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Sir Henry Mainwaring on the Prevention and Supression of Piracy

By Cindy Vallar

After the death of our most gracious Queen Elizabeth, of Blessed Memory, our Royal King James, who from his Infancy had Reigned in Peace with all Nations; had no imployment for those Men of Warr, so that those who were Rich rested with what they had; those that were poor and had nothing but from hand to Mouth, turned Pirates; some, because they became slighted of those for whom they had got much Wealth; some for that they could not get their Due; some that had lived bravely, would not abase themselves to Poverty; some vainly, only to get a name; others for Revenge, Covetousness, or as ill; and as they found themselves more and more oppressed, their Passions increasing with discontent, made them turn Pirates.

Now because the[y] grew hatefull to all Christian Princes, they retired to Barbary. (Smith, 401)

Captain John Smith named quite a few of these English pirates, most notably John Ward, Peter Easton, Robert Walsingham1, and Richard Bishop. Aside from being skilled fighting men, these men brought with them their sailing ships, which permitted the Barbary corsairs to expand their hunting grounds beyond the Mediterranean. The proliferation of pirates made Sir Henry Mainwaring’s Of the Beginnings, Practices, and Suppression of Pirates an invaluable roadmap and guidebook for hunting these predators.

I. Their beginnings, and how they relieve themselves within your Majesty’s Dominions.
Mainwaring made it clear that most pirates armed themselves and acquired their ships in English and Irish waters in the first chapter of this treatise. “[T]here are divers places . . . that have no command, and also by the negligence of the Owners of such small Ships, that having no force to defend them keep ill watch, and leave their Sails aboard . . . .” (Life, 14) The lack of guards and fortifications permitted as few as ten or twelve men to abscond with someone’s boat, which they would then sail to locations where they might find larger vessels. Each subsequent vessel they attacked would be progressively larger, capable of accommodating larger numbers of pirates and more powerful armament. This would remain a hallmark of piracy into the golden age of piracy during the eighteenth century and beyond.

English ship of early 17th
          centuryGalley of the 17th century
Examples of an English ship and a Barbary galley in the early 17th century.

To provide King James with a specific instance of this, Mainwaring provided the following example.

When small Pinks and little vessels do stop below Gravesend, in Tilbury Hope, or against Queenborough, the wind being westerly, they may, with one or two wherries in the night, go aboard and enter them, and put to sea before a wind, so that they cannot be stayed or prevented. (Life, 15)

Although the ability to do this was greater in England because of the abundance of seaports, pirates seemed to prefer Ireland. This “Nursery and Storehouse of Pirates” was more enticing because food and men were plentiful; fewer naval ships patrolled the coast; more folk were willing to trade with the pirates; and there was a “good store of English, Scottish, and Irish wenches which resort unto them.” (Bandits, 289)

Another point favoring Ireland was the plentiful numbers of Irishmen willing to join a pirate crew. Mainwaring experienced this while waiting for his pardon. “I had near 60 new men come into me, and received letters from the Southwards that here were divers expected, that I would touch in those parts to take them in.” (Life, 17)

The Irish folk surreptitiously colluded with pirates. When a captain needed supplies, he sent word of his needs. The reply to his note told him where he might find “so many Beeves or other refreshments as he shall need” on a specific night. (Life, 17) When he and his men came ashore, they were to fire upon those who tended the herd, which allowed the herders to claim that they had been forced to hand over the cattle. Later on, he secretly landed “the goods or money in exchange, which by custom, they expect must be 2 or 3 times the value.” (Life, 17) If the pirates desired arms and/or ammunition and the Irish had any, they traded those items, too.

II. The ground of opinion which encourages men in this course of Piracy; and of those are called Perforst-men.
The second chapter concerned the lack of punishment. It was common during this time period that if pirates were captured, only the captain and perhaps some of his officers danced the hempen jig. In fact, during Elizabeth’s reign, of those pirates who were frequently recorded in the State Papers “not one is known to have been executed.” (Life, 18) Rather than change the policy and summarily execute all pirates or continue to free them as was currently done so that they might continue pirating, Mainwaring proposed that the State might have need of such men “who commonly are the most daring and serviceable in war . . . .” (Life, 18) His solution? Make them “Galley-Slaves . . . for guarding the Coast . . .” during the summer, while “repairing of your Highness’ Castles and Forts on the Sea-Coast, which myself have since my coming, seen and perceived to be miserably ruined and decayed” or doing other like tasks the rest of the year. (Life, 19) With this simple policy change, Mainwaring believed such labor would be a better deterrent to piracy than the threat of death.

Myself have seen them in fight, more willingly expose themselves to a present and certain death, than to a doubtful and long slavery. Other Christian Princes used this kind of punishment and so convert it to a public profit, amongst whom it is observable, that as many as make slaves of offenders, have not any Pirates of their Nation. (Life, 19-20)2

He faulted the king for not seeing that the laws to severely persecute pirates were implemented, be it for lack of witnesses to give evidence or because those in authority abused their power. Another problem was that pirates could purchase pardons: “if they can get £1000 or two, they doubt not but to find friends to get their Pardons for them.” A prime example of this was Mainwaring himself, but Peter Easton received one in 1612 after he made restitution for his plundering.

