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John King

The Boy Pirate

By Laura Nelson

Illustration by George Varian for Buccaneers
                    and Pirates of Our Coast (Macmillan, 1908)In the Caribbean in 1716, Sam Bellamy terrorized shipping by robbing vessels and passengers of their cargo and valuables. During his course of depredations, he captured the Bonetta. Over the fifteen days that he plundered the ship, he allowed a boy named John King to join his crew.

In the early 1700s it was not that unusual for boys from poor families to sign aboard a ship as cabin boys (a type of servant to an officer) or powder monkey.1 It was an opportunity to learn a trade from which to earn a living. Boys were sometimes no older than eight when they signed aboard a ship. Going to sea probably looked better to some than being a chimney sweep or becoming a child laborer. It only took a few years for a boy to learn enough to assume the duties of an adult sailor.

But King was different. His family had money. At the time he joined the pirates he wore French woven-silk stockings and leather shoes fastened with buckles, both of which reflected an “18th-century upper-class style”. (Clifford & Kinkor, 132) 

In Master Abijah Savage’s deposition about the capture of his ship – given before Walter Hamilton, Esq., Captain General and Governor in Chief of all His Majesty’s Leeward Caribbean Islands – he said that on the 9th of November while traveling from Jamaica to Antigua, he met with two large sloops which chased him for about six and a half hours. When the ships caught up with him, they fired a cannon and hoisted a black flag at the mast, at which point he struck his sails and lowered his boat to go meet with them. Bellamy detained his crew and passengers until 24 November. Before letting them go, however, the pirates took some of their clothes, various items, a black man, and an Indian boy.

In his deposition, Savage gave a description of the two ships:

One of the said Sloops called the Mary Anne was Commanded as he was told by one Samuel Bellamy who declared himself to be an Englishman born in London, and that the other, called the Postillion was Commanded by one Louis de Boure who was a French Man, and has his Sloop chiefly Navigated with men of that Nation. That each of the said Sloops was mounted with Eight Guns and had betwixt Eighty or Ninety Men apiece on Board . . . (Dethlefsen, 127-128)

Savage then goes on to tell the story of  “one John King who was coming as a Passenger with him from the Said Island of Jamaica to the Island of Antigua deserted his Sloop, and went with the Pirates, and was so far from being forced or compelled by them as the Deponent could perceive or learn, that he declared he would kill himself if he was restrained, and even threatened his Mother who was then on board as a passenger with the Deponent.” (Dethlefsen, 129)

                    King's fibula, stocking, & shoe (Source: Ken
                    Kinkor, Whydah Pirate Museum)Ongoing excavations of the wreck of Bellamy’s Whydah Galley found a leg bone, or fibula, along with a silk stocking and a leather shoe (right).2 When these items were first discovered, most thought the items belonged to a small man. But Barry Clifford, head of the expedition, “showed the short fibula to expedition archaeologist John de Bry, and Smithsonian Institution expert David Hunt. Both agreed that the fibula belonged to a child age 8 to 11.” (Maugh) Kenneth J. Kinkor, Whydah researcher and maritime historian, said, “The stocking is made of woven French silk, and the shoe – which is only 2 inches in width at its widest point – is of upper-class design and craftsmanship, consistent with it belonging to John King.” (Maugh)

There were many reasons that the life of a pirate might have appealed to a young boy like King. Kinkor speculated he might have been attracted to “a free and easy lifestyle, and a classless democratic subculture.” (Maugh) Since his clothing indicated that he likely came from a more well-to-do family, perhaps the chance to break away from the class restrictions and expectations of his day were what attracted him. If you asked my friends who raised boys, it would be the chance to get away from being ordered around by his parents, carrying a sword, bossing people around and seeing how afraid of him they were, and not having to bathe.

King’s new life as a pirate likely included many adventures, but also some new responsibilities. Not long after he joined them, the pirates anchored at St. Croix, where they spent a couple of months enjoying the spoils of their conquests. During their stay, three men tried to run away. One was captured and brought back. As punishment he was severely whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails.3

All new pirates had to sign the ship’s articles before they were accepted as full members of the crew. Each crew devised their own set of rules, but they shared some similarities. For example, Bartholomew Roberts’s list included:

Every man to have Equal Right to ye Provisions or Liquors at any time & use them at Pleasure, unless Scarcity makes a Restriction necessary for ye Good of All.

