Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
A Most Unwelcome Death
By Cindy Vallar
To put ashore and abandon on a desolate island or coast
To isolate without aid or resources
Pirates of yore sailed under articles that governed them while at sea. If violated, the quartermaster enforced the prescribed punishment. The infractions that merited the severest consequence were stealing from the crew or abandoning one’s post in battle. The punishment? Marooning – the most dreaded of all punishments, for it promised a slow, cruel death without hope of reprieve.
Both Bartholomew Roberts’ and John Phillips’ articles included this punishment and listed precisely what items the disgraced pirate would be given if marooned on a deserted island, preferably a sand bar without fresh water, food, or shelter. He took with him the clothes he wore, a bottle of water (usually one day’s worth), a pistol, powder, and shot. His mates returned to their ship and sailed away, leaving him to die.
The island was a prison from which there was little chance of escape. The hot sun burned and blistered his skin. Without food and water he starved and became dehydrated. At high tide, the water might flood the island or leave him standing in water up to his neck. And woe to him if sharks infested the surrounding water. If he preferred a quick death, he could kill himself with the pistol. To do that, however, damned his soul forever.
Some men survived marooning, but those were rare cases. If pirates rescued a marooned man, then they might allow him to join their crew. If merchantmen or warships found him, they assumed him a pirate and delivered him to the nearest port for trial. This happened to Charles Vane, an unpopular pirate captain. Although a castaway rather than a marooned pirate, Vane was stranded on an unpopulated island for several months after a shipwreck. Identified as a pirate in 1720, he was taken to Port Royal, found guilty, and hanged.
Alexander Selkirk requested to be put ashore because of frequent disagreements with his captain. When he made the request, he expected fellow pirates would join him. They didn’t and his fate was sealed. His home for the next 4 ½ years was Más á Tierra – one of the Juan Fernandez Islands situated 400 miles off the Chilean coast – where food and water were plentiful. Woodes Rogers rescued Selkirk in 1709. Two years later they returned to London where Richard Steele, an essayist, published Selkirk’s story. Daniel Defoe immortalized Selkirk when he penned his most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, still a classic more than 200 years after its publication in 1719.
No pirate captain was assured of his command. Voted in by his crew, they could also vote him out. That happened to an English pirate named Edward England. While off the coast of Africa, the pirates accused him of coddling the prisoners and marooned him and two others on the island of Mauritius. According to some, they built a boat and escaped to Madagascar where England died soon afterwards.
Fellow mates weren’t the only ones whom pirates marooned. Their victims also suffered a similar fate. Captain Barnabas Lincoln and eleven others were marooned on an island after pirates captured his ship off Cuba in 1821. The pirates provided them with fresh water, flour, ham, salted fish, a cooking pot, and blanket before stranding them on a small island three feet above sea level. Three days after one man died, they built a leaky boat with room for only six of the remaining ten men. On the 18th day on the island, Lincoln and his comrades sighted a boat, and two of them rowed for five hours to reach it only to discover it was the boat they had built and its crew of six were nowhere to be seen. A rescue ship arrived the next day and when they finally reached port, they found the other six men who had happened upon a pirate ship, stolen one of her boats, and let the leaky boat drift away.
When mutineers seized Captain William Greenaway’s ship, they marooned him for refusing to turn pirate. At first the pirates landed him and seven others on an uninhabited island in the Bahamas without food, water, or clothing. The pirates returned later and transferred them to a captured sloop anchored a mile from shore. Again left without provisions, the men faced death. The discovery of a hatchet blade saved them. Greenway swam ashore, built a raft, and returned with food. They mended the fouled sails and slashed rigging, but the pirates sank the sloop in deep water after returning the men to the island. Eight days later the pirates came back again and forced Greenaway and two others to join them. The pirates returned twice more – first to deposit supplies and second to burn the shelter built by the remaining marooned crew. Not long after Spaniards captured the pirates. On hearing Greenway’s story, they effected a rescue of those who remained loyal to him.
To be alone on a sandy island surrounded by salt water and without provisions was an excruciating and terrifying way to die. When next you think how romantic it might be to live on a deserted island, gaze upon Howard Pyle’s Marooned and reflect on the death that awaits that pirate.
© 2001 Cindy Vallar
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