Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Pirates and Death
By Cindy Vallar
Perhaps Bartholomew Roberts best summed up a pirate’s life while speaking to new recruits forced to join his crew:
In an honest Service there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Saiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not ballance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one, shall be my Motto. (Defoe, 244)
Pirate Life versus Navy Life
As Marcus Rediker explained in the introduction to Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, “The omnipotence of the elements and the fragility of human life marked the consciousness of every early-eighteenth-century seaman.” (2) They lived with death every day, not just from nature, but also from the work they did. Many pirates initially came from this legitimate maritime world and were all too familiar with the hazards seamen encountered. Rather than heed orders from the master of a ship, they preferred to sail aboard a vessel where they were masters of their fates – at least as much as Mother Nature permitted. This was why Roberts preferred to enjoy life for as long as he was able. But as with most choices, his had a consequence that proved fatal.
Sailing on a wooden ship was similar to running the gauntlet. Rather than enduring strikes from clubs, swords, or other items that could inflict pain, seamen encountered churning seas, sudden squalls, hurricanes, waterspouts, or any number of other tempests at Mother Nature’s disposal, including unseen shoals and reefs that could wreck the ship. Then there were the inevitable problems that resulted from poor maintenance, such as a leaky hull, and the inherent dangers of working on a ship.
[T]he chances of a seaman ending his life in . . . a catastrophe were high, and many a man fell from the rigging, was washed overboard, or was fatally struck by falling gear. (Rediker, Between, 92-93)
Dangers encountered in sailing
One such catastrophe occurred on 2 January 1669. Henry Morgan summoned the buccaneer captains to gather at Île à Vache to plot out another raid on Spanish America. They chose Cartagena as their next target, and fifteen guns were fired to announce their destination to the rest of the pirates. Then the captains, including Morgan, dined on the flagship’s quarterdeck. Richard Browne, a surgeon, later wrote:
But about 12 o’clock . . . the Oxford blew up and above 200 men lost . . . . There were but six men and four boys that belonged to the Oxford saved . . . and eight more that were aboard the French prize, some few a-hunting, and others washing their clothes ashore. It cannot be imagined how this sad accident happened, but suppose the negligence of the gunner in filling powder to load the guns . . . . At the time of the blowing up the ship, Captain Whiting, the purser, and myself were at dinner at the binnacle . . . . The mainmast jumped up out of the ship and fell upon the starboard quarter, where Captain Aylett, Captain Bigford, and some other Captains were walking and were all knocked on the head by the mainmast, and Captain Whiting, who was on my right hand and the purser on my left, and was out-angled in the awning and so drowned. . . . I only heard a great rushing noise, with fire and smoke, and the battlements of the awning being on fire fell upon me, and immediately I felt the deck give way and was in the water over head and dived, and presently bore up again and saved myself by getting astride upon the mizzenmast. There were not above 20 persons . . . from other ships and our own company that were saved, and most of them much hurt. All them that were upon deck or any part of the ship, were all lost, except those upon the quarter-deck. (Marley, Pirates, 1:427-428)Other times Mother Nature, rather than human error, caused the accidental deaths of men. While traversing the Darien jungle with other buccaneers in 1681, George Gainy (Gayny) drowned when he attempted to cross a river with a bag containing 300 Spanish silver dollars draped around his neck. Lionel Wafer, one of the surgeons on the expedition, discovered his body after it finally washed ashore in a creek. That same year John Alexander went under while transporting tools to the island of Chira. It took three days to find the body of this Scot, who sailed with Bartholomew Sharp. The next day the buccaneers “threw him overboard, giving him three French vollies for his customary ceremony.” (Gosse, 28) Henry Sherral (Shergall) fell into the sea from the spritsail-top of Sharp’s ship near Cape Horn in October 1681, never to be seen again. Edward Church and a man named Atwell (Atwill), who sailed with Charles Gibbs, drowned off the coast of Rhode Island in 1831. The circumstances surrounding their deaths weren’t recorded, but they were far from the only pirates who died mysteriously while at sea. The best leader of the flibustiers from France, le Chevalier de Grammont, and nearly 200 men perished during a storm in 1686. Swept overboard in dirty weather, Captain Stephen Heynes, whose brutal torture techniques caused his own crew to beg him to stop, lost his life in 1582. Zhèng Yī (Cheng I) went overboard during a storm in 1807 at the height of his power as leader of a confederation of Chinese pirates.
Benjamin Hornigold, who taught many others the fine art of piracy, took the King’s Grace and became a pirate hunter. On one voyage to capture rogues who refused to change their ways, his ship struck a reef and he drowned.1 The most legendary of the pirate shipwrecks, though, was the Whydah, and her captain, Samuel Bellamy, was once a protégé of Hornigold’s.
The Whydah began a slow turn toward the wind, taking thousands of tons of water over the gunwales as she was swept by forty-foot waves. Many of the 148 men on board must have been swept over the side at this point. The ones who weren’t had probably taken refuge in the hold or were clinging desperately to the rigging, where the wind was colder than the forty-degree water.
Still the ship turned. . . . Then came the fateful bump that meant the stern had run aground and the ship could turn no more. More water swept the deck, filling the holds and slowly rolling the ship. Within fifteen minutes of striking land, the mainmast was snapped off and floated free. Then, with nothing left to keep her upright, the ship began to roll upside down. Pirates were crushed as cannons and goods stored below came crashing through the decks. Those who could, swam, but in water so cold, there were few who could make it the five hundred feet to shore. Those who did froze to death trying to climb the steep sand cliffs of Eastham. (Clifford, Expedition, 265)
One hundred thirty pirates lost their lives that night off the coast of Cape Cod on 26 April 1717, including Bellamy. A cannon pinned the youngest member of the crew, John King, to the ocean floor. Centuries later, after Barry Clifford discovered the remains of the wreck, all that remained of the nine year old was a fragment of leg bone, concealed in the same silk stocking he had worn the day Bellamy captured the ship John sailed on with his mother, and his leather shoe still fastened with its buckle (see right photo above).
In spite of all these potentially fatal threats, other more pervasive dangers claimed the lives of more pirates and seamen than any other cause of death. When Commodore George Anson left Portsmouth in 1740, 1,995 men served aboard the seven naval ships. Four years later on his return, he had only one ship and 145 men. More than 53% of his contingent had died from illness, particularly scurvy.2 During the Seven Years’ War, 1,500 men in the Royal Navy were killed in action, whereas almost 15,000 succumbed to disease.
Before Francis Drake captured the mules laden with treasure bound for Nombre de Dios (1572), his brother Joseph died in his arms from an epidemic that swept through his crew. Francis demanded the surgeon perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death in hopes of saving others afflicted with the malady. Joseph’s liver was swollen and his heart “sodden,” but before the surgeon gave his diagnosis, he succumbed also. Period documents identified the disease as calenture – delirium, fever, and sunstroke – but yellow fever was a likely culprit. Sir Francis would also die of an illness, dysentery, while on his last voyage in 1596. John Ward (Yusuf Reis) died of the plague in 1623 in his adopted homeland of Tunis, where he had lived since becoming a renegado and joining the Barbary corsairs. William Cammock, one of Bartholomew Sharp’s buccaneers, imbibed so much while at La Serena that he contracted a malignant fever and hiccoughs, which killed him in 1679/1680. Captain John Cooke (Cook) fell ill and died in 1684. This buccaneer, who also sailed with Sharp as well as Charles Swan, was laid to rest ashore at Cape Blanco, Mexico. Another cohort of Sharp’s was his chief mate, John Hilliard, who became a victim of dropsy in 1681. Sharp recorded in his journal the death of another of his crew in January 1682. William Stephens (Stevens) “was observed, after his eating of three Manchaneel Apples, at King Charles’ Harbour, to waste away strangely, till at length he was become a perfect skeleton.” (Downie, 218) “Next morning we threw overboard our dead man and gave him two French vollies and one English one.” (Gosse, 218)
Captain John Halsey succumbed from a tropical fever in 1716. One of those present at the burial described his funeral:
With great solemnity, the prayers of the Church of England being read over him and his sword and pistols laid on his coffin, which was covered with a ship’s Jack. As many minute guns were fired as he was old – viz, forty-six – and three English vollies and one French volley of small arms. His grave was made in a garden of watermelons and fenced in to prevent his being rooted up by wild pigs. (Gosse, 150)Perhaps the more famous of the pirates who died from disease was Mary Read, who sailed with John “Calico Jack” Rackham. Although she was convicted of piracy, she was given a stay of execution because she was pregnant. While in jail, she “was seiz’d with a violent Fever, soon after their Tryal, of which she died in Prison.” (Eastman, 40) According to Saint Catherine Parish Records, she died on 28 April 1721, and was buried in the Jamaican church’s cemetery.