Any man who should Defraud ye Company, or another, to ye Vallew of a Dollar, he shall suffer Punishment as ye Company deeme ffit.

Any man who Deserts ye Company, keeps any Secret, or Deserts his Station in Time of Battle, shall be punished by Death, Marooning, or Whipping, as ye Company shall deeme ffit & Just. (Clifford & Kinkor, 88)

In addition, each member of the crew was entitled to an equal share of whatever profit was made during the voyage.

Every member of the crew had assigned duties to perform, determined by a watch bill, or duty roster. Unfortunately, it’s unknown what duties a boy like King would have been given.

Early in 1717 Bellamy and his crew spotted the Whydah Galley sailing past the Bahamas and gave chase. She was completing a voyage of what was known as the “middle passage,” a term used for ships sailing between the African coast and the Caribbean slave markets. This was a lucrative trade in the early 1700s. After selling her slaves in the Caribbean, she had been loaded with coins and other trade goods intended for sale in England.

After three days the captain of the Whydah, Lawrence Prince, surrendered without a fight. This was normal behavior during this period of time; Prince hoped that if he surrendered without resisting he and/or his crew might avoid being beaten or tortured, as was known to happen at the hands of pirates. Since Captain Prince gave in so quickly, Bellamy allowed him and the members of his crew who desired to leave to sail away in Bellamy’s old ship the Sultana. The pirates claimed the Whydah as their own.

26 April 1717 started out like any other day for the pirates. In the morning, they captured “a pink with more than 7,000 gallons of Madeira wine on board” and “a small sloop with a cargo of deer hides and tobacco, in the afternoon.”(Clifford & Kinkor, 130) Per customary pirate procedure, smaller groups of pirates were sent over to these ships from the Whydah to act as the new crews of their prizes.

Bellamy and his crew were sailing north along the east coast of the American Colonies. Cape Cod folklore says their destination was Eastham, Massachusetts, where Sam intended to pick up Maria Hallett, believed to be his lover, on their way to Rhode Island or Maine. He might also have been hoping to sell some of their booty.

At this time, the Whydah boasted a crew of approximately 150 men, all crammed into a ship that measured about thirty feet wide and one hundred feet long. With the bulk of the pirate's booty stored on the Whydah, the decks were probably starting to sag. Along with such items as “[e]lephant tusks, sugar, molasses, rum, cloth, quinine bark, indigo, and . . . dry goods”, there were 180 sacks of coins, weighing fifty pounds each.4 (Clifford, 260) What this meant was that the Whydah would have been very low in the water, a dangerous condition for a ship in a storm.

That evening a dense fog rolled in, which should have been an early storm warning for the pirates, and the storm began to manifest itself. The capture of the Fisher helped the pirates to navigate through the increasing fog. Instead of steering out to sea, Bellamy chose to stay close to land, a move which leads many to believe that he did indeed wish to try and make port somewhere in Cape Cod.

Stormy seas

Sometime after 5:00 p.m., Bellamy ordered all three ships to light lanterns on their sterns, a common navigational aide. Conditions continued to worsen. “An arctic storm from Canada was driving into the warm air that had swept up the coast from the Caribbean. The last gasp of a frigid New England winter, the cold front was about to combine with the warm front in one of the worst storms ever to hit the Cape.”5 (Clifford, 262) “According to eyewitness accounts, gusts topped 70 miles [113 kilometers] an hour and the seas rose to 30 feet [9 meters].”(Donovan)

Square-rigged ships like the Whydah Galley did not handle so well in high winds, and since the winds were coming from the northeast, it was now pretty much out of the question for Bellamy to even try to attempt to head back out to sea. With each swell, the ship was pushed west by the winds, no matter how hard the pirates tried to keep heading north. Then one of them would have heard the sound of the waves hitting the shore and shouted “Breakers, breakers!” But it was simply too late. The accident was succinctly described by Thomas Davis in his deposition before his trial for piracy in Boston, Massachusetts, in October of 1717.

Ship being at an Anchor, they cut their Cables and ran a shoar, in a quarter of an hour after the Ship struck, the Main-mast was carried by the board, and in the Morning She was beat to pieces. About Sixteen Prisoners drown'd, Crumpstey Master of the Pink being one, and One hundred and forty-four in all. (Trials, 318)

What Davis said here was that the pirates attempted to save themselves by anchoring the ship to the sea bottom. When the anchors dragged, meaning they failed to get a grip on the sea bed, they cut the cables. They then made a last-ditch effort to save themselves by trying to turn the ship into the wind. But the Whydah was so heavy she slid back down a wave and crashed into a sand bar, spelling the end of ship and all but two members of her crew.

Although the beach was just 500 feet away, the bitter ocean temperatures were cold enough to kill the strongest swimmer within minutes. Other crew members were crushed by the weight of falling rigging, cannon, and cargo as the ship, her treasure, and the remaining men on board plunged to the ocean floor, swallowed up by the shifting sands of the cape. (Clifford and Kinkor, 131)

Local residents arrived on the shore the next morning to find “more than a hundred mutilated corpses lay at the wrack line with the ship's timbers.” (Donovan) But John King’s body was not among them. During excavation of the wreck site it was determined that he died because one of the cannon had pinned him to the seabed.

John King is the youngest recorded member of a pirate crew during the Golden Age of Piracy. His time as a pirate lasted for three months.


1. A powder monkey carried gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the gun decks.

2. These items are on display as part of National Geographic’s Real Pirates traveling exhibit.

3. The cat-o’-nine-tails consisted of a baton-like handle with nine rope or leather cords extending from it. The cords were often tipped with pieces of iron or steel hooks to inflict maximum damage.


4. According to Peter Cornelius Hoof’s testimony, “The money taken in the Whido, which was reported to amount to 20,000 to 30,000 pounds [sterling] was counted over in the cabin, and put up in bags, fifty pounds [weight] to every man’s share, there being 180 men on board.” (Trials, 319)

5. “Technically known as an occluded front, the warm and moist tropical air is driven for miles upward where it cools and falls at a very high speed, producing high winds, heavy rain, and severe lightning.” (Clifford, Barry, 262)

For additional information, Laura recommends the following resources:
Carpenter, John Reeve. Pirates: Scourge of the Seas. Barnes & Noble, 2006.
Clifford, Barry. Expedition Whydah: The Story of the World’s First Excavation of a Pirate Treasure Ship and the Man Who Found Her. Cliff Street Books, 1999.
Clifford, Barry, and Kenneth J. Kinkor. Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. National Geographic, 2007.

Dethlefsen, Edwin, Whidaw: Cape Cod’s Mystery Treasure Ship. Seafarer’s Heritage Library, 1984.
Donovan, Webster. “Pirates of the Whydah,” National Geographic Magazine (May 1999).

Levenson, Michael. “Remains Are Identified as a Boy Pirate,” Boston Globe 2 June 2006.

Maugh, Thomas H. “A Pirate’s Life for Him – at Age 9.” Los Angeles Times 1 June 2006.

“The Trials of Eight Persons Indited [sic] for Piracy,” British Piracy in the Golden Age edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering and Chatto, 2007, 2:289-319.

About the Author
                      NelsonLaura Nelson lives in the Denver Metropolitan area and is an Unemployment Fraud Investigator for the state of Colorado. When she's not researching or reading about pirates, she enjoys Tai Chi, walking, cats, and reading adventure and true crime, and watching way too much TV. Her short story, "Rosa and the Pirate," was recently published by Dark Oak Press in the pirate anthology A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. She also has her own blog, The Whydah Pirates Speak. Pirates and Privateers has published several of her non-fiction articles: Peter Cornelius Hoof and Me, John Julian – The Teenage Pirate, and The Unknown Survivor.

Copyright © 2015 Laura Nelson
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