Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"Fake News" in the Golden Age of Piracy!

New Providence Island, c.1700
I missed an opportunity when I wrote Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World. Still, that's what I have this blog for... to correct mistakes or add something of interest that I may have left out. Really, the opportunity I missed may have been of greater interest to me personally, as it has to do with my continued harassment of the infamous pirate author, plagiarist, and scoundrel Capt. Charles Johnson. I like tearing his dishonesty apart and even have a Facebook page for it now. Yes, I daily encourage rebellion in pirate historical circles. Like Thomas Jefferson, I'm bold and will shed some patriotic blood for the cause!

Thanks to recent scholarly work, we all know the Jacobite polemicist, journalist, and opportunist, forever in legal trouble because of his mouthing off at important folks - like the king! He went by the name of Nathaniel Mist, as well as his pen name "Charles Johnson," controversial publisher of London's Weekly Journal and Saturday Evening Post. I've argued on numerous occasions, indeed found absolute proof, that Mist was a liar and profiteer quite worthy of membership in the "Commonwealth of Pyrates" he so enthusiastically wrote about from 3,000 miles away. Mist was a purveyor of what we call today "Fake News" and provided plenty of "alternative facts" on pirates. The worst is that he mixed the lies with the truth, muddling it all - much like Bertram G. Nelson back in the 1920s radio craze.

Mist claimed that Frenchman Jean Martel was an English pirate and gave him credit for many things that he never did. He said that Stede Bonnet had pirated a set of vessels in August 1717 off the Virginia coast that Samuel Bellamy had actually done in April - and forgot to even mention Bellamy's name - he even mixed up ships and people by name to intentionally confuse the data. Worst of all, he made Edward Thache out to be a cruel and vicious man when no record even shows that he ever harmed anyone outside of battle. Indeed, he was courteous to his opponents, as you might expect of any Royal Navy officer. I do have to say that Mist was not entirely responsible for Thache's liable problem - a lot of that had to do with Britain's new Board of Trade and their desire to put piracy down in America, that "Commonwealth of Pyrates" I referred to earlier. I'll let you be the judge of whether or not you think that effort was successful! 

What wild tirade is he on, now! I'm sure you asked that...

Well, he did it again. Mist did it again! The man can't stop lying. As usual, he used a bit of truth to pad his fantasies. I can't tell you how this irks an historian like myself, trained with the solemn task of finding truth in documentation. When you purposely falsify the documents, my job is 100 times harder than it needs to be. 

We have a modern term for Mist's Piracy, don't we? No, I don't mean "Fox News." I'm referring to the more general category of "Fake News" to which Fox News deserves special consideration!

In my book, I discussed a pirate named Othniel Davis and partner to pirate Thomas Porter (brother of Daniel, sloop Mayflower, who dealt with Richard Tookerman at Curaçao and joined with Bartholomew Roberts occasionally), both recently of the Island of New Providence, Bahamas. I found that Othniel Davis came to the Bahamas from the direction of New York. He pirated a bit and took the king's pardon, along with 208 other penitent types - well, mostly penitent. Davis and Porter together owned a sloop known as Moville Trader and Gov. Woodes Rogers commissioned Davis to go after pirates. Some communication got twisted and Davis apparently committed piracy again. The two men left the Bahamas after Davis' surrender and backsliding, to the colony of South Carolina. Thomas Porter experienced the true American dream with lots of gold everything in his South Carolina will! Hey! Nothing personal, I'm sure. When the two on-off pirates reached South Carolina, Davis again surrendered to Gov. Robert Johnson and again received a commission to go after Spanish ships - now that Britain was back at war again with Spain (Dec 1718) and needed fighters. He turned out to be much better at keeping that promise of hunting the Spanish and stealing their treasure. He was even spoken of as a hero in the admiralty court!
South Carolina Admiralty Court - Sep 1719
Well... an interesting tidbit appears in Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. I did not notice this bit when I researched Othniel or Othenius Davis. His name was listed as "Othenius" on his surrender to Capt. Pearse at the Bahamas in March 1718. 

Anyway, Johnson apparently conflated Othniel Davis with a least part of his history that he listed for Howell Davis. Of course, "Howell" and "Othniel" look a lot alike... I guess. He told that:
[Howell Davis] knowing that the Island of Providence was a kind of Rendevouz of Pyrates, he was resolved to make one amongst them, if possible, and to that Purpose, found Means of shipping himself for that Island; but he was again disappointed, for when he arrived there, the Pyrates had newly surrendered to Captain Woods Rogers, and accepted of the Act of Grace, which he had just brought from England.

However, Davis was not long out of Business, for Captain Rogers having fitted out two Sloops for Trade, one called the Buck, the other the Mumvil Trader; Davis found an Employment on Board of one of them [the Mumvil Trader as he later mentions - he also later tells it was Buck... anyway...].
Obviously, this was Othniel Davis, not Howell Davis. South Carolina Admiralty records clearly show that Moville Trader was co-owned by both "Othniel" Davis and Porter. 
Note that in this same section on Davis, Johnson mentions "Coxon's Hole" on the east end of Cuba. A "Coxen Hole" is actually on Roatan Island in the Bay of Honduras. Still, "Coxen" is short for "coxwain" and there are probably quite a few places that carry this name. I can't find reference to any on Cuba, though. Johnson may have been thinking of current Guantanomo Bay

Coxen Hole, Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras

 This, however, was not the worst part. The really worst part involved not only a serious jumbling of data by Johnson, or Mist, but another lie told by a different newspaper, the Weekly Packet of London. This bit was truly worthy of the term "fake news." And, wouldn't you know? Johnson copied it and added a lot more fake stuff!

The Really Worst Part...

While reading the part on Howell Davis, I read another bit that I couldn't quite identify in my research. Johnson's version goes:
Cadogan Snow of Bristol, Captain Skinner Commander, bound for the Coast of Guiney, of which Snow [Howell] Davis was chief Mate: They were no sooner arrived at Sierraleon on the aforesaid Coast, but they were taken by the Pyrate England, who plunder’d them, and Skinner was barbarously murdered, as has been related before in the Story of Captain England.
As it turns out, the Weekly Packet of August 2, 1718 printed this:

Weekly Packet of August 2, 1718
Bristol, July 28...  Yesterday Morning arriv'd the Lydia and Sarah, Capt. Briant, in six weeks from Barbados, and brings News of the following ships arriv'd there: ... Coulston, Capt. Skinner, from the coast [Africa]. The Coulston and Society, both of this Port, were plunder'd by two Pirates, of 30 Guns each, at [Sierra] Leone. They took thirty-seven Slaves out of the Coulston, and a Considerable Quantity of Gold. 
The Boston News-Letter picked up the story from London on August 1, 1718, although they called the ship Skinner and its captain, Coulston:

Boston News-Letter, 17 Nov 1718, 1.

It would appear that the Weekly Packet confirmed Johnson's story, with the exception of the ship's name, Coulston rather than Cadogan. These were the events supposedly from the 1718 voyage of Coulston. Indeed, Johnson most likely pulled this article from the newspapers and then added more detail in his section on Edward England and Howell Davis. There is no way to determine if a Howell Davis ever actually served as the mate on Coulston, but he did not appear to take command of this vessel after the captain died, as Johnson said that he did. Davis was not the mate on this voyage!

The beauty of the modern age is that we have digital access to many records that Johnson and people of his day never had - which makes them look pretty sorry, actually - not always their fault. For instance, tells that a Peter Skinner of Bristol married a Mary Carpenter in 1712, that he was a mariner, well-acquainted with the Tunbridges of Bristol. He made a will in 1713 in which he left everything to his new bride and made his "loving friend Robert Tunbridge of the City of Bristol" executor. It was probated in 1719, a year after this 1718 voyage.

