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Thursday, March 30, 2017

American Pirates in the News!

The Boston News-Letter first published in 1704. The first issue of April 24th on page 2 showed mention of an alarm given by a French privateer on the 18th near Boston. As England was then at war with France and Spain, this occurrence did not overly surprise anyone. French and Spanish privateers commonly appeared off English ports as English privateers appeared off Martinique, French St. Domingue (present Haiti), and Spanish ports all around the Caribbean like Porto Bella. "Privateer" was a commonly-occurring word in the news between 1702-1713, during Queen Anne's War or the War of Spanish Succession and during any official conflict. 

Boston News-Letter, 24 Apr 1704 - first issue
Oddly enough, the word "pirate" or its variant "pyrate" did not occur in the Boston News-Letter (BNL) but once in an entire decade and this solitary occurrence referred to a "French pirate" or, most likely, a privateer. A privateer was essentially a legally-commissioned fighter for one particular sovereign nation, usually during a war. They preyed upon shipping and other privateers of other nations. Essentially, a "pirate," or a fighter who worked for themselves, literally had not been used before 1715... in an American newspaper.  

The word "pirate" had been used many times in official English and British records - even in British newspapers. For instance, the Board of Trade referred to "those pirates now in New England" in March 1705 and two "pirates" captured in New England in April 1705, but this did not get mentioned in the BNL those months. In March 1706, the Governor of New England wrote to the Lord Chancellor of the Exchecquer about "prosecuting a notorious pirate and sending over his effects to England." Indeed the Board discussed at length the procedures for trying pirates - not privateers - and even issued circular letters to the colonies about pirates. In November 1710, they also discussed a "pirate" named James Briggs of Bermuda at length, including depositions taken in Bermuda. Again, no mention in BNL. In March 1715, the Marquis of Cassatorres, Spanish governor at Havana, wrote to Thomas Walker of New Providence in the Bahamas his "thanks for his arrest of 8 pirates who have done much damage on that coast and taken several Spaniards." The BNL only mentioned Walker's appointment as customs agent at that time - no hint at all in the newspapers of the troubles with pirates. Also, there were eleven mentions of "marquis," but not the Spanish governor plagued by pirates and only one mention of "Havana."

Weirdly, the term's lack of use in the first decade of the first American newspaper indicates that America may have had a different viewpoint as to what "pirate" actually meant, as opposed to the standard meaning used by the mother country... or they did not care as much as England about pirate depredations in America. If true, why?

In Quest for Blackbeard, I demonstrated that government officials, since the 1690s had argued for reducing piracy, which used to benefit the empire:
On October 13, 1696, Sir Charles Hedges, judge of the Admiralty Court under William III, changed piracy, at least from England’s point-of-view. It was no longer seen, or needed as, the heroic efforts used by “Sea Dogs” to deprive Spain of her wealth. Piracy had become a threat to English commerce. Official objectives became less one of theft and more one of protecting ones products from theft. Thus, the labeling of pirates as “Hostis Humani Generi,” or “enemy of all mankind,” in the modernized Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy of 1698. Hedges revised Admiralty law so that “Now piracy is only a sea term for robbery, piracy being a robbery committed within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty.”
Historian Douglas R. Burgess Jr., however, goes much further and asserts that most English authorities viewed all of America, not just the Bahamas as “pirate nests.” English administrators asked how could such uncivilized persons claim the right to convene courts over themselves? Pirates could not try pirates…
… an English administrator [Edward Randolph] described the colonies as nests of "vice and lawlessness," and an American colonial governor warned his fellow colonists not to fall within the bonds of slavery… an open breach had appeared between Crown and colonies, and some observers predicted incipient rebellion… [the Crown recognized] that its American colonies had developed a system of laws startlingly different, and contradictory, to those communicated by the King, his ministers, and Parliament. More specifically, the colonies had appropriated admiralty jurisdiction—the law of all things related to the sea—and used this prerogative to adopt a definition of piracy that was both eminently suited to their own commercial purposes and anathema to those of the Crown.
If true, then America would be seen as a "Commonwealth of Pirates" and view their heroes quite differently - well... as "heroes!" That is, until even the colonies began to see them as a nuisance. America probably had help changing their mind, too. This view may have been aided by the newspapers and in other British print media aimed at reducing American violence.

Captain Charles Johnson, pseudonym of Jacobite newspaper publisher Nathaniel Mist, wrote in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates that:
I shall not repeat what I have said in the History concerning the Privateers of the West-Indies, where I have taken Notice they live upon Spoil; and as Custom is a second Nature, it is no Wonder that, when an honest Livlyhood is not easily had, they run into one so like their own; so that it may be said, that Privateers in Time of War are a Nursery for Pyrates against a Peace.

It's true that, in wartime, those that would be pirates generally found official wartime employment on a privateer or as a privateer. It was Johnson's belief that out of work privateers devolved into pirates in peacetime. He quoted the loss of income and resources following a peace treaty as the reason for the flood of illegal pirate activity in which Edward "Blackbeard" Thache, Stede Bonnet, Samuel Bellamy, and other notable pirates came to be known generally as "Golden Age" pirates. Also interesting, an ironically Jacobite Johnson's words chastised America, not as a part of a kingdom such as Great Britain, but as a "Commonwealth of Pyrates" where "he who goes the greatest Length of Wickedness, is looked upon with a kind of Envy amongst them, as a Person of a more extraordinary Gallantry." This is, of course, a definite opinion - and perhaps a peculiar pirate-loving anti-government Jacobite one at that. Perhaps reflecting a piratical endearment, the BNL did not mention pirates for two years after the war.

I proposed in Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World (new ebook version available) that the end of the war probably did not primarily influence the buildup of piracy in America. Another event coincided more closely and had a much more "American" reason for the beginning of the "Golden Age"... Treasure! GREED!

On pages 207-213, can be found:
Many factors contributed to make the Golden Age special, but one factor stands out as most significant. Furthermore, it began precisely on July 30, 1715 and, ironically, it was about gold and silver – quite like the 1690s and Puritan New England’s attack upon Muslim shipping and treasure in the Red Sea. “Golden Age of Greed” might be more apt in describing this period and it involved more than just lowly wreckers and pirates from the Bahamas. It also involved a direct political element somewhat tied to Jacobitism, anti-authoritarinism, and independence from a liberalizing Britain. It became America’s first almost revolution!
As Arne Bialuschewski writes in “Between Newfoundland and the Malacca Strait,” Spanish treasure fleets found it nearly impossible to transport their New-World wealth home during the war, from 1702-1713. “Thus, at the close of war, huge amounts of silver piled up in Veracruz, Mexico’s major port,” he tells, and early in 1715, one expedition alone accounted for a massive fortune worth more than £12,000,000.
[This] squadron of Ubilla and Echeverz totalled eleven vessels plus one Frenchman. They transported “merchandise, 14,000,000 pesos in silver, and significant quantities of gold; much-needed bullion for merchants whose trade had been victimized by the war and the long delay since the 1713 Peace of Utrecht, and by a monarchy overwhelmed with war debts.”  Only one of the vessels, the French ship La Grifon, ever reached home.
Four days out of Havana, on July 30, 1715, the fleet met with a hurricane near Cape Canaveral, at latitude of 28 [deg] north. Two ships sank in deep water, one went down in the shoals near shore, another ran ashore (Urca de Lima, now one of Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves), two ships destroyed, and the flagship got off a single boat before taking 225 people, including Juan Esteban de Ubilla, to the reputed Davy Jones’ locker.
One Spanish treasure ship that wrecked on Point Pedro Keys near Jamaica in the 1690s produced enough "pieces of eight" for the Jamaican wrecker crews for more than a year. The 1715 wrecks consisted of eleven heavily-loaded treasure galleons and all of them wrecked in the shallow waters on the Florida coast. The silver was quite easy to reach! The response was enormous! Page 216 of Quest shows:
News of the Spanish wrecks in 1715 spread like wildfire. The news of eleven Spanish wrecks attracted everyone’s attention – this would not remain a local affair or the project of a small group of investors. The Bahamas, Bermuda, Jamaica, indeed the whole Atlantic community learned of these wrecks and planned to fish them for the gold and silver. Even the most upstanding of gentlemen would not be able to avoid the call of the treasure gleaming from the Florida shores!

