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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Pardoning Pirates: HMS Phoenix to the Bahamas, February-April 1718

In late 1717, America's first newspaper, Boston News-Letter, printed quite a few articles about the pirates of the Bahamas, particularly Edward Thache, or "Teach," known as "Blackbeard," and the "Flying Gang" of Benjamin Hornigold. Pirates were becoming more active. Thache, a Royal Navy veteran who may have sought to begin a revolution against British authority, would capture La Concorde of Nantes, France that November, making her his flagship as Queen Anne's Revenge. These articles represented the worried feeling of colonial factors and other important merchants, connected financially to London and Bristol.

Boston News-Letter 1717-08-12

Boston News-Letter 1717-10-14
Furthermore, Col. Samuel Shute, Governor of Massachusets Bay, presided over the trial of eight persons for piracy. These were the human remnants of Samuel Bellamy's Whydah, wrecked on New England's shores in April 1717. America was still young and growing. At this same time, Governor Shute negotiated to resettle a large number of Scotch emigrants from the north of Ireland, resulting in several ships with migrants arriving in August 1718. They eventually settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Londonderry, after the location in Ulster, Ireland, named for the ancestors of current Bahamas investor Thomas Pitt, Esq., who, in 1719, was created Baron Londonderry, and, in 1726, Earl of Londonderry. This was the beginning of a major wave of Scotch-Irish migration to both New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Britain and her merchants saw the threat to British commerce and, thus successful settlement,  growing. London and Bristol merchants feared for their profit in the colonies and a group of them petitioned the king for help. Largely because of the complaints of these merchants, the Admiralty had, by that summer, sent numerous vessels to America, primarily to Jamaican waters, to guard trade. On 30 May 1717, Admiralty Secretary Josiah Burchett wrote to the various colonies a general circular, like this one to Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia:
My Lords Commrs. of the Admty. being informed that Pyrates do very much infest the Coasts of Virginia; b[u]t more especially about the Capes, and his Majesty's Ship under your Command being sent to those parts principaly to protect the Trade of his Majties.
By fall of 1717, British authorities sought to arrest piracy's development in America once and for all. Appeasement was chosen as the preferred method - no sense in agitating these one-time and important merchants who had "temporarily" strayed into illegality.

On 5th of September, 1717, after a month of deliberations, a pardon, or Act of Grace was offered to these men if they would only cease their illegal transactions. Two weeks later, several "commissions for trying pirates in His Majesty's plantations" were also issued. It was also proposed by some of these merchants to found a new government at the Bahamas, under direction of Woodes Rogers, a former privateer himself. This had been well under discussion by Thomas Pitt, Earl of Londonderry, Capt. Woodes Rogers, "Adam Codonell, Charles Dominique, Wm. Chetwynd , Esq., Samuel Buck, and James Gohier merchants." They hoped for a profitable venture.

Capt. Vincent Pearse, commander (1715 - 1721) of HMS Phoenix, a 24-gun sixth-rate man-of-war, was entrusted to deliver the word of the Act of Grace before arrival of Rogers and his new government. Stationed in New York, he would sail to New Providence Island in the Bahamas and take the surrenders of any pirates willing to accept the king's pardon. He issued certificates to verify their surrender in case they were questioned about any merchandise they attempted to deliver to other ports. In other words, they could keep what they had already stolen. He would also arrest those who committed piracy again and ignored the pardon.

It sounded good... in theory. This analysis makes use of HMS Phoenix log entries and Capt. Vincent Pearse's letters to the Admiralty to arrive at the most accurate view of the surrender of Bahamian pirates, according to the viewpoint of the admittedly biased Royal Navy captain first on the scene. Like stopping the later revolutionaries of America in 1776, Britain's attempt to pardon pirates of Benjamin Hornigold's Bahamian "Flying Gang" would never be as simple as the Admiralty believed!

Winter of 1717-1718 was rather mild in the colony of "New Amsterdam" or New York. Turtle Bay, on the eastern side of Manhattan Island, had usually frozen over by January, but not this winter. HMS Phoenix rested at anchor in this bay on January 21st in "Moderate and fair weather." Occasional gales and squally weather moved in the next two weeks, as the ship watered and replaced her bad guns.

Reconstructie uit 1942 van de kaart van Nieuw Amsterdam in 1662, gebaseerd op plattegronden uit de jaren 1653-1664.[16] Ambrosius de Warm en Adriaentje Thomas woonden in 1665 op de Heere Graft (nu Broad Street) naast Tunis Cray, in 1669 in de Smee Straat (Smith Street, nu William Street), en in 1674 en 1686 in Princen Straat (nu Beaver Street).

At 10 in the morning on February 3, Phoenix unmoored from Turtle Bay, just north of the fortified "wall" of "[New] York" and moved southward in the East River toward the old town of "New Amsterdam," or New York, English since 1665, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, anchoring in sight of "Passage House" and the "English Church," probably today's First Presbyterian Church, known as "Old First," established 1716 and still under construction in January 1718. Here, they took on new sails and a boat. Fort George would have been a rather imposing feature in the old Dutch town. The picture below shows spires from the various churches in 1730.

A View of Fort George with the City of New York. It was originally "Fort Amsterdam" under the Dutch, but renamed as Fort William Henry in 1691, Fort Anne or Queen's Fort in 1703, and finally Fort George in 1714. Engraving by I. Carwithan, c. 1730. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress (48) -
Postcard depicting “Fort Amsterdam ‘Now the Battery’ in Kieft’s [1670s] Days” (c1910).

At 2 pm on February 6, 1718, HMS Phoenix weighed again and set sail "bound to providence with his Maj:ts most Gracious Proclimation for Suppressing the Pyrates." Three hours later, Capt. Pearse guided his ship through the "Narrows," anchoring for the evening. Again, he weighed at 10 AM, sailed "out of the [Sandy] hook," 6 miles from "Never Sunk," probably Navesink River, an estuary, approximately 8 mi (12 km) long in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

To arrive at any destination southward in America, Pearse found it necessary to set his course southeastward, then to tack into the trade winds to New Providence. Five days at sea, after over 250 miles, they encountered a Bristol ship heading for Virginia. After 325 miles, Phoenix then set her course more southwestward, to arrive on the east side of the Bahamas. The Royal Navy vessel made variously, according to wind and course changes, between 46 and 180 miles a day. In 15 days and after over 900 miles, Phoenix entered the Bahamas on February 21st, anchoring first just off Harbour Island. "bearing SSW 3 Leagues stood off & on till noon making of Signalls for a Boat but none appear'd."

An exact draught of the island of New Providence one of the Bahama Islands in the West Indies (17__?), Library of Congress.

Benjamin Hornigold resided on Harbour Island, but traded often at Nassau, on the main island of New Providence. This is probably where he could then be found, awaiting Phoenix's arrival, for certainly, the many merchants found in "Providence Harbour" when Pearse arrived probably included some from New England who knew of the plans for HMS Phoenix to sail there with the king's Act of Grace. At least some of the pirates were eager for the pardon - some were obviously not.

Upon arriving off Providence Harbour the next morning, February 22nd, at 7 AM, in wind and rain, HMS Phoenix was "Saluted by two of the pyrates Ships," Pearse found "severall Ships & Sloops with Colours of all Nations Flying." She anchored and Pearse then "sent [his] Lieutenant a Shoar with a Flagg of Truce & his Majesties Royall proclamation of the Act of Grace." 
[Description of harbor in letter of 3 June:] The harb'r of Providence has two Entrances one to the Eastwd the other to the Wt Wd a Barr about 8 foot water into a thwart the Middle of the harb'r the Wt Wd part where I ?nd was 20 feet at Spring tides at Low Water.
Of the vessels in the harbor found by Pearse were "5 ships[,] 3 of them from 18: to 36 guns [-] also 9 Sloops which were Traders with these Pyrates but pretended they never did itt till the Act of Grace was Published[:] one of the Dutch man of 36 guns & another of 26: one an English Pink one a Bristoll Gally [Mary] & the other a French Ship of no Force."

