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Thomas Davis
Reluctant Carpenter to the Pirates
By Laura Nelson

In the age of wooden sail, there were no weather services, no daily forecasts, and no satellite imagery to predict the track of an incoming storm. When bad weather came along, sailors had to rely on their knowledge and experience to understand what sort of weather was coming and how to survive it.

In April 1717, a group of pirates under the command of Samuel Bellamy either ignored or failed to correctly read these signs, and were shipwrecked off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Rough seas

Only two men are known to have survived the wreck of the Whydah Galley: John Julian, a pilot, and Thomas Davis, a carpenter. Before the year was over, Davis would be captured, tried as a pirate, and set free.

At the time of his trial in October of 1717, Davis testified that he “was born in Carmarthenshire in Wales, Aged Two & twenty Years, is by Trade a Shipwright, and has used the Sea these five Years.” (Trials, 318)
1 He was serving on a merchant ship called the St. Michael, commanded by Master James Williams. The St. Michael had sailed out of Bristol, England in September of 1716 bound for Jamaica.

In December, the St. Michael was taken by two pirate sloops, the Sultana commanded by Bellamy, and the Postillion, commanded by Louis Lebous.2 Bellamy and Lebous forced Williams to sail the St. Michael to the island of Blanco. There they were forced to stay until 9 January, “when he and fourteen other prisoners were taken aboard the Sultan Galley, then under the said Bellamy’s command who had taken her from Capt. John Richards.” (Trials, 314)

To become a ship’s carpenter in this day, a young man “always served an apprenticeship” on land to a shipwright. (Davis, 120) After a year or two in the shipyard, the apprentice would be sent to sea as a carpenter’s mate. Here he would serve out the remainder of his training, which could last up to seven years, earning “a useful sum for his master.”(Davis, 120)3

Carpenter Tools aboard ship

Upon completion of his apprenticeship, the carpenter was qualified to work on land or sea. His duties encompassed the maintenance of the entire ship. Weather and simple daily usage took a toll on wooden ships, so the carpenter “was always working.” (Selinger, 158) They were also responsible for keeping the ship’s hull and masts sound. When the ship was taken into a port or beached for careening (cleaning), the carpenter supervised any repairs.

On a pirate ship, where surgeons were usually scarce, the carpenter’s responsibilities often included performing amputations simply because he had a saw. He would also be called upon to inspect captured ships to determine seaworthiness.

From the time he was captured by Bellamy, Davis pleaded with him to be released. Bellamy initially promised Davis he would let him go as soon as they captured another vessel. Davis would ask each time another ship was taken until Bellamy finally told him that if the company was willing, he could go. So Bellamy put the question to the company, “[w]ho expressed themselves in a Violent manner, saying, No, damn him, they would first shoot him or whip him to Death at the Mast.”( Trials, 312-313)

At Davis’s trial for piracy, witness Oliver Noyes, Esq., testified that he overheard Captain Richards tell how Davis was “desirous to be released & cryed, giving out that he was undone by being detained among them. And one of the Pirates hearing him lament his sad condition, said, Damn him, He was a Presbyterian Dog, and should fight for King James.” (Trials, 314)

Leaving the Isle of Blanco, the pirates sailed to Spanish Town on St. Croix, briefly stopping to trade and take on some new crewmembers. Toward the end of February 1717, while sailing back towards the Windward Passage, they spied a ship in the distance. Bellamy gave the order to give chase.

It took three days to catch up to the Whydah Galley. In the end, the capture was a bit anticlimactic. While the Whydah did fire her chase guns at one point, the pursuit really came down to the pirates firing a shot across her bow and Captain Lawrence Prince surrendering without a fight. Part of the reason for Prince’s easy surrender was that during this period of time, ship captains had learned that if they gave up when chased and complied with the pirates’ orders, they could avoid being tortured or shot.

Luckily for Prince, Bellamy was not known for “doing violence” to his prisoners. (Dethlefsen, 26) He ultimately traded ships with Prince, letting him sail away in the Sultana while he took possession of the Whydah. He gave Prince about “Twenty Pounds in Silver and Gold to bear his charges.” (Trials, 317) Bellamy forced eight or ten of Prince’s men, including his boatswain, to join pirates. Several others voluntarily joined their crew. At the time they encountered the storm that would seal their fate, they were headed towards Green Island, Maine with the intention of careening their ships.

