Monday, October 21, 2013

A Pirate's Manifesto

Sam Bellamy, who referred to the core crew of his pirate ship as “Robin Hood’s men,” and was dreaming of starting a pirate revolution, had just taken on 130 additional crew, pirates who had been left behind when their ship was destroyed by the HMS Scarborough. Well supplied with crew, and in control of two ships, the Sultana and the Marianne, Bellamy needed time to organize and hide out form the January storms. He decided on a bold move.

He was near the British Virgin Islands, and decided to attack their capital, Spanish Town. Though the home of the governor, the island had only 325 inhabitants, most of them children who had been born there. When Bellamy, with two pirate ships, and 210 pirates arrived, the authorities had no choice but to surrender.

Bellamy and his crew treated the city as if were a captured ship, going where they pleased and taking what they wanted. There wasn’t much. The pirates enjoyed fresh food, and Bellamy received gifts of money from the less reputable colonists (a fact which outraged the governor.) When the pirates sailed away two weeks later, several servants and bond slaves went with them.

Bellamy headed for the Windward Passage in the northeast Caribbean, where he hoped to ambush a larger more powerful vessel to serve as his flagship. The one he found was the Whydah.

Built only a year before, and intended for the slave trade, the Whydah was a huge ship, 300 tons, heavily armed and built for speed. Nonetheless, the captain ordered his ship to flee. The pirates gave chase. Three days and 300 miles later, they caught up.

As with his first pirating venture, Bellamy was facing a larger ship that was prepared to fight. Once again, he decided to use terror before force. He instructed all of his crew to dress as wildly as possible. The pirates donned stolen coats and wigs, jeweled cuff links, expensive hats and fine linen shirts, then lined up along the ship’s rails. On these hardened, weather beaten men, the fine clothes cold only be seen as what they were – the spoils of war. The pirates screamed out their war cries and brandished pistols, cutlasses, and primitive hand grenades. Even more frightening were the 30 former African slaves, armed and assimilated into Bellamy’s crew.

The Whydah, an 18-gun ship much larger than either of Bellamy’s vessels, surrendered without a fight.

The pirates boarded their prize to find her under the command of Lawrence Prince, a man whom Bellamy may have known personally. Prince was relieved to find the pirates in an excellent mood, and feeling generous. They planned to take his ship, but agreed to leave him the Sultana, some supplies, and £20 cash in exchange. Prince also asked for and received all the cargo the pirates found too bulky or troublesome to transport to their new ship.

The exchange took several days, and during it, the pirate bragged that they had £30,000 in gold. The merchant sailors were amazed to see that the plunder was not secured in any way. The pirates simply left bags of cash in an open room, trusting each other to ask the quartermaster to get them whatever funds they needed and keep account of the shares.

The Whydah was not carrying slaves. Bellamy, who had been kidnapping skilled carpenters from the ships he plundered, added ten cannons to the ship’s armament, stripping the Sultana of her guns. He then cut the raised platforms from the front and rear of the ship. Like a young man souping up a hot-rod, Bellamy cut away the parts of his new ship he didn’t need, making her lighter and more streamlined. As a slaver, the Whydah had needed secure, raised areas from which armed men could police the living cargo. Bellamy wanted a vessel where no man stood above another.

He also moved the ship’s bell forward. Though not immediately apparent to modern readers, this was a radical move. Ships carried their bells near the wheel, the steering apparatus, which was located on a raised quarterdeck.  This was officer’s territory, and the bell gave the men their orders, marking time for beginning and ending work shifts, meals and special assemblies. When Bellamy changed the location of the bell, he changed the location of the ship’s heart, from the stern, where the officers worked, to the bow, where common sailors worked and played.

When the Sultana sailed away, the pirates held an assembly to decide what to do with their new ship. It was decided to sail north. The ship’s quartermaster, Paulsgrave Williams, had family in Rhode Island. He wanted to visit them, give them his share of the plunder, and possibly persuade them to act as fences for stolen items. Sam wanted to go back to Mary Hallett in Boston. They intended to rob ships along the way. 

Williams was now in charge of the Marianne. It was now March of 1717, and a profitable pirating season seemed assured. They agreed that, if they were separated, they would meet on Damariscove Island in Maine.

The pirates took their first ship almost immediately, and added a French crew member who wanted to be a pirate. Their next prize was captained by a man named Beer. The pirates plundered his small sloop in under two hours, while Beer was held captive on the largest pirate ship he had ever seen. Despite Bellamy’s wishes, the pirate crew voted to burn the little ship. Beer later recorded Bellamy’s words.

“Damn my blood, I am sorry they won’t let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do anyone a mischief when it is not to my advantage. Damn the sloop, we must sink her and she might have been use to you.”

Then, referring to Beer’s refusal to join the pirates, Bellamy went on. “Damn ye, ye are a sneaking puppy, and so are all who admit to be governed by laws rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery. But damn ye altogether! Damn them as a pack of crafty rascals. And you (captains and sailors) who serve them, a passel of hen-hearted numbskulls! They vilify us, the scoundrels do, where there is only this difference: they rob the poor under the cover of law, while we plunder the rich under the cover of our own courage.”

Bellamy turned his gaze back to Beers and added, “Would you not better make one of us than to go sneaking after the asses of those villains for employment?”

It took a long time for Beers to answer. He replied that he “could not find it in himself to break the laws of God and man.”

Bellamy seemed disgusted. “You are a conscientious rascal, damn ye,” he said. “I am a free Prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred ships at sea and 100,000 men in the field. And this my conscience tells me…” He broke off. “There is no arguing with sniveling puppies who allow superiors to kick them about the deck at pleasure and who pin their faith upon a parson, a squab who neither practices nor believes what he tells the chuckle-headed fools he preaches to.”

Bellamy had stated his manifesto, a declaration of war against the world, its authority figures, and the ministers who claimed to represent God. And it had been written down, one of the few times a pirate’s words were recorded at the height of his power.

Next week… Storm on the horizon.

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