Thursday, April 27, 2017

Johnson's Alternative Pirate Facts!

The Board of Trade and Plantations in London, c.1808
Most of us think of the wheels of government as slow. America and its irascible author and humorist Mark Twain had a particular disgust with Congress! Before the Monday Evening Club in Hartford in 1873, Twain reflected a rather common view of Congress:
It [the press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is—they are so morally blind—and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.
Twain likened Congress to thieves or bandits. We can't truly call them pirates since "piracy" is conveniently defined as "theft at sea." I guess Twain could say that Congress are the equivalent of pirates on land.

This opinion of Congress or government in general as crooks may not have been so fervently held in England as it is in America, at least not at the time of actual pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy. Their Board of Trade and Plantations had acted rather like any politicians. Truly, these petitioners whom you are about to meet were 139 experienced fighters on the sea who may be useful in the new war against Spain, the War of the Quadruple Alliance, as we now call it. That should have prompted a quicker reaction from the Board.

Carter Lane in London. By Gary Davis
Still, there are many varieties of pirate. Literary Pirates occasionally used the written word to assail their opponents. There was no one more effective at such word play as Nathaniel Mist, the controversial Jacobite newspaper publisher of the Weekly Journal and Saturday Evening's Post in London with offices on Great Carter Lane, not far from the government offices at Whitehall.

Mist wound up in jail on numerous occasions and was repeatedly fined for his attacks upon the king and his government. Mist was known to borrow our government's modern practice of "alternative facts" from time to time in these attacks - carefully crafted lies that were not so easily discernible to the average reader. Admittedly, he was much better at it than our current administration.

A little know "real" fact is that Mist also wrote a book about pirates under a pseudonym, Capt. Charles Johnson. This book was called A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, long thought to have been penned by Daniel DeFoe, who actually worked for Mist at one time - in fact, DeFoe was hired by the British government to calm Mist's printed libeling of the king. A General History was published twice in 1724, the second time with numerous alterations.

Johnson-Mist introduced us to the 139 trained seamen of whom I referred. One of his "alternative facts" shows up subtly in his passage on pirate Capt. Thomas Anstis: 
This being approved of, it was unanimously resolved on, and the underwritten Petition drawn up and signed by the whole Company in the Manner of what they call a Round Robin, that is, the Names were writ in a Circle, to avoid all Appearance of Pre-eminence, and least any Person should be mark’d out by the Government, as a principal Rogue among them.

 To his most sacred Majesty George, by the Grace of God, of Great-Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c.

The humble PETITION of the Company, now belonging to the Ship Morning Star, and Brigantine Good Fortune, lying under the ignominious Name and Denomination of PYRATES.
Humbly sheweth,

THAT we your Majesty’s most loyal Subjects, have, at sundry Times, been taken by Bartholomew Roberts, the then Captain of the abovesaid Vessels and Company, together with another Ship, in which we left him; and have been forced by him and his wicked Accomplices, to enter into, and serve, in the said Company, as Pyrates, much contrary to our Wills and Inclinations: And we your loyal Subjects utterly abhoring and detesting that impious way of Living, did, with an unanimous Consent, and contrary to the Knowledge of the said Roberts, or his Accomplices, on, or about the 18th Day of April 1721, leave, and ran away with the aforesaid Ship Morning Star, and Brigantine Good Fortune, with no other Intent and Meaning than the Hopes of obtaining your Majesty’s most gracious Pardon. And, that we your Majesty’s most loyal Subjects, may with more Safety return to our native Country, and serve the Nation, unto which we belong, in our respective Capacities, without Fear of being prosecuted by the Injured, whose Estates have suffered by the said Roberts and his Accomplices, during our forcible Detainment, by the said Company: We most humbly implore your Majesty’s most royal Assent, to this our humble Petition.

And your Petitioners shall ever pray.
This Petition was sent home by a Merchant Ship bound to England, from Jamaica, who promised to speak with the Petitioners, in their Return, about 20 Leagues to Windward of that Island, and let them know what Success their Petition met with. When this was done, the Pyrates retires to the Island before proposed, with the Ship and Brigantine.

This Island (which I have no Name for) lies off the Southwest End of Cuba, uninhabited, and little frequented. On the East End is a Lagune, so narrow, that a Ship can but just go in, tho’ there’s from 15 to 22 Foot Water, for almost a League up: On both Sides of the Lagune grows red Mangrove Trees, very thick, that the Entrance of it, as well as the Vessels laying there, is hardly to be seen. In the Middle of the Island are here and there a small thick Wood of tall Pines, and other Trees scattered about in different Places.
Johnson-Mist goes on to explain how these crews survived on that Cuban island for nine months, eating mostly four different kinds of turtle. He even went into a long excerpt from a mock trial that they supposedly portrayed to amuse themselves. How he could know these details is a good question. Mist may have spoken to some of the defendants in jail - if he had that much energy.

Johnson-Mist said they stayed on this Cuban island for nine months, awaiting an answer to their petition, and that they eventually went into the Windward Passage in search of a ship from London that might have news of the answer to this petition. As Johnson-Mist wrote, "The beginning of August 1722, the Pyrates made ready the Brigantine, and came out to Sea, and beating up to Windward, lay in the Track for their Correspondant in her Voyage to Jamaica, and spoke with her; but finding nothing was done in England in their Favour, as ’twas expected, they return’d to their Consorts at the Island with the ill News, and found themselves under a Necessity, as they fancied, to continue that abominable Course of Life they had lately practis’d."

So, Johnson-Mist declared that the pirates did not receive an answer. The crews of the Morning Starr and Good Fortune left Bartholomew Roberts in April 1721, waited on a Cuban island for nine months, until January 1722... no... wait... he wrote "August 1722." That's 16 months from April 1721!

What Johnson-Mist did not know was that the crews of the Morning Starr and Good Fortune might have left Roberts in April 1721, but they did not submit their petition until 28 April 1722 - to Nathaniel Lawes of Jamaica... wait again... they supposedly gave the petition to a "Merchant Ship bound to England, from Jamaica, who promised to speak with the Petitioners, in their Return, about 20 Leagues to Windward of that Island." They didn't actually speak with the governor himself - did they?

Wait again... 20 leagues to windward? Of Jamaica? Why, that's not in the Windward Passage! What the hell?

All of this confusion exists because Nathaniel Mist "alternative-facted" or lied - as usual. In my opinion, he didn't even seem to have the common knowledge of a seaman familiar with the West Indies.

It was not unusual for writers in the early eighteenth century to lie or to copy other written work and republish it as their own - with conveniently "rearranged" facts or "alternative facts" more inclined toward their agenda - in essence, plagiarize it. American government officials and their wives are not the only ones who ever thought of plagiarizing.

The crews of the Morning Starr and Good Fortune sent their petition to England probably through Gov. Lawes' connections. The answer would of course be delivered to Gov. Nathaniel Lawes himself. They probably had it sent through the usual communications of Lawes with the Board of Trade. That's why the copy of the petition and its reply are found to this day in CO 323/8, the repository in England for letters from governors whose names began with an "L":

Portion of Pirates' Petition in CO 323/8 - interestingly, about 80% of the pirates shown in this round robbin could sign their own name, a possible indicator of literacy not normally believed about mariners of the day.
Even though the paper is torn in the middle part of the petition copy above in blue, one can still make out:
X x x x x paper torn x x x x Starr and Brigt. Good F x x x x x
Fourteenth? Day of June 1722 This vangs x x x x x tion to Your Most Sacred Majesty The First Dated April the 28th: 1722. To His Excellency Sr. Nicholas Lawes Knt. Governour in Chief of the Island of Jamaica.
This copy was made for recording the Board's and the king's answer to these pirates - to be kept in their records - in London. Yes, this is just down the street a bit from Great Carter Lane. The date of 14 June 1722 is the date that it was officially transmitted to the Board and recorded and that date could not have been much greater than two weeks after they received the petition from Lawes! Pretty spiffy for government work, hey? Well, let's not get excited...

Did Nathaniel Mist, the controversial Jacobite polemicist who wrote under the pen-name "Capt. Charles Johnson," see this petition, but not see who relayed it from the West Indies?

