Monday, May 27, 2013

The Littlest Pirate

Being the Story of the Youngest Pirate in the Caribbean

This is the story of the youngest pirate ever historically verified.  It’s not the story of someone born into the pirating business. Grace O’Malley, the Irish pirate queen, gave birth on her own flagship in the middle of a naval battle, but I don’t think that counts. It’s not the tale of a boy who set up a boat and tried to run away from home. It’s the story of a real boy, from a real time, sketched from a bare set of facts set out by trial depositions and archaeological discoveries.

On November 9, 1716, John King, nine years old, and his mother, whose name is not recorded, were passengers on the sloopBonetta, captained by Abijah Savage. The Bonetta was en route to Jamaica when they were attacked by the notorious pirate Black Sam Bellamy. Bellamy and his crew fired a warning shot, persuaded Savage to surrender without a fight, and tied their own sloop, the Mary alongside. They then proceed to plunder the Bonetta for fifteen days.

Exactly what went on during that time, we will never know. Bellamy’s crew did not have a reputation for torture or rape, but Sam himself was politically motivated, and spent some time haranguing the Bonetta’s sailors and captain. Sam’s position was that honest men could not earn an honest wage under the then-current system, and he advised Savage and his crew to become pirates so they could have some money and be free of the class system that viewed them as barely human.

Captain Savage maintained that piracy was against the laws of God and men, and refused to even think of such a thing. But at least one of Bellamy’s speeches was recalled by Savage during a later deposition, one of the few occasions we have a pirate’s own words about his profession.
We don’t know what inspired John King, but at the eleven-day point, he approached Bellamy and asked to join the pirate crew. It should be noted that the King family was solidly upper-class. John had no particular reason to sympathize with the pirates, other than Bellamy’s rhetoric.

None of the pirates took the child seriously, but he did not back down. He wanted to join Bellamy’s crew and become a pirate, and he kept asking. Over the next few days, the pirates began to change their minds.

Mrs. King did not take kindly to this radical idea. First she tried to restrain her son, and then asked Captain Savage to speak to him. John held out. He wanted to be a pirate. When his mother refused to think of such a thing, John threatened to throw himself into the ocean. Then he physically attacked her.

The pirates, possibly amused, possibly emotionally moved by this well-to-do child’s efforts to join them, began to side with the boy. In the passion of a mother-son argument, Mrs. King blurted out, “All right, be a pirate!”

John King signed the ship’s articles and officially joined Bellamy’s crew.

Bellamy sailed away, and the Bonetta continued her trip to Jamaica, where Captain Savage gave a deposition against the pirates. Giving details about John King’s defection, he was quite clear. The child was not forced, not kidnapped. He had wanted to join Bellamy’s crew, and he had.

But why did an upper-class boy want so badly to become a pirate? A few hints linger. When John threatened to throw himself into the sea, he specifically mentioned suicide. His willingness to physically attack his mother also indicates that something was wrong in the King family. Why was Mrs. King traveling alone? Why was she willing, at any point, to hand her child over to pirates? A single line in Savage’s deposition offers one more tantalizing hint. The boy’s father “didn’t like him.”

Why? Had John King been born as a result of some affair of his mother’s? Did John have some mental or learning disability that prevented him from fitting in with his family? Was his father abusive? Such things weren’t written down for 18th century court record. Captain Savage’s point was that John King willingly became a pirate, and was therefore liable for hanging if he was caught, no matter what his age.

The pirates left no written records about their young recruit.

Fate, however, took this young pirate in hand. On April 26th, 1717, Sam Bellamy and his new ship, the Whydah Galley, went down with nearly all hands in an unseasonable storm off the coast of Maine. Only two of the crew survived. John King was lost forever. His life as a pirate had only lasted three months.

Nearly 300 years later a man named Barry Clifford set out to find the Sam Bellamy’s sunken treasure ship. Clifford’s underwater excavations first found the ship’s bell, with the name “Whydah” molded into it – proof that the wreck under examination was in fact the lost pirate ship.

It was here that divers found the last remains of John King – a leg bone from a nine-year-old boy, clad in a silk stocking and wearing an expensive French shoe. John King had been trapped under a cannon when the ship went down. Today, his remains are part of the Whydah Pirate Museum in Provincetown MA.

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