The twenty-sixth of April in 1717 started out like any other day for the pirates. In the morning, they captured the Mary Anne, “a pink with more than 7,000 gallons of Madeira wine on board . . . and the Fisher – 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.”

At the time of the wreck, the Whydah boasted a complement of about 150 men, all crammed into a ship that measured thirty feet wide and one hundred feet long. With the bulk of the pirates’ booty stored on her, the decks were probably starting to sag from such items as “[e]lephant tusks, sugar, molasses, rum, cloth, quinine, bark, indigo, and tons of dry goods.” (Clifford, 260)4 The ship also carried “precious metal, 180 sacks of coins, each sack weighing fifty pounds.” (Clifford, 260) What this meant was the Whydah would have been riding very low in the water, a dangerous condition in a storm.

                Tusk, 11th century carving in Louvre (Source:
                Wikipedia) Examples of colonial cargo (Source: Cindy
Examples of cargo such as that found by Bellamy aboard Whydah
Left: 11th-century carved elephant tusk (Source: Wikipedia); Right: Cargo in colonial Salem, Massachusetts (Source: Cindy Vallar)

Throughout the afternoon a dense fog rolled in, which should have been an early storm warning for the pirates. Bellamy initially tried to rely on the crew of the captured Fisher to guide them through the fog. Then around five o’clock Richard Noland, commanding Bellamy’s consort ship the Marianne, came up to the Whydah to say that land had been spotted. Bellamy ordered everyone to steer north, staying close to land rather than heading out to sea.

As darkness came on Bellamy ordered all three ships to light lanterns on their sterns, a common navigational aid to help keep the ships together. But conditions continued to get worse.
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. (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 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 would have been pushed west by the winds, no matter how hard the pirates tried to keep heading north. “‘Breakers! Breakers!’ shouted a lookout at the rail who could hear, but not see, the crashing waves.” (Clifford, 264) But it was simply too late.

The accident was succinctly described by Davis in his deposition before his trial for piracy.
The 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)
“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 & Kinkor, 131) Yet Davis and John Julian made it to shore. After climbing the seventy-foot cliffs on the beach, Davis eventually found his way to Samuel Harding’s house, which was two miles from the wreck site. Harding later said that he and Davis then made several trips on horseback to and from the wreck.

By ten o’clock in the morning, ten more men had shown up at the site. By the time Joseph Doane, Esquire arrived on Sunday morning, Cyprian Southack would report to Governor Shute that anything of value was gone.5 When asked later about what they had found, Harding claimed that Davis “gave him orders to deliver nothing of the Riches they has saved out of the Wreck.” (“Cyprian,” 8 May 1717)6

Old Gaol in Barnstable,
                  Massachusetts (Source: Wikimedia Commons by Swampyank
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oldest_wooden_jail_in_America.jpg)Doane would write to the lieutenant governor of how he had heard that a number of men had come ashore after a shipwreck “on the backside of the Town of Eastham the night before who were suspected to be pirates and had that Morning passed through Town inquiring the way to Rhoad Island.” (“Letter of Joseph Doane”) Since Doane was a justice of the peace, he and a deputy sheriff “pursu’d, overtook, seized, examined & committed Seven of the Pirates.” (“Letter of Joseph Doane”) Two days later, he arrested Davis.

In a letter to the governor on 28 April, Colonel Buffet told how on 26 April, the pirates had captured the Mary Anne, helped themselves to the liquor on board, and then fallen asleep. The master of the Mary Anne ran her ashore “on the back side of Eastham.” (Dethlefsen, 135) Gathering the pirates from the Mary Anne, Davis, and John Julian into one group, they took them by horseback under guard to Boston Gaol.7

Come October, when their trials were held in Boston, Governor Shute ordered Doane to be present. Doane later petitioned Shute for reimbursement of the one hundred miles he had to travel to Boston and for the ten days he was away from home.

While in gaol waiting for his trial, Davis petitioned Governor Shute to be moved to a different location than the other men. "[T]he Pyrates in Prison suspect that he will make such discovery as will not be pleasing to them, he is fearful least they should hurt him, if not deprive him of life, to prevent his Testimony against them." ("Memorial") He also said he was forced against his will to join the pirates and it caused him "great grief and sorrow." ("Memorial") Nor was he active amongst them any more than he absolutely had to. He told everything he knew when he was apprehended, but since he was a stranger, no one believed him, and he was put in chains and taken to gaol alongside the others. He also claimed to be ignorant of the charges against him that said he had made several trips to the shipwreck site and that, as a result, he knew where the treasure was and had even concealed some of it.

