Nantes with sugar, coffee, cotton, rum and indigo, and the L’Aigle from port-au-Prince to Nantes with a similar cargo. Separating, Jolly next took a small privateer which he disarmed and released, followed by the snow La Genevieve, outward from Nantes for St Domingo with flour, wines and a general cargo. Captain Washington, meanwhile, was busy seizing the snow Josephine, full of oil, soap, brimstone and straw hats destined for Dunkerque.

Curiously a reduced form of trade between the belligerent powers sometimes continued, so that a wine merchant in Manchester was able to learn from his shipper in Bordeaux that:

Very many rich and respectable merchants here, have been already ruined by the great success of your privateers and cruisers. Many more must fall soon. May God, of his mercy to us, put an end speedily to this destructive and ridiculous war.

This contribution of privateers to the general war-effort is largely ignored by the eulogist extolling the exploits of naval cruisers but the wine-merchant’s cri de coeur is eloquent enough. On the British side investment, in prospect of attractive return, was not confined to the usual ship-owning classes. Short of money, the Marquis and Marchioness of Granby had an interest in several privateers, including the Lady Granby and the Marchioness of Granby. Such was the impact of the enemy war on British trade on the one hand, and British retaliation in the same vein with prizes said to have been worth £100,000 coming into the Mersey alone.

Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy I

The unusually peaceful conditions in the Channel left by Henry V were the result of English control of both shores, combined with the essential support of the Count of Flanders (otherwise known as the Duke of Burgundy) and a series of truces made with the other countries whose merchants used the waterway. Englishmen continued to be restrained from piracy and privateering by the 1414 Statute of Truces. In addition, any potential offenders were busily occupied ferrying soldiers, officers of the government, the new settlers and all their respective supporters and equipment across to Normandy, and were paid for doing so.

In the background, however, the premature and unexpected death of Henry V brought to light other circumstances which were both complex and threatening. The so-called ‘dual kingdom’ was ruled by one king, but nonetheless consisted of two distinct countries. Behind the veil of Henry’s ‘permanent’ settlement of Englishmen in Normandy, each of the two countries, England and Normandy, still had its own government, its own laws, its own customs, and its own language. Henry’s failure to include the Armagnacs in the Treaty of Troyes meant that he bequeathed an ongoing war being fought against them on several different fronts, but mostly in the general area round Paris. In England, there was mounting opposition to this continuing war. Overall, the political portents for longer-term stability were not good.

Henry’s heir was the nine-month-old Henry VI (1422–61), born to Catherine at Windsor the previous December. A long regency was inevitable and the responsibility for continuity of government lay with the remaining members of the royal family, who were now reduced to four, Henry V’s two youngest brothers and two Beaufort step-uncles (see below). Almost immediately it became clear that it had been Henry V’s personal leadership and charisma which had provided the cement to give the family its former, remarkable, cohesion. Once that leadership had gone, cracks quickly appeared. The two remaining brothers were very different characters. John, Duke of Bedford was cast in the same mould as Henry himself, to whom he had already served as a trusted lieutenant. He was to prove wise, diplomatic, capable, energetic, and dedicated to the cause of England. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was, in contrast, much less reliable. His one military success had been conducting the conquest of the Cherbourg peninsula in 1418. Otherwise he lacked discretion and diplomacy, and was emphatically not a team player. He evidently had not been, and would not in future be, entrusted with important responsibility by other members of the family and nobility, which was a constant source of grievance to him. Apparently feeling cheated of opportunities to achieve military honour and glory, he was to prove himself irresponsible and self-seeking, an irritant and, increasingly, a danger to national and international stability.

Henry V’s wills, codicils and the other verbal directions he gave when he knew he was dying did not cover all eventualities, and were open to different interpretations. They opened the door to controversy. Henry had stipulated that Duke Humphrey should have the wardship of the infant king, but when the duke chose to assume that included running the country he found, to his intense frustration, that he was opposed by the council led by Henry Beaufort and his brother Thomas, and that all his activities were to be scrutinised by parliament. This initiated a series of fierce disputes between him and the restraining arm of his step-uncle, a bitter feud which continued to dominate English politics until they both died in 1447.

In France, Charles VI died fifty-one days after Henry V and, ignoring the Treaty of Troyes, his 19-year-old son, the Dauphin Charles, immediately claimed the throne. But that claim was supported by little substance: Charles had no financial resources, no body of loyal nobility and no centralised army. Much more important at that time, by mid-November John, Duke of Bedford, had emerged as the English regent of France.

Bedford was well aware that to maintain peaceful conditions in the Channel, which implied preventing a resurgence of piracy, it was essential to remain on good terms with Burgundy and, if possible, with Brittany. After some six months’ negotiation he achieved a triple alliance which bore fruit on 17 April 1423 in the defensive and offensive Treaty of Amiens, signed by himself, by Duke Philip of Burgundy and by Arthur of Richemont, brother of the Duke of Brittany. It was cemented by the marriages of Bedford to Anne, a sister of Philip of Burgundy (on 14 June), and of Arthur de Richemont to another sister, Margaret. The treaty recognised the French, the Dauphin’s party, as the common enemy.

He continued fighting to mop up remaining pockets of opposition on the Channel coast. For instance, he captured Le Crotoy, now a sleepy silt-bound fishing village but then one of the more important of the Channel ports, with an impressive fortress guarding the mouth of the Somme. Until then, lying too far from Flanders for Burgundy to reach it from the north, and too far north for the English to reach it from the Seine, it had remained in Armagnac hands, and had proved a useful base for Breton pirates. On 17 August 1424, Bedford also inflicted a massive defeat on the Dauphin’s much larger, but badly organised, force of French and Scots at Verneuil, some 60 miles west of Paris. As a result the Dauphin went into retreat, leaving the French temporarily leaderless, and the slaughtered Scots were never replaced, showing that Scottish support for France was dwindling.

However, two developments already threatened to destabilise Bedford’s triple entente. In or about January 1423 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had married Jacqueline of Hainault, and together they set out to recover Hainault from her estranged first husband, John of Brabant, and Holland and Zeeland from her uncle, John of Bavaria. Having landed with an army at Calais, their campaign was short and ended in fiasco. Nonetheless, both their objectives were bound to stir up antagonism on the part of the Duke of Burgundy. Secondly, the Bretons, as ever, were shifty allies, and despite the encouraging result at Verneuil, Arthur of Richemont reneged on the Treaty of Amiens and changed sides. He and his brother then proceeded to take control of the Dauphin’s side of the war, which aimed to expel the English! In spite of these checks, and continuing piracy by the Bretons, for six years Bedford was able to maintain the areas conquered by Henry V, and even to extend his land down to the Loire.

Then, on 3 November 1428 the military tide turned. The English forces suffered their first serious defeat. The Earl of Salisbury, their leader, was killed by a gunshot during the siege of Orleans and, following that, they failed to take the town. Soon afterwards, Jeanne d’Arc intervened. Her story is well known, but in short, she led the French troops to rapid victory over the English in a series of battles, and ensured that the Dauphin was crowned King of France at Reims on 17 July 1429. Although she herself was captured by the Burgundians in May 1430 and tried and burnt at the stake by the English in Rouen on 30 May 1431, she had restored French morale, and became a martyr. The loss of Salisbury, failure of their siege of Orleans, and the contributions of Jeanne d’Arc combined to seriously weaken the English position in France, and in December 1431 the Duke of Burgundy signed a six-year truce with Charles VII, further weakening his link with England.

For the English, further adversity followed quickly. On 13 November 1432 Anne, wife of the Duke of Bedford, died in an epidemic in Paris, aged only 28. Not only a grievous personal loss to Bedford, she had also provided a positive political link with Philip of Burgundy, her brother. Bedford remarried five months later, into a family deeply distrusted by Philip, who was thus further alienated. In addition, the soldiers in the garrison at Calais mutinied for lack of pay. Still, the English leaders, Bedford, Gloucester and Henry Beaufort, failed to agree on a strategy for prosecuting the war in France.

The years 1435–36 saw multiple crises for the English, with serious implications for their control of the Channel. In the spring of 1435 most of the counties along the south coast were on the alert. The Isle of Wight was living in fear of a French invasion. In the summer that year Philip of Burgundy convened the equivalent of a peace conference at Arras, but the English failed to come to an agreement with the French. One week after that diplomatic failure, Bedford died in Rouen, in September 1435, and only a week later, Burgundy officially concluded peace with France, which left the English without allies.

