|Fort James on Kunta Kinteh Island|
A controversial Jacobite newspaper publisher named Nathaniel Mist, writing under the pseudonym "Capt. Charles Johnson," published A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates in 1724. This extravagant, flamboyant, and ultimately popular narrative was literally a "political hit piece" on the "Commonwealth of Pyrates" across the Atlantic Ocean - a wilderness colony of England's, created by the cruder and more conservative Stuart Dynasty. We call it "America." The Stuarts had launched nearly a century of theft, native enslavement, and general mayhem originally intended to allow England's rise to power over their Spanish and French competitors in a land raped of its material wealth by all - America's nominal life of crime or piracy.
In that respect, a then financially-troubled Mist intended his book to be only partly a "history," while he had also been coerced by the new stabilizing Whig government to write derogatory references to this "Commonwealth" and its nests of maritime criminals known as "pirates" - commissioned to tell little white lies, as it were. England's desire was to use information warfare to end this Stuart menace to their trade in America. As Shakespeare knew all too well, "the evil that men do lives long after them [especially if in print] - the good is oft interred with their bones." Anyone in journalism or politics understands this human truth - including Nathaniel Mist and Lord Sunderland's Whigs. Sunderland intended to stop this century-old trend and bring America back into the fold of civilization by shaming them into giving up their evil ways - it may have only partly worked.
Mist also liked the idea of profiting from his book, which certainly would have effected it's accuracy! His property taxes and number of rental properties increased greatly after 1724!
Davis had supposedly become a pirate because he was taken at Sierra Leone by Edward England off a vessel supposedly named Cadogan, Capt. Skinner. Skinner's first mate, Howell Davis (according to Mist), turned pirate a few months after being taken and imprisoned on his return to Barbados. His annoyance at being treated by Barbadian authorities as a pirate caused him to actually turn into one! He then supposedly surrendered at New Providence, the Bahamas, when Capt. Vincent Pearse arrived there late in February 1718. So, the Cadogan was supposedly taken by England at Africa before February 1718 - in other words, probably in 1717.
The problem with Mist's narrative is that the timing on these events does not fit. England probably began his career after capture of Cadogan - a vessel actually called Coulston and captained by Peter Skinner on a voyage to Africa throughout most of 1718, not 1717. The most damning part for Mist's elaborate and "villainous" (Mist's comic-book characterization of Edward England had him being allegedly rather rough with Skinner, killing him in 1718) narrative was the fact that Skinner's 1st mate was not named "Howell Davis," but "Hugh Vaughn," and Vaughn remained master of Coulston for another two years - he did not become a pirate. Oh, and there was the disappointing fact that Skinner died in 1719, not 1718 when Coulston was actually captured, and not in 1717 when England supposedly killed him! Mist apparently manipulated data to fit his literary needs - he wrote historical fiction, not history!
Pearse's list of surrendered pirates named Othniel or "Othenias" Davis. This Davis, partner to pirate brothers Thomas and Daniel Porter on New Providence, was one-time master of Moville Trader, a vessel mentioned in Mist's "Howell Davis" narrative as Mumvil Trader, one of the two vessels (including Buck) fitted out by the Bahama's new governor, Woodes Rogers - as alleged by Nathaniel Mist. These events had to have occurred after April 1718 when Rogers arrived at the Bahamas. They are not the same men. The later legitimate anti-Spanish privateer Othniel Davis is discussed in Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World.
Again, Mist failed as an historian.
Still, Mist's continued narrative after April 1718 for Howell Davis has him serving as a crewman aboard Buck, consorting with Mumvil Trader on a voyage to Martinique, "where Davis having conspired with some others, rise in the Night, secured the Master and seized the Sloop [Buck]." Davis called to the Mumvil Trader, "among whom they knew there were a great many Hands ripe for Rebellion," joining with them on Buck, and sending Mumvil Trader "to go where they pleased."
Mist then has Davis cleaning Buck, then crewed by 35 hands, at "the East End of the Island of Cuba" and then making sail to the north side of Hispaniola where they captured a French sloop of 12 guns and another of 24 guns and 60 men, keeping them for two days. Presumably, some of the French crewmen joined Davis, but Mist didn't say. He then "steered Northward, in which Course he took a small Spanish Sloop; after this, he made towards the Western Islands, but met with no Booty thereabouts; then he steered for the Cape de Verde Islands," which lay off the coast of Africa not far from the Gambia River and Fort James.
|Cape Verde Islands location and detail|
São Nicolão or St. Nicholas where the inhabitants believed him to be an English privateer - perhaps giving him the idea for his future "piratical acting career." Davis and crew remained there for 5 weeks, "caressed by the Governor and the Inhabitants," exploring to the island's interior and enjoying their fortunate sojourn. Five of his crew remained behind for the "free Conversation of some Women" (leaving 30?); one, "Charles Franklin, a Monmouthshire Man, married and settled himself," supposedly still there in 1724 when Mist published his book. Presumably, these events occurred in late 1718, for by February-March 1719, Davis and his crew raided and burnt the RAC's Fort James.
|Coast of modern-day São Nicolão|
Santiago]." Mist wrote:
Davis, with a few Hands, going ashore to find the most commodious Place to water at, the Governor, with some Attendants, came himself and examined who they were, and whence they came? And not liking Davis’s Account of himself, the Governor was so plain to tell them, he suspected them to be Pyrates. Davis seemed mightily affronted, standing much upon his Honour, replying to the Governor, he scorn’d his Words; however, as soon as his Back was turn’d, for fear of Accidents, he got on Board again as fast as he could. Davis related what had happened, and his Men seemed to resent the Affront which had been offered him [even though they actually were pirates]. Davis, upon this, told them, he was confident he could surprize the Fort [Forte Real de São Filipe is a 16th century fortress in the city of Cidade Velha in the south of the island] at in the Night; they agreed with him to attempt it, and accordingly, when it grew late, they went ashore well arm’d; and the Guard which was kept, was so negligent, that they got within the Fort before any Alarm was given: When it was too late there was some little Resistance made, and three Men killed on Davis’s Side. Those in the Fort, in their Hurry, run into the Governor’s House to save themselves, which they barricadoed so strongly, that Davis’s Party could not enter it; however, they threw in Granadoe-Shells, which not only ruin’d all the Furniture, but kill’d several Men within. [Oh, no... not the furniture! That was a beautiful Georgian desk! - "Not any more!" (French accent; sarcasm for those who've watched Pink Panther movies)...]
|São Filipe fortress at Cidade Velha, Santiago island, Cape Verde. The fort has been restored in 1999-2001.|
|Forte de São Filipe: Walls and cistern|
Mist told that Davis and crew, in King James and Buck, consisting now of 70-men, left the Island of Santiago, "having dismounted [and taken] the Guns of the Fort." The pirate ships then made for the Gambia River where "Davis, he having been employ’d in that Trade [Atlantic Slave Trade], was acquainted with the Coast." Davis added, in Mist's entertaining words, "a great deal of Money always kept in Gambia Castle [The RAC's Fort James], and that it would be worth their while to make an Attempt upon it."
A list of historic details and data regarding the RAC's Fort James is here: Data about Fort James
|Kunta Kinteh Island is suffering heavy erosion, and is now approximately 1/6 of its size during the time when the fort was active.|
Having come within Sight of the Place [Fort James on James Island; today, Kunta Kinteh Island], he ordered all his Men under Deck, except as many as were absolutely necessary for working the Ship, that those from the Fort seeing a Ship with so few Hands, might have no Suspicion of her being any other than a trading Vessel; then he ran close under the Fort, and there cast Anchor; and having ordered out the Boat, he commanded six Men in her, in old ordinary Jackets, while he himself, with the Master and Doctor, dressed themselves like Gentlemen; his Design being, that the Men should look like common Sailors, and they like Merchants. In rowing ashore he gave his Men Instructions what to say in Case any Questions should be asked them.
Being come to the landing Place, he was received by a File of Musqueteers, and conducted into the Fort, where the Governor accosting them civilly, ask’d them who they were, and whence they came? They answered they were of Liverpool, bound for the River of Sinnegal, to trade for Gum [Olibanum; Frankincense] and Elephants Teeth...Mist goes on with tremendous detail about how Davis playacted, fooled, and tricked Agent Charles Orfeur, captured him and burnt the Royal African Company's Fort James, "dismounting the Guns, and demolishing the Fortifications."
|Ruins on Kunta Kinteh Island (James Island)|
An actual primary source document, a deposition from the Island of Barbados, reveals some similarities as to this story told by Nathaniel Mist. They suggest that he used this deposition as a base document on which he abundantly added the greater detail and elaboration, whether true or not. William Slade of Barbados, master of Guinea Hen, formerly in the service of the RAC under Solomon Raynesford and John Gill, had left Bridgetown, Barbados on December 23, 1718 for Gambia River, arriving by February 8, 1719. They had anchored by James Island before Davis entered Gambia River and made his way to raid the fort - thus, they were eyewitnesses to the arrival, deception, and raid by Howell Davis.
----------------------- Detail from Donnan, Documents of the Slave Trade, page 111
James Fort, and Island, in the River Gambia; the island walled round; Out-works, great Guns, small Arms, and Stores; formerly mounted with 90 great Guns; with several Warehouses, Rooms for Factors and Officers; Work-houses for Smiths, and other Artiﬁcers; by means whereof, together with the Agreements with the several Kings of that Country, the Company have heretofore enjoyed the Trade of that River upwards of 300 Leagues, with Settlements and Factories at the Places following; viz. Barracunda, Alunjugar, jamassar, Geregia, Tankerwall, Jovy, Sangrigo, Vintan, Gellifree, Barrafatt, Furbrow, Cumbo, and Benyoun, all within that River; and the Factories of Portodella, Joallee, Felan, and Bassally, without the said River; and by Sloops and Vessels, trading from the said James Island to Rio Pungo, Rio Nunez, Bissow, and Catchow, Places adjacent to the said Island; by all which in the time of settled Trade Carried forward £216,194 0 0 ‘This fort the company ﬁnally surrendered in 1728. The description of the forts already cited says of this one, the property of Messrs. Richard Oswald and Company: “This Fort has not been any Expence to the Public (notwithstanding it has been kept in better repair, and supplied with every necessary for its defence), than the Forts at Senegambia, and on the Gold Coast, and Whydah have been, where so much Public Money has been expended. . . . Belonging to the Fort 33 Europeans and Mullatoes, 137 Castle Slaves, besides Women and Girls, 10 Sloops, and Schooners, the Fort in Good repair, 28 Cannon”. Eg. MSS. 1162 B, f. 78.
As William Slade's deposition read:
And these Deponents Memory's a Ship [King James] Came Up the Sd: River, and Came to an Anchor & Saluted the fort and Immediately afterwards the Captain Or Cheif Officer of the Said Shipp (as these Deponents were informed) Went on Shoar and Acquainted the Company's agent [English agent from 1717-1721: Charles Orfeur (b. 1688? - d. 1745)] there, that he with his Said Ship were Drove off the Coast of Barbarry Where he had been trading for Gumm [Gum Olibanum or Frankincense?], and that he Came in there for Wood & Water; That he having told this plausible Story and the Agent belonging to the Said ffort Giving Credit to what was told him, And these Depon:ts at that time Suspecting Nothing he the said Cap:tn Or Cheife Officer of the Said Ship together with his Men Surprized & took ye Said ffort and the Said Agent & these Deponents found & Discovered them to be Pyrates, That the Said Capt:n of the Sd: Pirate Ship with his Company Immediately after they had So Surprized and taken ye Sd: ffort & Sloop, they Plundered & Ransacked the Sd: ffort [Fort James] & Sloop [Guinea Hen] of Every thing they thought fitt for them, and Sett the Said ffort On ffire; thereby burning & Destroying goods & Effects to a Great Value...Note that the narrative is quite similar, except for one primary detail: the part above in red that reads "that he with his Said Ship were Drove off the Coast of Barbarry [North Africa] Where he had been trading for Gumm [Gum Olibanum or Frankincense?]." Mist's narrative, however, stated "they were of Liverpool, bound for the River of Sinnegal, to trade for Gum [Gum Olibanum; Frankincense]."
Why the change in location? If Mist used this document on which to base his tale, which he apparently did, why did he change the location from which Davis claimed to have been before arriving at James Island? Yes, Slade could have gotten the details wrong but, if he did, then how did Mist know any location at all if not from Slade's deposition? Hearsay? The trade item "Gum" mentioned by both at exactly this point in the narrative is quite interesting, wouldn't you say?
Another primary source document came from Richard Luntley, a crewman aboard Guinea Hen. He tended to verify William Slade's testimony. His narrative agrees well with his captain's, but was curt on this event and did not mention details such as this Barbery-Liverpool discrepancy.
William Slade and Richard Luntley both mention that the pirate sloop Buck came up to the fort on 27 February, after Howell Davis and his crew seized the fort. They also both mention a surprise visitor, Olivier LeVasseur de la Buse, the famed "Buzzard," on the 8th of March, who "Arrived at the Mouth of the River in a Briganteen [Murrane]," or, as Mist wrote. "a French Pyrate of fourteen Guns and sixty four Hands, half French, half Negroes; the Captain’s Name was La Bouse."
Mist wrote, "La Bouse desired Davis, that they might sail down the Coast together, that he (La Bouse) might get a better Ship." By coincidence (perhaps), William Slade deposed "Which Ship [King James] and Briganteen [Murrane] Consorted together, and on the Tenth of that Instant [March] went to Sea, having Obliged the Deponent William Slade at the perill of his life to Pilott out the great Ship [King James]," obviously accompanied by their prize, Slade's Guinea Hen.
Mist next wrote:
The first Place they touch’d at, was Sierraleon, where at first going in, they spied a tall Ship at Anchor; Davis being the best Sailor first came up with her, and wondering that she did not try to make off, suspected her to be a Ship of Force. As soon as he came along Side of her, she brought a Spring upon her Cable, and fired a whole Broadside upon Davis, at the same Time hoisted a black Flag; Davis hoisted his black Flag in like Manner, and fired one Gun to Leeward.Slade's deposition reads:
In fine, she proved to be a Pyrate Ship of twenty four Guns, commanded by one Cocklyn.
And these Depon:ts further Say, that about the 19th of ye Sd: Month of March as they were a going into the Said Port of Serraleon, they mett with Two Ships a Working out [transferring cargo?] the One proved to be another Pyrate [Jeremiah Cocklyn in Rising Sun], and the Other Ship that Pyrates Prize, being a Ship belonging to this Island Named the Two ffriends Commanded by Capt:n William Elliot, Which two Ships Commanded these Depon:ts to bring their Sloop [Guinea Hen] to an Anchor, and the Day following in the Morning the Said Pyrates Seized the Said Sloop [Guinea Hen] for the Use of an hospital Ship, they putting their Sick People On board of ye Sd. Sloop.Mist further stated that:
... the third Day [22nd March] Davis and Cocklyn, agreed to go in La Bouse’s Brigantine [Murrane] and attack the Fort [RAC fort on Bunce or Bence Island]
They took Possession of it, and continued there near seven Weeks, in which Time they all cleaned their Ships. We should have observed, that a Galley came into the Road while they were there, which Davis insisted should be yielded to La Bouse, according to his Word of Honour before given; Cocklyn did not oppose it, so La Bouse went into her, with his Crew, and cutting away her half Deck, mounted her with twenty four Guns.
|Photo from page 56 of the recently-published Sailing East: West-Indian Pirates in Madagascar by Baylus C. Brooks|
|"Artist's impression of Bunce Island c.1727 from the north-west" (circa 1727)|
... ; they contrived it so, as to get up thither by high Water; those in the Fort suspected them to be what they really were, and therefore stood upon their Defence; when the Brigantine came within Musket-Shot, the Fort fired all their Guns upon her, the Brigantine did the like upon the Fort, and so held each other in Play for several Hours, when the two confederate Ships were come up to the Assistance of the Brigantine; those who defended the Fort, seeing such a Number of Hands on Board these Ships, had not the Courage to stand it any longer, but abandoning the Fort, left it to the Mercy of the Pyrates.Slade went into more detail on this point regarding the RAC fort on Bunce or Bence Island in the Sierra Leone River and the many ships taken by these pirates, which compared well with the narrative of William Snelgrave (whose name shows up soon):
After Which they Immediately Weighed Anchor Carrying these Depon:ts Up the River with them to Bence Island, to Assist the Pyrate Brigantine [Murrane] their Consort, Which had Chased Up that River Seven Saile of Trading Ships & Vessels, Vizt: One Briganteen [Robert & Jane] belonging to Antigua Commanded by One Capt:n [John] Bennett, two Ships [Nightengall & Queen Elizabeth] Commanded by two Masters Named Cradons [James & David Creighton], the One belonging to London, the Other to Bristoll, One Snow [Parnall] Commanded by Capt:n [Henry] Morris belonging to Bristoll, One Other Ship [Jacob & Jael] belonging to London Commanded by Capt:n [John] Thompson, One Other Ship [Saint Antoine] belonging to London Commanded by a french Man [Clinet de Vitry], And One Other Ship belonging to London Named the Sarah Gally Commanded by Capt:n [Jonathan] Lamb. That these trading Ships having Run Up the River to Escape the Pyrates, The Pyrates Made after them in the aforesaid Ship [King James] & Briganteen [Murrane], and Coming Up with them the Commanders of these Trading Ships with Most of their People Quitted their Ships & Went on Shoar, And they together with the Company's Agent [Robert Plunkett] fled from the Fort, and Run into the Countrey to Save themselves, that the Pyrates Officers Coming to the ffort & finding but One Man there, they Writt a Letter to the afores:d Merch:ts and Agent to Come Down and take possession of their Ships and ffort, But two of the Master's (Vizt.) Capt. Bennett and Capt. Thompson Refusing to Come Down at the Pyrates Call[.] The Pyrates Sett their Vessells on fire And Burnt them, That the Pyrates after they had fitted their Ships & put the Briganteen's Company On board of the London Ship Called the Sarah Galley & Quitted the Briganteen they went Down the River where they Stayed Sometime, and took three Ships More Viz:t The Bird Gally Capt. [William] Snelgrave Commander[,] a french Ship bound for Widdah & a Company's [RAC's] Ship named the Dispatch Capt. Wilson Commander.The RAC agent Robert Plunkett mentioned above also wrote to his superiors on April 16, 1719 telling them of the destruction of their "Factory at Bense Island" on March 22 or 23, 1719 by "the Pyrates from Gambia [Davis w/LeVasseur]." "That your Ship ye. Dispatch [Capt. Wilson] meet with the same Fate as did the Experimt. last Yeare." Plunkett took this opportunity to damn the European merchants, "so many Rascalls on Shore that Assist [pirates] wth Boats & Canoes to bring their goods on Shore" at the "Privateer Town [aka "Pirate Town" near modern Freetown at the mouth of Sierra Leone River]" as "All who live ashore except Capt. [Henry] Glynn & his Nephew [Robert Glynn?] ought to be tryd for being accessories to the Pyrates, who in 7 weeks had taken & ransacked 12 Ships [all listed in Sailing East: West-Indian Pirates in Madagascar], & no Sooner taken but his boats & Canoes were Sent from Shore on board the Prizes & plund loaden with goods & Liquors &c." Now, who doesn't love discount prices!?? ;)
Note that this detail related on the RAC fort on Bence Island involving Capts. Bennett and Thompson was also commented upon in some detail and related in my new book Sailing East: West-Indian Pirates in Madagascar This detail came from the deposition, letter, and book of Capt. William Snelgrave, master of Bird Galley mentioned above in Slade's deposition. Pages 54-55 paraphrases and concatenates Snelgrave's various sources:
Robert and Jane, Capt. John Bennet, bound from Antigua to the coast of Guinea, was taken February 1719 at Cape Verde Islands by Howell Davis. Davis restored Bennet’s ship which unfortunately for Bennet then came into the Sierra Leone River about early March, where Capt. John Thompson of Jacob and Jael of London had arrived before him. They carried their ships up river to “Brent’s Island” (Bunce Island; the fortified settlement of the Royal African Company) perhaps to see Gov. Robert Plunkett about slaves for their cargo. When [Davis again] approached them sometime in March, flying the “Jolly Roger,” they brought their ships very near the shore, entrenched under the fort’s guns, and having landed ammunition, resolved to defend them against the [two] pirate[s] who they saw coming after them.
LeVasseur in brigantine Murrane joined [Davis] in his March attack on these two vessels at the RAC fort. LeVasseur desperately wanted to be rid of William Moody’s old ship since before he met Davis at Gambia. He had hoped Bennet or Thompson’s vessel might suit him better. Robert Plunkett’s forces at the fort began firing at the pirates to protect the two ships under their walls. The pirates together took the day. Seeing the futility of the fight, Bennet and Thompson fled into the woods (presumably on the mainland) with the aid of Gov. Plunkett. These two captains hid from the pirates there, with only rice and oysters to sustain them.
Out of anger, Levasseur and [Davis] burned both captain’s vessels. They also kidnapped Gov. Plunkett, who would endure the same treatment under Bartholomew Roberts two years later. LeVasseur did not get a new ship that day, but soon found another to his liking, Sarah of London, Capt. Jonathan Lambert, a vessel captured by them shortly afterward. This vessel LeVasseur took and named Duke of Ormond, thereby happily scrapping his distasteful old Murrane. Snelgrave occasionally makes such diversions rich in detail.Mist wrote about "La Bouse's" new vessel, saying "We should have observed, that a Galley came into the Road while they were there [Sierra Leone], which Davis insisted should be yielded to La Bouse, according to his Word of Honour before given; Cocklyn did not oppose it, so La Bouse went into her, with his Crew, and cutting away her half Deck, mounted her with twenty four Guns."
|"A view of the new settlement in the river at Sierra Leone" (London: 1790) from the British Library|
|A modern view of the Sierra Leone River|
|"A View of the Entrance to Sierra-leone River" unknown origin|
The pirates Jeremiah Cocklyn and Olivier LeVasseur left Sierra Leone on the 25th of April. Howell Davis soon followed them to Ouidah, Whydah or Judah on the coast of Benin. They caused great havoc to various French, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English ships in that harbor. Howell Davis soon met his death on Principe Island, using the same dangerous tactics of slight-of-hand and playacting that served him so well at São Filipe and the RAC's Fort James.
The Royal African Company suffered greatly... two forts burned within a month's time of each other! Was Davis making a statement against corporate monopolies on the African Slave Trade - a statement which favored private individual traders? Was Davis an early American Republican voter, favoring free-trade above all else? Was he yet another founding father of the "Commonwealth of Pyrates"? ;)
One thing that becomes clear in this study of documents on Howell Davis and his pirate companions, primary source data is a great deal more reliable, even if Nathaniel Mist elaborated a great deal more. A story isn't a story without the adventurous detail. Still, this is precisely why historians like myself simply cannot rely on "Capt. Charles Johnson" and his "alternate facts" or "fake news." He used sources available to him, but then inexplicably changed detail, like the "Barbery-Liverpool" quandary mentioned earlier. He appears to be bad actor in the annals of pirate history. But, then the king and Lord Sunderland's Whig ministry thought so as well - when writing under his real name: Nathaniel Mist!
This exciting new detail, including information from French and English depositions, appears in a new book, Sailing East: West-Indian Pirates in Madagascar, now available!
Find further details at baylusbrooks.com
Author's Amazon.com page
My thanks to Dr. Jacques Gasser, author of :
Dr. Gasser was instrumental in my acquisition of these French depositions from l'Amiraute de Nantes.