Ten American Pirates You’d Best Have Avoided When They Were in Their Prime
Most of us think of 17th Century pirates as swashbuckling outlaws that wore eyepatches, drank grog and buried their treasure on desert islands. And while some pirates probably did lose an eye and most definitely drank watered-down rum, outlaws they were not.
Most were so-called privateers, or corsairs, commissioned by English government officials to attack and capture an enemy’s shipping. The privateer’s job was to inhibit the enemy’s ability to trade, and make some money for themselves – and the Crown – on the side.
Elizabeth I was a big fan of privateers like Sir Francis Drake, who menaced Spanish shipping and filled the Queen’s coffers with gold throughout her reign. By the mid-1600s, however, the English parliament in London was beginning to tire of corsair captains. They were driven primarily by profit and often went beyond the bounds of their commissions, attacking any vessel flying a flag other than their own. This was a problem, as an attack on the wrong ship could cause a significant diplomatic stir, and even tip England into war.
And the biggest offenders? The Americans.
The Governors of the various Crown colonies in America were permitted to grant commission to privateers, giving them permission, for example, to capture ships flying the French flag along the Eastern seaboard. But these captains had no intention of remaining in the Atlantic, and, for the most part, the governors knew it. Instead the ships set sail for the Red Sea, where there were rich, tax-free pickings for pirates, and the Governors who sponsored them. Wearing the fig leaf of a Crown commission, these captains based themselves on the island of Madagascar and set about terrorizing any and all shipping in the area – including, on occasion, ships flying the English flag.
The English parliament was outraged. They declared piracy to be a scourge, and ruled that pirates were to be treated like any thief or highwayman, and hanged. The message was sent across the Atlantic to the governors of the Crown’s colonies in America. The reaction was… mixed. Some governors fell in line and tried to stamp out piracy. Others turned a blind eye. Not surprisingly, given the most successful privateers-turned-pirate would return to their home ports, their ships laden with gold, jewels, silks and slaves, to the benefit of themselves, their fellow colonists and, of course, the Governors themselves.
Here are the top ten most notorious American pirates of the late 1700s.
Tew turned pirate after he obtained a commission to harass the French near Gambia, and promptly set course for the Red Sea instead. When he asked his crew if they were willing to break the law and sail with him they reportedly answer with the shout, “A gold chain or a wooden leg, we’ll stand with you!” He became great friends with New York’s governor, Benjamin Fletcher, who often acted as his sponsor and commissioner, and who shared in his considerable spoils. Tew was killed in action, shot to death by a cannon during an attack on an Arab merchantman. His grave is unknown, but he is remembered as one of the most successful of the gentleman pirates of the age.
Most pirates had a short career: they did their best to make a killing and retire early, and many died after a short time at sea. Burgess was an exception, and his name pops up again and again in the annals of pirate history. He served as a mate and a quartermaster under numerous privateer and slaver captains in the late 1600s, including William Kidd. He then captained several ships that he took back and forth from the Indian Ocean on a number of commercially successful voyages. He was convicted of piracy in 1701, in one of the most famous pirate trials in history, but secured a pardon and went straight back into business. He served on a variety of pirate vessels, as a seaman, mate and quartermaster, and eventually settled in Madagascar, where he was poisoned to death in 1708.
Adam Baldridge, The Pirate King
Baldridge was a New Yorker, born and raised, who killed a man in a barroom brawl in 1685 and went on the run. A ship heading for the Red Sea dropped him at Madagascar, where he settled on a small island called St Mary’s. Baldridge was not much of a pirate, but he built the settlement at St Mary’s into a haven for ships making the Pirate Round, from the Eastern seaboard of America to the Red Sea. He built a fort there, complete with cannon, and harbored anyone willing to pay. St Mary’s became a notorious center of pirate vice and debauchery, and Baldridge lived there like a King until 1797, when he was chased out by the natives. He returned to America, where, thanks to the patronage of New York merchants who had profited handsomely by him, lived as a trader until he died in 1719.
The tale of Captain Kidd is a sorry one. Born in Scotland, but settled in New York, he was a privateer who for years moved in the same circles as Thomas Tew, Henry Every and the Rhode Island mob. In 1695 he was hired by the English government to change coats. His orders were to hunt down Thomas Tew and a number of other pirates, and bring them to justice. to justice, while at the same time capturing prizes from the French for the Crown. Things did not go well for Kidd. His enormously costly ship leaked; his crew was pressed into service by the Royal Navy; the replacements, hired in New York were a second-rate bunch of thieves and cut-throats, a third of whom died of cholera on the voyage to Africa. Several attacks he made on enemy shipping failed, and when one crew member urged him to attack a friendly ship, Kidd hit him with a bucket and killed him. Desperate to gain something from the voyage, he turned to piracy. But he couldn’t hold on to his crew. Most of them deserted him, and he was left to limp home. On arrival in America, he buried what treasure he had left, and surrendered himself in New York. He was sent to England for trial, and hanged in 1701.