During his interrogation before his trial, Davis said that “[w]hen the company was called together to Confab, and each man to give his vote, they would not allow the forced Men to have a Vote . . . and this Examinate being a forced Man, had no opportunity to discover his Mind.” (Trials, 318) He related how “new men were sworn to be true and not to cheat the company to the value of a piece of Eight.” (Trials, 318) When a prize was taken, names would be called off the duty roster and those men would board the prize regardless of whether they were forced men or volunteers.

Divide the Treasure by Howard Pyle (Source:
                    Dover's Pirates CD)
Pirates at a confab (Artist: Howard Pyle)
(Source: Pirates CD from Dover)

Davis is unique in pirate history as the only man accused of piracy known to have his father petition on his behalf.
To His Excellency the Governour and Council The Humble Petition of William Davis of Bristol Carpenter and Father of the said Thomas Davis, Sheweth, that the said Thomas Davis from his youth up hath been a Dutiful and Obedient son, and his life and Deportm’t has been always Regular and Becoming as well as Peaceable, and your poor Pet’r prays your Excellency and Honours will compassionate him and extend your Favour and Indulgence to his son as far as shall stand with your wisdom and Clemency. (“Petition”)
In fact, more than one person petitioned on Davis’s behalf.
Capt. John Gilbert, Mariner, belonging to Bristol, Testifyeth and Saith that he well knew Thomas Davis (son of . . . William Davis) for these seven or eight years last past, and that he has had a good Education in a Religious and Orderly Family, and his Conversation, Carriage and Behaviour all that while was very decent and becoming, and this Depon't has no reason to think but that he always lived a well ordered life, having never heard to the contrary. (“Letter of John Gilbert”)
This is important to note because at one point in the trial of the men from the Mary Anne, their attorney, Robert Auchmuty, asked to have Davis brought in to testify. His motion was denied at the urging of the Advocate General because Davis “could not lawfully be admitted a Witness for the Prisoners, he being accused of, and tho’ not Indicted, yet in Custody for the same Crimes which they stand charged with.” (Trials, 299)8

Around July of 1717, fellow survivor John Julian disappeared from history.9 The remaining seven men arrested alongside Davis were tried for piracy in Boston, Massachusetts, on 22 October 1717. Six were found guilty despite pleading they were forced men. They were hanged on 15 November 1717, at Charlestown Ferry. The seventh, Thomas South, was found not guilty and released.
Davis’ trial began on 28 October 1717, and opened with a reading of the indictment.
I. ANd first, The said Thomas Davis, sometime about the latter end of February or beginning of March last past, did in Confederacy, Combination, and Conspiracy with divers other Profligate & Felonious Persons, without any lawful Cause or Warrant, in hostile manner, with force and Arms, Piractically, and Feloniously, chase, assault, invade & enter, on the High Sea, Viz. in the Windward Passage, about three leagues off the Island commonly called Long Island in the West Indies, a Free Trading Ship called the Whido, bound from His Majesty’s Colony of Jamaica, to the Port of London, which Ship then was Owned and Navigated by His Majesty’s Subjects, of Great Britain, having her own Cargoe on board, and displaying English Colours.

II. And Secondly, The said Thomas Davis, having at the time and place, and in manner aforesaid entered on board the said Ship, did then and there . . .  Piratically and Feloniously over-power, subdue and imprison Lawrence Prince Master of the said Ship, and his Crew, and him the said Lawrence Prince, with his said Crew, did force and constrain, to leave and abandon the said Ship, and her Cargoe, consisting chiefly of Sugar, Indigo, Jesuits Bark, Silver and Gold.
III. Thirdly, The said Thomas Davis . . . seized and possessed himself of the said Ship and Cargoe; and the said Ship did use, navigate, exercise and imploy in Confederacy with others aforesaid, in Perpetrating and Committing Piracies, Robberies and Depredations.

