Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
By Laura Nelson
In the Golden Age of Piracy, generally accepted by scholars as being from about 1690 to 1730, large numbers of sailors left the ships they were employed on to join pirate crews. Some left voluntarily. Some were forced to go. For a large number of them, the experience would end in death. Even if they survived, their careers as pirates, with a few exceptions, generally failed to last more than about two years or so.
From about mid-1715 to early 1717, one pirate, Samuel Bellamy, rose from being penniless to number one on Forbes’ ten top earning pirates. (Woolsey) It would be almost 300 years before a man named Barry Clifford would come along and begin the journey to locate and excavate Bellamy's treasure. After several years of recovering artifacts and research, a museum was established in Provincetown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Then a traveling exhibit called Real Pirates was created. Now, a permanent facility in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts houses the entire collection.
Coins and artifacts recovered from the wreck site of the Whydah.
(Source: Photo by Bill Curtsinger © National Geographic, used with permission of National Geographic)
In the spring of 1715, a young man, probably handsome, suddenly appeared in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Most pirate historians agree that Bellamy was a single man. Research by Kenneth Kinkor of Expedition Whydah found records of what he believed to be Bellamy's birth as the sixth child of Stephen Bellamy and Elizabeth Pain on 18 March 1689. (Whydah, 355) They lived in the villages of Hittisleigh and Drewsteignton near Plymouth, England, according to Hittisleigh Parish records. There are many speculations, but no one knows exactly what Bellamy did before traveling to the colonies, or the precise reason he traveled to Cape Cod in 1715. There is also nothing that documents who Bellamy met first: Maria Hallet or Paulsgrave Williams. A widely accepted story is that he met Maria while she was sitting under a tree in a meadow.
Her father was a farmer, who disapproved of her getting involved with someone of Bellamy's low social stature. But the reportedly naive girl fell head over heels in love with the young sailor, probably taken in by his worldly stories of foreign ports and exotic locales. Predictably, she eventually allowed Bellamy to have his way with her.
Extensive research has revealed that there was more than one woman named Mary Hallet living in the city of Eastham on Cape Cod in 1715. The most likely candidate was a woman about twenty-two years old and the daughter of wealthy settler John Hallet. She was a sixth child also, and was probably helping at the Great Island Tavern in Billingsgate, which was owned by her brother. She died childless in her sixties in April 1751.
While Bellamy was romancing Maria, he met a man named Paulsgrave Williams. Williams was a thirty-nine-year-old silversmith with a wife and family. His father, who died in 1687, had been the Attorney General of Rhode Island. His mother later married a man named Robert Guthrie, a Scottish exile. The Guthries were part of a large group of Scots who had originally been sent as prisoners to Lynn and Braintree, Massachusetts, to work as slaves in the ironworks. Many eventually made their way to Block Island.
At some point in the friendship, Williams convinced Bellamy to go treasure hunting in Florida. One of the great Spanish plate fleets had been wrecked in a storm off the coast in 1715, and many men headed down there to dive on the wrecks to try and recover some of the treasure reported to have sunk in the storm. Historians agree that it was probably Williams who had the money to finance the trip.
The two men depart for Florida, leaving Maria alone and pregnant. Cape Cod folklore has her kicked out of her home. She holes up in a barn, where she eventually has her baby. During the day, she leaves the baby in the barn while she goes to find work or food. One day she returns to find the baby has choked to death on a piece of straw. Maria loses her mind, and retreats to an isolated cabin. It is said she stands on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic every day, watching for her Sam to come back to her.
Estimated to have arrived at the wrecks around January 1716, the two friends’ time at the site didn't last very long. For one, they weren’t successful in finding much treasure. There was a lot of competition, and Spain had by then recovered at least some of their gold. Bellamy and Williams likely had to settle for “scattered cargo and coins.” (Woodard, 124) Between the wrecks and arriving at the Bay of Honduras a few weeks later, they came up with the idea of turning pirate.
Nothing is really known about how they got started. What is known is that by March, they owned two canoes known locally as periaguas.1 Such vessels could hold a few dozen men and were defended by swivel guns. The first prize they’re known to have captured was a “Dutch vessel commanded by a John Cornelison.” (Woodard, 125) With this capture, they also began to force men, such as Peter Cornelius Hoof, a Swedish sailor, to join their crew against their will.
In their first few months of operation, they added not only Hoof but likely also a Mosquito Indian named John Julian, who would have been a huge asset with his knowledge of the local waters.
During a conquest in the Yucatan Channel, they encountered a Captain Young. They forced him to tow their canoes to the western end of Cuba, so they could take advantage of the greater volume of shipping. At some point while crossing the channel, they encountered Henry Jennings, who would become their first mentor. Jennings commanded a flotilla of five pirate ships, and he had just returned from fencing some of his cargo in Jamaica.
The flotilla arrived at Baya Hondo, off Cuba, on 3 April 1716. A canoe was sent to a ship anchored there with a cover story that they had come into the harbor to replenish their stores of wood and water.