The treatise next focused on “Perforst-men,” captured pirates who claimed that they had been forced to join the pirates.

I must report truly that when I have had near six or seven hundred men at one time, and for the most part all taken out of Ships, I know not that I had three Perforst-men, in all my Company . . . .Having fetched up and commanded a Ship, some of the Merchants-men would come to me, or to some of my Captains and Officers, to tell me they were desirous to serve me, but they durst not seem willing, least they should lose their wages, which they had contracted for with their Merchants; as also that if by any occasion they should come home to their Country, or be taken by any other Princes, it would be a benefit to them, and no hurt to me, to have them esteemed Perforst-men. In which respect I being desirous to have men serve me willingly and cheerfully, would give them a note under my hand to that purpose, and send men aboard to seem to take them away perforce. (Life, 22)

About the only time this trick didn’t work was if they were caught in the act of pillaging. Having such men in a pirate crew did have drawbacks, because “such men knowing themselves to be privileged are more violent, head-strong, and mutinous . . . to commit any outrage upon their own Countrymen, or exercise cruelty upon others . . . .” (Life, 23) And once they did return home, they concealed their wealth, presented themselves to authorities, and then complained “of the injury they have received in being so long detained by force”, which resulted in their being “not molested but relieved.” (Life, 23)

III. How they use to work at Sea.
Looting the shipThe next chapter focused on the strategies and tactics pirates employed.

. . . a little before day they take in all their sails, and lie a-hull, till they can make what ships are about them; and accordingly direct their course, so as they may seem to such ships as they seem to be Merchantmen bound upon their course. (Life, 24)

Since the safer maneuver for a merchantman was to change course or run, pirates might lure the intended victim into coming closer by rigging sails or other devices, which were then placed in the water at the stern. These created a drag that would make the pirate ship appear slower than she actually was. Sir Francis Drake used this tactic while trying to capture the Nuestra Señora de la Concepcíon, more commonly referred to as the Cacafuego.3

Drake had no wish to come up with the chase before dark; even now, if she guessed who he was, she might run in shore and escape him. To slacken sail would be to arouse suspicion, for the Cacafuego had herself perceived him, and under the impression that he was a messenger from the Viceroy, was taking in her sails to allow him to come up. Drake cast about for an expedient. His empty water-casks were brought on deck, and these, having been filled, were cast overboard and towed from the stern. (Dixon, 135)

The ruse worked and he captured “a certain quantity of jewels and precious stones, 13 chests of reals of plate, 80 pounds weight in gold, 26 tons of uncoined silver, two very fair gilt silver drinking bowls, and the like trifles, valued in all at about 360,000 pesos.” (Ronald, 231)

Mainwaring continued to provide precise details on how the pirates operated.

They keep their tops continually manned, and have signs to each other when to chase, when to give over, where to meet, and how to know each other, if they see each other afar off. In Chase they seldom use any Ordnance, but desire as soon as they can, to come a board and board; by which course he shall more dishearten the Merchant and spare his own men. (Life, 24)

More than a century later, the reluctance to use a ship’s guns would remain a mainstay of pirates. They preferred to put a shot over the bow, rather than fire directly at the prey because doing so would damage that ship and her cargo, not to mention the pirates themselves might be cut in half, maimed, or injured if the prey fired on them.

IV. Where and what times they use to be where they must water, ballast, wood, trim their ships, and sell their goods. 
Barbary corsair leading
              boardersThis section of the treatise was the roadmap, or sea chart, that specifically concerned the Barbary corsairs. Mainwaring hoped to “advise your Majesty (according to my small understanding) what directions to give in Commissions, if there should be any purpose to employ Ships for the suppressing of Pirates.” (Life, 25) At this point in time, the main ports where they could reprovision and be safe from Christian naval ships were Algiers and Tunis. The latter location was actually a better haven because Yusuf, the dey of Tunis, permitted the English pirates to operate without interference. In Algiers, however, English pirates often found their ships confiscated “and manned out by the Turks, after the proportion of 150 Turks to 20 English, yet the English in their persons are well used and duly paid their shares.” (Life, 25)

Mainwaring identified three places where Algerine corsairs waited to pounce on unsuspecting prey: Cape de Gata, Cape de Palos, and Cape San Martin. They found fresh water and victuals, as well as gunpowder, at Tetuan, Morocco. The pirates could also sell their plundered wares here. Tlemçen offered the same, but required the pirates to travel thirty miles inland, and Mainwaring warned that “the people here are very treacherous.” (Life, 27)

Most of the Greek islands provided “good quarter, and great store of Hogs”, while the residents of Milo were particularly friendly. (Life, 28) As long as the pirates carried Tunisian letters of marque, they were permitted entry into Rhodes and Cyprus. Trusting these people, though, wasn’t recommended.

The list continued like this another page before Mainwaring discussed the times of year in which the corsairs frequently roved. "Generally not any Pirates do stir in the Straits from the beginning or middest of May till towards the last of September, unless it be with their Galleys or Frigates, yet towards the middest of August those of Algiers will go out of the Straits . . . ." (Life, 30) The primary reason for not venturing from home during the summer months was because more Spanish and Flemish warships sailed the Mediterranean. When pirates ventured beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, they tended to do so during the first half of the year.