IV. Fourthly, The said Thomas Davis, sometime about the latter end of March or beginning of April last past, then being on board the said Piractical Ship aforesaid, Did on the High Sea, viz. off or near the Capes of Virginia . . . surprise, assault and take a Free trading Vessel bound from His Majesty’s Colony of Barbadoes, to some part of Great Britain, which Vessel then belonged to and was Navigated by His Majesty’s Subjects of . . . Scotland, having on board her own cargoe.
V. Fifthly, The said Thomas Davis . . . Did . . . seize and imprison the Master & Crew belonging to the said Vessel, and Robbed the Cargoe thereof, and the Said Vessel then and there . . . did sink and destroy. (Trials, 309-310)
The King’s Advocate, James Smith, then asked that Davis “be punished by Sentence of the said Court with the pains of Death, and loss of Lands, Goods and Chattles according to the direction of the Law, to the Example and Terror of others to do, or commit the like crimes in times coming.” (Trials, 310)

After this, the court called for Davis’s plea. Davis asked for council, and John Valentine was appointed. Mr. Valentine would prove to be a much more fortunate choice for Davis than Mr. Auchmuty had been for the seven pirates of the Mary Anne at their trial.10 Davis subsequently pled not guilty. He was given a copy of the indictment and a list of the witnesses. Then court was adjourned until nine o’clock in the morning of 30 October.

When court reconvened and after the King’s Advocate explained the charges against Davis and outlined his case, he called his first witness. Owen Morris, mariner, had sailed with Davis on the St. Michael when it left Bristol in September 1716. They were taken by pirates in December and Davis was detained because he was a carpenter and a single man. Morris related how Davis “was very unwilling to go . . . and prevailed upon Bellamy” to let him go when Bellamy captured his next prize. (Trials, 312)
Thomas South, freshly acquitted of piracy, said that while Bellamy was in command of the Whydah, they captured a Scottish vessel off the Capes of Virginia, and that he had heard, but not seen, that Davis had gone aboard the ship, that its masts were cut down, and she sank. He tried to not be too familiar with Davis to avoid the attention of the pirates, but he and Davis had planned to run away together. South also testified the captain of the St. Michael pleaded with Bellamy to release Davis, but the company “Swore that they would shoot him before they would let him go from them.” (Trials, 313)

Captain John Brest testified that while he was held captive, Bellamy did not force men to join them, that everyone was a volunteer.

1743 map of Boston by William Price (Source:
                  Wikipedia)Another witness was Seth Smith, the prison-keeper of Boston Gaol. Smith related that when Davis was brought in, he was too sick to interact with anyone, but that later, when he felt better, Smith tried to talk him into confessing to save his life. Davis replied “that he was abused by several of the Pirates that were drowned . . . but knew nothing against the rest of the Pirates in Prison.” (Trials, 314)

Finally, Davis was offered a chance to speak for himself. He told the court that he was a carpenter on St. Michael, which was taken by pirates “Twenty Leagues off Sabria” in December 1716. (Trials, 313) From there they were forced to sail “to the Island of Blanco, where they were detained till the Ninth day of January last.” (Trials, 313-314) He, with fourteen others, was forced to go first aboard the Sultana and then aboard the Whydah after her capture. He said “he was no way active among the Pirates, only as he was compelled by them.” (Trials, 314)

At this point Davis’s counsel, Mr. Valentine, argued that there was nothing said and no proof against Davis, and asked that the court “acquit him as being Innocent, for that in all Capital crimes there must be down-right Proofs and plentiful Evidence to take away a Mans Life.” (Trials, 314)

He told of how the testimony of Owen Morris and Thomas South proved that Davis was forced against his will to remain among the pirates and that he had been observed pleading for his release. Even though South believed Davis was on board the Scottish vessel that was sunk, Davis “denies it, and Souths belief was grounded upon hear-say.” (Trials, 314)

About Captain Brest’s testimony that Bellamy did not force men to join his crew, Valentine argued that other testimony contradicted this.

Several witnesses also testified that they had known Davis before he was taken by the pirates and knew him to be of good character and a sober, honest man. To further support their claims, Valentine tried to read into evidence an affidavit from Great Britain, but his motion was rejected, “being contrary to Act of Parliament, which directs that all Evidences respecting Pirates shall be given into Court” in person. (Trials, 314)11

Then Davis was given one final opportunity to speak for himself. He answered, “He was not on board of the Scotch Ship that was sunk as was reported; and that he humbly conceived the Evidence produced in order to his condemnation sufficiently proved his Innocence: That his Attorney had fully spoke his Mind & Sentiments, and therefore he should not trouble this Honourable Court any longer in his Defence, or to that purpose.” (Trials, 315)

Next the Advocate General made his closing arguments, ultimately concluding that there was sufficient proof to convict Davis and that he should be executed.

