When Pirates Roved the Seas

NOT only the newly explored continent, but the newly explored ocean, too, was yet an untamed wilderness in the early days of the American colonies when the arm of the law hardly reached beyond the water's edge. With Kings privateering and respected merchants smuggling and slave trading, between them they let loose on the sea a multitude of desperate men, the sweepings of the gutters of London and other ports.

Capt Kidd serves to adorn the tale and point the moral. Although the very name of this son of a Scottish parson is a synonym for pirate, he never was charged with piracy except on one voyage. He sailed from New York on that voyage, duly commissioned by the King to capture pirates, and his financial backers included the Lord Chief Justice, the First Lord of the Admiralty and Lord Bellomont, Royal Governor of New York and Massachusetts.

While on that fateful cruise Kidd himself was accused of piracy by the powerful East India Company, but he blamed his mutinous crew. Returning with $200,000 in loot—perhaps $600,000 today—he prudently lay off Block Island until he could see which way the wind blew on shore, and he sent a lawyer galloping up to Boston to obtain a promise of protection from Gov Bellomont.

Much as his noble palms must have itched for his portion of the swag, my Lord Bellomont stepped warily with cold feet. He spake the captain fair, it is true, urged him to come to see him, and assured him of the King's pardon. . . . if what he said was true.

That "if" did not escape the anxious eye of Capt Kidd. Before accepting Bellomont's invitation, he took the precaution of delivering into the keeping of the lord of Gardiner's Island the only treasure he is known ever to have had. Nor did he bury it, as generations of deluded hunters have imagined in their digging for it all the way from Sandy Hook to Halifax.

Kidd was sent to England for trial, and his English partners also were less interested in saving his neck than they were in saving themselves from being mixed up with him. If they really "framed him" and "railroaded" him to his death on Execution Docks, as his latter-day defenders excitedly insist, their efforts seem to have been hardly necessary. The East India Company must have been quite capable of hanging him without assistance.

Another man illustrated on the gallows at Boston how delicately privateering blended into piracy. The ship of this John Quelch was duly commissioned as a privateer against the ships of Portugal. Until his return to Marblehead, Quelch may not have known of a new treaty which made his seizure of Portuguese gold a piratical act. The richness of his booty may have deprived him of the benefit of the doubt, as Massachusetts officials, from the Governor down, would all get a share of it as a reward for condemning him as a pirate.

Since the Admiralty Courts, which tried cases of piracy, were doubtful if their jurisdiction extended to the land, convicted pirates were hanged between the lines of high tide and low. Quelch and five of his shipmates paid the penalty on a scaffold that was set up on the beach where the children of Boston now splash about in the waters of Charles River at North End Park. A big crowd looked down upon the scene from Copps Hill and another looked up at it from more than 100 boats that thronged the river. In one of the craft, Rev Dr. Cotton Mather balanced himself in prayer. Such a scream was let out by the women when the trap was sprung that Mrs Sewell heard it in her garden a mile away, as Judge Sewall tells us in his diary.

Even that spectacle was not enough to satisfy the stern purpose of the law to make an example of the six men. Their bodies were hanged again in chains and left hanging on a gibbet in Boston Harbor year after year.

With merchants and people generally, all up and down the coast of the colonies, willing to break England's restrictions on Colonial commerce, buy cheap and no questions asked, there were men enough who saw no harm in taking a turn at piracy when honest employment lagged. Even women were lured into the exciting sport beneath the black flag.

An English girl, Mary Reed, who was suckled on the bosom of the deep and cradled on the rolling wave, put on boys' clothes and went to sea. Captured by pirates, she gladly signed up with them and fell in love with Anne Bonney, daughter of a South Carolina lawyer. The well-met pair, arrayed with cutlasses buckled about their waists and pistols sticking through their sashes could board a prize, make a captive walk the plank and hold their own generally in the mob of roaring cutthroats.

The true stage pirate of the American waters was Edward Teach, or Blackbeard. The long beard that he grew almost up to his eyes and wove into many braids tied with fancy ribbons made prizes of the hearts of 14 women who disputed the title of wife. After he had been the bogy man of the Southern colonists for two years or so, a young lieutenant of the British Navy overhauled him off the North Carolina shore and brought in the ogre's head hanging from the end of his bowsprit, along with 13 live captives, who soon were hanging on a gallows.

Rhode Island even beat that record. After she had long been taunted with her hospitality to the sailors of low, rakish craft, the little colony cleared her skirts by marching 26 pirates to the gallows at once, where they were hanged under their own black flag with its death's head and hour glass, its dart and bleeding heart.

Piracy had come to be looked upon as "bad for business." Royal Governors no longer dared openly to sell passes to pirates. Financiers ceased to take a flier under the Jolly Roger. The ocean was becoming a safer but duller highway.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Nov 18, 1927, p. 24