In September 1435, Dieppe was lost to the French. Harfleur and the surrounding area followed in November. In January 1436 the English were faced with a popular uprising in Normandy. At Calais, the woollen exports piled up, having been subjected to a Flemish embargo. In July, a Burgundian siege of Calais failed only because of dissent within their own ranks.

Against that background the young king Henry grew up, and it must have been increasingly obvious that he was the antithesis of his father. His interests and talents lay in directions very different from military matters or governmental control. He was a gentle, intelligent, peace-loving individual, who is now celebrated for founding and successfully influencing the early development of Eton College at Windsor and King’s College, Cambridge. But, compassionate and caring, he was indiscriminately generous with his favours and lacked the ability to select good officers, advisors and confidants. He lacked political acumen. In short, he did not possess the credentials necessary for strong leadership in the fifteenth century.

In addition, during his adolescence Henry was caught between two bitterly opposed, argumentative uncles, each of whom sought to impose his own opinions on him. Not only that, he must also have witnessed, as a powerless spectator, the failures, military and diplomatic, of his representatives in France. How these experiences affected him is impossible to estimate, but it did not bode well for the peace which he so strongly favoured. In the next few years Henry supported moves towards a peaceful settlement with France, but that was a long time in coming. A commercial agreement was reached with Burgundy in 1439, but disagreements among the English participants postponed a peace agreement until 1444. In 1445 the king married Margaret of Anjou, a strong and, as it turned out, fiery character who vehemently refused to negotiate with anybody who opposed her husband, so did nothing to promote peace or conciliation. The couple became increasingly unpopular, and the government in England became increasingly divided and corrupt.

In France, meanwhile, 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.

Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy II

Conjectural sketch of a balinger (C) Ian Friel 2015.

Balinger: During the 14th–16th centuries, a class of clinker-built, oared ship, with a single mast and sail. Originating in the Basque whaling industry, its design migrated to England where balingers were used in war and trade, displacing English galleys from local waters during the 14th century.

A balinger for the King

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.

In 1449 England was in a high state of uncertainty and insecurity, with the threat of French raids renewed because France had control of the opposing Channel ports. Then there was also a stream of refugees arriving from Normandy, many of them destitute, retreating after the collapse of Henry V’s ‘permanent’ settlement. In April, the government appointed three senior officers to ‘keep the seas’, to cruise the Channel looking for trouble. Those officers included Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth, where he had already served as bailiff in 1446 and as mayor two years later. A month after his appointment the government found itself with somewhat more than it had bargained for, the largest prize of the century.

On 23 May, when Wenyngton was cruising with his ‘fellowship’ in a small flotilla of small vessels, in the general area of mid-Channel between Guernsey and Portland, he came upon the entire Bay fleet, some 110 larger vessels, which were carrying to Flanders and the Baltic not only salt but also some more valuable commodities, cloth and wine. Since Wenyngton had somehow become separated from the other two senior officers, one wonders if this encounter was entirely accidental. However, in a show of bravado, and with the advantage of a following wind, after a short altercation in which their admiral rebuffed his challenge, rather than risk the damage which might result from a mid-Channel gunfight, the whole fleet surrendered to him and was ushered into Southampton Water. Dutch and Flemish ships were soon released, but enormous bills were presented to the English government by the Hanse on behalf of its merchants.

In the penultimate month of our period, November 1453, Thomas Gylle of Dartmouth, merchant of substance who had a long history of apparent probity as an officer of the Crown, and who was the controller of customs in Exmouth that year seems, at last, to have been drawn into the web of corruption. He was working in collusion with William Kydd, the long-established pirate, in connection with a captured ship belonging to the Bishop of St Andrews which they brought into Exmouth. The ensuing documents stand out as being extraordinarily complicated and contorted, even by the standards of this period. Suffice it to say that they involved impersonation of the bishop’s brother; obtaining a commission under false pretences; impounding another ship in Scotland by way of reprisal; death-threats to officers of the Crown who approached the ship when in Sandwich; and the eventual escape of the ship, after her name had been changed, for the second time, to the Antony of Dartmouth. By March 1456 she was carrying thirty pilgrims on their way south to the shrine of St James at Compostela in Galicia.

All this time, piracy flourished, not only because of the usual reasons. The Crown was indeed weak, and deep-seated dynastic power struggles were taking place between excessively rich magnates. Law and order had certainly broken down in all levels of society. And, with the progressive loss of Normandy, the Channel became, once again, a dangerous frontier zone. In addition, and pervading all that, was corruption which reflected the underlying loss of the checks and balances which had previously been provided by the feudal system.

The degree of corruption was such that administrators in the ports, wealthy landowners inland and high-level legal officers were all involved. Widespread plunder was being carried out by the men of the sea with the strong support, encouragement and participation of the whole establishment, particularly in Cornwall and Devon.

By way of an epilogue, it is a nice irony that when, after several years of civil war and political manoeuvring, the time came, on 26 June 1460, for the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury to escort the Duke of York and his teenage son Edward across the Channel from Calais to Sandwich, they did so in a ship recently stolen from the French. Within nine more tumultuous months Edward had taken over the throne as Edward IV.

Queen Sayyida al Hurra

Sayyida al Hurra (1485-1561) Born in the Muslim kingdom of Granada in the Iberian peninsula, she fleet to North Africa after the christian conquest. She governed the state city of Tetouan and became the leader of pirates in the western Mediterranean, wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese shipping lines. By Ananda C. Arán

MOROCCAN 1485-1561

Little is known about Sayyida al Hurra – even her real name. Her designated title means `noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority’. Born in Granada, she fled to Morocco as a child after the city was sacked by Christian forces, and she later turned to piracy against them, along with many other Muslims. She allied with Hayreddin Barbarossa as she attacked Spanish and Portuguese shipping in the Mediterranean.

Nobody had more reason to despise the Spanish than the pirate queen of the Barbary Coast, Sayyida al-Hurra. Originally from Granada, Sayyida and her family were forced to flee following the Reconquista in 1492. She married the governor of Tétouan, a family friend, and through him assumed a position of power. After his death, Sayyida inherited the position of governor and allied with Oruç Barbarossa to attack the Spanish and Portuguese – together they controlled the Mediterranean Sea. Sayyida remarried to the sultan of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi, but famously refused to travel to Fez to marry him, instead insisting he come to her.

From 1515 to 1542, sayyida al-Hurra bint `ali ibn rashid governed Tétouan and, with her associate the Ottoman pirate Barbarossa, launched raids against the Spanish and Portuguese. Andalusians returning to Morocco in the late 15th century, as the Muslim control of even Granada slipped away, rebuilt Tétouan. Although sources disagree about whether al-Hurra’s husband was `ali al-mandri, the founder of the rebuilt Tétouan, or if perhaps her husband was his son (another al-mandri), they agree that from 1510 al-Hurra and her husband ruled Tétouan, she initially as prefect and he as governor, and that on his death in 1515 she assumed the title of governor. Spanish and Portuguese sources agree that it was with al-Hurra that their governments negotiated for the release of prisoners and that she was both the ultimate authority in Tétouan and behind the raids on their shipping.

In the late 15th century, al-Hurra’s Andalusian family (banu rashid) settled in Chefchaouen, and it was there that she married al-mandri, who belonged to an elite Andalusian family in Tétouan. After almandri’s death al-Hurra married the Wattasid sultan of Morocco, aHmad bn muHamad al-burtughali, who took the unprecedented step of leaving Fes to go to Tétouan for the marriage ceremony. Although remarried, al-Hurra continued to rule in Tétouan. The unusual degree of acceptance of al-Hurra as a ruler may have benefited from Andalusian familiarity with powerful female monarchs in Spain such as Isabelle of Castille (1474-1504).

HMS Kingfisher (1675)

The Action of the Kingfisher with Seven Algerine Ships, 22 May 1681 under command of Captain Morgan Kempthorne. She was specially designed to counter the attacks of Algerine corsairs, or pirates, in the Mediterranean by masquerading as a merchantman, which she achieved by hiding her armament behind false bulkheads. She also was provided with various means of changing her appearance. Kingfisher was rebuilt at Woolwich in 1699, as a Fourth Rate of 46-54 guns. She was hulked in 1706, and was broken up in 1728.