Depending on the circumstances, pirates might or might not take time to honor their fallen comrades. If in the midst of battle, bodies might be tossed over the side. Otherwise they performed simple ceremonies as soon as time permitted since pirates, like other seamen, preferred not to have corpses on their ships. Preserving bodies involved the use of alcohol, and pirates weren’t likely to waste good spirits on the dead.3 Prior to burial the deceased was placed in his hammock and, if possible, two round shots were placed within as well – one at the head, the other at the feet to weight the shroud so the remains would sink, rather than float to the surface. The hammocks were sewn shut, with one stitch through the deceased’s nose to insure that he was dead. At the actual burial some comrades shared memories of the dearly departed, then a prayer might be spoken before the body slid off a plank into the watery depths. For some, “the usual Ceremony of firing the Guns” often followed. (Rediker, Between, 196) Unlike burials on land, the pirates displayed little, if any, emotion. If the man had family, the pirates might auction off the deceased’s belongings and the money would be given to his survivors. In 1704 William Funnell described the result of one of these sales:
One of our Men being dead, his things were sold as follows. A chest, value five Shillings, was sold for three Pounds; a pair of shooes, value four Shillings and six pence, sold for thirty one Shillings; half a pound of Thread, value two Shillings, sold for seventeen Shillings and six pence. (Rediker, Between, 197)On 15 April 1709, Woodes Rogers and his men encountered a Spanish ship, which chose to fight rather than surrender. He noted the attack and the aftermath in his journal:
Our People were constrain’d to fall astern twice, after the loss of one Man kill’d and three wounded. The Boats and Sails were much damag’d by the Enemies Partridge-shot, yet they again attempted to come up and board her. At this Attack my unfortunate Brother was shot thro the Head, and instantly died, to my unspeakable Sorrow . . . .The next day, he buried John. “About twelve we read the Prayers for the Dead, and threw my dear Brother over-board, with one of our Sailors, another lying dangerously ill. We hoisted our Colours but half-mast up: We began first, and the rest follow’d, firing each some Volleys of small Arms. All our Officers express’d a great Concern for the Loss of my Brother, he being a very hopeful active young Man, a little above twenty Years of Age.” (Rogers, 89-90)
In spite of such rituals, pirates didn’t fear death or hold it in high regard. As Ned Ward explained, “No Man can have a Greater contempt for Death. For every day he constantly shits upon his own Grave, and dreads a Storm no more, than He does a broken Head, when drunk.” (Rediker, Between 250)
While pirates worked under a banner of democracy, there were times when they realized some actions needed consequences so others wouldn’t follow suit. (Much like society which sometimes hung the corpses of pirates in gibbets at key places where respectable seamen would see what awaited them should they be foolish enough to go on the account.) This was why breaking certain rules earned dire punishments in their codes of conduct. Bartholomew Roberts spelled out two specific violations.
VI. No Boy or Woman to be allowed amongst them. If any Man were found seducing any of the latter Sex, and carry’d her to Sea, disguised, he was to suffer Death.
VII. To Desert the Ship, or their Quarters in Battle, was punished with Death or Marooning. (Defoe, 212)
Three of John Phillips’ articles spelled out death, although they were more specific in detail.
2. If any Man shall offer to run away, or keep any Secret from the Company, he shall be maroon’d, with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm and Shot.
3. If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game to the Value of a Piece of Eight, he shall be maroon’d or shot.
9. If at any Time we meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer present Death. (Defoe, 342-343)
Those who suffered marooning had two or three choices, depending on the islet upon which they were abandoned. If the spot of land was visible only at low tide, he might drown when the tide came in. Or he might die after suffering the agonizing pains of an empty belly and a parched throat, even though he was surrounded by water. There was always a slim chance he might survive, but the odds were against him. If neither of these alternatives appealed, he might shoot himself.
Howard Pyle's Marooned
Some Asian pirates also adhered to a set of rules that included death as a punishment:
When captive women are brought on board, no one may debauch them; but their native places shall be ascertained and recorded, and a separate apartment assigned to them in the ship; any person secretly or violently approaching them shall suffer death. (Antony, 114)Whether such punishments were actually meted out, however, was another thing entirely.
Survival on a ship necessitated teamwork, so pirates instituted and strictly adhered to another rule when tempers grew short. If an argument devolved into a fight, the quartermaster broke it up with the reminder that as soon as they went ashore, the fight would be resolved via a duel. Normally, the victor was decided by first blood spilt, which didn’t necessarily mean one man died. Such was not the case when an argument ensued aboard Calico Jack’s boat between two men, one of whom was the man Mary Read loved.
It happened this young Fellow had a Quarrel with one of the Pyrates, and their Ship then lying at an Anchor, near one of the Islands, they had appointed to go ashore and fight, according to the Custom of the Pyrates: Mary Read was to the last Degree uneasy and anxious, for the Fate of her Lover; she would not have had him refuse the Challenge, because, she could not bear the Thoughts of his being branded with Cowardice; on the other Side, she dreaded the Event, and apprehended the Fellow might be too hard for him . . . in this Dilemma, she shew’d, that she fear’d more for his Life than she did for her own; for she took a Resolution of quarrelling with this Fellow her self, and having challenged him ashore, she appointed the Time two Hours sooner than that when he was to meet her Lover, where she fought him at Sword and Pistol, and killed him upon the Spot. (Defoe, 158)
Left to Right: Theirs Was a Spirited Encounter Upon the Beach of Teviot Bay (Howard Pyle),
Mary Read kills her antagonist (The Pirates Own by Charles Ellm), and
Being Come to the Place of Duel, the Englishman Stabbed the Frenchman in the Back (George Albert Williams)
The boatswain of another crew was disrespectful to Captain John Evans and an argument ensued. Evans insisted on satisfaction ashore, but his opponent refused so Evans gave him a “hearty drubbing.” In retaliation, the boatswain shot Evans in the head, then jumped overboard. Some of his mates pursued the boatswain and dragged him back aboard the ship to stand trial. The whole incident had taken so much time that a gunner didn’t wish to waste any additional time on the matter and, opting to deliver justice himself, shot the boatswain.
Henry Morgan also killed one of his men. A Frenchman had challenged a buccaneer to a duel, but rather than heed the traditional rules, the man stabbed the Frenchmen with a sword while his back was turned. Morgan rewarded such cowardice with hanging.
The very nature of their work meant pirates might fall during battle, but they might not be killed directly. Death could be a consequence of exploding gunpowder, flying splinters, falling masts and tackle, or overturning guns. While ship-to-ship and hand-to-hand combat might kill a pirate, so could just the act of boarding the prey when the two ships were grappled together. A shipmaster, who sailed with the French corsair René Duguay-Trouin, was crushed after he fell between the vessels. Captain Peter Harris, who sailed with Bartholomew Sharpe, sustained wounds in both legs as he tried to board a Spanish ship off Panama in 1680.
But many pirates were killed from wounds sustained in the fight. Bartholomew Roberts, for example, died when grapeshot struck him in the throat after HMS Swallow attacked his ships off the coast of Africa in 1722.
He settled himself on the tackles of a gun, which one Stephenson, from the helm, observing, ran to his assistance, and not perceiving him wounded, swore at him, and bid him stand up, and fight like a man; but when he found his mistake, and that his captain was certainly dead, he gushed into tears, and wished the next shot might be his lot. They presently threw him overboard, with his arms and ornaments on, according to the repeated request he made in his lifetime . . . (Pirate’s, 145)
Nineteen of Roberts’ men, who were captured and taken to Cape Coast Castle, died either from their wounds or diseases before they could be tried. One of those men was Roger Ball, who, when asked how he came to be badly burned, said, “Why John Morris fired a pistol into the powder, and if he had not done it, I would [have].” (Gosse, 44) Morris succeeded in killing himself, but the attempt to blow up the ship failed; yet Morris and Ball weren’t the only pirates who would rather kill themselves than be captured. What Morris attempted to do was what one pirate had told the master of the Samuel, captured in August 1720, that they would do.