After a short debate, the court concluded that there was proof of Davis having been forced to join the pirates and that there wasn’t any evidence that he was in any way active among them. In less than half an hour, Davis was brought back into the court and told that he had been found “Not Guilty.” Upon hearing the verdict, Davis fell to his knees, “[t]hanked the Court and was dismissed with a suitable Admonition.” (Trials, 316)

Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to him after the trial. It can be hoped that after his acquittal, he made his way home, where his father could be counted on to help him get back on his feet, thus bringing a positive ending to what must have been a harrowing experience for this young man.

1. There is no explanation as to why he uses the term shipwright instead of carpenter here.

2. A French pirate otherwise known as Olivier Levasseur.

3. For example, a carpenter starting out might be paid up to 35 shillings a month. He would pay from 5 to 20 shillings a month to his master until completing his apprenticeship. Then he had the potential to earn 60 to 90 shillings a month, as opposed to 25 to 55 shillings a month for an able seaman.

4. Colonists would readily purchase these items.

5. Southack was the son of a British naval lieutenant and a skilled cartographer. While he commanded ships that engaged in skirmishes with the French and Native Americans and later against pirates and privateers, his true love was the creation of highly detailed maps. He notes in his May 8th letter that 72 pirates from the wreck had been buried. (more information about Southack)

6. Southack’s May 13th letter states that 76 pirates from the wreck had been buried.

7. So far no record has been found that tells of how John Julian was apprehended. He simply appears as part of the group of pirates being taken to Boston Gaol.

8. Mr. Auchmuty would make a couple of other motions on behalf of the accused pirates, but after they were denied, he quit, leaving the men to face the court alone.

9. Probably a Miskito Indian, Julian is believed to have been sold into slavery. A “Julian the Indian” was executed in 1733 for killing a bounty hunter while attempting to escape. For more about John Julian, see “John Julian – The Teenage Pirate.”

10. In 1720, Valentine would be named Advocate-General for the province of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. He would act as prosecutor in the mass trial of pirates at Newport, Rhode Island in 1723.

11. These must have been the letters from his father and the family friend.

For more 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.
“Cyprian Southack to Governor Shute” Massachusetts Archives Collection, 51:289, 289a, SCI/series 45X, May 8, 1717. Massachusetts Archives, Boston, Massachusetts.
“Cyprian Southack to Governor Shute” Massachusetts Archives Collection, 51:291. SCI/series 45X, May 13, 1717. Massachusetts Archives, Boston, Massachusetts.

Davis, Ralph. The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries. David & Charles, 1972.
Dethlefsen, Edwin. Whidah: Cape Cod’s Mystery Treasure Ship. Seafarer’s Heritage Library, 1984.

Donovan, Webster. “Pirates of the Whydah,” National Geographic Magazine (May 1999).

“Letter of John Gilbert to the Court of Vice-Admiralty on behalf of Thomas Davis” Suffolk Court Files, fragment 26283, Paper 2.
“Letter of Joseph Doane to Lt. Governor William Dummer” Massachusetts Archives Collection, 63:447. SCI/series 45X. June 2, 1717. Massachusetts Archives, Boston, Massachusetts.

“Memorial of Thomas Davis” Boston (n.d.) Suffolk Court Files, Frag. 26283, paper 2.

“Petition of William Davis to the Court of Vice-Admiralty on behalf of Thomas Davis” Suffolk Court Files fragment 26283, Paper 2.

Selinger, Gail. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha, 2006.

“The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy” in British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H Baer, Vol. 2. Pickering and Chatto, 2007.

About the author
Laura Nelson
Laura Nelson, a frequent contributor to Pirates and Privateers, writes articles about the pirates of the Whydah Galley. In 2016 she combined these writings with trial transcripts and published them in The Whydah Pirates Speak. Her short story "Rosa and the Pirate" appears in Dark Oak Media's A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder.  Another story featuring pirates appears in Alban Lake's horror anthology Potter's Field 6.

When not reading, researching, or writing about pirates, she likes to take walks and enjoys her cats and horse racing. She can be contacted through her blog, The Whydah Pirates Speak.
Cover Art:
                          Whydah Pirates SpeakCover
                          Art: A Tall Ship, a Star, & Plunder
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