4th rate ship of the line – HMS Kingfisher was an amazing pirate hunter frigate masqueraded as a merchant ship. In the battle that made her famous where she fought Algerian 3 sail ships and 5 galleys for 12 hours and won with 8 casualties and somewhat 30 wounded. Same year she have sank Moroccan pirate and few years later captured Sophia a 12 gun ship.

Carrick Castle is a late fourteenth/early fifteenth century Tower House built by the Campbell clan and replaced an earlier fortification that had served as a Royal hunting lodge. It was constructed upon a rocky promontory overlooking the entrance into Loch Goil. The castle was attacked by the Royal Navy during the rebellion of Archibald Campbell in 1685.


France’s duc de Beaufort somewhat redeemed his humiliating defeat at Djidjelli by finding a glorious death fighting the Turks in the last stages of the seemingly endless siege of Candia in 1669. His body, and the French force he was leading, was then returned to France. The other foreign Christian contingents, especially the knights from Malta, also departed. Finally the last Venetian commander surrendered Candia to the Ottomans on terms and went home. The war for Crete was finally over. With the Ottoman sultan finally victorious, the Barbary corsairs would no longer have to send ships every year to join his fleet, and would have more vessels available to go in pursuit of Christian merchant ships. Algiers in particular stepped up its corsairing activities, just as the European sea powers, at peace with each other once more, were sending their battle fleets back to the Mediterranean.

An English fleet under Sir Thomas Allin commenced operations against Algiers in late 1669. Allin’s attempts to blockade Algiers necessitated a base much closer to the enemy city than Tangier, so he used anchorages in the Balearic Islands with the tacit approval of the Spanish. Tangier was, however, useful as a base for English warships mounting patrols in or near the strait of Gibraltar, a favourite cruising ground of the Algerine corsairs. An increasing number of corsairs were captured or driven ashore, while even large groups of them might be driven off by single English warships.

Battle of Cádiz, 18–19 December 1669. Engraving of the battle by Wenceslaus Hollar, an eyewitness

An example of the latter event occurred in December 1669. Earlier that year the famous artist and engraver Wenceslaus Hollar had been sent by King Charles II to Tangier to make drawings of the crown’s newest possession. After completing his work, Hollar boarded the warship HMS Mary Rose, commanded by Captain John Kempthorne, for passage back to England. First Kempthorne had to convoy some merchant ships to Cadiz in Spain. Soon after the convoy left Tangier it was attacked by a force of seven Algerine corsairs. They concentrated on trying to capture the Mary Rose, but for many hours Kempthorne’s crew beat them off. Eventually, after heavy damage had been inflicted on the Algerine flagship, the corsairs withdrew, and the Mary Rose and its convoy reached Cadiz safely. Kempthorne was rewarded by Charles II with a knighthood, while Hollar immortalized the event in an engraving.

Despite having fought two bitter naval wars against each other, England and the Netherlands could on occasion co-operate in the fight against the Barbary corsairs. In 1670 Admiral Willem van Ghent brought a Dutch fleet of thirteen ships, drawn from the admiralties of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Zeeland, to the Mediterranean and cooperated with Allin in the war against Algiers. An English squadron under Captain Richard Beach was detached to accompany van Ghent’s ships in patrolling the strait of Gibraltar and its approaches. In mid-August 1670 the allies encountered an Algerine squadron near Cape Spartel, and in the ensuing battle they drove six enemy ships ashore, burning them, killing several noted Algerine captains and freeing 250 Christian slaves.

In September 1670 Allin handed over command of the English Mediterranean fleet to Sir Edward Spragge and returned home. Spragge continued aggressive operations against the Algerines and achieved his greatest victory over them in May 1671. Seven Algerine warships were in the harbour at Bougie, and Spragge sent in fireships which successfully burned them all. This further heavy blow to the navy of Algiers led to a revolution in the city. The old ruler was overthrown and the new one was anxious to make peace with England, which was soon agreed. From this point onwards, the ruler of Algiers was known as the `dey’ (literally `uncle’), a title peculiar to that city.

The English and the Dutch had inflicted notable defeats on the Barbary corsairs, and the French had also carried out lesser naval operations against them in these years. However, just as the Barbary corsairs were beginning to feel real pressure from the European sea powers, that pressure was suddenly relaxed. Louis xiv was determined to destroy the Dutch republic, and he enlisted the aid of Charles II to launch an Anglo-French assault on the Netherlands in 1672. England would fight the Dutch until 1674, while the French continued the war against them until 1678. Once again the Barbary corsairs were left largely unopposed while the European sea powers fought among themselves.

Although the Dutch finally beat back the French invasion of 1672 which almost destroyed their country, and other states, including Spain, later joined their struggle against France, there was little doubt that this war weakened Dutch power. This was especially true in the Mediterranean. The French encouraged a revolt in Sicily against Spain, and the Dutch sent a fleet, under Admiral de Ruyter, to the Mediterranean to assist the Spanish. In a series of sea battles around the shores of Sicily in 1676 the French, under Admiral Abraham Duquesne, eventually got the better of the Dutch-Spanish fleet and the famous de Ruyter was killed in one of the encounters. The French were now masters of the western and central Mediterranean.

France and the Netherlands made peace in 1678. Dutch seaborne commerce had largely been excluded from the Mediterranean since 1672 and Dutch shipowners were desperate to regain the trade they had lost to French and English ships. Attacks by the Barbary corsairs might help those two countries in preventing a Dutch trade revival in the region. When Dutch negotiators came to the Barbary regencies in 1679 aiming to obtain new treaties from them, they came as supplicants. As usual the treaty agreed with Algiers would set the tone for those with Tunis and Tripoli. The terms the Dutch eventually agreed with Algiers were to horrify their English and French rivals. Although the Netherlands still had a significant navy and most of its merchant ships went to the Mediterranean in well protected convoys, the Dutch effectively capitulated to the Algerines.

In the treaty of 1679, ratified in 1680, the Dutch agreed, among other things, to provide what was in effect an annual tribute payment to Algiers. It did not take the form of money, but of a free gift of cannon, firearms, gunpowder and naval stores such as masts, cordage and shipbuilding timber. In effect the Dutch were providing the material to equip Algerine corsairs to attack the ships of other nations and in return the Algerines agreed not to attack Dutch merchant shipping. The Dutch had calculated it was cheaper to send regular tribute to Algiers than to face the cost of sending punitive naval expeditions against the corsair city. The 1679 treaty was to be the basis of Dutch relations with Algiers for the next hundred years and more.  

The English and the French were loud in their condemnation of what they saw as a Dutch surrender, and they resolved to bring the Barbary regencies to terms through further aggressive action by their navies. England led the way, and from 1677 to 1682 waged a fierce naval war with Algiers. However, when an English fleet, under Sir John Narbrough, returned to the Mediterranean in 1675 after King Charles ii had ended his participation in France’s war against the Dutch, its first target was not Algiers but Tripoli in Libya.

For most of 1675 Narbrough tried to maintain a naval blockade of Tripoli. The knights allowed him to use Malta as his forward base, but most of his supplies came from the more distant port of Livorno (called Leghorn by the English) in Tuscany, the principal base for English merchants in the central Mediterranean. Narbrough became more aggressive in the following year. In January 1676 a force of boats from the English fleet, led by Narbrough’s protégé Cloudesley Shovell, entered Tripoli harbour and burned four ships of the Tripoli fleet. Soon afterwards Narbrough’s ships encountered a Tripoli squadron at sea and destroyed all four vessels. After these heavy blows to his fleet, the ruler of Tripoli made peace in March 1676, freeing all his English captives and promising to pay a financial indemnity. The people of Tripoli revolted, overthrew their ruler and forced his replacement to denounce the treaty. Narborough quickly returned, threatening to bombard Tripoli unless the new ruler confirmed the treaty, which he duly did.

This success might have encouraged the other regencies to be more respectful towards England, but the Algerines were angry because so many foreign ships were using false English flags to avoid capture by their corsairs.