England actually got the petition and answered it, addressing the reply to Gov. Lawes - but well after December 1722, as the Board still deliberated with West Indian merchants at that time. A later deposition tells the pirates waited eight months - from April 1722! That would be December 1722 - still not enough time to get the laborious answer. Mist wrote his book and published it in May 1724, then again, with many modifications in Dec 1724. Still, all of this petition parley was said and done by then.

But, still... if Mist had found the original petition, why had he not asked about the Board's deliberations and answer? Was he not welcome in their offices and forced to rummage their trash for bits and pieces and just found the original petition, no longer needed by the Board? Considering his reputation... very possible!

Most likely, he had access to their records, or at least a source on the Board who would speak with him. He obviously had found a copy of the petition itself - to copy it so precisely into his book. He most likely saw the Board's copy and their answer to Gov. Lawes. But, Mist never mentioned Lawes. Did Mist just ignore the part in blue above, assuming that he saw it? The part about Gov. Lawes? If he saw it, then why did he stop his transcription just as he came to this part? Did he want his readers to know that Lawes was involved? That the petitioners may actually have gone to Lawes instead of this clandestine route - more piratish in execution? More desperate in literary terms?

He should also have seen the answer to the petition immediately following it:

Also in CO 323/8 appears the answer, immediately following the copy of their petition.
The long-awaited answer was "YES!" The pirates received their pardons:
To the Right Honoll. Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations

Whereas Your Lordships [Admiralty?] have Communicated the Coppy of a Petition addressed to his Majesty on behalf of the Company belonging to the Ship Morning Star and Brigantine Good Fortune, dated the 14th June 1722. Alledging themselves to have been Forced by Bartholomew Roberts and his Accomplices to serve as Pirates which Impious way of Living the said Petitioners utterly detest and Abhor and praying his Majesties most Gracious Pardon.

Wee the Underwritten in Case his Majesty of his Great Wisdom and Compassion, shall think Fitt to Signifie by Proclamation his Gracious Pardon to these and mo x x others here being, or deemed, or taken to be Pirates as Shall Conforme to the Conditions in such Proclamation to be incerted, do hope that his Majesties Grace Extended to those Offenders will not be attended with any evil Consequence to Trade of Navigation but on the Contrary prevent Many Mischiefs which may otherwise happen.
Unfortunately, there is no date on the document, but Mist didn't print it either. He wanted his readers to believe that these pirate rogues and scoundrels were totally on their own - brigands against the world! Oh, the tragedy and hopelessness of the poor, "notorious" pirate!

Of course, what they would have done with these pardons was unpardonable. They remained on the account, were arrested a couple of years later, and executed. So, the story may actually have worked out for Mist no matter what happened.

At their trials and in their depositions, they mention that the crews of the Morning Starr and Good Fortune waited for their answer - not on a Cuban Island with four kinds of edible turtle, but rather on the Island of Roatan at the Bay of Honduras, where many a Jamaican ship came to gather logwood - the quicker to hear about a response from Jamaica no doubt.

Mist had read their depositions, too... or, at least one of the depositions made by Thomas Lawrence Jones, Bridstock Weaver, William Whelks, and Henry Treehill, all men whose names appeared on the petition above. Still, Johnson-Mist mentioned Thomas Anstis as captain, John Fenn as captain, a Phillips as carpenter - all men whose jobs were not mentioned on the petition itself, but only in the depositions. How did he know that? Unless he read the depositions from 1723 and 1724, especially the one by Treehill. All of those petitions also told about the Island of Roatan... nothing at all about a Cuban Island with turtles.

At best, Nathaniel Mist or "Capt. Charles Johnson" was lazy with his facts - you might even say "alternative facts!" Yeah, he probably just outright lied... um, like Congress! Certainly, the wheels of government have always been indescribably slow. Somebody tell Mark, would you? ;)


"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.


Jillian said...

OMG! The General History is the BANE of my existence. I'm so glad to see someone eviscerate it!! THANK YOU!! ;)

Baylus C. Brooks said...

Glad to be of service! ;) My book, "Quest for Blackbeard" and the upcoming one, "Sailing East" offer even more keelhulling of Charles Johnson. Check out

Also, a Facebook site that you might like: