A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part IV, Chapter 38." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 38
PIRATES!

COLONEL SLOUGHTER whose rule began in such stormy times proved no good Governor. Indeed he was a bad man as well as a bad ruler. Others followed who were not a bit better, one at least being accused of being in league with the pirates who were now the terror of the seas.

 

The seventeenth century has been called "The Golden Age of Piracy." Never before or since have pirates had such a splendid time. After the discovery of America, the number of ships sailing the seas increased rapidly, until all the chief countries of Europe had far more ships afloat than they could possibly protect with their navies. So they readily became a prey to pirates.

 

Then, as they could not protect their merchantmen with their warships, most countries allowed private people in time of war to fit out ships armed with guns to capture the merchant shipping of the enemy. These ships were simply private men of war, and were called privateers. They always carried "letters of marque and reprisal" Which gave them the legal right to commit against enemy ships acts which, without those letters of marque, would have been considered acts of piracy. In the long run these privateers often became little better than pirates, and it has been said "privateers in time of war were a nursery for pirates against a peace."

Privateers

The pirates' life was one of reckless daring. They were idle, swaggering, brutal. All the summer they sailed the seas, a terror to peaceful merchantmen, and when winter came, or when they were tired of plundering, they would retire to the West India Islands or Madagascar. Here, hidden in the depths of forests, they built for themselves strong castles surrounded by moats and walls. The paths leading to these castles were made with the greatest cunning. They were so narrow that people could only go in single file. They crossed and re-crossed in every direction, so that the castle was surrounded by a maze, and any one not knowing the secret might wander for hours without being able to find the dwelling which could not be seen until one was close upon it.

The pirates' castles

In these savage fastnesses the pirates lived in squalid splendour. They had numbers of slaves to wait upon them, the finest wines and foods, the richest dress and jewels, spoils of their travels. And when they had drunk and rioted in idleness to their heart's content they would once more set sail, and roam the seas in search of fresh adventure.

 

All sorts of people took to piracy, and scampish sons of noble houses might be found side by side with the lowest of scoundrels and vagabonds. In fact in those days any man who had a grudge against the world might turn pirate. Even women were found among them.

 

A jovial, brutal crew, they swaggered and swore their way through life. And if the gallows at the end always loomed over them what then? There was always plenty of rum in which to drown the thought.

 

Some of the pirates became very famous. The very sight of the Jolly Roger, as the pirates' black flag was called, struck terror to the hearts of merchantmen, and it is said that one pirate captured and sunk as many as four hundred ships before he was caught. Yet these ruffians often had dealings with seemingly respectable tradesmen. Having captured a few ships, and taken all the booty on board his own, the pirate would sail for some port. There he would show some old letters of marque, swear that he was a privateer, and had captured the goods lawfully from the enemy, for the world was always at war in those days. And as the goods were going cheap, too many questions would not be asked. Thus a profitable trade was done.

The pirates' flag

The Navigation Laws too helped pirates to thrive on the coasts of America. For they seemed so unjust and burdensome that people thought it no wrong to evade them. So, often, piracy and smuggling went hand in hand.

 

At length piracy grew so bad that people felt that something must be done to stop it. And when an Irishman named Lord Bellomont came out as Governor in 1696 he set about doing it. It was decided that the best way to do it was to send a swift and well-armed frigate under a captain who knew their haunts and ways, to catch these sea-robbers. For this, Captain Kidd, a tried sailor, was chosen, and he set sail with a somewhat ruffianly crew in the ship Adventure. But Captain Kidd was unlucky. Though he roamed the seas and sought the pirates in the haunts he knew so well he found never a one.

Captain Kidd sent to catch pirates, 1696;

Nor could he find even enemy ships which, as a privateer, he might have attacked. Dutch ships, ships of the Great Mogul he met. But Britain was at peace with Holland and on most friendly terms with the heathen potentate. Pirates and ships of France he could not find.

 

Food and money were nearly gone, the crew grew mutinous. They had come forth for adventure, and not to sail the seas thus tamely and on short rations to boot. So there was angry talk between the crew and captain. Plainly they told him that the next ship which came in sight, be it friend or foe, should be their prey. Kidd grew furious, and, seizing a hatchet, he hit one of the men on the head so that he fell senseless on the deck and died. Alone he stood against his mutinous crew. But in the end he gave way to them. He turned pirate, and any ship which came his way was treated as a lawful prize.

he turns pirate;

For two years after Captain Kidd left New York nothing was heard of him. Then strange and disquieting rumours came home. It was said that he who had been sent to hunt pirates had turned pirate himself; that he who had been sent as a protection had become a terror to honest traders. So orders were accordingly sent to Lord Bellomont to arrest Captain Kidd. A royal proclamation was also issued offering free pardon to all pirates save two, one of whom was William Kidd.

 

This was the news which greeted the new-made pirate when he arrived one day at a port in the West Indies. But those were lawless days. Captain Kidd's ship was laden with great treasure–treasure enough, he thought, to win forgiveness. At least he decided to brazen it out, and he set sail for New York.

 

His ship was no longer the Adventure but the Quedah Merchant. For the Adventure, being much battered after two years' seafaring, he had sunk her, and taken one of his many prizes instead. But on the way home he left the Quedah Merchant at San Domingo with all her rich cargo and, taking only the gold and jewels, he set sail again in a small sloop.

he sets sail for New York;

As he neared New York his heart failed him, and he began to think that after all forgiveness might not be won so easily. Cautiously he crept up to New York, only to learn that the Governor was at Boston. So he sent a messenger to the Governor confessing that acts of piracy had been committed, but without his authority. They were done, he said, when the men were in a state of mutiny, and had locked him up in his cabin.

 

Lord Bellomont was broad-minded and just, and had no desire to condemn a man unheard; so he sent back a message to Captain Kidd saying, "If you can prove your story true you can rely on me to protect you."

 

But Captain Kidd's story did not satisfy Lord Bellomont; so he was put into prison, and later sent home to England to be tried. There he was condemned to death and hanged as a pirate in 1701. Some people, however, never believed in his guilt. Whether he was guilty or not there is little doubt that he did not have a fair trial, and that he was by no means the shameless ruffian he was made out to be.

he is hanged as a pirate, 1701

What became of the Quedah Merchant and all her rich cargo was never known. Indeed the most of Kidd's ill-gotten gains entirely disappeared. For when his sloop was searched very little treasure was found. So then it was said that Captain Kidd must have buried his treasure somewhere before he reached Boston. And for a hundred years and more afterwards all along the shore of Long Island Sound people now and again would start a search of buried treasure. But none was ever found.

 

Before his pirate friend met his end Lord Bellomont died. He was one of the few Governors the people had loved, and they sorrowed truly at his death. He was followed by Lord Cornby, a very bad man. Nevertheless in spite of Governors good and bad New York prospered. Every fresh tyranny in Europe which sent freedom-seekers to America added to the population. And as the first settlers were Dutch, New York had a more un-English population than almost any other of the colonies.

 

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This book has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this book were the work of volunteers at
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom