Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
The Youngest Pirates
By Cindy Vallar
When word reached Boston in the last decade of the seventeenth century that Thomas Tew was recruiting for a privateering venture against the French, Edward Woodman headed south to Newport, Rhode Island to sign on as a ship’s boy (also known as a cabin boy). But Tew had other plans once his ship sailed into the Atlantic Ocean. There were lucrative pickings in the Indian Ocean, and he convinced his crew to become pirates instead. In the Red Sea they came across a ship carrying pilgrims. Even though their victim was better armed and carried many men, Tew convinced his crew that they possessed greater skill and courage and could take the larger ship. The battle lasted three hours and sixty men died, but Edward and the other survivors discovered fantastic treasures aboard the pilgrim vessel.
In rummaging this Prize, the Pyrates threw over a great many rich Bales, to search for Gold, Silver, and Jewels; and, having taken what they thought proper, together with Powder . . . they left her, sharing 3,000 [pounds] Sterling a Man. (Defoe, 423)As a ship’s boy, Edward’s share amounted to £250. This sum was more than twenty years’ worth of wages he would have earned plowing farmland. He survived the voyage and returned to Massachusetts in 1694.
Philip Middleton was eleven years old when he signed aboard the Charles II in 1694. After the vessel departed England, Henry Every and others mutinied and renamed the ship Fancy. In 1696 some of the pirates returned to Ireland and were captured. On setting foot in that county, Philip immediately surrendered to the authorities and became the prosecution’s star witness. He told a distressing tale of his time among the pirates. Of the mutiny he testified:
I cannot say any thing of running away with the Ship; for I was asleep then: but afterwards, in the morning, they called up all Hands; and the Captain said, every man should share alike, only he would have two shares. (British, 2:134-5)Every’s largest prize was the Ganj-i-Sawai, which belonged to the Great Mughal of India. Philip said:
. . . the great ship fought for two hours, having about 1,300 persons on board. The other [ship] had 700. They kept possession of both ships, and all the crew except one man boarded her by turns, taking only provisions, necessaries and treasure, which was very great, but little in comparison with what was on board; for though they put several to the torture they would not confess where the rest of their treasure lay. They took great quantities of jewels, and a saddle and bridle set with rubies designed as a present for the Great Mogul. (Pirates, 173)Estimates of this treasure varied from £325,000 to £600,000 (valued at between $105,000,000 and $188,000,000 in 1999). A full share for an adult amounted to £1,000. Boys younger than eighteen received £50 each, a sum equal to what a merchant seaman earned during his entire life. Once the trials, the East India Company paid for Philip’s education and, in 1706, he served as the Halifax’s purser on a trading voyage to Madras and Bengal.
Samuel Perkins had no intention of going to sea when he visited his uncle, the master of the Resolution, in 1695. Captain Robert Glover had other plans and set sail while Sam and a French mulatto boy were still on board. He ordered them to serve as cabin boys, doing whatever tasks the pirates assigned. Glover intended to prey on other ships and coastal cities in the Indian Ocean, but his men grew displeased, ousted him as captain, and voted Dirk Chivers to take his place. Once the pirates had their fill of raiding and destroying, they put in at St. Mary’s Island in Madagascar. When Captain Chivers decided to return to hunting innocent victims, Sam remained ashore. Unfortunately, he traded one prison for another. Tribesmen burst into the hut where he slept with eleven other men. Those pirates died, but Sam was taken prisoner. He was eventually ransomed, but didn’t return home to New England until five years after his uncle kidnapped him.
Sailing with Captain William Kidd on the Adventure Galley were three boys: Richard Barleycorne, Robert Lamely, and William Jenkins. Richard and William were fourteen years old, and Robert was twelve. William served as George Bollen’s apprentice, helping the chief mate take care of the ship. Robert helped Abel Owen, the ship’s cook, while Richard was Kidd’s servant. The lads never wavered in their support of their captain and were captured with him in Boston. During Kidd’s trials in London in 1701, the evidence proved the boys were just following orders as all good servants would. Even the prosecuting attorney wavered on whether the lads were guilty. In his summation to the jury, he said:
Now indeed there are three of them that are Servants, and perhaps you may think their Case is different from the rest . . . And tho’ the Witnesses do prove that they had their several shares of the Goods and Money; yet, not withstanding that, they being Servants, their Masters might be entitled to their Shares. So that if you believe they were Servants, and commanded to serve and assist their Masters in what they did, I must leave it to you whether you will think if fit to distinguish their Case from the rest. (British, 2:208)Several of the pirates actually testified that the three lads received some of the loot. For example, J. Palmer testified that William Jenkins and Robert Lamely “had half a share of the money, and a whole share of the Goods.” (British, 2:172) When Jenkins cross-examined Palmer, he said, “You know that I was a Servant, and had nothing in this Voyage but what my Master had.” (British, 2:173)
The jury sided with all three boys and found them not guilty of piracy.
