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Sunday, October 02, 2016

French Pirate Jean Martel: Deception in "A General History"

Hispaniola and Puerto Rico on the 1729 Keulen Map of the Caribbean

John "James" Martel from A General History

Jean Martel was a French pirate of the early Golden Age of Piracy. He was probably born or closely related to the Martels in Hispaniola (Martels grew sugar there since the 1550s - there is a town near Petit Goâve named “Martel” and the family borrowed money from Spain to invest in sugar cane, making a connection with earlier (1708) Spanish privateer Lewis Martel seem plausible). 
Martel perhaps operated between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico by fall of 1716. He took a boat of Saint Domingue with English pirates near Cape Tiburon (Hispaniola) in late 1717 and had a sister-in-law who lived at Petit Goâve, Saint Domingue, Hispaniola, also late in 1717. At this time, he became an informant about a pirate attack planned for Christmas 1717 on Petit Goâve and asked not to mention his name “because it would risk his life if the English [pirates] learned the secret of his French heritage.” 

I assume that Martel had little to no accent?
Remarkably, Capt, Charles Johnson, actually polemic Jacobite journalist Nathaniel Mist, in 1724 wrote a narrative of Martel in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, 2nd ed. that appears almost entirely misrepresented and partly faked. 

First, he refers to Martel as an Englishman from Jamaica when he is clearly French. This has caused a tremendous amount of trouble for the last 300 years because almost every fan of pirates out there takes A General History as literally as the Bible! 

Just because of the word "history" in the title?

Secondly, his narrative is hard to substantiate with primary sources, with exception of the final two paragraphs which come from a letter of Gov. Walter Hamilton of Antigua, dated 1 Mar 1717. The details are identical to those in the Calendar of State Papers; however, the Calendar's account is generic - no names or identification for the pirates were given by Hamilton in his letter. Martel’s responsibility for these deeds is merely assumed by Johnson-Mist.[1]

Capt. Charles Johnson writes on pages 64-69 of A General History that several vessels had been captured by “John Martel” of Jamaica in mid-late 1716. Few of these references could possibly be true. Some are manufactured and it was not the first time that Johnson-Mist had attempted such bold deception in his unreliable and polemical "history" book.

The vessels that Johnson-Mist attributes to the “Jamaican” John Martel are: Berkley Galley, Capt. Saunders; sloop King Solomon; John and Martha, Capt. Wilson; an unnamed sloop and brigantine; Ship Dolphin, 20 guns, bound for Newfoundland; Kent, Capt. Lawton; a small Ship and a Sloop, belonging to Barbadoes; Greyhound galley of London, Capt. Evans, from Guiney to Jamaica; a ship of 20 guns, a sloop of eight, and three prizes, another ship of 20 Guns, a sloop of four Guns, and another sloop. Furthermore, between September and December, Johnson-Mist shows Martel with a sloop of 8 guns and 80 men. Later, he has a ship of 22 guns and 100 men, plus a sloop of about 25 men. He then amassed quite a flotilla, according to the polemical journalist. Note that the masters’ names only include surnames – no given names – a peculiar change from other parts of his narrative (compare to the section on Blackbeard which includes Christopher Taylor, David Herriot, and Jonathan Bernard in just the first few paragraphs). This could be from his sources, like Royal African Company (RAC) letters that seldom mention given names. Still, he misapplied these sources - real people and events used falsely to imply truth where there wasn't any.
One possibility is that the primary sources from which Johnson-Mist drew this information may be lost to us now. That would please Johnson-Mist devotees to no end! However, that would require a massive amount of loss, an almost impossible documentary calamity. Anyway, as the available records show, there are plenty of extant references available – probably more still buried in the National Archives in London. A bit of research can easily reveal these sources - and the lies.  

I'm sure that Nathaniel Mist never had computers. ;)

The Greyhound galley, Capt. Evans, has been located on Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Their voyage began 30 Aug 1716 and they could have been intercepted by pirates in the Caribbean; but, this is doubtful. The record shows that they began with 273 slaves and delivered 236 to Kingston, Jamaica. Johnson-Mist declares 40 slaves stolen by Martel. Indeed, the database shows a loss of 37. Still, the reality of the slave trade is that, even in the late eighteenth century, 15 percent of slaves died in the Middle Passage. For the Greyhound galley, that translates to 41 slaves, and an estimated 232 delivered to Kingston even when no pirates were involved. To assume that all of the slaves would have survived and that pirates were the only reason for the loss is unsupportable. One reason for the appearance of this voyage of the Greyhound in A General History is the story first appeared in Nathaniel Mist’s own Weekly Journal newspaper on 25 Jul 1717.[2]

Gregory O’Malley writes in Final Passages that Capt. Hume in HMS Scarborough captured a pirate named Kennedy; he, with others, allegedly took the Greyhound galley of London and stole 40 slaves (again, a supposed loss by pirates and not disease). Martel could have been a partner of Kennedy. Still, O’Malley’s reference is puzzling, for the only citation he gives is for A General History, a book that only declares Martel as responsible for this deed. Moreover, the only Kennedy that Johnson-Mist refers to is a later pirate and contemporary of Bartholomew Roberts named Walter Kennedy, “executed the 19th of July, 1721, at Execution Dock.”

No ship named Kent can be found operating during this period, in the slave trade database or the Calender of State Papers, the National Archives in London, nor Naval Office Shipping Records. The same search applied to Berkley Galley results in the discovery that Capt. Edmund Saunders and mate Nathaniel Tucker completed their slave trading voyage to Jamaica between June 1716 and 22 Dec 1716 without incident. Again, they lost 54 slaves of 367 to the usual disease, or 14.7 percent. Johnson-Mist may have had some familiarity with RAC reports, but still, again: no pirates in this one.

King Solomon, Capt. Edward Coward sailed an expensive and exceptionally horrid slave voyage, arriving 26 July 1716 at Jamaica with only 288 of the original 450, a mortality rate of 36 percent. Thirty-one percent of the complement were also children. This vessel may indeed, have been caught by pirates after delivery, in the months of September or October. There is no other reference to the incident, however.  

John and Martha, Capt. Wilson, appears only in the Boston News-Letter (but apparently “was cast away upon Cuba” in Oct 1716 near where Capt. [Henry?] Jennings took Capt. Stone of Hamilton galley and held him for four days drinking his rum – Wilson’s crew were returned to New York 29 Oct 1716 by Capt. Stone in Hamilton galley – three of Wilson’s men joined Jennings; BNL 5 Nov 1716), which indicates that he was taken by pirates, but this pirate was Henry Jennings and not Martel. 

Ship Dolphin, Capt. Hall was destroyed by a natural disaster that claimed all lives. No pirates were involved. And, it, too appeared in Mist’s newspaper on 17 Dec 1716. Mist may have been a sensationalist – a tabloid-type yellow journalist who relied on Royal African Company workers' dock rumors for his publications.

Furthermore, in A General History, Johnson-Mist regarded “John” Martel as an Englishman - a Jamaican - while two primary sources clearly identify him as a Frenchman: an American newspaper article (see below), to which he has proved time and again abundant access, and a letter titled “Activity of pirates at Saint Domingue,” 21 Jan 1717 [AN Marine B1 29f], today in the Centre des archives d’autre mers in Aix en Provence, France. These records declare Martel operating in November with 135 men (no mention of the number of vessels he had). Also, Anglican Church records show that no Martels were either born, married, or buried on Jamaica until 1789.

Still, Johnson-Mist was haphazard in his use of the records he had – even manipulative at times. Most likely, Johnson-Mist manufactured this data, as he had for Stede Bonnet from Samuel Bellamy’s work off Virginia in April 1717. He might then have appended the information from Gov. Hamilton about Capt. Hume and HMS Scarborough.

Even the “Port of Cavena” mentioned by Johnson-Mist in his Martel narrative as being on Cuba is not a real place. It appears to evolve from “Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás,” a system of caves in the Vinales Valley – it is not, nor has it ever been, a port. A General History is full of lies and should never be used for telling actual history!

Boston News-Letter, Monday November 12, 1716, 2:

Rhode Island, Novemb. 8.  Arrived here Thomas Pemberton from Antigua, Daniel Waire from Connecticut both for Boston, Ford & Whitfield from Boston the first for New York, Col. John Cranston from New London, gives an account that in his Passage from Philadelphia to Jamaica in August last off Portorico, he met about the 21st of September with one Capt. John Martell a French Pyrate of 135 Men, being most of them French, who took his Ship and Cargo, made him and his Company Prisoners, but afterwards was so civil as to make an Exchange in giving him his Pyrate Sloop, and otherwise was very kind to him & his Men. He also gave him a New London Sloop to come home in, one Butels Master, and at his Arrival he return'd her again to the right Owners.

Perhaps Nathaniel Mist didn't get his Boston newspaper in the mail that day... maybe it was taken by pirates on its way across the ocean. Also, I guess Martel DID have an accent after all! ;)

[1] Baylus C. Brooks, Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World (Lake City: Baylus C. Brooks, 2016), 370; Noël Deerr, History of Sugar, Vol. 1 (Chapman and Hall, 1949), 124-125.
[2] Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1 (Oxford University Press, 2006), 125; National Archives (London), HUTCHINSON v FOXCROFT: Ledger of copies of letters from the Royal African company to its outposts in Succondee, Commenda and Dixcove, West Africa, 1716, C 113/261; Gregory E. O'Malley, Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 100. 

It is previewable on Google Books.

Cindy Vallar on "Quest for Blackbeard" by Baylus C. Brooks:
"While revising our understanding of pirates is one of Brooks’ goals in writing Quest for Blackbeard, he states two others. One pertains to corrupt private colonies and the need for “central government control for any progress to commence once . . . Britain dominated in America.” The second pinpoints an epicenter for the dawning of the Golden Age of Piracy: the July 1715 hurricane that resulted in the catastrophic wreck of eleven of Spain’s treasure ships. The information he puts forth in this narrative masterfully supports these goals."