The next morning, Pearse's lieutenant returned and informed his captain "that he was receiv'd by a great number of Pyrate[s] with much Civility to whom he read Publick the proclamation and they accepted the same with a great deall of Joy[.]  [A]ll their Commanders did the like." In all, he later wrote there were "about 500 all Subjects of Great Britain & young Resolute Wicked fellows." But, then, by this time, he was quite annoyed with Hornigold's Bahamian pirates of the "Flying Gang."

Pearse, in a letter to the Admiralty, wrote that "four of their Commanders [Benjamin Hornigold, Francis Leslie, Josiah Burgess, and Thomas Nichols] & one hundred & fourteen of their Companys had then Voluntarily Surrenderd themselves to me & accepted of his Maties most Gracious Pardon." He also noted his personal impression of these men, that these Bahamians were a "parcele of unthinking people." These "unthinking" people also alerted Pearse's lieutenant that "a Sloop call'd the Lark was att anchor att Bushes Key with a design to goe out upon the Account again." The pirates, including Benjamin Hornigold and other captains, happily surrendered, but also expressed that they had become divided on the issue of accepting the pardon.

Pearse wrote on the 24th of February that "I had fired severall Shott att [Lark] she bore down to me so I sent my Lieutenant on board and took Possession of her[.] [S]he had but 16 Men wch: pretended she [was] going into the Harbour to Surrender themselves to me and to Accept of his Maj:ties Pardon in the Evening." Pearse noted that "Some of thes[e] Commanders and Ringleaders came on board and Informed me that my taking the Sloop had very much alarm[ed] all the Pyrates in Generall[,] beleiving that the Men [taken] in her would be Executed[.] [T]herefore the Said Commanders Assured me that my Setting att Liberty these Prisoners would be a very great means to induce these People to Surrender and Accept the act of Grace; which I accordingly did and this Confirm'd them all of his Majesties goodness towards them." It's quite possible that, when the captain of this sloop Lark, certainly Charles Vane, was first captured by Capt. Pearse and surrendered aboard HMS Phoenix, he may have felt that he had no option but to pretend to take the pardon. Charles Vane, however, cared little for "his Majesties goodness," reneged on the Act of Grace almost immediately, and was determined to remain defiant!

For the next three days, other pirates would periodically come aboard HMS Phoenix to surrender to Capt. Pearse and receive their certificates. Within the course of the next month, as Pearse wrote on 3rd of June 1718, "Since that time Ninety more of them have done the like." He sent a list from his home port of New York with that letter of 209 names of pirates to whom he had given pardons.

On the 28th of February, another sloop from Carolina came into the harbor. That night, "hard gales and Squally" weather loosed their anchor and briefly drove them aground. Working late into the evening, his crew was able to get the ship free by midnight.

On the first day of March, the morning began with some of the pirates setting a sloop on fire. Little came of this however. Pearse only mentioned that he fired 15 shots as a salute to the Prince of Wales, or future George II, on his birthday. The day after, Phoenix again ran aground in the harbor's shoal waters. In two hours, they were off again.

Pearce wrote a letter to the Admiralty to inform them of his progress. In that letter, he advised the secretary on three pirates who were still out at that time: 
If I had not come in as I did the Greatest part of these people I'm inform'd would have been gone out by this time, one Sloop call'd the Dragon [Capt. Edward Congdon] being gone out with Ninty Eight Men about eighteen Days before my arrival, which Sloop (With one commanded by Capt. Teech [Edward Thache] who has been out about 8 months [since July 1717]) are gone on the Coast of Guinea & from thence to Brasile there is an other Sloop out[,] Commanded by Capt. Napping which they expect in Dayly, and these are all the English Pirates that has bee[n] Concerted as far as I can Informe my Self from them.
No doubt, he intended to eventually seek them out as well, but events would not go quite as planned. On the 5th, three sloops with former pirates aboard made their way out of the harbor. Pearse noted in a letter that the pardoned pirates dispersed in large numbers "from this Island, & they already drop off as they can Meet with Opportunity of passage." The next day, his gunner, John Nichols passed away, who was saluted with 8 guns at his burial.

More pirates came aboard on the 11th to take pardon and, on the 14th, four more ships departed with former pirates onboard. They were each bound for Carolina, Bermuda, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Three days later, two more South Carolina sloops arrived.

Just four days shy of a month in Providence Harbour, on the 18th of March, the pirates still on Providence had probably grown bored - or perhaps the lack of income from pirating finally became reality. A few of the pirates at New Providence Island were less than repentant. Pearce noted that one vessel with 16 crewmen had sailed west, intending to go on the account once again. The next day, another vessel with 24 men followed them, intending to join them. Still, the 21st of March, when a sloop from Jamaica entered the harbor from the east, pirates, in sight of HMS Phoenix, brazenly took it. The pirates probably remained behind, or east of, Potter's Key, protected by the shallow waters between the key and shore. They were effectively out of range from the warship.

Capt. Pearse, in good conscience, could not allow honest merchants to sail out of the harbor, knowing that these Bahamian men, probably most of whom had taken pardons already, had returned to piracy. He knew that there were at least two pirate ships to their west. The next day,  the 22nd:
... att 1 this morning sent my Pinnace Man'd & Arm'd to Surprize the Pyrates on board the above mentioned Sloop; but they being too Strong she was Oblidged after Exchanging severall small Shott to return'd on board[.] I Summon'd the Inhabitants to Assist me in Surprizing these pirates but by their Actions; they Seem'd more inclinable to Assist [them, rather than] to Reduce them.
[Letter of 3 June:] Whilst the said Pirate Sloop was at Providence I Several times Summoned the Inhabitants together in His Maties name & us'd all the Arguments possible to prevail with them to assist me in Suppressing the said Pirate, but they always Rejected all Methods Impos'd, entertain'd and assisted them with provisions & necessarys & on all Occassions shew'd no small hatred to Government, which if an other Ship of Warr had been with me I should have been able to have prevented as also the rest from going out againe.
So, when four sloops intended to depart with their goods, Pearse went with them that evening (22nd March, not the 24th) to at least make sure that they got clear of Bahamian waters. Apparently, his memory failed him slightly, as he later wrote in his letter of 3 June (log entries colored red to distinguish):
There was then in they harbour three [log states four] Sloops ready to Sail for Carolina & Road Island, the Masters of which was under Apprehension that in case they should goe out by themselves they must inevitably fall into the hands of the said Pirates, therefore I sail'd for their protection on the 23 March and after I had Seen them safe off the Coast, I Return'd [log, 24th March: Saw the Pirates sloop among the Island with a Red Flagg att her Mast Head] & Cruiz'd off the harbour and the Boobie Rock till the 30 [March] to Secure any trade that Should be bound in. During which time I prevented two Sloops from being taken by them. But I being then Short of Water I put into Providence the day following the said Pirate Sloop who had been out since the 24 Inst March came to an anch'r at the Eastermost part of the harbour with an other called the Lark which they had taken three Days before off Harbour Island on board of which they had Removed themselves [According to his log entry of the 23rd of February, the first pirates to surrender told him about "a Sloop call'd the Lark was att anchor att Bushes Key with a design to goe out upon the Account again" - the provenance of Lark appears confused in this letter], She being a good Sailor & Equipt with 2 Guns and 8 Patraroes, there was a Barr between me & them on which was no more than eight foot water which made them very Insolent.
According to Pearse's log, on the 27th, a Jamaican sloop came into harbor and kept the warship company for protection. The next morning, Phoenix and the Jamaican sloop "Streched off the Harbour mouth of Providence," probably to reconnoiter the pirates' locations. When they returned the next day, they found that "the Pirates Burnt the biggest of the Dutch Ships and the Bristoll Gally and the other Dutch Ship of 26 guns they sett adrift ashore on Hogg Island where she now has Bilg'd." In the resulting confusion, the Jamaican sloop in his company had been taken by pirates and had joined the pirate sloop Lark at the eastern end of the harbor, where the shallow waters protected them from the heavier warship. Pearse wrote "The said Pirate Sloop was Commanded by one Cha Veine & Man'd with 45 Men, three [Robert Hudson, John Warren, and Thomas Kingston] of which was of my own Ships Company that deserted me & took on with them."