Will of Peter Skinner - probated 23 Jun 1719 - PROB 11/569/170

Another convenience is the ability to access programs like the Atlantic Slave Trade Database "Voyages" in which every extant newspaper and official record has been scoured to obtain details of every slave voyage possible. Every single voyage contains multiple sources, so the list should be rather comprehensive. This database shows the voyage of Coulston, from the time it departed Bristol on December 3, 1717 until it returned September 28, 1718, nearly ten months. This date range straddles the August edition of the Weekly Packet - nearly a year for a round-trip voyage for this ship! No other possible voyages are possible for the bulk of 1718. In other words, the Weekly Packet article was definitely talking about this particular trip on August 1, 1718.

Voyages database tells a great deal more than dates. First of all, the only Cadogan in the database was commanded by Richard Baugh and sailed in 1731. Coulston of Bristol, 70-tons 4 guns, built 1717, was owned by Robert Tunbridge, with master Capt. Peter Skinner - yes, the one whose will was mentioned above. Skinner had not died en route in 1718 - he died the year after and it wasn't by pirate torture. Furthermore, his mate was Hugh Vaughn, not Howell Davis. They arrived at Sierra Leone, purchased 41 slaves and arrived at Barbados June 9, 1718 with 33 slaves left. They only lost 8 slaves (a loss of 19.5% - average was about 15%), nominal for these types of Middle Passage trips. They didn't lose 37, what amounted to their entire complement - why even continue if they had? Most telling, this ship was listed as "not captured" by pirates or Spanish privateers on this 1718 voyage.*
*Sources for the 1718 Coulston voyage: Richardson, David, Bristol, Africa and the Eighteenth Century Slave Trade to America: Volume 1, The Years of Expansion, 1698-1729 (Bristol, 1986); Volume 2, The Years of Ascendancy, 1730-1745 (Bristol, 1987); Volume 3, The Years of Decline, 1746-1769 (Bristol, 1991); Volume 4, The Final Years, 1770-1807 (Bristol, 1997); Post Man (London), 31 Jul 1718 & 2 Oct 1718.
Peter Skinner's last voyage had not ended with his ship being captured by two pirate ships of Edward England or any other pirate, despite reports in at least two newspapers. He was not assaulted by a pirate crew and killed. They did not do as Johnson wrote:
[England's crew] laid hold of the Captain, and made him fast to the Windless, and there pelted him with Glass Bottles, which cut him in a sad Manner; after which they whipp’d him about the Deck, till they were weary, being deaf to all his Prayers and Intreaties, and at last, because he had been a good Master to his Men, they said, he should have an easy Death, and so shot him thro’ the Head.
Yeah... that entire list was supposedly an "easy Death." A pirate Howell Davis does appear in newspapers, but truth be told, the majority of Johnson's Howell Davis section is vague and impossible to prove... just like this wild-eyed fish tale.

The Weekly Packet story was obviously "fake news!" Furthermore, this fake news was spread across the Atlantic Ocean to the Boston News-Letter. "Fake News" is truly akin to a virus - stowing away in the creaky moldy hull of a ship, waiting to infest other places! It may be that Tunbridge wanted to write off this 1718 voyage and collect on insurance - he might have anonymously slipped notes of a fake disaster involving his ship into the local "Fox News of London." Lloyd's of London did pay for cargo lost to pirates, assuming it was insured with them. Still, the slaves made it to Barbados - someone reported 33 received out of 41 loaded in Africa from Coulston that trip. You know the buyer would have made noise if they hadn't!

Charles Johnson simply copied this fake news from the newspaper and then added a whole bunch of juicy fake stuff truly worthy of Sean Hannity and his Fox News guys. And, he changed the name of the ship, which was probably wise... because no scholars of Nathaniel Mist's day could "fact check" what lies he told without the internet! Oh, and... the pirate Edward England's name never came up in any of these records...


"Quest for Blackbeard" is now available in ebook format and can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online booksellers, including Apple iTunes.

Quest is already previewable on Google Books.


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