Kidd actually called Richard Barleycorne, his servant, to testify in his trial for murder. During the voyage, the gunner William Moore proved a disagreeable man who tried to incite a mutiny. To stop him Kidd threw an iron-banded bucket, which struck Moore in the head and he died a month later.
Will. Kidd: R. Barlicorn, what was the Reason that Blow was given to the Gunner?Richard’s testimony failed to help Kidd, who was found guilty of murder.
R. Barlicorn: At first when you met with the Ship there was a Mutiny, and Two or Three of the Dutchman came aboard; and some said she was a rich Vessel, and they would take her: And the Captain said, No, I will not take her. And there was a Mutiny in the Ship, and the Men said, If you will not, we will. And he said, If you have a mind, you may but they that will not, come along with me. (British, 2: 158)
In spite of his small stature and poor eyesight, ten-year-old Thomas Simpson signed aboard the merchant ship Adventure in March 1698. The captain was John Gulloch, who was sailing for the East Indies to trade. Near Borneo Joseph Bradish and about twenty-four others mutinied in September. Thomas was aboard when they stole the ship and its cargo. After the mutineers divided up the confiscated treasure, which amounted to about 1,600 pieces of eight, they headed for New England. They reached Long Island Sound in March 1699, and fired one cannon into Adventure’s hull to sink her. Sometime after they went ashore, Bradish and ten others, including Thomas, were captured and sent to London on the same ship that carried William Kidd. Thomas was never again mentioned in historical documents so his fate is a mystery. His shipmate, fifteen-year-old William Saunders, escaped capture after he went ashore following the scuttling of the Adventure.
Perhaps his father’s tales about his adventures as a pirate convinced Zacheus Darvell to follow in his footsteps. At seventeen, Zacheus joined Benjamin Hornigold’s crew in 1714 and was with him when the pirates captured a Spanish ship off the coast of Cuba. In her hold they found 11,000 pieces of eight.
Black Sam Bellamy also sailed with Hornigold for a time until Sam struck out on his own. During his time as a pirate captain, two young pirates sailed with him on the Whydah. One was nine-year-old John King; the other served as Bellamy’s pilot. John Julian was about sixteen years old and a member of the Miskito tribe of Central America. When the pirate ship sank off Cape Cod, King died, but Julian survived. While the other captured pirates were put on trial, Julian was sold into slavery in 1717. It is believed he is the same “Julian, the Indian” whom John Quincy – grandfather of John Quincy Adams, the future sixth president of the United States – purchased. Julian lived in the Quincy home in Braintree, Massachusetts until he was sold. He disliked his new owner and tried to escape several times. During one of those attempts, he killed a bounty hunter and, upon his capture, was tried and executed for murder in 1733. Rather than being buried, physicians took his body back to Boston so their students could dissect it.
George Sinclair was Captain Jacobs’ drummer boy aboard the St. Stephen. When Palgrave Williams, Sam Bellamy’s friend, captured the ship in June 1717, Sinclair was forced to join the pirates.
[A]lthough the poore man begged heartily to be sent away, they alleadging they had need for a Drummer themselves, although he gott in the boat they hauled him up againe on Board the said Pirate Sloop and thrust him down into the hold Threatening him if he came up againe. (Kinkor, 5)After the king issued an Act of Grace, George took the pardon in the Bahamas in March 1718.
The following January Palgrave Williams, along with Oliver Levasseur, Tom Cocklyn, and William Moody, captured another ship out of Belfast. Among the Upton’s crew was Captain Robert Leathes and his fourteen-year-old servant, Thomas Walker. The lad was forced to join the pirates, but what he did during this period in his life and what happened to him is unknown.
John Francia was fourteen or fifteen when Howell Davis captured the sloop he was on in November 1719. For the next two years or so, he kept track of the boatswain’s stores, which means he had had some education. He was captured with the rest of Bartholomew Roberts’ crew in February 1722. During his trial, he testified he was “kept in servitude by the Pleasure of these Pyrates, & not Suffer’d to goe on Shore” the whole time he was with them. He also said that “[b]eing under Age he was never allowed to go on Board of Prizes or had any share among them.” (Kinkor, 5) The jury acquitted him of all charges.
Among Captain Charles Harris’ crew were Thomas Child, age fifteen, and three seventeen year olds: John Fletcher, Thomas Jones, and John Brown. At dawn on 10 June 1723, a large ship was sighted off Block Island. Harris and his crew, as well as his partner Ned Low, gave chase for two hours. The ship failed to heed the warning shot to surrender, so the pirates opened fire. Only after the pirate ship came abreast of their prey did the prey reveal her true identity. HMS Greyhound unleashed a broadside, but the pirates engaged in a lengthy fight until the Greyhound finally won. Low and his men fled in their sloop, leaving behind Harris and his band of pirates to face the Royal Navy alone. Child was taken prisoner and stood trial in Rhode Island. Since he had only joined the pirates a few days before the fight, he was acquitted.