On the 1st of April, the pirates went on the offensive. Pearse wrote "last Evening a boat came from the Pirates with several hands on board her[.]  I fired Severall guns with round Shott & pa[r]tridge att her to Command her a board[.] Notwithstanding which she push'd a Shore." Things had really gotten out of hand. Two sloops who had run aground on rocks at Harbour Island came in from the east (the direction of Harbour Island), approaching the two pirate sloops there. Pearse "Loos'd [his] Topgt. sailes and hoisted them with the Sheets flying and fired severall guns as signals to them to attack the Pirates." Still, "they proving to be trading sloops," were captured by the pirates, who now possessed three prize vessels.

The morning of the 4th, Pearse found that Vane's Lark abandoned her three prizes and absconded in the the cover of night to the east, the only direction where they would not be seen by Phoenix. The day after, the carpenter John Dye, attempting to heal some pitch, nearly burned the forecastle and possibly the ship. Pearse "Confin'd the Carpenter[,] for neither him self nor any of the Crew attended the pitch when on the Fire[.] [N]either had any direction from my Self or any of his Superior Officers to make use of any att this time."

Then, on the 9th of April, at 10 AM, HMS Phoenix weighed anchor and attempted to leave Providence Harbour, but unfortunately ran aground again on the shoals at the western end of Hogg Island. Pearse designed for the east side of Abaco Island, then for Virginia in company of five sloops. After clearing New Providence waters, four of the sloops veered off for their destinations, leaving the warship and a lone sloop. That night, he encountered a sloop from Bermuda, making for New Providence and the next morning, turned southward to avoid Abaco Island, making his course southeastward, coursing around the large island. That night, he spotted a sail and gave chase, arriving 22 miles off the northeast side of Abaco Island. As he later wrote, "I mett a Ship called the John & Elizabeth which was taken by the Pirates from the French in Octr last, and now Loaded with hides Piratically taken from the Dutch [by Benjamin Hornigold] Since the 5 January, and In possession of some people who had been pirates."

Pearse "Seiz'd her for his Majestie[,] took most of the Men out & Mann'd her out of his Maj:ts ship under [his] Command and then made Sail having given directions to [his] Gunner who [he] put in Commander of her to keep [him] Company and to Observe [his] Signalls according to the Instructions [Pearse] gave him." He carried John & Elizabeth with him to New York, as Pearse wrote "am proceeding against her according to Law Shall give their Lordships a particulr accot of what is done with her my Next." It was not until 4 Mar 1722 that the Privy Council even looked into the "petition of Capt. Vincent Pearse of H.M.S. Phoenix for the division among the officers and crew of the Phoenix of the proceeds of the pirate ship John and Elizabeth and its cargo of hides, seized by him in April, 1718, and condemned in New York."

Clearly, Capt. Vincent Pearse of HMS Phoenix accounted his mission somewhat of a failure. The pirates had initially surrendered, but New Providence Island had returned to a lawless state in less than a month. Resigned, he wrote 3 June, "there is not yet any Fortifications at either Entrance to defend the [s]ame & Believe the Governm't will find it Difficult to drive those people from thence & the other Islands without the assistance of a Small Man of Warr or two, & those very well Man'd there being many Small harbours & Keys where they can Ride in safety & Supply themselves with Water, and Just in the Way to intercept all Trade."


Jillian said...

W O W! The Phoenix log is an incredible resource. Thanks for posting!!

Baylus C. Brooks said...

Hi Jillian, I just posted the whole log from 22 Feb-11 Apr 1718 on my website:

Jillian said...

It's awesome! Thanks!