Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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The Nearly Forgotten Adventures of Sam Bellamy
St. Croix and Virgin Gorda
By Laura Nelson
Most pirate histories, if they talk about Sam Bellamy at all, begin their stories with his capture of the Whydah Galley in 1716, as if this is the only notable adventure he had during his career. While it is arguably the major event of his piratical endeavors, it is not the only one.
On 19 December 1716, while sailing towards La Blanquilla after capturing some vessels in the Lower Antilles, Bellamy and his band of pirates, including his consort Olivier Levasseur, captured a ship called St. Michael, from which they pressed four carpenters into service. When one of these carpenters, Thomas South, begged the pirates to release him, he was told by the company that “they swore they would shoot him before they should let him go from them.”1 (Woodard, 151) The pirates resumed their journey, forcing the St. Michael to come with them to La Blanquilla, an uninhabited Caribbean island approximately 56 miles (90 kilometers) north of Isla Margarita and 186 miles (300 kilometers) northeast of Caracas, Venezuela.
Named for its “shining alabaster beaches,” La Blanquilla was an ideal spot for pirates to careen their ships. After about ten days of working on the ship and resting, Bellamy allowed the St. Michael to go on its way, but held onto the four carpenters and ten other men he had pressed into service. Not long after this he lost the company of Levasseur and his ship, Postillion. Levasseur and his band of mostly French pirates voted to take their share of the plunder and sail in a different direction from Bellamy’s company.2
Bellamy and Paulsgrave Williams, who had partnered with Bellamy since his arrival on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1715, decided to head back toward the Leeward Islands and the Windward Passage to see what ships they could find to prey on. But around late January 1717, they began to see signs of a storm coming in, so they elected to seek shelter in one of the ports on St. Croix, where they had spent the past November.3
Here they were greeted by an amazing sight. The charred remains of a vessel were stuck on a reef at the entrance to the harbor and another sloop, badly damaged by holes from cannon fire, was in the harbor. A small set of ramparts had been built on the shore, but the pirates could tell that the attack had come from the sea. What had happened?
Gradually, sailor after sailor came creeping out of the jungle, their clothes in rags. They had been part of a six-vessel flotilla commanded by John Martel, a “Jamaican privateer turned pirate.” (Woodard, 153) They had been cleaning their vessels when, on 16 January 1717, HMS Scarborough appeared at the harbor and opened fire. (Woodard, 153)
Not much is known about John Martel. He is believed to have gotten his start as a privateer “out of Jamaica during the French war.” (Seitz, 116) He apparently found privateering to his liking and stayed active after his commission expired. (Once a privateer’s commission expired, he was reduced to the status of pirate if he remained active.) His first recorded capture happened in the vicinity of Jamaica and Cuba in September 1716. Defoe recorded him as being in Nassau in 1716, but he disappeared from historical records after his encounter with HMS Scarborough on St. Croix.
Unknown to the pirates, back on 15 November 1716, Deputy Governor Thomas Hornbe had written to Governor Walter Hamilton, both of the British Leeward Islands, informing Hamilton that “There lys off Cuba one large ship and 6 or 7 sloopes piratts who take all vessels they meet with etc.”4 (Calendar, 231) Acting on this information, Hamilton ordered Captain Francis Hume, commander of HMS Scarborough, then in Barbados, to set sail in search of these pirates.
This was a rough time for the Scarborough to set out, as it was hurting for healthy personnel. The crew had recently had to bury twenty men, who died from various illnesses, and still had forty more who were alive, but too sick to be put on active duty. Making the decision to leave the sick men behind, Captain Hume visited some nearby islands to find enough men to fill the empty positions in his crew. When he reached the island of Anguilla, he learned that two sloops had recently been to Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. According to A General History of the Pyrates, the Scarborough arrived in Spanish Town on 15 January 1717, only to learn that the sloops had been there around Christmas.
The Martel’s pirates fired at Scarborough from the four cannons they had set up on the beach, but they couldn’t hold out. Between 16 and 18 January, Scarborough disabled the ship set to guard the entrance to the harbor and destroyed their fortifications. On the 18th, Hume weighed anchor and sailed away to avoid becoming stranded on a reef. (The Scarborough drew too much water to allow him to enter the harbor.) But Hume wasn’t done yet. On the evening of the 20th, he returned. When the pirates saw Scarborough tacking back, twenty men piled aboard their flagship, John & Martha.5 But their getaway was thwarted when they got stuck on a reef themselves. They made another attempt in a prize sloop they had been plundering as Scarborough came along. Colin Woodard in The Republic of Pirates says John Martel was among the men who escaped in the prize sloop.6 Those pirates abandoned on the island set the disabled ship on fire, burning to death twenty blacks still trapped on board.
Scarborough’s sailors and marines thoroughly looted the disabled vessels and captured a few pirates before leaving. The rest hid. According to an unproven account, his men ousted Martel as captain at this point for his cruelty to captives.
Bellamy took advantage of this opportunity to add such experienced men to his crew, accepting their oaths and welcoming them as members. Concerned that the Scarborough might return, he didn’t wait around, but set sail to the northeast on a sixty-mile journey to “the British outpost in the Virgin Islands: Spanish Town, located on the southwestern part of Virgin Gorda.” (Woodard, 155) Along the way they made a stop at a maroon island, where a more formal swearing-in ceremony of the new men was held. Each man swore “to be true and not to cheat the company of the value of a piece of eight.” (Trials, 2:306)
One of the three main islands (along with Tortola and Anegada) of the British Virgin Islands, Virgin Gorda “is located 19km (12 miles) east of Tortola and 41km (25 miles) east of St. Thomas.” (Frommer’s) The story is that during his second voyage in 1493, Cristopher Columbus named it “The Fat Virgin” because its profile looked to him like a fat woman reclining on her side.
The Virgin Islands were popular with pirates because they featured numerous tiny islands with shallow waters and hidden coves. Their many hiding places were ideal for watching for and attacking passing ships. Part of the attraction for putting in at Spanish Town was the opportunity to trade with one of its inhabitants, a man named John Hamann, “a former pirate who fenced stolen merchandise to the Dutch on St. Thomas.” (Clifford, 224)
Bellamy and his consort vessel, commanded by Paulsgrave Williams, arrived in the harbor with their cannons pointed at the shore. At this time Spanish Town consisted of a population of 326 “dutiable inhabitants . . . 42 men, 40 women, 139 children, and 105 negroes.”7 (Calendar, 231) The town only had one unmounted, unfortified cannon for its defense. Ironically, it was also “the seat of the deputy governor of the British Leeward Islands, Thomas Hornby,” the very man who had reported trouble with pirates to Governor Hamilton back in November. (Woodard, 155)
No one could stand against the pirates. Accounts of Bellamy’s command of the town said it lasted between a few days and a couple of weeks. Production on the mountainous island was limited to corn, yams, potatoes, and a bit of sugar cane, so there was not a lot for the pirates to plunder. The greatest fear of the white slave owners was that their slaves would run off to join Bellamy, which might have happened.
While Bellamy and his men weren’t looking, some of the forced men snuck away and begged Deputy Governor Hornbe to shelter them. Hornbe initially agreed, but backpedaled when, according to Thomas Baker, Bellamy threatened to “burn & destroy the Town, if . . . Baker, and those that concealed themselves with him were not delivered up.”8 (Trials, 2:306) Hornbe returned the men to Bellamy. With his new recruits and erstwhile escapees on board, Bellamy sailed away with probably more men than he arrived with, even if he didn’t find a lot of plunder.
As they departed Spanish Town, the pirates decided they might get better pickings if they turned towards the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. Bellamy was always on the lookout for an even bigger, more powerful ship than the Sultana. In February 1717, he got his chance when he spotted a ship heading home to England from the Caribbean. It was a three-hundred-ton galley heading north. Bellamy gave the command to give chase.
1. South would stand trial for piracy in October 1717, alongside Thomas Baker, John Brown, Peter Cornelius Hoof, John Shuan, Henrick Quintor, and Simon Van Vorst in Boston, Massachusetts. Of the seven, only South’s claim of being a forced man was believed and he was found not guilty.
2. Some sources say they became separated in a storm.
3. Part of the attraction of St. Croix was its many settlements and ports. Jean-Baptiste Labat, in Nouveau Voyage aux isles de l’Amerique, 1663-1738, describes stopping at several ports on the island during his visit. The inhabitants apparently welcomed the chance to trade for goods the visiting ships could provide.
4. Most histories spell Hornbe as Hornby, but I use the spelling found in period documents.
5. In some accounts this ship is called the John & Marshall.
6. A General History of the Pyrates says Martel remained behind on St. Croix and was never heard from again. Since Martel’s name is never mentioned in any accounts as being a part of Bellamy’s crew after this encounter, I believe he was among the pirates who escaped.
7. The only other Virgin Island with an inhabitant was Guana Island with a population of one.
8. Baker testified at his trial that he also tried to escape on Crab Island, “but was hindered by four of Bellamy’s company.” (Trials, 2:306) Baker, along with five other members of Bellamy’s crew, was hanged for piracy in Boston, Massachusetts in November 1717.
For additional information on Alfhild, I recommend the following:
Calendar of State Papers Colonial Series, Vol. 29, 1716-1717.
Clifford, Barry, and Kenneth J. Kinkor. Real Pirates: the Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. National Geographic, 2007.
Clifford, Barry, with Paul Perry. Expedition Whydah: the Story of the World’s First Excavation of a Pirate Treasure Ship and the Man Who Found Her. Cliff Street, 1999.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manual Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Friedenberg, Zachary F. Medicine under Sail. Naval Institute Press. 2002.
Labat, Jean-Baptiste. Nouveau Voyage aux Isles de l’Amerique, 1663-1738, vol. 7. Guilliame Cavalier Pere, 1742.
Lee, Robert E. Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times. John F. Blair, 1974.
Rogoziński, Jan. Pirates! An A-Z Encyclopedia: Brigands, Buccaneers, and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend. Da Capo Press, 1996.
Seitz, Don C. Under the Black Flag: Exploits of the Most Notorious Pirates, Dover, 2002.
“The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy” in British Piracy in the Golden Age edited by Joel H. Baer, vol. 2. Pickering and Chatto, 2007.
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Harcourt, 2007.
When not working for the State of Colorado as an unemployment fraud investigator, Laura Nelson enjoys walking, cats, Tai Chi, and a few other things. Her new book, The Whydah Pirates Speak, is a compilation of her non-fiction pirate articles. It also includes a copy of the transcripts of the trial for piracy of the survivors of the wreck of the Whydah. On the fiction side, her short story “The Pirate’s Curse” will be included in the horror fiction anthology Potters Field 6 which will be published in October.
© 2016 Laura Nelson
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