If we are captured, we will set fire to the powder with a pistol, and all go merrily to hell together. (Botting 165)Other pirates of the Golden Age also averred to perpetrate their own demise, rather than be captured. That sometimes meant blowing up the ship, but other times it involved killing each other. One example of the latter involved two pirates who ritualized the vow:
[They] took their Pistols, and laid them down by them, and solemnly swore to each other, and pledg’d the Oath in a Bumper of Liquor, that if they saw that there was at last no possibility of Escaping, but that they should be taken, they would set Foot to Foot, and Shoot one another, to Escape Justice and the Halter. (Rediker, Villains, 149)Captain Charles Harris and his men preferred to “always [keep] a Barrel of Powder ready to blow up the Sloop rather than be taken.” (Rediker, Villains, 149) When they encountered HMS Greyhound in 1723, one man tried to ignite the keg, but “being hindered, he went forward, and with his Pistol shot out his own Brains.” (Rediker, Villains, 151) Joseph Cooper’s crew, however, succeeded. When naval officers attempted to board the ship, the pirates blew themselves up.
Caesar, who sailed with Edward Teach (Blackbeard), had tried to ignite the powder magazine on their ship during Lieutenant Robert Maynard’s surprise attack at Ocracoke Inlet four years earlier. Two prisoners intervened, and Caesar was taken into custody. Maynard’s account of the fight simply reported:
I had eight Men killed and 18 wounded. We kill’d 12, besides Blackbeard, who fell with five Shot in him, and twenty dismal Cuts in several Parts of his Body. I took nine prisoners, mostly Negroes, all wounded. (Cordingly, 176)The Boston News-Letter provided a more lurid description of their fight three months later:
. . . Maynard making a thrust, the point of his Sword went against Teach’s Cartridge Box, and bended it to the Hilt, Teach broke the Guard of it, and wounded Maynard’s Fingers but did not disable him. where upon he Jumpt back, threw away his Sword and fired his Pistol, which wounded Teach. Demelt struck in between them with his Sword and cut Teach’s Face pretty much . . . one of Maynard’s Men being a Highlander, ingaged Teach with his broad Sword, who gave Teach a cut on the Neck, Teach saying well done Lad, the Highlander reply’d, if it be not well done, I’ll do it better, with that he gave him a second stroke, which cut off his Head, laying it flat on his Shoulder, Teach’s Men being about 20, and three or four Blacks, were all killed in the ingagement . . . (British, I:295)
In all Teach sustained twenty-five wounds. Maynard had his corpse dumped over the side of the ship, while he ordered the head hung from the Jane’s bowsprit.
Aruj Barbarossa fell during a siege of Tlemcen in 1518. Forty-seven years later another Barbary corsair died while attacking Malta. Turgut Reis died doing what he enjoyed best – fighting Christians. The English pirate Captain Parker was killed in action against Dutch pirates at Marmora in 1611. Six years later, Basil Ringrose died when the Spanish launched a surprise attack on the pirates in Mexico. Fifty-four were killed in all and, according to William Dampier, their bodies were “stript, and so cut and mangl’d, that he scarce knew one man.”4 (Preston, 132) In the middle of the 1700s, Captain William Death engaged a French privateer. During the battle, which lasted three hours, Death was killed.
Even retirement didn’t guarantee a peaceful life. Thomas Tew, who lived in Rhode Island, had made his fortune, but his men kept trying to convince him to make one last voyage. It took several years, but they finally succeeded in 1695.
They prepared a small Sloop, and made the best of their Way to the Straits, entering the Red Sea, where they met with and attack’d a Ship belonging to the Great Mogul; in the Engagement, A Shot carry’d away the Rim of Tew’s Belly, who held his Bowels with his Hands some small Space; when he dropp’d, it struck such a Terror in his Men, that they suffered themselves to be taken without making Resistance. (Defoe, 439)
Thomas Tew and Jean Laffite
Like many who received pardons for past crimes, Jean Laffite resumed his pirating ways while residing on Galveston Island after the Battle of New Orleans. In 1820 the United States Navy drove him from that haven. Three years later, news reports in various papers declared he had died battling two Spanish warships. Jeff Modzelewski’s translation of an article that originally appeared in the Sunday, 20 April 1823, issue of Gaceta de Columbia read:
The Columbian corsair General Santander, of 43 tons, at the command of Captain Jean Laffite, gave chase at 5 in the morning on February 4, at 20 leagues beyond the Omoa tradewinds, opposite Triumph of the Cross, to a brigantine and a Spanish schooner, until 10 at night: the brigantine, after an hour of combat, and at the point of surrendering, signaled with lanterns to the schooner, which immediately turned upon the corsair: at this time Captain Laffite, mortally wounded, stimulated the ardor of his crew and turned over the command of the ship to his second in command, who suffered the same fate. Contramaestre [Chief petty officer or boatswain] Francisco Similien, after the death of the second in command, continued sustaining the combat until one at night when, it being impossible to continue it, changed course, as did the two Spanish vessels, which doubtless were very damaged by the fire of the corsair, since they did not pursue its retreat: Captain Laffite died from his injuries the next day . . . .5In action, there wasn’t always time to provide for decent burials, so the dead were often dumped overboard to clear the deck. When possible, however, pirates preferred to give their comrades a proper sendoff. After the death of his brother, Captain Thomas Phillips “commit[ted] his body to the deep” while praying. Drums and trumpets provided appropriate music, while the traditional volley of guns was fired. In this case, sixteen muskets representing each year the man had lived. (Little, Sea, 205). John Halsey’s burial proceeded with “great solemnity and ceremony.” (Little, Sea, 205)
In the early eighteenth century, pirates adopted common symbols denoting death and placed them on their flags. Skulls and crossed bones were frequently included on gravestones in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Paintings of the period also included allegorical symbols of death. To the pirates dancing skeletons were akin to the fate that awaited them should they be caught – dancing the hempen jig. Raised glasses denoted a toast to death, while weapons warned that death awaited those who dared to resist. Sandglasses and wings indicated how quickly time passed. Regardless of the symbols decorating their jacks, the pirates warned one and all that death was a real possibility. But even before such flags flew from ship masts, murder was part of this criminal way of life.
Left to right: Jolly Rogers of Condent, Moody, and Teach
Like other Buccaneers of the seventeenth century, the French flibustier Captain Daniel could be particularly bloodthirsty when fighting enemies, but he was also a pious man. While anchored off Isles des Saintes, he asked a priest to celebrate mass aboard his ship. The piety of one of his men was less than expected, so Daniel shot him in the head. Then Daniel told the priest, “Do not be troubled, my father, he is a rascal lacking in his duty and I have punished him to teach him better.” (Gosse, 103) After mass ended, the flibustiers dumped the body overboard.
Captain Kidd also killed one of his own men, even though that may not have been his intent; murder would become one of the charges lodged against him when he stood trial in 1701. The dispute arose because Kidd refused to attack a Dutch ship.
Moor, the gunner, being one day upon deck, and talking with Kidd . . . some words rose betwixt them, and Moor told Kidd, that he had ruined them all; upon which, Kidd, calling him dog, took up a bucket and struck him with it, which breaking his skull, he died the next day. (Pirate’s, 62)But it was a ship’s crew and passengers, as well as residents of towns, paid the ultimate sacrifice when pirates attacked. After Edward England assaulted the British East India Company’s Cassandra in July 1720, Captain James McRae left this account.
. . . many of my men were killed or wounded, and no hopes left of us from being all murdered by enraged barbarous Conquerors, I order’d all that could, to get into the longboat under the cover of the smoke of our guns, so that with what some did in boats, & others by swimming, most of us that were able reached ashoar by 7 o’clock. When the Pyrates came aboard, they cut three of our wounded men to pieces. I, with a few of my people, made what haste I could to the Kingstown, 25 miles from us, where I arrived next day, almost dead with fatigue and loss of blood, having been sorely wounded in the Head by a musket ball. (Konstam, Scourge, 144)
Edward “Ned” Low was a brute when it came to his victims. Sometime after he parted company with George Lowther in 1722, Low fell in with a French warship. He and his pirates “took all the crew out of her, but the cook, who, they said, being a greasy fellow would fry well in the fire; so the poor man was bound to the main-mast, and burnt in the ship, to the now small diversion of Low and his mermidons.” (Pirate’s, 159)
Nor were western pirates the only ones who slaughtered people. Pirates who prowled the waters of South China often murdered some crewmembers on the vessels they seized so the remainder would submit to their demands. Others slew entire crews to prevent them from talking. In April 1809, Guo Lianghuo seized a boat off the Xiangshan coast. He and his men garnered 550 taels of silver and stole the cargo before trussing up their victims and throwing them overboard. One of Xie Yaer’s captives had the audacity to curse the pirate chief, who smote the man into pieces and then fed these to the fish. When Chen Lassan encountered similar defiance, his men sliced the prisoner in half twice, severed his limbs, and removed his heart and liver, which the pirates soaked in wine and then ate.
Nor were men the only victims who refused to submit. In 1809 pirates attacked the village of Kan-shih in Guangdong, China.
Mei ying, the wife of Ke choo yang was very beautiful, and a pirate being about to seize her by the head, she abused him exceedingly. The pirate bound her to the yard-arm; but on abusing him yet more, the pirate dragged her down and broke two of her teeth, which filled her mouth and jaws with blood. The pirate sprang up again to bind her. Ying allowed him to approach but as soon as he came near her, she laid hold of his garments with her bleeding mouth and threw both him and herself into the river where they were drowned. (Bandits, 274)A seaman for the British East India Company, Richard Glasspoole also found himself a prisoner of ladrones (Chinese pirates) in September 1809. He spent more than a month in captivity while waiting for his ransom to be paid. After his release, he published an account of his experiences:
The ladrones were paid by their chief ten dollars for every Chinamen’s head they produced. One of my men, turning the corner of a street, was met by a ladrone running furiously after a Chinese. He had a drawn sword in his hand and two Chinamen’s heads which he had cut off, tied by their tails and slung round his neck. I was witness myself to some of them producing five or six to obtain payment!!! (Captured, 312)Three years earlier, J. Turner, another Englishman, became a “guest” of Chinese pirates for nearly six months. He witnessed an attack on an Imperial Navy vessel and described the brutality meted out to two officers. “One man had his feet nailed to the deck and was beaten with rattan whips until he vomited blood, ‘and after remaining some time in this state, he was taken ashore and cut to pieces.’ The other officer ‘was fixed upright, his bowel cut open, and his heart taken out’.” Like Chen Lassan’s victim, the pirates dined on that man’s heart. (Antony, 116) Such acts of cannibalism had a three-fold purpose. First, they demonstrated to the Imperial Navy just how far the pirates were willing to go when seeking revenge against anyone who stood in their way. Second, dining on the hearts and livers of their victims transferred the courage and longevity of the slain to the pirates. Lastly, participating in the act solidified the ties that bound the pirates into a cohesive group whose power and cruelty terrified other potential victims.6
Nor were attacks on warships any less gruesome four decades later when Shap ’ng Tsai prowled the waters off Guangdong and Fujian, China.
[F]ive war junks . . . were chased by six pirate boats, which boarded them, put their crews to death, and carried the commanders . . . on shore, where a fire was kindled, and the unfortunate officers were burnt alive. (Vallar, 39)Even today, death remains a threat to seamen who encounter pirates. In December 1992, the Baltimar Zypher was attacked in the Malacca Strait. The captain and first mate were both murdered. According to a news report, “A crewman said that he and Mr. Pereja [the first mate] were threatened by a man armed with a rifle and a pistol. The pirates shot up the radar before taking Mr. Pereja below, where [he] was shot dead in the captain’s cabin. It is believed that Captain Bashforth tried to barricade himself in a lavatory before suffering the same fate.” (Bennett) Six years later, the Cheung Son and twenty-three seamen disappeared. Six crewmembers’ bodies eventually surfaced off Shantou, China; they had been bound, gagged, and wrapped in fishing nets that were weighted down. On 13 January 1999, Chinese authorities arrested the pirates. Photographs were discovered showing them celebrating the hijacking of and murders on the Cheung Son.
During the seventeenth century, some Buccaneers were particularly sadistic, especially when it came to their treatment of Spaniards. Montbars, whom some nicknamed “The Exterminator,” liked to “cut open the stomach of his victim, extract one end of his guts, nail it to a post and then force the wretched man to dance to his death by beating his backside with a burning log.” (Cordingly, Under, 132) Gerrit Gerritszoon, better known as Rock Brasiliano, “perpetrated the greatest atrocities possible against the Spaniards. Some of them he tied or spitted on wooden stakes and roasted them alive between two fires, like killing a pig – and all because they refused to show him the road to the hog-yards he wanted to plunder.” (Exquemelin, 80) Even worse was Jean David Nau (François L’Olonnais). Headed toward San Pedro, he came across Spanish soldiers waiting to ambush him; instead he captured them.
Being possessed of a devil’s fury, [he] ripped open one of the prisoners with his cutlass, tore the living heart out of his body, gnawed at it, and then hurled it in the face of one of the others, saying “Show me another way, or I will do the same to you.” (Exquemelin, 107)
Gerrit Gerritszoon and Jean David Nau
The French Buccaneer Raveneau de Lussan recorded in his journal one incident where the ransom for his captives never arrived. “We were forced to apply to our prisoners the customary rigorous measures used to intimidate our enemies – to have them throw dice to see which men would lose their heads.” (Earle, 106) A few months before his capture in 1714, Alexander Dalzel and seven other pirates stole a French vessel while in Le Havre. They “murdered the pylot with a dagger, and tooke the master’s brother and tyed his hands and legs and cast him off at sea.” (Earle, 66)
While walking the plank was more fiction than reality, there were a few instances where pirates employed this technique to end their victims’ lives; none of these occurred before the nineteenth century. The Niles Weekly Register for 5 October 1822, included an item that had originally appeared in the Kingston Chronicle several months earlier. It involved an attack on the Blessing, a sloop out of Jamaica. The pirate leader ordered a plank
. . . run out in the starboard side of the schooner, upon which he made captain Smith walk, and that, as he approached to the end, they tilted the plank, when he dropped into the sea, and there, when in the effort of swimming, the captain called for his musket, and fired at him therewith, when he sank, and was seen no more! (Pirate’s, 161)An incident seven years later involved pirates who captured a Dutch brig off the coast of Cuba. After binding each man’s arms together and blindfolding him, the pirates chained round shot to the seamen’s feet. Then the pirates forced them to walk off the ship into the sea.
Conversely, the victims of pirates sometimes struck a blow against their attackers. When Howell Davis visited Principe Island in the Gulf of Guinea, he told the Portuguese governor he was a pirate hunter. Rather than being duped, the governor invited Davis to visit him for drinks. As the ten pirates climbed the hill to the fort, the narrow path forced them to walk single file. When they reached a specific point, the soldiers who had lain in wait for the pirates rose up and fired their muskets. Howell sustained four wounds, one to his stomach, but managed to stagger forward until another bullet hit him. Before he died, he fired his pistols at the Portuguese. William Snelgrave, a captured merchant captain aboard the pirates’ ship, ended his description of the event with “The Portuguese, being amazed at his great strength and courage, cut his throat that they might be sure of him.” (Sanders, 53) Also killed in the attack were the ship’s surgeon and two others.