He also discussed other places, including the Canary Islands and Newfoundland, where pirates could find shelter and resupply, outlining both the good points and the drawbacks of each site. Sometimes Mainwaring included fortification details, strategic information should the king decide to send a fleet of warships to hunt pirates.

V. A means as well to prevent as suppress them.
The final chapter in the discourse considered ways to suppress piracy and hinder those who might be leaning toward following the sweet trade. To deter would-be pirates, Mainwaring recommended that

. . . officers of all Ports . . . enquire of the behaviour of such Seafaring men as are there, and especially of such as have been Pirates, and to have such as live dissolutely without seeking honest employments put in good security for their behaviour, or to be imprisoned.

 And in Ireland, because there is little or no shipping belonging to the Country, to command strictly that no seafaring man, especially that hath been a Pirate, shall come within 10 or 12 miles of the sea coast.

. . . the best and surest way, and that which might much advance the wealth and glory of our State, were to devise some more universal employment than now we have, by which men of that spirit might not complain, as they now do, that they are forced for lack of convenient employment to enter into such unlawful courses. (Life, 40-1)

Mainwaring also advised the king to never grant pardons to pirates, even though he himself received one. Rather he recommended either death or enslavement, “for if your Highness should ask me when those men would leave offending I might answer, as a wise Favourite did the late Queen, demanding when he would leave begging, he answered, when she would leave giving.” (Life, 42) In other words, as long as King James continued to pardon such men, they would continue to go a pirating.

Portrait of James I of
            England by John de Critz, c. 1606Elizabeth I by George Gower
James I and his predecessor, Elizabeth I, of England

From experience, Mainwaring knew that the more strictly laws were enforced and the more severely punishments were meted out, the less crime prevailed.

. . . for instance in Tunis, where no offence is ever remitted, but strictly punished according to their customs and Laws. In 5 months together when I was coming and going I never heard of Murder, Robbery, or private Quarrel. Nay a Christian . . . may on my knowledge travel 150 miles into the country, though he carry good store of money, and himself alone, and none molest him. So likewise, in my Commonwealth of most uncivil and barbarous seamen . . . I could never have subsisted as I did, if I had ever pardoned any notorious offence, though committed by my truest followers, by which constant severity I kept them all in a short time in so good obedience, and conformity, that for few years I never had any outrageous offence, but had them all aboard my ships in as good civility and order, as it could not have been much better in a Civil state; for questionless, as fear of punishment makes men doubtful to offend, so the hope of being pardoned makes them the apter to err. (Life, 42-43)

He also recommended employing ships equal to the task of hunting down the pirates. These should be crewed by good sailors and carry sufficient armament to outgun the pirates. The key to success was to employ “Commanders as know how to work and command like a man-of-war, where to find, how to draw himself to them . . . with a ready wit and judgment, to do sometimes that upon the occasion for he can have no direction or rule, which thing is only mastered by experience, particular use, and knowledge of these things . . . .” (Life, 44) This was a subtle suggestion that tarpaulin captains would be far better for this task than gentleman captains. If his Majesty’s ships didn’t fit the bill, Mainwaring suggested using private ships. After all, a reformed pirate made a good huntsman because he knew his prey and where to find them. He also understood what it took to trounce them.

The final paragraphs of the chapter provided suggestions on how to deal specifically with Ireland so it would no longer be a nursery that nurtured piracy. He ended with this recommendation:

Delibera lente, quod decreveris constanter urge.

Be slow in council, swift and determined in action. (Life, 49)

1. Walsingham served under Mainwaring when he was a pirate. When Mainwaring returned to Ireland to await his pardon, Walsingham organized his own fleet of corsairs and operated out of Algiers. In 1618 he negotiated and received a pardon from the English government. Two years later he sailed with Admiral Mansell to attack Algiers.

2. Such a statute was actually passed during Elizabeth’s reign (Act of 1597-8, 39 Eliz., cap. 4). It applied to “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars”, as well as “all seafaring men pretending losses of their shippes or goods on the sea going about the Country begging.” The punishment for such was either banishment or to work “perpetually to the Galleys of this Realm.” (Life, 19)

3. Although frequently translated as "Spitfire," Cacafuego literally means "Shitfire" according to David Cordingly in Under the Black Flag (1995, 29).

For further information, I recommend the following resources:

Dixon, Frederick. “The Voyage of the ‘Pelican’: The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake,” The Army and Navy Magazine. XII: (June 1886), 119-140.
Jamieson, Alan G. Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs. Reaktion Books, 2012.

The Life and Works of Sir Henry Mainwaring edited by G. E. Mainwaring, volume 2. The Navy Records Society, MDCCCCXX.

Lloyd, Christopher. English Corsairs on the Barbary Coast. Collins, 1981.

Ronald, Susan. The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Here Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire. HarperCollins, 2007.

Smith, John. The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith, into Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, from Ann. Dom. 1593 to 1629. Awnsham and John Churchill, 1704.

Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vallar
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