The Rhode Island Mob: Thomas Wake, Richard Want and Joseph Faro
Rhode Island was a pirate sanctuary. It was the birthplace and residence of the King of Pirates, Thomas Tew, and it sheltered and sponsored some of the most successful pirates of the late 1600s. Pirates didn’t often work together, but in 1695, Rhode Island Captains Thomas Wake, Richard Want and Joseph Faro all joined Tew and another infamous pirate, Henry Every, in a raid on a Mughal shipping convoy. Insurers later reckoned the Rhode Island Mob got away with a haul worth 600,000 pounds (More than $150 million).
Phillipse was not a pirate as such, but the American Pirates of the late 1600s probably wouldn’t have existed without him. Born in Holland but settled in New York, Phillipse did business with Thomas Tew, and he partly funded Adam Baldridge’s kingdom of vice on St Mary’s island, but it was as one of the members of the New York’s cabal of pirate brokers that he did most to develop the Red Sea pirate trade and launch one of the great Golden Ages of piracy. The cabal was a group of wealthy and powerful New York merchants and shipowners. They effectively sponsored most acts of piracy in the late 17th century by helping captains with outfitting and funding, and by arranging commissions from New York’s pliant governor, Benjamin Fletcher. Phillipse was one of their most prominent and influential members, lobbying the Governor’s office tirelessly on behalf of the tax-free trade that was so abhorrent to the Crown, yet so beneficial to the Province of New York.
Day was not a particularly successful pirate, but his short career and his treatment at the hands of the justice system illustrates how inconsistently Crown policy was applied in the colonies in the late 1600s. Day was a young captain in 1698, when the Governor of Pennsylvania – who wink at piracy while opposing it verbally – granted him a commission to harass the French. Day sailed straight to Curacao to launch his pirate career, returning the following November with an impressive haul. When he put in at Baltimore, however, he was promptly arrested by the Governor of Maryland, who was a strong supporter of Crown policy. There followed a vigorous back and forth between the governors and London, and Day narrowly escaped the noose. There is no record of whether he went back to piracy, or opted for a quieter life.
Mason was a gentleman, grandson of a former Governor of New York, with all the advantages that a place in colonial society could offer. Many gentlemen privateers found the funds for their own ships, but Mason opted to serve on board others, at one point serving with Captain William Kidd. He got his first commission, the Jacob in 1690 and spent two highly successful years capturing ships in the Red Sea. He ingratiated himself with New York’s new Governor and obtained a second commission, eventually returbing in 1699 with a fortune reported to be in excess of 30,000 pounds ($8 million)
Captain of the brigantine Charles, John Quelch was commissioned in 1703 by Massachusetts governor Charles Dudley to “take, kill, suppress and destroy any pirates, privateers or other subjects and vessels of France and Spain…” Quelch immediately set sail for Brazil, where he captured a remarkable haul of nine Portuguese ships in just one month. Unfortunately, Portugal was an ally of England at the time, and when Quelch returned to Boston, the hold of his ship brimming with gold and silver, he was promptly arrested and clapped in irons. A special court was convened, presided over by none other than Quelch’s commissioner and supposed protector, Governor Charles Dudley. Quelch was sentenced to death and hanged.
By the time the pirate Edward Teach rose to prominence, around 1716, the Red Sea had ceased to be a hunting ground for pirates. The Royal Navy began escorting ships up and down the west coast of Africa, forcing pirates to withdraw to the West Indies and America’s southern colonies. This was Blackbeard’s turf. He made no pretense of being a legally sanctioned privateer: he was a sea wolf, a maritime robber, who plundered any ship that he could take, and at one point blockaded the port of Charles Town, SC, and ransomed its populace. Still, he knew how to play the political game that pitted colonial governors against each other in the sanction and opposition of piracy. He paid off so many merchants, and even the governor of Carolina, that when a Royal Navy ship was sent by the Governor of Virginia to capture him, he was forewarned and ready. Fortunately, the Lieutenant in charge was a clever tactician, and Blackbeard’s men were themselves surprised. Blackbeard was killed on the deck of his ship, cut to pieces and shot to death.