L’Olonnais suffered a fitting death after all the tortures he inflicted on victims. His last expedition in 1668 was beset with bad luck. At the mouth of the Nicaragua River:
He was set upon both by the Indians and the Spaniards: many of his men were killed and l’Olonnais and the rest were forced to flee. L’Olonnais determined not to return to his comrades on the island without a ship. He held council with the men still in his company and they resolved to take the longboat along the coast of Cartagena in an attempt to capture some vessel or other.Death, of course, was the usual punishment meted out to pirates who were captured. They knew this, which may be why they tended to “laugh in the face of death.” Bartholomew Roberts and his men liked to raise this toast:
But now it seems God would permit this man no further wicked deeds, but was ready to punish him for all the cruelties he had inflicted on so many innocent people by a cruel death. On arrival in the Gulf of Darien, he and his men fell into the hands of those savages the Spaniards called Indios Bravos. According to one of his companions, who only saved himself from a like fate by running away, l’Olonnais was hacked to pieces and roasted limb by limb. (Exquemelin, 117)
Damnation to him who ever lived to wear a halter. (Rediker, Villains, 150)
To further show their disregard for justice and the death sentence, pirates often held mock trials where they would prosecute each other on charges of piracy. One man played the judge, another the prosecutor. Others served on the jury or adopted less officious roles, such as a scribe, sheriff, or witness. Of course, someone had to be the accused. Like putting on a play, they donned makeshift costumes that ridiculed the pomp and circumstance of a real trial.
Lacking a black robe, the judge “had a dirty Tarpulin hung over his Shoulders.” Lacking a wig, he stuck a thrum cap on his head. He put “a large Pair of Spectacles on his Nose” and took his exalted place up in a tree so as to look down on the proceedings from a position above it all. Scurrying around below were “an abundance of Officers attending him,” comically using ship’s tools, “Crows, Handspikes, &c. instead of Wands, Tipstaves, and such like.” Soon “the Criminals were brought out,” probably in chains,” making a thousand sour Faces” as they entered the outdoor courtroom. The attorney general “opened the Charges against them.” (Rediker, Villains, 156-157)7This parody scoffed at death and, by switching which roles each pirate played from one day to the next, they confused the proper order of society. Yet such disdain also portended the future for some enemies of all mankind.8
At one mock trial that Thomas Anstis’ crew held on a cay off Cuba, George Bradley, who played the judge, intoned the following sentence on the prisoner:9
Then heark’ee, you Raskal at the Bar; hear me, Sirrah, hear me. – You must suffer for three Reasons: First, because it is not fit I should sit here as Judge, and no Body be hang’d. – Secondly, you must be hang’d, because you have a damn’d hanging Look: – And thirdly, you must be hang’d, because I am hungry; for know, Sirrah, that ’tis a Custom, that whenever the Judge’s Dinner is ready before the Tryal is over, the Prisoner is to be hang’d of Course. – There’s Law for you, ye Dog. – So take him away Gaolor. (Defoe, 293-294)Captain Herdman, who presided over the Vice-Admiralty Court passing judgment on the pirates from Bartholomew Roberts’ ships, delivered a far different soliloquy in 1722.
Ye and each of you are adjudged and sentenced to be carried back to the place from whence you came, from thence to the place of execution without the gates of this castle, and there within the flood marks to be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead, dead. And the Lord have mercy on your souls. (Pirates, 7)It took just three weeks to try and execute those pirates sentenced to death. One hundred sixty stood trial at Cape Coast Castle that year. Twenty were sentenced to seven years of hard labor in the Cape Coast mines, and seventeen were sent to London to serve their prison sentences in Marshalsea Prison. In an ironic twist of fate, some of Bartholomew Roberts’ men once told the captured Samuel’s master, “We shall accept no Act of Grace, may the King and Parliament be damned with their act of Grace for us, neither will we go to Hope Point [Execution Dock] to be hanged a-sun-drying.” (Botting, 165) Yet fifty-two did dance the hempen jig, just not at that particular place. Instead they swung on the ramparts of Cape Coast Castle, and eighteen were left to dry in the sun on one of three prominent hills overlooking the water.10
Death by execution was the usual consequence for those pirates whom authorities eventually captured. Marcus Rediker estimated that “[b]etween 1716 and 1726, no fewer than 418 were hanged, and in truth the actual number was probably one-third to one-half higher.” (Rediker, Villains, 163) Executions were the norm as far back as history records, but hanging wasn’t always the means by which a pirate bade a final farewell.
After the ransom was paid that freed Julius Caesar, he returned to the Cilician pirates’ lair and crucified them in 75 BC. On 24 August 1217, Hugh de Burgh finally caught Eustace the Monk and gave him two choices: his beheading could take place at the center or at the side of the ship. Klaus Störtebeker and his Likedeeler were captured in 1401 and taken to Hamburg, Germany.11 All seventy-two pirates were beheaded in October. Supposedly, the executioner and Störtebeker reached an agreement whereby the executioner would lop off Störtebeker’s head first. Then his corpse would traverse the ground where his men were aligned in a row. At the point where the headless pirate finally toppled over, any men he had passed (eleven in all) would be pardoned. In reality, all were decapitated and their heads crowned spikes along the waterfront. Hamburg officials also executed another thirty-three pirates, as well as their leader Klein Henszlein, in 1573. Beheading was often the punishment meted out to pirates in China and other Asian countries, even as late as 1891 when the Namoa pirates were put to death in Hong Kong.
Left to Right: Beheading of Eustace the Monk, execution of Klaus Störtebeker and his men, and execution of Namoa pirates in Hong Kong
Spain and her American colonies preferred to garrote a pirate, strangling him with a rope that was twisted either by hand or with the use of a cudgel or stick. For example, after Buccaneers raided Tampico in the spring of 1684, three Spanish ships pursued the pirates. They captured 104, whom they took to Veracruz. Eleven were garroted, but one was saved after the cord being twisted around his neck broke not once, but twice. At this point a priest intervened, saying, “This man has offered himself to the Virgin, and God does not wish that he die.” (Little, Buccaneer’s, 208)
Nor were such executions simple affairs, for the Spanish imposed a ritualistic element to the punishment. The night before a priest and pirate would pray for the latter’s salvation until it was nearly dawn. He was then expected to confess his guilt before being conducted to the place of execution where he was made to sit or he was tied to a pole. After slipping a rope around his neck, the executioner stood behind him and turned the cudgel until the pirate died.
Hanging, however, was the most common form of execution, especially in Britain and her colonies. When Venetian galleys returned home in the early 1600s, thirty-six English pirates dangled from the yardarms. Before the golden age, only a few pirates suffered the punishment of death, and often these men were the ringleaders. That changed as merchants became more powerful and governments became less tolerant; authorities strove to make the seas safer for merchants, travelers, and seamen. Marcus Rediker estimates, “[b]etween 1716 and 1726 . . . roughly one in every ten pirates came to an end on the gallows . . . .” (Rediker, Villains, 163) For example, thirty-four pirates who followed Stede Bonnet were hanged in 1718. Four years later, Jamaica put Matteo Luque and forty-one of the fifty-eight who followed him to death. In 1723 twenty-five pirates were executed at Newport, Rhode Island, six on Antigua, another twelve on Curaçao, and two more in Bermuda. The previous year fifty-two men were hanged at Cape Coast Castle. The governor of the castle, General Phipps, said afterward:
We hope the example that has been made of this gang will be a means to affright and deter all others from pursuing such vile practices on this coast and that the trade thereby will be secured free and undisturbed from the depredations of such miscreants for some time to come. (Sanders, 238)12After Calico Jack Rackham captured the vessel on which Mary Read served, Jack discussed the good life of a pirate, as well as the “ignominious Death” Read might suffer if caught and tried. She considered hanging “no great Hardship.”
[W]ere it not for that, every cowardly Fellow would turn Pyrate, and so infest the Seas, that Men of Courage must starve: – That if it was to the Choice of the Pyrates, they would not have the Punishment less than Death, the Fear of which kept some dastardly Rogues honest; that many of those who are now cheating the Widows and Orphans, and oppressing their poor Neighbours, who have no Money to obtain Justice, would then rob at Sea, and the Ocean would be crowded with Rogues, like the Land, and no Merchant would venture out; so that the Trade, in a little Time, would not be worth following. (Defoe, 158-159)Hanging a pirate did not just involve a guilty sentence and a rope around the neck. To execute someone required rituals, which unfolded once a pirate was condemned to die. Ministers, such as Paul Lorrain and Cotton Mather, talked with the prisoners in hopes of getting them to confess and repent. Lorrain, the Ordinary at Newgate, visited William Kidd twice a day. While Surgeon Atkins tried to get the pirates who had followed Bartholomew Roberts to apologize for their wicked crimes, he was told, “We are poor rogues and so must be hanged, while others, no less guilty in another way, escaped.” (Botting, 175)
On the Sunday before the scheduled hanging, the minister preached an execution sermon with the condemned present in the congregation. Finally, the fateful day arrived, and how each pirate comported himself varied from one man to another. Sometimes providing false courage to a pirate was essential in conveying the prisoner from jail to the site of his execution. The procession to Wapping’s Execution Dock, a distance of three miles, took at least two hours.