Fletcher, who hailed from Edinburgh, claimed Harris and Low had forced him to join their pirate band. “[H]e was a Boy on Board the Sycamore Galley, one Scot Commander, and he was taken out of her by Low and Company at Bonavist, because he could play upon a violin, and forced to be with them.” (British, 3:190) He was also judged not guilty, as was Thomas Jones. In fact, during the trial, Captain John Welland of the Amsterdam-Merchant, which Low had captured, testified:
The Pirates were all harness’d (as they call’d it; viz. Armed,) except Thomas Jones, who was a Lad on board [the Ranger]. (British, 3:177)Even two of the pirates, John Ackin, mate, and John Mudd, carpenter, testified that Jones had no weapons.
In his testimony, Thomas Jones said:
. . . he is a Lad of about Seventeen Years of Age, and was by Low & Company taken out of Capt. Edwards at Newfoundland, and kept by Low ever since. (British, 3:181)Jones’ account of Swetser helped to convince the court that this man was also not guilty of piracy. But John Brown, referred to as “the shortest” because he had joined the pirates with another John Brown (“the tallest” and probably his father), was found guilty. While Brown the tallest claimed that Ned Low “beat him black and blue to make him sign the Articles,” Brown the shortest said only that:
. . . he well knows the Prisoners at the Bar, and that Thomas Powell acted as Gunner on board the Ranger, and Joseph Libbey was a stirring active Man among them, and used to go aboard Vessels to Plunder, and that Joseph Swetser was very dull aboard, and at Cape Antonio he cryed to Dunwell to let him go ashore, who refused, and asked him to drink a Dram, but Swetser went down into the Hold and cryed good part of the Day, and that Low refused to let him go, but brought him and tied him to the Mast and threatened to Whip him; And he saw him Armed, but never use his Arms as he know of: And that Swetser was Sick when they engaged the Man of War, tho’ he assisted in rowing the Vessel. (British, 3:186)
in October last at the Cape De Verdes [he] was taken out of a ship by Low and kept there ever since, and that the Quarter-Master gave him about Forty Shillings . . . . (British, 3:182)Although convicted of “Piracy, Robery and Felony” and sentenced to death, Brown the shortest was saved from the hangman’s noose because of his age.
Another lad who spent time with one of Ned Low’s associates was twelve-year-old Thomas Morris. He was forced to join Francis Sprigg’s crew in March 1724, but aside from his age, nothing else is known about Thomas.
Jean-Baptiste Jedre was thirteen years old when he and his father were captured. They and three other pirates were taken to stand trial in Boston. His father swore that they were privateers and that their attack on a sloop was actually an act of war. They weren’t aware that the war between France and England had ended three weeks before. They took the sloop for the express purpose of arranging an exchange, the sloop for Jean-Baptiste’s older brother, Paul, who was an English prisoner. The court doubted the veracity of this explanation and all five were judged guilty of piracy, even though boys younger than fourteen were usually acquitted because of they hadn’t yet reached the “age of discretion.” (Kinkor, 17) Jean-Baptiste and the others were sentenced to be hanged.
Gaps exist in the lives of these young pirates, but the same holds true for those adults whom we know followed the sweet trade. Are these lads the only ones who sailed as pirates? Probably not. But they are the ones documented in the historical record, which is why they stand as representatives of all young pirates.
For more information, I recommend the following resources:
“The Arraignment, Tryal, and Condemnation of Captain William Kidd, for Murther and Piracy,” British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering & Chatto, 2007, 2:149-208.
Cabell, Craig, Graham A. Thomas, and Allan Richards. Captain Kidd: The Hunt for the Truth. Pen & Sword, 2010.
Gosse, Philip. The Pirates’ Who’s Who. Rio Grande, 1924.
Kinkor, Ken. “Young Buccaneers,” No Quarter Given IX:3 (May 2002), 4-5, 17.
Pirates in Their Own Words: Eye-witness Accounts of the ‘Golden Age’ of Piracy, 1690-1728 edited by E. T. Fox. Fox Historical, 2014.
“The Tryals of Joseph Dawson, Edward Forseith, William May, William Bishop, James Lewis, and John Sparks,” British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering & Chatto, 2007, 2:115-142.
“Tryals of Thirty-six Persons for Piracy, Twenty-eight of them upon full Evidence were found Guilty, and the Rest Acquitted,” British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering & Chatto, 2007, 3:171-196.
Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. Hyperion, 2002.
© 2015 Cindy Vallar
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