By 1679 the new commander of the Mediterranean Fleet Vice-Admiral (brevet) Arthur Herbert (later Lord Torrington) was less interested in a blockade of Algiers, preferring to escort English trade convoys through the corsair danger areas, mostly in or near the strait of Gibraltar, and to mount patrols in the same areas. Not only did his ships begin to take a steady toll of Algerine vessels, captured or destroyed, but they also accounted for some Sallee rovers from Morocco as well. In the past the corsairs had always been able to outrun English warships, but since the 1660s English shipyards had produced a number of fast, well armed vessels, often of shallow draught. They were equally useful operating among the sandbanks of the North Sea off the Dutch coast or going into the shallows near headlands like Cape Gata where Barbary corsairs lurked waiting for their prey.

Although the long breakwater built by the English at Tangier was said to be almost complete by the late 1670s, it had done little to improve the city’s harbour. Like his predecessors, Herbert was reluctant to make much use of Tangier as a naval base and it usually only received occasional visits from patrolling warships. This situation changed dramatically in 1680 when repeated Moroccan attacks on the defences of Tangier compelled Herbert to take the fleet there, landing sailors and cannon to assist the garrison in beating off the Moroccan assault. Nevertheless, once the danger was past, Herbert looked elsewhere for a fleet base and found it in Gibraltar. In April 1680 the Spanish gave Herbert permission to use Gibraltar as his main base and he continued to use it until his return to England in 1683. Among the young officers in Herbert’s fleet was George Rooke. Almost a quarter of a century later, as Admiral Rooke, he would capture Gibraltar for England in 1704.

Herbert soon began to accumulate many Muslim slaves, mostly taken from captured Algerine vessels. Like his predecessors, he was under orders not to bring them back to England. Some were used as labour in Tangier, working on the defences or constructing the breakwater. The rest were sent to the various slave markets in Christian Mediterranean countries, such as those at Cadiz and Livorno. In 1679 alone Herbert was said to have made a profit of 16,862 pieces of eight from the sale of 243 Muslim captives. Not all Muslim captives passed unresisting into slavery. At least two ships carrying Muslim slaves away from Tangier experienced revolts among the captives. The ships were seized and run ashore on the coast of North Africa.

By the start of 1681 Herbert’s ships were maintaining a steady rate of success against the Algerines. In March 1681 two English warships captured the noted Algerine corsair Golden Horse. (Algerine vessels did not have names like Christian ships, and they were usually identified by the name of their captain. When captured, they were often named after some feature of the carving at the stern of the vessel.) Some 500 Muslim crew, including the captain, a Dutch renegade, were taken prisoner and 90 Christian slaves were freed. In May history repeated itself when the warship HMS Kingfisher was attacked by eight Algerine corsairs near Sardinia. The ship’s captain was Morgan Kempthorne, son of John Kempthorne who had found himself in a similar position in HMS Mary Rose in 1669. Like his father, Morgan beat off his assailants, but in the battle he was fatally wounded. In September another Algerine corsair fell to the English warships. An English renegade was found among the officers of the captured vessel. He was immediately hanged.

Although Herbert was bringing increasing pressure to bear on the navy of Algiers, the city’s ruler became favourable to peace with England for other reasons. Algiers had been at peace with the Dutch and the French, but at war with the English. By late 1681 the Algerines were being drawn into conflict with France. Since the traditional policy was to avoid being at war with more than one of the main European sea powers at a time, war with France meant peace would have to be agreed with the English as soon as possible. In 1682 Algiers made a peace treaty with Herbert, and this treaty was to be the basis of England’s relations with Algiers until 1816.

Argyll’s Rebellion

In February 1685 Charles II died and was succeeded by his Catholic brother James II. Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll, was in exile in Holland and already plotting a Protestant revolt in tandem with Charles’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth. He raised a few thousand pounds among the Scottish exiles and hired three ships – the Anna of 30 guns, the David of 12 and the Sophia of 6. Evading the half-hearted attempts of the Dutch authorities to stop them, they sailed north intending to round Scotland and land in the Argyll territories in the west, which had been confiscated after the Earl was accused of treason in 1681.

Carrying 300 men and 400 sets of back armour, breast-plates and head-p ieces, the ships made a very fast passage and arrived off the Moray Firth on 5 May. They missed the passage between Orkney and Shetland in fog and found themselves in Scapa Flow, where they anchored in Swanbister Bay. Spence, the Earl’s chamberlain, had connections in the islands and went ashore with Dr Blackadder, but they were quickly arrested by the Bishop and magistrates of Kirkwall.

The leaders of the expedition were undecided about what to do. Some wanted to land and rescue their comrades, some suggested reprisals and a party was sent ashore and took six hostages. But the ships sailed on without Spence and Blackadder. They spent the night of 11 May at anchor in Tobermory Bay, then largely undeveloped, and mad e a specious attempt to salvage guns from the famous Spanish galleon wrecked there. They sailed down the Sound of Mull, unchallenged by Duart Castle, and on the 15th they arrived at Islay, on the edge of Argyll’s clan territory. Th e Earl expected that his authority as chief of the Clan Campbell would instantly raise thousands of men, but Islay had already been visited by government troops who imposed an oath of loyalty. About eighty men were recruited to the rebellion, but half of them soon deserted.

The Anna and her consorts sailed on to Campbeltown, solid clan territory as its name suggests. On 22 May they raised the standard of revolt, bearing the slogans ‘For the Protestant Religion’ and ‘Against, Popery, Prelacy and Erastianism’. Again there was indecision about what to do next. Some wanted to develop a base in the Highlands, others to seize what they believed was an opportunity to exploit discontent in Ayrshire and Galloway across the firth of Clyde. Instead, the fiery cross was sent through Argyllshire to raise the Campbells, and Tarbert, further up the Kintyre peninsula, was chosen as the rendezvous. The three ships sailed up the firth and the troops from Campbeltown marched. A force of about 2,500 men was assembled at Tarbert.

Argyll wanted to move further up the coast to his former seat at Inveraray, where 500 government troops were in control and were reportedly terrorising the population. His advisers pointed out the danger of the ships being trapped in the cul-de-sac of Loch Fyne with English warships approaching. Since supplies were short at Tarbert, it was decided to land on Bute. It took three days to transport all the men to Rothesay, using the Dutch ships plus about forty local fishing 4 – boats.) Rothesay Castle was burnt as a reprisal for the government’s burning of Argyll’s castle on Loch Goil. The tiny island of Eailean Greig in the Kyles was set up as a base. It was hoped that the narrow and winding channels would prove unnavigable for English warships.

Meanwhile the government was preparing its own forces. HMS Kingfisher of forty guns under Captain Hamilton was in the Clyde near Dumbarton and was joined by other ships from Leith. On shore, the Earl’ s close relations and supporters were arrested and troops were mobilised.

The rebels landed a small party at Toward Castle opposite Rothesay while another small force sailed to Greenock, where they defeated some ineffective government opposition. They gained about thirty recruits and retired across the firth. On 11 June, the same day as Monmouth belatedly began his revolt in the south-west of England, Argyll left Eailean Greig with most of his army and crossed the mainland of Cowal. He advanced up Glendaruel and reached Ardentinny. But in the meantime the Kingfisher succeeded in navigating up the Kyles of Bute and the rebel base came under arrack, Captain Hamilton describes events.

We got up to them yesterday with an intention to beat his men out of the fortifications they had built there by the castle, but they did not stay for our coming up with them, but run their ships on ground and abandoned the castle. They had laid a train of matches with an intention to blow up the castle but I sent a boat on shore and prevented the blowing Up.

This was deeply demoralising to the rebel army, but they used local boats to cross Loch Long from Ardentinny to Coulport. They marched round the head of the Gareloch and took a circuitous route towards Glasgow, hoping to avoid conflict with government forces. The army was slowly dispersing and by the time it reached the Clyde at Kilpatrick there were only about 150 weary, dispirited men left. Argyll crossed the Clyde and was arrested by government forces at Inchinnan while trying to cross the River Cart. He was taken to Edinburgh and executed on 30 June, while Monmouth faced the same fate two weeks later.


Having served as lieutenant of the Rupert in 1666, and of the Mary in the following year, was, in 1668, promoted to be commander of the Deptford ketch, and very soon afterwards removed into the Nightgale. In 1671-2 he was appointed captain of the Mermaid; and being removed, in the course of the following year, into the Constant Warwick of thirty-six guns, a small fourth rate, behaved very gallantly in a very smart encounter with a Dutch privateer, as given in a letter written at the time. In 1673, the spirit he had manifested on the former occasion procured him to be promoted to the Mary Rose of fifty guns.

In the account given by Prince Rupert, of the engagement between the English fleet under his command, and that of the Dutch, on the 28th of May in this year, he mentions a Colonel Hamilton, as having lost his leg. We have not been able to identify precisely, but we believe him to have been this gentleman, the appellation of Colonel being indiscriminately applied both to officers of the navy and army, at that day, and there being no other person at that time in the service of the same name. He was not appointed to any other ship till the 18th of June, 1675, when he was made captain of the Margaret Galley; the first of these appellations appears to have been a misnomer, as it is imagined there was no vessel of that name in the service.

We find him commanding the Charles, on the Mediterranean station, on the 26th of October 1677; at which time he captured, in company with the James, Captain Canning, who was killed, a very large Algerine ship of war, after a desperate battle. On the 4th of March 1682, he was appointed to the Kingfisher. In the month of June 1685, having with him the Falcon frigate, he attacked and carried almost without resistance, the castle of Ellengreg, on the eastern coast of Scotland. The unfortunate earl of Argyle had taken possession of it a few days before, and fortified it, as well as time and circumstances would permit him, intending it as his grand magazine, and place of final retreat. Captain Hamilton’s success appears to have given the decisive blow to this petty invasion, for on this occasion he not only made himself master of all the earl’s

stores, spare arms and ammunitions, but, pursuing his good fortune, took possession of the three ships which the earl brought with him, and in which only he could place his last hope of escape for himself and his followers.

We meet with nothing farther relative to Captain Hamilton till the month of May 1689, some months after the revolution had taken place; he then commanded a ship of war, whose name we have not been able to learn, on the Irish station, and performed a notable piece, of service in destroying a considerable number of boats intended for the use of the late King James’s army.

British Piracy

During the 1590s there were an average of 14 English expeditions to the Caribbean every year, with as many as 25 in 1598. That led by Francis Drake and John Hawkins in 1595- 96, aimed at San Juan de Puerto Rico and Panama, was the largest, comprising 27 ships, 1,500 seamen, and 2,500- 3,000 soldiers, but it met with even less good fortune than Drake’s solo foray a decade earlier. Hawkins died on the outward passage, and the Spaniards, long since forewarned of the impending English attack, had time to reinforce Puerto Rico with 1,500 fresh troops from Spain. When his attack was consequently driven off with considerable loss Drake sailed for Nombre de Dios, raiding along the coast of the mainland as he went. Nombre de Dios was found largely deserted, and he seized the fort and burned the town. He then despatched 900 men, organised into five or seven companies under his lieutenant, Thomas Baskerville, to traverse the Isthmus and take Panama, but after marching through torrential rain for three days these encountered stiff Spanish opposition on the fourth and, with their provisions and powder ruined by the downpour, they were obliged to withdraw. Re-embarking its landingparty, the fleet then sailed along the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, its crews contracting dysentery en route after landing to find water. When Drake himself died of the `bloody flux’ in January 1596 command devolved on Baskerville, who called an end to the disastrous expedition and sailed for home with the remaining 14 or 15 ships (several having either been lost to the enemy or scuttled in consequence of having insufficient men left to crew them). It was left to another celebrated English corsair, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland – author of a dozen raids between 1586 and 1598 – to succeed where Drake had not in capturing San Juan de Puerto Rico, which he did in 1598 with a fleet of 18 ships and 1,000 men. He had intended to hold the port permanently, but once again unsustainable losses to tropical disease obliged the English to withdraw without installing a garrison. The frequency of such semi-official English ventures subsequently declined, there being only ten altogether between 1600 and 1603, when the long-running Anglo-Spanish conflict effectively came to an end.

The majority of pirate flotillas operating in American waters initially consisted of no more than a single ship equipped for both fighting and trading, accompanied by a smaller vessel of a type called a pinnace or patache, which, having a shallow draft and being provided with up to 18 oars a side as well as sails, was better suited to the inshore work called for in coastal operations. The pinnace might displace as little as 20 tons and could have a crew of as few as 20 men or as many as 70, but carried little or no armament beyond a number of small versos (1-11/2 pdr breech-loading swivels). No raiding force recorded in the first half of the century ever comprised more than 800- 1,000 men and six vessels, of which two at the very least were pinnaces. During the 1550s, however, the French despatched larger fleets which included royal warships as well as privateers, and carried sizeable contingents of troops for deployment ashore. The ten ships which sailed under François le Clerc in 1553-54 constituted the first of these more substantial ventures, and included two royal warships and three or four pinnaces. Most English expeditions of the period 1572-1603 were of three ships or less. Only those which received royal backing were any larger, being sometimes accompanied by royal warships (two served under Drake in 1585-86, and five in 1595-96). Drake’s expedition of 1572-73 appears to have been unique in carrying three prefabricated pinnaces aboard one of its two ships, which were unloaded and re-assembled when he arrived at his destination in the Gulf of Darién. Pinnaces were sufficiently important to the success of a privateering enterprise that expeditions were generally abandoned if the larger ships lost touch with them for any reason, while the pinnace commander sometimes decided to utilise the advantages of his vessel for his own profit, abandoning the accompanying ship to go a-roving on his own.


Drake knew from experience that a surprise assault was critical to their success. They laid in wait, crouching by the side of the jungle path for what must have seemed an eternity before the tinkling of mule bells rang sweetly in their ears. Suddenly, the gallop of a lone horse coming from the wrong direction warned Drake that all was not as it should be. Before the rider could be stopped he had alerted the muleteers to head back, and that the pirate Drake would pounce on them any moment. The Spanish cleverly separated out the silver shipment from the more valuable gold—estimated at some £35,000 ($12.32 million or £6.66 million today)—and sent the mules carrying the silver on into Drake’s arms. Realizing that they had been discovered, Drake and Pedro decided that it would be too risky to return to base the same way they had come, and opted instead to boldly take Venta Cruces. The raiding party marched through the town, burning and pillaging as they went. Any casualties incurred were in defense of property, not in brutal murder, according to reports both Spanish and English. Drake had also ordered his men that the women must remain “inviolate,” and he even entered homes to reassure the women personally that none of them would be raped. While there is no excuse for the terror Drake and his raiders inflicted on their victims, this level of humanity in the sixteenth century—let alone in the twentieth or twenty-first—is remarkable.

Now that he had made his strike, Drake once again lay low, hoping to trick the Spaniards into believing that he had left the Caribbean with his paltry treasure. While his good “Plymouth lads” grumbled about the heat, humidity, and their ill-luck, the Cimarrones tended the sick and injured and made moccasins for the foot-sore rovers. Drake marveled at their strength, their courage, and above all their loyalty. “Yea many times when some of our company fainted with sickness or weariness,” Drake wrote later, “two Cimarrones would carry him [the sick] with ease between them two miles together, and at other times (when need was) they would show themselves no less valiant than industrious and of good judgement.”

After their retreat, there was little else to do than plan their next raid for the spring of 1573, and capture a prize that would hopefully keep them well provided in victuals and water. Then, nearly a month after they had rejoined their ships following the Venta Cruces raids, a large French ship bore down on them just off Cativas Headland near Nombre de Díos. Her captain, who had been looking for Drake for some five weeks, was none other than the Huguenot corsair Guillaume le Testu. Le Testu was no ordinary pirate. He had been the personal protégé of Admiral de Coligny, and was captaining a ship for the merchant adventurer Philippe Strozzi.

Le Testu was well known to Drake. After all, Le Testu had taken part in the French colonial adventure to Brazil, and Drake admired the French challenge in South America to the Spaniards. So when the Frenchman asked for water, and explained some of his men were ill, Drake ordered provisions to be sent aboard; then he asked Le Testu to follow him to one of his storehouses so that they could be fully replenished. When they finally anchored, the Huguenot captain gave Drake a gilt scimitar that had been a gift of his dear, now butchered, leader, Admiral de Coligny. This devastating news, and the carnage that had ensued in France, shocked and angered Drake, making the gift all the more dear.

The two men had already respected each other before they ever met, but once in the same cabin together, that respect grew into mutual admiration. Le Testu showed Drake his invaluable folio atlas of fifty-six maps that he had drawn based on his own experiences, and which had been dedicated to Coligny some years earlier. This treasure of experience would have driven home the fact to Drake of how poor English knowledge of the seas had truly been. Le Testu had been a royal pilot at Le Havre, and had been born and bred with the sea coursing through his soul like Drake. The main difference between the two was that Le Testu had high-level contacts in Coligny and, lately, André Thévet, Catherine de’ Medici’s chaplain. Drake had to make his own way through hard graft. What is striking from this encounter of great “pirates” is that Le Testu would have not been a corsair or outlaw if he had adhered to the Catholic faith.

Naturally, Drake and Le Testu fell in together, and agreed on how to mount another raid on the trajín. Le Testu believed that if they attacked closer to Nombre de Díos, after the gold and silver shipments had been separated at the Chagres River, the soldiers would be more relaxed as their journey was nearing its end. It would be easier to box them in or, preferably, disperse the mule train’s defenders more easily, he ventured. Drake agreed.

On March 31, 1573, the combined Cimarrone, English, and Huguenot forces stole into the jungle. Cimaroon scouts edged forward in the night, returning to their positions before daybreak. The trajín had nearly two hundred mules in all and an escort of around forty-five poorly armed, barefoot soldiers.

The assault was rapid and deadly. The Cimaroons led the charge. Within the first few seconds, a Negro harquebusier fired at Le Testu, wounding him in the stomach, and killing a Cimaroon. The attackers surged forward regardless, shouting fierce battle cries and shooting off their weapons. The Spaniards quickly recognized that if they stayed and defended the trajín, it would be a turkey shoot, and they would be the turkeys. While they turned tail and ran, the raiders leapt onto the baggage and prized open the chests. The mules were carrying more than 200,000 pesos de oro ($23.24 million or £12.56 million today). What made the prize sweeter was that 18,363 pesos de oro ($2.13 million or £1.15 million today) personally belonged to the King of Spain.

The fifteen tons of silver looted was hastily hidden in burrows made by land crabs, or under fallen trees. They had to be quick about it, though, since again, they were only two leagues from Nombre de Díos. Half of the gold was loaded back onto the mules and carried to the mouth of the Francisca River, where their pinnaces were waiting. But Le Testu was mortally wounded, and he knew it. He told Drake to go ahead and leave him, that he would guard the silver until they could return. The last thing Le Testu wanted was for Spanish soldiers to cut off their retreat to the sea, and Drake reluctantly agreed. Two of his men volunteered to keep him company, while the others marched laboriously away.

Two days later, after yet another torrential downpour in the jungle, the raiders arrived at their rendezvous. But instead of their own pinnaces, they found Spanish shallops. Had the pinnaces been captured? How would they escape back to their pirate’s haven? the men asked. Had the Spaniards wrecked the Pasco and dashed their hopes of returning home? Drake knew from experience that action would keep these worries from overpowering his men. As ever ingenious, he instructed them to make a raft from fallen trees, binding the trunks together and using a slashed biscuit sack for its puny sail. It wasn’t pretty, but it just about floated. After the Spaniards rounded the headland, Drake and three men waded out in their ludicrous tree raft, at times sailing waist high in seawater, before they spotted the Bear and the Minion, nestled in a safe harbor nearby. As Drake boarded the ship, he broke into a sudden smile and brought out a quoit (disc) of gold from his shirt. Their voyage had been made.

After his men had been brought safely on board, the Cimarrones came forward with the sad news that captain Le Testu had been killed. Drake said a prayer for the Frenchman’s soul and gave the order to weigh anchor. It was unsafe to return for the silver. Their voyage had been made, thanks in large part to the Cimaroons and the Huguenots, with whom he gladly shared their prize. They had been away for more than a year, and more than half of them were dead, including Drake’s two brothers.

In an incredibly swift and uneventful crossing of only twenty-three days, Drake and his remaining crew pulled into Plymouth harbor on Sunday, August 9, 1574. All the good men and women of the town were at prayer in St. Andrew’s Church, listening to their vicar’s sermon, when a murmuring among the parishoners grew into a roar. Drake had returned, they whispered to one another. One by one they left, until finally the entire flock deserted its preacher and raced to the waterfront to welcome home their heroes.

The French

In the absence of their own navigational charts, early French raiders depended heavily on the knowledge and experience of disaffected Spanish pilots, Benzoni recording in the 1540s that `it was some Spaniards, practised in that navigation, who led the enemy, so that the French also became as familiar with those waters as the Spaniards themselves’. It was, for instance, a Spaniard who guided five French ships into Cartagena harbour in 1544, where they landed 100 men and sacked and burnt the town. Before long, however, French corsairs knew as much about navigating in the Caribbean and the Atlantic sea-lanes as their Spanish counterparts, and had accumulated sufficient intelligence of Spanish strength in the region to enable them to launch their attacks with impunity. Benzoni noted that `although in the beginning they restricted themselves to the vicinity of Hispaniola and San Juan de Puerto Rico, yet when those districts ceased to yield rich prizes, they frequented more of the islands, and even some of the provinces on the mainland’, pillaging towns and capturing ships wherever they went. The audiencia of Santo Domingo reported in 1541 that French corsairs `knowing the weakness of these ports landed in many of them, in full daylight, [and] burned and robbed some without meeting any resistance’. Very few Spanish attempts to repel pirate landing-parties were ever successful, and at least some of those that were owed their success more to bribery than force of arms. Indeed, Blasco Nuñez Vela (1539) considered that 300 corsairs could seize any coastal town on the Spanish Main that they cared to, regardless of its size or strength, and it is readily apparent from the sources that the Spaniards’ poor leadership and lack of adequate arms virtually guaranteed the pirates success on land. So long as they managed to avoid the larger and more heavily-armed Spanish warships sometimes despatched against them there was also very little that they needed to fear at sea.

Normal French raiding practice, as recorded by a Spanish eye-witness in 1571, was for the crew of the pinnace to make the attack while the larger ship stood offshore, the booty being subsequently transferred to the ship, which would periodically return to Normandy to sell it. This is exactly how Sores went about attacking Havana in 1555, when he landed the bulk of his men by means of his pinnaces and ships’ boats to outflank the town’s defences and launch an overland attack from the rear. On this particular occasion the French set fire to the fort’s gates to smoke out its garrison after several hours of fighting. The Spanish governor had meanwhile rallied the population (which, as was customary under such circumstances, had fled inland with the greater part of its portable valuables at first site of the corsairs) and returned with such armed men as he could muster, but was beaten off. Drake employed much the same tactics in his attack on Santo Domingo in 1586, putting his landing-party ashore several miles away to launch a surprise attack from the rear while his main fleet kept the town’s defences occupied from the seaward side. This became the characteristic modus operandi of English privateers thereafter.

William Kidd: Hunter then Hunted! Part I

The idea of sending a specially equipped and crewed privateer against the Madagascar pirates had actually originated with King William himself.

William understood very well the cost in wealth and influence to England if the East India Company should fail. He was not as insensitive to the company’s plight as he sometimes appeared to the directors. But he was a man with a mission. All his energies and all his powers of persuasion were directed toward one aim: the defeat of France and the curbing of the power of Louis XIV. With Dutch stubbornness and almost-fanatical commitment, he had pressed his war against Louis, excluding from his thoughts anything not relevant to that war. No amount of pleading from the wealthy men of the East India Company would cause him to alter his policy and dispatch elements of the Royal Navy to the East. The war against Louis came first. But there was a second factor that contributed to the king’s stubborn attitude: He genuinely doubted that warships were necessary to reduce the brigands of Madagascar. Pirates, the king was convinced, were mere thieves—a rabble that would scatter at the approach of the law. To deal with such scum, you did not need the navy, you needed only a few seaborne policemen. If some private gentlemen of means prepared such a police force—a well-armed privateer, for example—and sent it against the pirates of Madagascar, the king was certain it would quickly clean up that nest of thieves.

In making his suggestion, William had indicated that he himself might be willing to buy a share in such a privateering venture. But despite the fact that the privateer proposal had originated with the sovereign himself, the idea had borne no fruit. It would have required some enterprising individual with the ability to sell the scheme to men of influence and wealth to organize the venture and get it off the ground—and no such person had come forward. The king’s suggestion had languished.

Then, in August 1695, Thomas Livingston arrived in London from New York.

Livingston, forty, was a prominent landowner and merchant of New York, connected by marriage to many of the colony’s oldest and richest families. A broad, powerful man, Livingston possessed a tenacious will and a clever, conspiratorial mind. From humble beginnings he had risen high in the world, and like many men who claw their way to fortune, he had developed a hard, grasping, vindictive, and self-righteous character in the process. Born in Scotland of a poverty-stricken family, Livingston had emigrated to New York where he had found employment as a bookkeeper. Energetic and self-disciplined, he had saved his money until he had accumulated enough to invest in shipping ventures. By the time he was thirty, Livingston had amassed a considerable fortune. While attending to business, he had also devoted much of his energy to creating a position for himself in New York society. By virtue of a marriage that was as shrewdly thought out as any of his business deals, Livingston had formed marital ties with both the Van Rensselaers and the Schuylers, families that had long been prominent in New York. To go with his business success and social prominence, Livingston had acquired 160,000 acres of prime Hudson Valley real estate—and was the lord of a magnificent home known as Livingston Manor.

In the course of his business career, Livingston had somehow made an enemy of New York’s corrupt colonial governor Benjamin Fletcher. The pithy Fletcher liked to refer to Livingston as “the little bookkeeper,” adding that Livingston had “screwed himself into one of the most considerable estates in the province.”

Livingston despised Fletcher in turn. In fact, Livingston had even filed a lawsuit against Fletcher in London, claiming that the colonial governor owed him money for services rendered to the colony—and had refused to pay.

When Livingston learned that Lord Bellomont was to replace Fletcher, he was extremely gratified. He decided to sail to London in order to introduce himself to Bellomont—and to ingratiate himself with the new colonial governor. At the same time he would press his lawsuit against Fletcher.

For Lord Bellomont, dealing with the thousand-and-one details involved in arranging the affairs of his estates and business interests preparatory to taking up his new post across the Atlantic, it had been a very difficult summer. His gout had been acting up. His young wife seemed unhappy about the prospect of going to America. Almost every day reports of pirate depredations arrived from the East. Moreover, he was beginning to comprehend the full complexity of the task he faced in trying to suppress the trade in pirate contraband in America—a trade long established and generally approved by the colonials.

Further, the summer itself had been gloomy and full of portents. The weather had been wet and cold, more like November than August. Forged banknotes had been circulating throughout the town, making every shopkeeper suspicious of every customer. A wild-eyed soldier had appeared in the City, crying out that King William had died in Flanders, and snarling that he would shoot anyone who denied the news he had brought. The authorities had taken the poor man into custody, but not until he had spread panic in the streets. He was later found to be certifiably insane. The king, the City was assured, was alive and well, and as determined as ever to bring down Louis. But the crazy soldier, with his message of royal demise, had seemed to symbolize the gloomy strangeness of the summer.

In his fine London home, Lord Bellomont must have occasionally regretted his decision to forsake his comfortable Irish estates to accept the king’s commission.

Then, on August 10, Thomas Livingston came to call on the new governor.

The tough, self-made American merchant and the haughty, often-irascible Establishment peer discovered that they had much in common. Both were shrewd men of business. Both enjoyed good wines and good horses. And both loved intrigue.

As the two men discussed colonial affairs, the king’s idea of sending a privateer to the East came up. Livingston pounced on the proposal. There were great possibilities in such a project, he told Bellomont. In one stroke, he pointed out, and at little cost, Bellomont could please the king, give the East India Company the immediate action against the pirates that it was clamoring for, and show the American pirate brokers that he really meant to suppress the pirate trade. What better way for Bellomont to launch his career as governor? Furthermore, and not incidentally, said Livingston, the plan could bring considerable profit to investors.

Livingston suggested that Bellomont approach some of his powerful and wealthy friends in the British government to form a syndicate that would privately finance the “pirate killer” ship. Livingston suggested to Bellomont that he might point out to potential backers that the pirate killer would no doubt recover great piles of loot from captured vessels—and that most of this plunder would go to the backers of the enterprise. Bellomont, now fired with enthusiasm for the venture, felt confident that he would have no trouble finding investors in a plan that would accomplish the laudatory goal of reducing piracy while bringing profit and praise to its sponsors.

In the event, Bellomont brought four of England’s most powerful political figures into the syndicate. They were Sir John Somers, lord keeper of the great seal; the Duke of Shrewsbury, secretary of state; Sir Edward Russell, first lord of the admiralty; and the Earl of Romney, master general of ordnance. A wealthy London merchant, Edmund Harrison, was also allowed into the consortium in exchange for lending Bellomont enough cash so that the new colonial governor could buy into his own proposal.

The powerful men whom Bellomont had recruited into his pirate-killer syndicate were not only highly placed figures in the English government, they were also close personal friends of the king himself. All of them had been in the forefront of the parliamentary “bloodless revolution” of 1688 that had deposed the Catholic King James II and had brought William to England. The participation of such high-ranking men would have cloaked the project with a respectibility beyond dispute if the syndicate members had been willing to make their names public. However, Bellomont’s partners insisted that they must remain anonymous—a proviso to which Bellomont and Livingston readily acceded.

Although Bellomont and Livingston had quickly secured the necessary financial backing for their pirate killer, they still lacked the one component they deemed essential to the enterprise: a trustworthy and skilled commander. The captain of this very special vessel, Livingston felt, must not only be an outstanding seaman, he must also understand how pirates operated and—probably more important than any other requirement—he must be discreet enough to keep confidential the identities of his backers and sensible of the need for prudence and circumspection in carrying out his mission.

Livingston fretted that lacking a suitable captain, the venture that Bellomont and he had now set their hearts on might never come to pass.

Then, as if the fates were at work on his behalf, Livingston encountered an old acquaintance who had just arrived in London: a fellow New Yorker, a knowledgeable man of the sea, and a man of substance. Livingston was elated. This old colleague, he felt certain, would be the perfect man to captain the enterprise to the East. He was William Kidd, master of the merchant sloop Antegoa.

Kidd was then about fifty years old, not tall but solidly built, with wide shoulders and powerful, seaman’s hands. Broad-faced, blue-eyed, brown from the sun, he had a beak of a nose that gave his bluff sea-captain’s face an almost Roman look. Slow of speech and cautious in manner, he seldom smiled. He was never considered a clever man. But when he spoke, he spoke plainly and directly, holding to a seaman’s rather simple view of the world: fair or foul, full or empty, friend or foe, honest or false. He was an honest man, too, a man of good repute—and a man of courage. (Some thought him too easily led by others, however, and for all his outward tranquillity, he was capable, when provoked, of outbursts of rage.)

In 1695 William Kidd was one of New York’s most successful merchant captains, due in no small measure to his habit of plain speaking, his courage, and the simple integrity he brought to his dealings with others.

Born to poverty in Scotland, Kidd had gone to sea as a lad.2 Nothing is known of his early career, but in 1688, when he was about forty-three, he had risen high enough in the world to be the owner of his own ship and to buy a fine house in New York City.

Around this same time he had also become involved in the political affairs of New York, and the colony’s assembly had thought well enough of him to award him a purse of £150 in recognition of his services in helping to quell a short-lived political upheaval in the port.

The New York council also thought well of him. In a resolution the council had called him “gentlemanly,” and had gone on to say: “Neither in his domestic relations nor in his personal history…could aught be said against him.”

In 1691 William Kidd, ship captain, had taken a step that had transformed him from a respectable merchant mariner to one of New York’s leading citizens: he had married a young, beautiful—and very wealthy—wife.

She was Sarah Oort, widow of shipping magnate John Oort, who had been her second husband. Sarah, born Sarah Bradley in less than affluent circumstances, was described by all who knew her as “lovely and accomplished.” She had married her first husband, a city alderman named Cox, when she was only fifteen. Cox had died three years later, leaving Sarah well off. Subsequently Sarah had married the rich Mr. Oort, who had died on May 5, 1691, leaving Sarah all he possessed, which was considerable. Only eleven days after Mr. Oort’s demise, the grieving young widow had married Captain William Kidd.

Although the beautiful Sarah could neither read nor write, signing all her documents with her own peculiar “S.K.” mark, she owned some of the finest properties in New York, including a beautiful house on Pearl Street and a farm called Saw Kill Farm, overlooking the East River.

Thanks to Sarah’s fortune, Kidd was able to live in exceedingly comfortable circumstances. His tall, gabled house looked out over New York’s magnificent harbor. Sarah furnished the place luxuriously, with finely carved furniture and Turkish carpets for the floors, and saw to it that there was always plenty of good food and fine wine for the captain and his guests.

Kidd and his family became pillars of the church. It was William Kidd who donated the block and tackle with which Wall Street’s historic Trinity Church was built—and Kidd and his family had their own pew in the finished edifice.

But even though he had won the love of a beautiful wife, had earned the esteem of his community, and possessed a comfortable home, William Kidd was not a happy man. He yearned to fulfill a dream—a dream that seemed to belie his blunt practical nature—that seemed so fanciful and so obviously unattainable that it rendered him absurd in the eyes of those to whom he had revealed it.

William Kidd, merchant master, who had had barely enough education to write a comprehensible letter, longed to captain one of His Majesty’s men-of-war—hungered for the prestige and the dignity of a command in the Royal Navy.

Although he lacked virtually all the requirements necessary to attain such a post in that age of snobbery—social graces, political connections, and the proper background—Kidd would not allow such mundane considerations to dissuade him from his goal. He had convinced himself that he could become a captain in the Royal Navy—and he traveled to London in the summer of 1695 to persuade the Admiralty to grant him his heart’s desire.

Toward that end Kidd carried a letter of recommendation from James Graham, attorney general of New York, addressed to William Blathwayt, a political figure who had a reputation as a man able to obtain “favors” for friends. Unfortunately for Kidd, Blathwayt was away from London—in Flanders with the king—when Kidd arrived in the city. Consequently, Kidd found himself at loose ends in London. Then Thomas Livingston happened upon him.

To Livingston, Kidd seemed the ideal man for the privateer voyage he had in mind. He was a respected man of property, and a more than competent seaman, who had considerable experience dealing with the moneyed classes and whose discretion could therefore be relied upon.

There was still another, most important reason why Livingston considered Kidd the right man for the job. The New York captain had successfully commanded privateers in the past. With the outbreak of King William’s war with France in 1689, Kidd, in a sloop he had then owned—the Blessed William—had fought as a privateer auxiliary with the English fleet in the West Indies—and had participated gallantly in several actions. In fact, the fleet commander, Thomas Hewson, had later said of Kidd: “He was with me in two engagements against the French, and fought as well as any man I ever saw, according to the proportion of his men.” (Perhaps it was this experience with the professional fleet in the West Indies, plus Hewson’s praise, that had convinced Kidd that for all his lack of schooling and background, he did possess sufficient natural merit to realize his dream of a Royal Navy command.)

After action with the fleet, Kidd and Blessed William had put in at Antigua for provisions prior to returning to New York. While Kidd was conducting his business ashore, however, his crew, stirred up by the mate, Robert Culliford, had mutinied and sailed away with the ship. (Culliford eventually made his way to Madagascar and was elected captain of several pirate ships. The fate of the Blessed William is unknown.)

If this event embarrassed Kidd, at least it had cost him no financial loss. The British governor of the Leeward Islands, in recognition of his services to the fleet, had presented Kidd with a captured barkentine, the Antegoa, to replace the stolen Blessed William. Thereupon the grateful captain had sailed home to New York.

A few months later, the Massachusetts colony—mindful of Kidd’s good work against the French in the West Indies—had hired him to chase a notorious French privateer away from the American coast—and Kidd had succeeded in that mission.

Although the intriguing Livingston probably saw Kidd as the commander of his pirate killer from the first moments of their meeting in London, he was careful not to broach the subject of his eastern enterprise too abruptly. Instead, he concentrated on ingratiating himself with the bluff seafarer, succeeding so well that Kidd even testified on Livingston’s behalf in his suit against the retiring Governor Fletcher.

It is likely that Livingston encouraged Kidd’s preposterous conviction that he could become the captain of a Royal Navy man-of-war. In doing so, however, Livingston further excited in Kidd a hitherto-inconsequential propensity for self-delusion, which was a basic, if not obvious, aspect of the captain’s character. For there seems to have been in William Kidd a deep streak of stubborn fantasy, a penchant to believe a thing possible because he desired it, an inclination to regard something as true simply because he wanted it to be true. This tendency toward magical thinking, so clearly exposed in his dream of a Royal Navy command, seems to have operated by blinding Kidd to the reality of his situation when his deepest desires were engaged. It also seems to have led him often to misinterpret the intentions of others, as he had for example misinterpreted the character of the mate, Culliford, who had made off with his ship. It seems likely that this inclination toward wishful thinking also made it difficult for Kidd to see himself as others saw him. Thus, in his fantasy, he was able to envision himself with ease as the polished and dashing commander of one of His Majesty’s men-of-war.

Probably, in his rough world of privateers and cutthroat merchants, this facet of Kidd’s personality had not mattered very much. More than likely it was usually dismissed as a quirk, a rather laughable inclination of the captain’s to put on airs. It did not, in any case, interfere very much with his professional performance as either a self-employed privateer or as a merchant captain.

But for a project like Livingston and Bellomont’s, a commander was needed who was not only discreet and competent but also capable of acting on his own in remote waters, capable of weighing the reality of his situation, capable of making critical judgments under pressure. To put in command of such an enterprise a man whose view of reality might be determined by his desires was a prescription for disaster. Yet Livingston, although a shrewd man of experience, apparently failed to perceive this flaw in Kidd—or if he did recognize it, he did not believe it would adversely affect his enterprise, for he had now fixed on William Kidd as his captain.

Livingston waited for an appropriate moment—and then put forward his privateer proposition to his fellow New Yorker. Kidd professed himself uninterested. He had no wish to command a privateer, he explained to Livingston, even one with so lofty a mission as suppression of the Madagascar outlaws.

Livingston, however, refused to accept Kidd’s negative response. Perhaps, as a crafty salesman, he sensed that the bluff sea captain could be pressured or cajoled into accepting the post offered.

Perhaps Kidd himself created this impression in Livingston’s mind in order to retain Livingston’s friendship. Like many unsophisticated people with ambitions beyond their talents, Kidd often thought himself more clever than he really was. He probably believed that if he did not entirely close the door to Livingston’s project, he would be better able to cultivate Livingston and Bellomont, and perhaps even secure their help in obtaining his commission in the Royal Navy. In this sense Kidd himself opened the door to the pressure that, with single-minded tenacity, Livingston now exerted on him.

Livingston began his campaign by taking Kidd to see Lord Bellomont himself. The great man suggested to the duly impressed captain that perhaps the best way to achieve his life’s dream of a Royal Navy career would be to accept the special privateering commission he and Livingston were now offering to him. It was a mission, after all, that had been proposed by the king himself, Bellomont no doubt pointed out, and it had the backing of some of the most influential men in the realm, not the least of whom was himself, soon to be governor of Kidd’s own province and in a position to do him a great deal of good. On the other hand, Bellomont no doubt implied, to refuse such a service to the Crown might be construed by some as a disloyal act unworthy of a Royal Navy captain.

Even Kidd must have understood the message: Take the proposition offered to him by Bellomont and Livingston, and he would prosper; refuse, and his dream of a navy command might come to nothing.

The pressure on Kidd to accept immediately was enormous. But he did not buckle under. He pointed out that as an experienced privateer, he saw a number of major flaws in the proposed venture to the East.

Foremost among these flaws was the fact that even with a pirate-killer vessel, pirate ships would be most difficult to capture. Pirates were not only fast sailers, well armed, and crewed by tough fighting men, they were impossible to identify at sea unless they attacked or broke out a black flag. No pirate would be fool enough to willingly engage a fighting ship like Bellomont and Livingston’s privateer. Nor would any pirate ever be stupid enough to show his true colors to such a fighting ship.

Moreover, even if the pirate killer did manage to overtake a pirate on the high seas, there would be little likelihood of finding booty aboard her since it was not the pirate custom to remain long under sail after making a big score but rather to get quickly to some safe haven and there share out the plunder. As for rooting the pirates out of their bases on Madagascar, no single ship, no matter how well armed, could possibly accomplish that objective.