The most infamous efforts of Jamaican privateers-turned-wreckers occurred by late fall. Captain John Balchen of HMS Diamond testified that in November 1715, two sloops fitted out of Jamaica, under authority of six-month commissions by Hamilton. These commissions, however, did not give privateers the right to steal – only to take other pirates who did. One privateer was under command of Capt. Edward James and another under Capt. Henry Jennings [two wealthy gentlemen merchants - like Edward Thache]. Dr. Samuel Page testified that Jennings and James were commissioned on November 21st and the “tawny Moor” Fernando on December 12th. Balchen stated that they had declared to hunt for pirates, but had instead pilfered the Spanish wrecks and their ships. He told the secretary of the Admiralty that Jennings and James “went to sea and in a shorter time than cou'd be expected, return'd again with a considerable sum of mony.”  This, however, was not prize money from captured pirates. 

Veteran merchants, gentlemen privateers from Jamaica began fitting out vessels under commissions from Gov. Archibald Hamilton ostensibly to “take pirates,” but actually, to fish wrecks and, moreso, to take the gold and silver from the Spanish salvors on the Florida coast – to steal it. This theft quickly devolved into outright piracy – taking Spanish ships – then any ship that carried away the silver, whatever the nationality. Even Virginia’s [anti-pirate] Lt. Gov. Spotswood specifically suggested fishing the wrecks as a way of increasing British income, despite the dubious legalities. Eventually, Bermudans and ships from all over the Atlantic sailed for a piece of “Spanish demise.” The reaction was so intense that Balchen stated “at least 20 sloops fitted out for the wrecks, and if I had stay'd a week longer, I do believe I shou'd not have had men enough to have brought home, I lost ten in two days before I sail'd being all mad to go a wrecking as they term it.” 
Indeed, the 1715 wrecks shone as the most significant profit opportunity in the Americas in several decades, perhaps that century! These wealthy privateers and ship-owners did not lack for food - they were not hungry - and they had family money to fall back upon. The logwood cutter vessels at the Bay of Campeache had even deserted their operations in that modern Mexican location just north of the Yucatan peninsula to fish the Florida wrecks. A stranded skeleton crew was all that remained there in 1716. 

As for the response in the Boston News-Letter, the word "pirate" finally became much more popular and remained part of the usual lingo in the American colonial paper ever since. 

The first mention of these wrecks came from a Boston News-Letter (BNL) report of December 19th in the January 2, 1716 issue (No. 611!), just before the infamous Christmas event of former privateers Henry Jennings, Edward James, and James Wills when they attacked the Spanish salvage camps on the Florida shores, beginning the definitive acts that could be called nothing but piracy! That's 610 issues of no English pirate news in America, a place the British clearly understood as piratical!

Events of December 19th in the January 2, 1716 issue of BNL
Note that attacking the Spanish was hardly viewed as a "bad thing" by American merchants. An element of xenophobia developed as a result of the old Stuart English national goal of stealing everything belonging to Spain in the Americas, which they had held since 1492!

The chart below shows chronological events and mentions of the terms "pirate" and "privateer" in the American newspapers. The faint red line shows the occurrence of the word "privateer" in the BNL between 1710-1726 and the solid blue line represents the word "pirate" and variants. The occurrence of "pirate" usage began directly after Jennings et al made their attack and afterward. A second war with Spain is also shown that effects the usage of "privateer" versus "pirate," especially that "privateer" use fades dramatically after the war while "pirate" increased as dramatically and remained high for the first time! 

Table researched and created by Baylus C. Brooks and copyrighted 2017

The Spanish wrecks popped a cork for American violence! Greedy and already wealthy pirates like those who infested the wrecked 1715 Treasure Fleet were here to stay in the media - even influencing the name of the Spanish treasure ship (Urca de Lima) in the opening episodes of the popular Starz! television series Black Sails! These Spanish-hating brigands never left America, the "Commonwealth of Pyrates," and may still be lurking among the treasure-laden shores of Wall Street and Washington, DC!


"Quest for Blackbeard" is now available in ebook format and can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, and other online booksellers. Look for it on my Lulu site at:
The book is already previewable on Google Books.