The ship was the St. Marie, a French ship commanded by a Captain D’Escoubet. The pirates also learned that the French ship was selling goods to the Spanish locals, which was in violation of Spanish law and classified them as smugglers. This was good news for Jennings, because capturing smugglers was not considered an act of piracy under Spanish law.
The St. Marie had sixteen cannons and a crew of forty-five men. Having had experience capturing ships on the Spanish Main, Jennings knew that an encounter with such a well-armed and manned ship could result in injury or death for some of his crew members. He held a council with all his men. While he counseled caution, many scoffed at what they perceived as a lack of courage on Jennings’s part, saying such things as, “What are you come out for? To look upon one another and return with your fingers in your mouth?” (Whydah, 59) They left him no other choice than to attack the French ship.
Bellamy's canoes led the ships into the harbor. They waited until the two canoes and two of Jennings’s ships were in pistol range. Here, Bellamy's men – perhaps to increase the fear factor – stripped off their clothes, leaving on only their cartouches (cartridge boxes) and unsheathed cutlasses and pistols. With a loud cheer they began to row towards the St. Marie.
When the St. Marie's lookout shouted a challenge at them, they hollered back, “Aboard, where do you think?”
A man who tried to scale down the side of the Ste. Marie and escape in one of her canoes was captured. Then a cannon was fired, and an angry shout came from the men of the second of Bellamy's canoes, who were now boarding the ship.
The mistaken cannon shot had come from one of Jennings’s ships. Someone from the St. Marie shouted back a request to not fire, as all was well.
A member of Jennings’s crew who was later captured by the British said that Bellamy's crew “would give no quarter” to the French had they fired their guns. (Giving no quarter meant showing no mercy, and no prisoners would be taken.)
Upon finding that the St. Marie was mainly loaded with fine linen, the pirates were disappointed. Then someone found the ship’s manifest, which indicated that there should be thirty thousand pieces of eight aboard.2 When confronted, Captain D’Escoubet said that while there had once been such a sum on board, he had taken the coins ashore and hidden them for safety. His crew backed up his story, but the pirates refused to believe them.
Although no specifics were given, the French informed the Jamaican governor that the pirates “Tormented the Crew to that Inhumane degree that they extorted after the Vilest manner from them a discovery where they said the mony lay.” (Whydah, 47-48) When located, the treasure only amounted to 28,500 pieces of eight.
While the pirates relaxed on the St. Marie, a lone canoe was captured while coming into the bay. Its crew revealed that another French smuggling vessel, the Marianne, was trading at Porto Mariel (Cuba), just east of Baya Hondo.
One of the pirates in Jennings’ flotilla, Captain Carnegie, set sail in his sloop accompanied by a periagua to effect the Marianne’s capture. By the time he and his crew arrived, they found that it had been taken by yet another pirate, Benjamin Hornigold. Having no desire to take on one of the most famous, to date, of the pirates operating in the West Indies, Carnegie went back to Baya Hondo and told Jennings what had happened.
Perhaps puffed up by his success with the St. Marie, Jennings set sail with two sloops to go after Hornigold. He left Bellamy and his men to guard the St. Marie.
Almost the moment Jennings left the Bay, Bellamy and his men loaded the treasure onto one of their periaguas and took off. When Jennings returned, he found the other of Bellamy's periaguas and Captain Young, another commander of one of Jennings’s flotilla, who had been unable to stop Bellamy from leaving. Enraged, Jennings sank Bellamy's discarded canoe. All he could do after that was leave Baya Hondo.
Sometime after departing Baya Hondo, Bellamy and his crew met up with Benjamin Hornigold, who operated out of New Providence in the Bahamas. They also met a man named Edward Thache.3 Bellamy joined Hornigold’s crew.
Eventually, Hornigold appointed him as commander of one of their prize ships. Together, the three pirate crews crossed paths with French pirate Olivier Levasseur, known as “La Buse” or “The Buzzard.”
There were two versions of when this occurred. Former captive Jeremiah Higgins stated that Levasseur didn’t appear until after Bellamy had a falling out with Hornigold over whether or not to attack English ships, and that Bellamy was in command of a boat called the Mary Anne at the time.
Higgins’s tale, given in his deposition before his trial for piracy in the colony of New York in 1717, described how he was forced to join the pirates, how Hornigold was voted out of the company; and how they met up with Levasseur.
That about Two & Twenty Months ago he sailed out of Jamaica a foremastman on Board a certain Sloop called the Blackett, Abraham Lamb Master, bound for the wrecks on the coast of Florida. That before they came to the wrecks, one Capt. Hornigold Commander of a Pyrate Sloop called the Benjamin came on board their sloop and after some time Desired the Examinate and some other of the Men belonging to the said Sloop Blackett to row him on board the said sloop Benjamin which they did and after they were aboard the said Sloop [He] refused to let the Examinant and one John Fletcher his companion Returne to their Sloop Blackett againe but detained them and Altho their Master Abraham Lamb came on board and prayed the said Hornigold to Release his said Men Yet he utterly refused to do so but detained them and Carryed them away by force against their Wills. That the said Sloop Benjamin afterwards sailed to the coast of the Havana haveing upwards of Eighty Men on Board, and off the Coast of the Havanna at a place called Porta Maria they took the Sloop Mary Anne then belonging to the French & Spaniards Loaded with Dry Goods and Liquors, and then the Pyrates Divided their Company and putt some of the company on Board the Mary Anne and chose one Samuel Bellamy to be Commander of both sloops and Turned out Hornigold and for some time after consorted together with the said Sloops until a quarrell happened among the Company and then they gave the said Sloop Benjamin to the said Hornigold and some Company and parted from him Detaining the Examinant on board the said Sloop Mary Anne. That afterwards the said Sloop Mary Anne Cruizing about from place to place met with another Pyrate sloop called the Postillion off Cape Mayos, one Capt. La Boos Commander with whom they consorted and cruised about . . . . (Whydah, 153-154)Another version of the story has Levasseur already sailing with Hornigold before the falling out over the attacking of English ships happened.
In his interrogation before his trial for piracy in Boston, Massachusetts, on Monday, 6 May1717, John Brown, who became a member of Bellamy's crew and would ultimately be hanged for piracy in November of that year, told of his time as Levasseur’s captive and how Bellamy and Hornigold quarreled and went their separate ways.
About a Year ago he belonged to a Ship Commanded by Capt. Kingston, which in her Voyage with Logwood to Holland was taken to the Leeward of the Havana by two Piratical Sloops, one Commanded by Hornygold and the other by a Frenchman called Labous, each having 70 Men on Board. The Pirates kept the Ship about 8 or 10 days and then having taken out of her what they thought proper delivered her back to some of the Men, who belonged to her. Labous kept the Examinate on board his Sloop about 4 Months, the English Sloop under Hornygolds command keeping company with them all that time. . . .
From thence they Sailed on to Hispaniola in the latter end of May, where they tarryed about 3 Months. The Examinate then left Labous and went on board the Sloop Commanded formerly by Hornygold, at that time by one Bellamy, who upon a difference arising amongst the English Pirates because Hornygold refused to take and plunder English Vessels, was chosen by a great Majority their Captain & Hornygold departed with 26 hands in a prize Sloop, Bellamy having then on Board about 90 Men, most of them English. (“Trials,” 2:317)What is known is that after teaming up, Bellamy and Levasseur sailed east in consort.4 After pausing to careen their ship bottoms off the western tip of Cuba, they took Levasseur’s advice that he knew of some good hiding places along the coast of Hispaniola and turned that way.
To be continued . . .
1. According to Colin Woodard, this is the same type of vessel Benjamin Hornigold started out in.
2. An article in the Boston News-Letter relayed information from the New York Dispatch of 21 May 1716, which says that the St. Marie had 60,000 or 70,000 pieces of eight on board.
3. Many historians believe that Thache was a protégé of Hornigold’s, but new information brought forth by Baylus Brooks indicates that he was a captain in his own right and operating his own ship in consort with, rather than as a protégé of, Hornigold’s. For additional information see page 260 in Quest for Blackbeard.
4. Clifford and Kinkor remark that since Thache’s name is never recorded as being among Bellamy’s crew, it is generally assumed that he sailed away with Hornigold.
For additional information, Laura recommends the following resources:
Brooks, Baylus C. Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World. Lulu Press, 2016.
Brooks, Baylus C. “French Pirate Jean Martel: Deception in ‘A General History,’” B. C. Brooks’ Writer’s Hiding Place (2 October 2016).
Calendar of New York Colonial Commissions 1680-1770 edited by Edmund B. O’Callaghan. New York Historical Society, 1929.
Calendar of State Papers Colonial Series, Vol. 29, 1716-1717.
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.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
“Deposition of Ralph Merry and Samuel Roberts, May 11, 16, 1717,” in Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents edited by John Franklin Jameson. Macmillan, 1923, 301-302.
Dethlefsen, Edwin, Whidaw: Cape Cod’s Mystery Treasure Ship. Seafarer Heritage Library, 1984.
Donovan, Webster. “Pirates of the Whydah,” National Geographic Magazine (May 1999).
Labat, Jean-Baptiste. Nouveau Voyage aux Isle de l’Amerique, vol. 7. Guilliame Cavalier Père, 1742.
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).
Snelgrave, William. A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea. Printed for James, John, and Paul Knapton, 1734.
“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.
Vanderbilt, Arthur T. Treasure Wreck: The Fortunes and Fate of the Pirate Ship Whydah. Schiffler, 2007.
The Whydah Sourcebook compiled and edited by Kenneth J. Kinkor. Unpublished manuscript, 2003.
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.
Woolsey, Matt. “Top-Earning Pirates,” Forbes (19 September 2008).
About the author
When not reading, researching, or writing about pirates, you can find me doing Tai Chi or walking my cats. I also read true crime and adventure. I am hoping to soon put together volume 2 of The Whydah Pirates Speak. I realized that while I’ve been writing about some of the lesser-known pirates of the Whydah, I was neglecting to write its most famous passenger, Sam Bellamy. I hope you enjoy this latest installment in my series of articles these pirates!
Copyrighted © 2018 Laura Nelson
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