Sunday, February 19, 2017

Trial of Dr. John Howell - Pirate Events of 300 Years Ago!

National Archives, London, CO 23/1 (1717-1725), 42 iii, Trial of John Howell, 18-29 December 1721
About the events of early 1717... 300 years ago:

Excerpt from Quest for Blackbeard, pages 306-311 (full trial transcript available in my website's "Pirate Library" ):

Capt. Musson’s kind words in support of former Admiralty Judge Thomas Walker’s alleged anti-pirate stance may have been somewhat forced. The later trial documents of John Howell in late 1721 tell a great deal about the pirates and their families of the so-called “Flying Gang” in 1717. Illuminated was their leader Benjamin Hornigold from Harbour Island, and his local nemesis, Walker, who had later occupied the position of Bahamian Chief Justice under the islands’ first royal governors Woodes Rogers and George Phenney. The evidence reveals that the Walker-Hornigold feud may have been more personal rather than official. While the Walkers had not been directly identified as pirates themselves, they, at least, benefitted from the practice – a legal definition of guilt under then current British law. Walker, in a haphazard attempt to damage a rival’s reputation, had inadvertently incriminated himself.

How a trusted, renowned Irish surgeon and former Councilman for Gov. Woodes Rogers, then serving in the island's Independent Company in Fort Nassau, a man known by many to have been captured by pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold off Florida early in 1717, and forced against his will to endure sailing with the pirate's crew twice, under guard, and well-known by his community to have never taken shares of pirate loot, became accused after three years of royal rule – of all things, piracy – is the question. The trial did not seem necessary, but two members of the governor's council accused him of this “heinous” charge: James Gohier and Thomas Walker, then Chief Justice of the Bahamas. These two angry men even wrote to England demanding annulment of Howell's commission. 


The trial occurred strategically at the change in government from Woodes Rogers to his successor George Phenney. Rogers had returned to England in financial ruin, as he alleged, a consequence of his opposition to piracy. Gov. George Phenney replaced him in November 1721 and was, thus, presiding over Dr. Howell's trial the very next month. 


Other members of the governor's council present for the proceedings were, of course, James Gohier and Thomas Walker, who had taken this opportunity of the change in government to oust their rival. Also present were Walker's son-in-law William Fairfax, Pedro Galfrido Parabow Skynner, Charles Wainwright Carrington, Nathaniel Taylor, Peter Courant, William Spatchers, Senr., Joseph Cookes, and Thomas Wood. Mr. Carrington noted the "charge of a grievous nature" and affirmed its likely truth with "I am the rather persuaded to believe it too true against Mr. Howell."  The testimony of every single witness, however, was overwhelmingly against Carrington's assertion of guilt and an obvious exoneration of Howell. By chance, a great deal of rich detail can be learned about Hornigold’s “Flying Gang” in 1717 and early the next year.
Mr. Gohier, one of the two men who had accused Mr. Howell of piracy presented four witnesses to the court to prove Howell's alleged guilt. The testimonies of Richard Noland, William Howard, Robert Brown, and Pearce Wright, as mentioned, all tended to exonerate Dr. Howell, not condemn him. 


Richard Noland, then "Inhabitant & Mariner of N[ew] Providence," Samuel Bellamy's former quartermaster and afterward, recruitment and financial agent for Hornigold, told the court that "He has known sd John Howell upwards of four Years when belonging to the Sloop Bennet, Beja. Hornigold Comander & Pirate...." Before Noland had joined Hornigold as his recruiting agent, he "then understood from one Pierce Wright Mariner belonging to sd. Sloop Bennet, that He sd Wright together with one William Howard Quartr. Msr. and others of the same Crew [had some months earlier] forcibly [taken] sd John Howell from on board a certain Snow belonging to Jamaica, [Benjamin] Blake Comander, to serve on board sd Sloop Bennet as Surgeon."  Noland, here, was mistaking the sloop Adventure, Hornigold’s former ship and the one he possessed at the capture of Blake’s snow, with the only one that he had known about after April 1717 – the sloop Bennet. He added:

Sd. Hornigold afterward took two Dutch Ships at what Time Mr. Howell was on board Sloop Bennet, But the sd Noland often heard Mr. Howell express a Dislike to the Pyratical Manner of the Living, and knows that sd Howell attempted several Times to escape but was too narrowly watcht, being the only good Surgeon whom Hornigold & Company had Dependance on.

Rd. Noland farther deposd that at the Time when the Bennet & Mary Ann Crew came from Harbour Island to Providence in quest of a Boat each wanting One, The Mary Anne Capt. Bonadvis Crew being very strenuous to take John Howell for their Surgeon; who had left Hornigold and livd then upon the Island, sd. Howell applyed himself to sd. Noland complaining that He would rather serve the English than French, if He was compelld to make choice of Either, Accordingly went with the Crew of Hornigold a Second Time but not without seeming Reluctancy.

Early 18th century map of New Providence Island, the Bahamas


Noland was merely Hornigold’s agent on Harbour Island and not a member of Hornigold’s crew at the time. He could not have witnessed certain events directly – only heard about them after the fact. Noland knew better the activities in the Bahamas where he lived. He provided seemingly damning testimony against his fellow residents Thomas Walker and his son Neal. This testimony was given openly and freely, without much thought of the conflict of interest it implied toward the former Admiralty Judge and Chief Justice Walker:
Rd Noland also observd that during his belonging to Hornigold, He saw one Hogshead of pyratical Sugar put on board a Sloop belonging to Neal Walker, And believes there might have been several More, for afterwards the sd Noland saw four or five empty Sugar Hogsheads on the Shore of a certain Key where Mr. Walker Senr. the present Chief Justice & Father of the sd Neal Walker then liv'd.
Noland indicated that the Walkers had at least traded with Hornigold, possibly through his agent Noland, for pirated goods. These goods had been stored on Thomas Walker’s own land, probably with his knowledge and similar to the actions of Jamaica’s admiralty judge earlier with Jenning’s goods and North Carolina’s officials later with Thache’s. The court then asked whether John Howell had received any share of pirated goods during his time on Hornigold's ship. Noland replied that he only knew of Howell accepting payment for his medical services for the “Cure of a free Mulatto belonging to Hornigold.”  

Benjamin Hornigold's, then Edward Thache's former quartermaster, William Howard testified next. Howard had barely escaped the hangman's noose more than three years earlier in Virginia. He returned to Nassau afterward. Five years earlier, about spring 1717, when Howard served as Hornigold's quartermaster, his boarding party, including Pearce Wright, first captured John Howell, who had since remained on Harbour Island and, later, in Nassau, New Providence Island.
Howard's testimony affirmed Noland's, that he was in charge of the boarding party off the Florida Capes, "with nine others arm'd went on board sd [Jamaican ship of Benjamin] Blake, and thence forced sd Howell with his Medicines to serve on board sd Hornigold."  Contrary to Gohier's and Walker's hopes, Howard proved to be an excellent witness for Howell's innocence. He added:

... that the sd Howell never receivd any Share for any Prize taken; But always entreated the Crew of Hornigold to put Him sd Howell on any Shore where there was any Government... sd Howell desird of H[ornigold] to permitt him to escape, but was not [allowed]. Howard also remember'd that when He and others aforesd. forct Mr. Howell from Captain Blake, that Mr. Howell desird sd Blake to do Him Justice in declaring to his Friends how He was forct. 
William Howard left Hornigold's employ late in 1717, perhaps when Hornigold and Thache briefly served as consorts off the Virginia Capes in October and just before Thache sailed to Martinique to intercept La Concorde or, the later Queen Anne's Revenge, by late November that year. He since served as Thache's quartermaster on QAR, and for which his actions since that time, he was tried by Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood and found guilty. He was barely saved by the king’s extension of an act of grace when he then returned to the Bahamas.

Artist's conception of QAR at Bequia, late Nov 1717

Neither of the next two witnesses were any help to the prosecution. Robert Brown had known Howell the longest, seven or eight years before when they were in Cork, Ireland together. He was on the Adventure when it captured Blake’s snow. Brown attested to Howell’s capture then and that he had never benefited from Hornigold’s piracy, in either of two sorties, as had the Walkers and Thompsons. Pearce Wright then affirmed his part in taking Howell from Blake’s ship. He also said that Howell had never taken prize money from Hornigold or benefited in any way.

After Gohier and Walker’s four witnesses for the “prosecution” had given their testimony, Howell presented his own; William Pindar, Robert Hawkes, Edward Carr, Neal Walker, Peter Courant, Richard Thompson, William Fairfax, Thomas Spencer, William Spatchers, Sr., and Thomas Barnett. These ten witnesses rang a resounding death knell to Gohier and Walker’s case against Howell. 


John Howell lodged with William Pindar on Harbour Island once he realized that Hornigold was not going to allow him to leave to go back to Jamaica, or leave with a recently trading Virginian vessel. Pindar, his father-in-law Thomas Barnett, and Richard Thompson all attested to Howell’s treatment under Hornigold. Pindar told of their near-assault by Bonadvis’s French crew in their home over a gallon of rum, but mostly they came to take Howell with them. Hornigold later toyed with Bonadvis over Howell, yet kept the surgeon for himself. Hornigold told Howell to get aboard his ship, to which Howell suggested that he would mix some medicines for him, but hinted that he would remain at Harbour Island and not go out with Hornigold’s crew on the next sortie. This angered Hornigold, who told Howell, “Get you on board You dog or I will mix your Soul!” 


William Fairfax, Thomas Walker’s own son-in-law, later regarded Howell as a gentleman, always opposed to piracy, whom he had met upon his arrival three years ago with Gov. Rogers. He said that he spoke with…

… sd Howell on board of his Majesty's Ships Milford, Rose, & Sloop Shark whose Comanders, Capt. Chamberlen, Whitney & Pomeroy sd Fairfax perceivd to receive and entertain sd Howell on board as a Gentleman whom they approved of, In a little Time afterwards Mr. Briett Surgeon of the Kings Garrison dying, Mr. Howell was recomended to Govr. Rogers as the fittest Person to Succeed Mr. Briett.
Chief Justice Walker’s own son, Neal, easily admitted to having been on Hornigold’s sloop Bennet. He saw a forced Howell being guarded there by nine of Hornigold’s crew. William Spatchers, Sr.’s testimony, however, accused Thomas Walker and James Gohier of bringing these proceedings for purely political purposes. He said:
… that if Messrs Gohier & Walker had not taken Quarrel wth Mr. Howell when He was One of his Majts. Council & assented with the Dty. Governor & rest of the Council to suspend Mr. Walker from being Ch. Justice for Reasons mention'd in the Council Book, and deeming sd Gohier & Walker otherwise than Friends to the Welfare of the Government, Mr. Howell would not after three Years serving his Majesty in publick Capacity been now accused of Pyracy by [them.]
After several days of testimony, essentially wasted time, an annoyed governor’s council made their recommendations to acquit Dr. Howell. They also demanded that a copy of this trial transcript be sent to England – probably demonstrating to the king the dreadful hypocrisy and malicious machinations of James Gohier and the chief justice. It undoubtedly proved that Howell was earlier justified when he recommended Thomas Walker’s removal from the Council before Gov. Rogers’ return to England. 



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