. . . yet the Courage that strong Liquors can give, wears off, and the Way they have to go is considerable, they are in Danger of recovering. . . . For this reason they must drink as they go; and the Cart stops for that Purpose three or four, and sometimes half a dozen Times, or more, before they come to their Journey’s End. (Zacks, 388)William Kidd was already drunk when he left Newgate Prison in 1701, and was even more so by the time he arrived at Wapping.
Other times, the pirates required no such sustenance. When Dennis Macarty arrived at his place of execution, blue ribbons decorated his neck, wrists, knees, and hat. He told the crowd, “Some of my friends said I should die in my shoes. To make ’em liars, I kicks them off.” (Downie, 28) Then he did just that. Thomas Morris’s ribbons were red. Charles Gibbs “was dressed in a blue roundabout jacket, and blue trowsers and white cap, the jacket bearing on the left arm the figure of an anchor worked with white ribbon . . . .” (Gibbs, 144) As Christopher Sympson passed through the crowd of people who gathered to witness the hangings at Cape Coast Castle, he saw Elizabeth Trengrove, a former captive, and declared, “I have lain with that bitch three times and now she has come to see me hanged.” (Botting, 175)
The first six of Roberts’ pirates to hang were the most irascible and stubborn of his men. According to Atkins:
They all exclaimed against the severity of the court, and were so hardened as to curse, and wish the same justice might overtake all the members of it, as had been dealt to them . . . . [They walked] to the gallows without a tear . . . showing as much concern as a man would express at travelling a bad road. (Sanders, 239)Pirates never ascended the gallows alone; they were accompanied by men of the cloth and the executioner, who placed the noose around each pirate’s neck. In exchange for executing Kidd, the hangman received £1for each pirate hanged that day and one shilling six pence for each noose he provided.
The sheriff or marshal read aloud the execution order. It was expected the condemned would confess to the wrong path he had taken, tell the gathered crowd he deserved to be hanged, and then seek God’s forgiveness for his sins. He might also impart a final message or words of wisdom at this juncture. Walter Kennedy followed the “script” in uttering his final words on 19 July 1721:13
I am brought to this Place of Shame and Disgrace for Crimes which fully deserve so vile a death, and I freely confess my self guilty of the Crimes I was convicted of, as well as many other Faults of the like Nature, for which I beg the Pardon of God, and of you my Countrymen . . . (Pirate’s, 127)John Augur, who hadn’t shaved or taken a bath at least since his capture and was clad in tattered clothes, showed only remorse when he drank a glass of wine and wished Governor Woodes Rogers much success in curbing piracy.
Others failed to adhere to “scripted” expectations. Thomas Morris grinned and declared that his only wish was that he could have been a greater plague than he had been. Captain Richard Thomas declared: “Yes, I repent that I had not done more mischief, and that we did not cut the throats of them that took us, and I’m extremely sorry that you ain’t hanged as well.” (Downie, 28)
Some straddled both sides, first repenting and then changing their minds. According to a pamphlet published after John Quelch’s death, “[t]he last Words he spake to One of the Ministers at his going up the Stage, were I am not afraid of Death, I am not afraid of the Gallows, but I am afraid of what follows; I am afraid of a Great God, and a Judgment to come.” But a short time later, his attitude changed. “Gentlemen, ’Tis but little I have to speak: What I have to say is, I desire to be informed for what I am here, I am condemned only upon Circumstances. I forgive all the World: So the Lord be Merciful to my Soul.” The minister admonished the crowd not to pay heed to Quelch’s words, to which he responded: “They should also take care how they brought Money into New-England, to be Hanged for it!” (Pirate’s, 67-68)
Once the noose was tightened, the minister prayed. Sometimes a psalm was sung, such as Psalm 51, often referred to as the “Miserere.” The first two verses of which are:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;After the hangman fitted a noose around Kidd’s neck, Paul Lorrain sang a psalm then gave a short prayer.
According to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! (The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition)
Gallows of the period differed from the scaffold with a trap door that we commonly associate with a hanging. In Kidd’s day, two poles supported a wooden beam and a raised platform. Steps or a ladder provided access to the platform, while the rope dangled from the horizontal beam. The plank would be yanked away and the men would drop. Alternative options were to have the condemned stand in a cart or on a barrel or ladder. The cart would be driven out from under the person, or the prisoner was turned or pushed off the pedestal.
Following a final prayer, the hangman did his job. Someone gave Stede Bonnet a farewell nosegay, which he still clutched after the cart he stood upon rolled away and he dropped at White Point in Charleston, South Carolina in December 1718. Kidd was turned off and dangled in the air, but the rope snapped and he dropped into the mud. Once again, the executioner bundled him up a ladder, fitted another noose around his neck, and then pulled the ladder away. Kidd did not escape death a second time.
Examples of early gallows (picture on right is Stede Bonnet)
In October 1821, Charles Gibbs, whose real name was James D. Jeffers, found himself a prisoner of the United States Navy. Before his capture, he had hacked off the limbs of the captain of one captured ship. Another one was torched with her entire crew still alive and on board. After an untimely escape, Gibbs eventually danced the hempen jig on 22 April 1831, a decade after he was first caught. So many came to Ellis Island to watch the execution that some had to remain in their boats, one of which capsized and a man drowned. Gibbs calmly walked to the west side of the island, betraying “no marks of terror, although it was evident that he shrunk from death. When first brought out, he surveyed the gallows with an anxious eye, but seemed satisfied that there was no avoiding his fate.” (Gibbs, 145) When he was ready, he let go of his handkerchief, and the hangman chopped the cord that held two fifty-six-pound weights, which violently snatched the condemned prisoner from the scaffold. After he was pronounced dead, his body was delivered “to Doctor John Augustine Smith, Professor of Anatomy, in the college of Physicians and Surgeons of the University of the State of New York” for dissection. (Gibbs, 147)
Although hangings garnered large crowds and often had a festive air about them, the actual act was far from entertaining. The dying man’s neck did not snap, rather he might take an agonizing forty-five minutes to die of suffocation. His face became purple. His legs jigged. His kidneys and bowels relieved themselves. If relatives or friends of the pirate were present, they might pull on his legs to hasten his demise.
It was a tradition to publicly display the bodies of the more notorious pirates as a warning to those foolish enough to follow in the pirate’s footsteps. The bodies of Calico Jack Rackham and two of his men were hung in chains at Plumb Point, Bush Key, and Gun Key on Jamaica.
After the tide had washed over Kidd’s body three times, his corpse was retrieved, coated with tar, and bound in chains. Then the blacksmith at Tilbury stuffed it into a metal harness so he could hang it up at Tilbury Point.14 No definitive time was given as to how long his bones would be on display, but some accounts gave the length as “for years.”
Kidd wasn’t the only pirate to be hanged twice. As John Gow “was turned off, he fell down from Gibbet, the rope breaking by the weight of some that pulled his leg. Although he had been hanging for four minutes, he was able to climb up the ladder a second time, which seemed to concern him very little, and he was hanged again.” (Gosse, 140-141) After his execution on 11 June 1725, they hung his body in chains at Greenwich.
An alternative to hanging a body in a gibbet was to display just the deceased’s head on a spike in a prominent location, often along the waterfront. This happened to Pierre L’Orange after his execution in Veracruz on 22 October 1683.
While the normal punishment for pirates in Imperial China was beheading, Zheng Zhilong (Christian name Nicholas Iquan) suffered a torturous death in 1661. Regents for the Emperor of Hearty Prosperity (Manchu or Qing dynasty) ordered him to be slowly sliced to death. This involved making a thousand cuts to a person’s extremities in a progressively inward fashion. Each slice was cauterized to stem the bleeding and to inflict additional pain. Before Zheng died, he also had to watch his torturers inflict the same punishment on two of his sons.
The last pirate hanged during the golden age of piracy was Olivier Levasseur (also known as La Buse or The Buzzard), who was turned off on the beach at Bourbon Island in the Indian Ocean in July 1730. The attending crowd cheered as the deed was done.
Even today, execution remains a real possibility when hunting pirates. After Somali pirates captured the Maersk Alabama and took Captain Richard Phillips hostage, U. S. Navy SEAL snipers shot three pirates on 12 April 2009.
Some pirates defied the odds and lived past their prime, dying of either natural causes or from old age. Thomas Paine’s last piratical voyage began in 1708 when he was seventy-six years old. Sometime after his return to New England, he was interred on his estate in Connecticut. Philip Gosse, the pirate historian, attempted to track down pirate tombstones, but only succeeded in finding one that was located in a cemetery in Dartmouth, England. While Queen Anne sat on the throne, Captain Thomas Goldsmith went a pirating and amassed quite a fortune before he died in his bed in 1714. The following inscription adorned his headstone:
Men that are virtuous serve the Lord;
And the Devil’s by his friends ador’d;
And as they merit get a place
Amidst the bless’d or hellish race;
Pray then ye learned clergy show
Where can this brute, Tom Goldsmith, go?
Whose life was one continual evil
Striving to cheat God, Man and Devil. (Gosse, 25)
© Can Stock Photo / deaddogdodge
Some pirates, who turned aside from their nefarious pursuits, lived productive lives until their deaths. Lionel Wafer, a surgeon, died around 1705. His fellow Buccaneer, William Dampier, died on Colman Street in London a decade later. Sometime after Lancelot Blackburne retired, he returned to England and became the Archbishop of York. When he passed away on 23 March 1743, it was “a time of extreme cold.” (Marley, Pirates, 1:48) He was laid to rest at St. Margaret’s in Westminster. Red Legs Greaves became a philanthropist, giving to charities and public institutions. His death was greatly mourned. Edward England, on the other hand, lived an extremely impoverished life on Madagascar before he passed away in 1720.
The fourth governor of French Saint-Domingue, Bertrand D’Ogeron, Sieur de la Bouère, led Buccaneers on a disastrous raid to Puerto Rico in 1673. He eventually returned to Paris, where on 21 January 1676, he died at the Sorbonne of “an incurable diarrhea.” (Marley, Pirates, 1:298)
Left to right: William Dampier, Lancelot Blackburne, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Sir Henry Morgan
Although better known for his support of Charles II in his bid to regain the throne of England, Prince Rupert of the Rhine also participated in a bit of plundering. In 1653 his fleet wrecked during a storm near the Virgin Islands; his brother Maurice died when his ship went down. Broken in spirit from these losses, Rupert returned to England. He died in his bed at Spring Gardens in 1682.
Perhaps the most famous buccaneer to die of natural causes was Sir Henry Morgan. He succumbed to dropsy, a result of being “much given to drinking and sitting up late,” according to his physician. At the time, he owned several properties in Jamaica and was worth over £5,000. Captain Lawrence Wright of HMS Assistance wrote in his journal in August 1688:
Saturday 25. This day about eleven hours noone Sir Henry Morgan died, & the 26th was brought over from Passage-fort to the King’s house at Port Royall, from thence to the Church, & after a sermon was carried to the Pallisadoes & there buried. All the forts fired an equal number of guns, wee fired two & twenty & after wee & the Drake had fired, all the merchant men fired. (Gosse, 227)The most powerful pirate of China spent her last days “leading a peaceful life so far as [was] consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house.” (Murray, 150) Zhèng Shi (Cheng I Sao) negotiated her own retirement in April 1810, receiving amnesty from the Imperial Chinese government and keeping much of her plunder. She died in 1844 at the age of sixty-nine in Canton, China.
Benjamin Johnson tortured many of his victims until they died. When he attacked the town of Busrah, he slew the sheik and most of the residents before returning to the Sultan of Ormus with the hold of his ship laden with diamonds, pearls, and gold. At an island on the edge of the Persian Gulf, he slaughtered 2,000 priests; all but one out of 700 dancing girls had their noses cut off and their upper lips split. He spared the most beautiful one this ordeal only to abduct her. He also stole treasure amounting to 5,000,000 rupees. On the way home, he plundered an East Indiaman from England and killed her crew. At some point, he decided he no longer wished to serve the Sultan of Ormus. Stealing his master’s fastest ship, into which he stowed enormous wealth amounting to £800,000, he sailed to Constantinople, where he became a bashaw. Although many lost their lives by his hand, he lived a long life and died naturally.
A few pirates’ deaths were out of the ordinary. Thomas Hawkins, who had sailed with Thomas Pound, was reprieved after a sentence of death and sent to England in 1690. He never arrived, because during the voyage, the ship encountered a French privateer, and Hawkins was killed. In 1723 George Lowther was found dead on the Isle of Blanco of a gunshot wound. His pistol lay beside him. That same year Thomas Anstis forced several men to join his crew. To pay him back, they murdered him in his hammock while he slept. After his retirement, Thomas Howard went to India and married, only to be murdered by her relatives.
Nathaniel North of Bermuda retired to Madagascar, where a native slew him. To avenge his death, North’s friends waged a private war on the tribe for seven years. Charles Swan was slain by Philippine natives. Captain Pedro de Castro’s ship wrecked at Punta Brava. While the majority or his men were either killed by natives or died of starvation, he and thirty-five others cooked “the cut-up corpses in the stewpot . . . without wasting even the heads.” (Little, Buccaneer’s, 209) Only two men ever returned from the ordeal.
Blas Miguel and Pasqual Anan were broken on the wheel in 1687, an excruciating death practiced by the French. Benerson Little described it in The Buccaneer’s Realm:
. . . the condemned was bound with his arms and legs outstretched, often to a wheel although this was not necessary. In the West Indies a cross was sometimes used upon a scaffold . . . . Father Labat witnessed one such execution: the condemned mounted the scaffold, kneeled, prayed, then undressed and stretched out on the cross. With a hammer the executioner then broke each of the long bones in the condemned man’s arms and legs several times. If the condemned was fortunate, a priest might cover his face with a handkerchief . . . as Labat once did. The executioner ended the agony – if the condemned was not already dead from the trauma – by strangling him with a rope, first permitting a priest to ask the condemned for a last act of contrition. (211)Afterwards, the two pireates’ heads were displayed atop the gallows where the bodies of forty-two of their dead comrades had been hanged the day before on Petit Gouave.
Manual Boyga, one of the pirates who sailed on the Panda, was sentenced to hang in June 1835. The night before his execution, he tried to commit suicide by cutting himself with a piece of tin. Too weak to stand because of the loss of blood, he was hanged while sitting in a chair.
Although Nikolaas van Hoorn succumbed from natural causes, the manner in which he contracted gangrene was unusual. His animus rivalry with fellow Dutch vrijbuiter Laurens de Graaf (left) came to a head after the sacking of Veracruz in May 1683 while they waited for ransoms to be paid for their Spanish hostages. In the ensuing duel, “Van Hoorn drew his blade and advanced on his countryman . . . .” (Marley, Pirates, 1:389) De Graaf drew his weapon and said, “Voilà! Here is what will avenge the injury you had given me.” (Little, Buccaneer’s, 190) Similar to the fictional duel between Captains Blood and Levasseur in Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, their swords clashed on the beach of Sacrificios Island. “De Graaf . . . drove his own sword deep into Van Hoorn’s wrist, then kicked his disabled opponent into the sand. His wrath now fully aroused, De Graaf bellowed at his men to haul his bloodied opponent aboard his flagship and clap him in irons.” (Marley, Pirates, 1:389) Everyone assumed it was a slight cut, a wound that would quickly heal. Instead the wound festered, and van Hoorn succumbed on 24 June 1683, off Isla Mujeres. His body was interred in an unmarked grave near Cape Logrete in Mexico.
Captain Hiram Breakes retired to Amsterdam, only to discover that his wife had been executed after murdering their son. Overwhelmed with melancholy, he jumped into a dyke and drowned. Captain Samuel South Burgess was an old man when his drink was poisoned. Joseph Thwaites, a renegado who sailed out of Algiers, retired to New York City. He died in 1797 after being bitten by a rattlesnake.
Thomas Veale escaped from an English jail to hide out in the cave where he had hidden his treasure and from which he worked as a cordswainer. In 1658 an earthquake caused rocks to seal the entrance. Since he was never seen after this, it was presumed he was in the cave when this occurred.
The fates of Henry Every and Anne Bonny are unknown; they simply disappear from the historical record. During the most prolific period of piracy, 1716 through 1726, the demise of only fifty-five pirate captains is known: twenty-six were hanged, six died while in battle, four drowned when their ships were lost, four were murdered by their own men, one committed suicide, one was set adrift, and one lived in poverty until he died. The twelve others retired from their plundering ways.
But as is true of all people from the beginning of time, even pirates died. In spite of all the information contained in this article, the simple fact is that the final days of many is a mystery. Either the historical artifact recording their deaths has been destroyed or lost, or the manner of their deaths was never recorded in a way that tied them to their roguish past. They remain as nameless as some of their innocent victims.
Special Resource: Pirates and How They Died (PDF chart)
1. Some accounts say that Hornigold was either killed during a battle with two Spanish ships or he was captured and rotted in a Cuban prison for the rest of his life. Whatever the reality, he vanished.
2. Pascoe Thomas, who taught mathematics aboard Commodore George Anson’s Centurion, contracted scurvy and developed hard nodes and black spots “till almost my legs and thighs were as black as a negro; and this accompanied with such excessive pains in the joints of the knees, ankles and toes . . . . It next advanced to my mouth; all my teeth were presently loose, and my gums, over-charged with extravasated blood, fell down almost quite over my teeth; this occasioned my breath to stink much.” (Cordingly, Pirate, 54-55) The affliction killed almost sixty-six percent of Anson’s crew.
3. One pirate who was partially pickled was Nicholas Brown. When John Drudge sailed into Jamaica in November 1726, his vessel carried a keg of rum. Inside was Brown’s head, which he exchanged for £500.
4. According to Dampier, Ringrose “had no mind to this voyage; but was necessitated to engage in it or starve.” (Preston, 132)
5. This translation appeared in correspondence exchanged on the Laffite Society Discussion Group in September 2001. Jeff has held several offices within The Laffite Society and has a B.A. and M.A. in Spanish. He also studied in Madrid for two years.
6. This magic ritual was outlawed during the Qing dynasty. Violators were sentenced to death-by-slicing. The condemned was secured to a cross, then cut into 24, 36, 72, or 120 pieces. (The specifics of the least number of cuts can be found on page 116 of Antony’s book.) Not only did this person suffer, but so did his or her family, even if they never participated in the cannibalistic ritual. The relatives were banished for the rest of their lives.
7. A General History of the Pyrates includes an example of a mock trial. It can be found in the chapter about Captain Anstis. In the edition cited below, the transcript appears on pages 292 through 294.
8. The pirates tried in these mock trials were never actually hanged. Only once did that happen. Whether they were too drunk to realize what was happening, “[o]n one occasion, after a playful trial, a pirate was convicted, sentenced to death, and amid the laughter of his comrades, the sentence was carried out.” (Bandits, 225)
9. Bradley was eventually captured and sentenced to death by a judge in Bermuda in June 1723.
10. The oldest pirate to hang at Cape Coast Castle was forty-five years old. The youngest was nineteen. The last batch was executed on 20 April 1722.
11. Likedeeler translates into English as those who shared all possessions and plunder.
12. The hangings at Cape Coast Castle were done in groups during a two-week period in April 1722. Gibbets were erected on the surrounding hills that overlooked the harbor and the tarred bodies of eighteen of the pirates were displayed. Although others were not sentenced to be hanged, their sentences resulted in death. Of the seventeen that were transported to London, only four actually arrived there. The rest died at sea. Not one of the twenty men sent to work in the Royal Africa Company’s mines for seven years survived until the end of their sentences.
13. Once a trusted man in Bartholomew Roberts’ crew, William Kennedy appropriated the pirates’ plunder and went out on his own. In England, he opened a brothel, where he was eventually recognized and one of the women reported this information to the authorities, who promptly arrested him. After a stint in Marshalsea Prison, he was hanged at Wapping in London.
14. The metal harness that encased Kidd’s body cost £10. In contrast, after John Rose Archer and William White were hanged in June 1724, the cost to make the chains to hold Archer and to affix it to the gibbet was £12 10 shillings. The price to ferry his body and that of White, as well as for the laborers who erected the gibbet and buried White, came to £3 15 shillings and 8 pence.
To learn more, I recommend the following resources:
Abbott, Geoffrey. The Book of Execution: An Encyclopedia of Methods of Judicial Execution. Headline, 1994.
Antony, Robert J. Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China. University of California, 2003.
Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001.
Beal, Clifford. Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England. Praeger, 2007.
Bennett, Will. “Captain’s Death Linked to Piracy: Inquest Verdict Rejects Claims by Indonesian Authorities that Crew Mutinied,” The Independent 27 July 1993.
Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life Books, 1978.
British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer (4 volumes). Pickering & Chatto, 2007.
Burl, Aubrey. Black Barty: The Real Pirate of the Caribbean. Sutton, 2006.
Cabell, Craig, Graham A. Thomas, and Allan Richards. Captain Kidd: The Hunt for the Truth. Pen & Sword, 2010.
Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon Press, 1996.
Choundas, George. The Pirate Primer: Mastering the Language of Swashbucklers and Rogues. Writer’s Digest, 2007.
Clements, Jonathan. Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty. Sutton, 2005.
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.
Cook, Gordon C. Disease in the Merchant Navy: A History of the Seamens’ Hospital Society. Radcliffe, 2007.
Coote, Stephen. Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero. Thomas Dunne, 2003.
Cordingly, David. Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean: The Adventurous Life of Captain Woodes Rogers. Random House, 2011.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Downie, Robert. The Way of the Pirate. ibooks, 1998.
Duffus, Kevin P. The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate. Looking Glass Productions, 2008.
Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. Thomas Dunne, 2003.
Eastman, Tamara J., and Constance Bond. The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Fern Canyon Press, 2000.
Gibbs, Joseph. Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Lives and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. University of South Carolina, 2007.
Gosse, Philip. The Pirate’s Who’s Who: Giving Particulars of the Lives and Deaths of the Pirates and Buccaneers. Rio Grande Press, 1924.
Gottschalk, Jack A., and Brian P. Flanagan. Jolly Roger with an Uzi: The Rise and Threat of Modern Piracy. Naval Institute Press, 2000.
Harvie, David. Limeys: The True Story of One Man’s War against Ignorance, the Establishment and the Deadly Scurvy. Sutton, 2005.
Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate. John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
Konstam, Angus. Scourge of the Seas: Buccaneers, Pirates and Privateers. Osprey, 2007.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Lyons Press, 2010.
Little, Benerson. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688. Potomac Books, 2007.
Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730. Potomac Books, 2005.
Marley, David F. Pirates of the Americas (2 volumes). ABC-Clio, 2010.
Marley, David F. Modern Piracy. ABC-Clio, 2011.
Murray, Dian H. Pirates of the South China Coast 1790-1810. Stanford, 1987.
The Pirate’s Pocket Book edited by Stuart Robertson. Conway, 2008.
Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea. Turner, 1996.
Preston, Diana and Michael. A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer – The Life of William Dampier. Walker & Co., 2004.
Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750. Cambridge University, 1987.
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Beacon, 2004.
Rogers, Woodes. A Cruising Voyage Round the World: The Adventures of an English Privateer. The Narrative Press, 2004.
Sanders, Richard. If a Pirate I Must Be . . . : The True Story of “Black Bart,” King of the Caribbean Pirates. Skyhorse, 2007.
Vallar, Cindy. “The Chinese Pirate Who Battled the Royal Navy,” History Is Now June 2014, pages 36-43.
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.
Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. Hyperion, 2002.
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