It was 1716, and Sam Bellamy had just committed himself to a career as a pirate.
Having assisted in robbing a French merchant, and escaped from fellow pirate Henry Jennings with the bulk of the treasure, Bellamy looked up Jennings’ nemesis, Benjamin Hornigold, who had just captured the French ship’s consort, the Marianne.
Bellamy may have left Jennings’ company because Jennings had engaged in torturing the French merchant’s crew. Hornigold had captured the Marianne without a fight and treated her crew civilly. This dovetailed with Bellamy’s own goals. Increasingly, Sam saw himself as a freedom fighter, battling for the rights of common sailors in conflict with merchant captains, ship owners, even kings.
In spite of his youth and inexperience with pirating, Bellamy was impressive enough that Hornigold made him captain of the newly captured Marianne, promoting him over more experienced pirates, including a young man named Edward Teach, who would later be known as Blackbeard.
The Marianne was an ocean going sloop, a perfect pirate vessel, with only one problem. She had no cannons. Sailing together, Hornigold and Bellamy began to search for armed ships they could rob.
But instead of prey, they found another pirate. Olivier La Buse was a hardened French pirate, and meeting him caused a conundrum for Hornigold, who considered himself an English patriot, and made a habit of attacking ships of counties hostile to England, while letting English ships go free. Bellamy, however, believed that all pirates were on the same side, and he brokered an alliance. The three ships formed a squadron and began hunting.
They captured several small prizes, then spent some idyllic time on shore cleaning marine growth off their ships bottoms and feasting off wild game and tropical fruit. Then, with Horingold in the lead, they headed for New Providence, in the Bahamas, a location that had been completely taken over by pirates, hoping to sell their plunder.
On this paradise, Bellamy met and talked with other rebels. New Providence was a hotbed of smugglers, escaped slaves, former privateers, and, most of all, pirates. Bellamy and his friends sold off the cargo they had captured, and Hornigold sold his flagship, the Benjamin, which had been badly damaged by shipworms.
When they left port a month later, the balance of power within the little group had changed. Hornigold, now in a smaller ship, was now subordinate to Bellamy, who had acquired cannon for the Marianne. Within a short time, Hornigold’s policy of not attacking English ships became his downfall. While he retained captaincy of his new sloop, most of his crew transferred to Bellamy’s ship, and Hornigold was forced to leave the group.
Bellamy and La Buse loafed along, making a tour of the islands and picking off small ships along the way. They attempted to capture a large French frigate, a forty-gun warship, but were driven off.
In November they came across a large English ship, the Bonita. While Bellamy attacked, La Buse raised a huge black flag with a skull and cross bones, one of the few times the classic “jolly roger” was actually used by pirates. The Bonita pulled over without a fight. Bellamy’s men plundered the ship for fourteen days.
The Bonita was carrying passengers, and fortunately for them, Bellamy’s men were not inclined to rape or torture. Instead, the pirates wanted to use the manpower of the captured ship to clean and overhaul their own boats.
The captain of the Bonita, Abijah Savage, later filled out a lengthy deposition, describing how Bellamy’s pirates referred to themselves as “Robin Hood’s Men.” Bellamy, who spoke constantly of the need for a more egalitarian society, was an impressive individual. Already, he had earned his nickname of “Black Sam” for refusing to wear the powdered wig associated with authority figures. Unlike other captains, Bellamy wore only his own dark hair, in the pigtail favored by common sailors.
One of the Bonita’s passengers was especially taken with the pirate’s rhetoric. John King, nine years old, turned his back on his mother and the comfortable middle-class life she represented, and joined the pirates of his own free will.
Capture of the Bonita seems to have inspired both Bellamy and La Buse. Or perhaps they had simply hit more profitable waters. They quickly took the Sultana, a ship of twenty-six guns which Bellamy claimed as his flagship. The older and more experienced La Buse was clearly in the shadow of the young upstart with the revolutionary ideas.
Three more ships fell to the pirate squadron in less than a month. But La Buse was growing tired of his association with the more charismatic man. He and Bellamy parted ways. Sam took the Sultana northward, toward the Windward Passage. He was hoping to capture an even bigger vessel. One that would permit him to take on the Royal Navy.
Bellamy needed more men as well, and he gained them in a most remarkable way. Stopping at a deserted island to take on water, Bellamy's crew were greeted by a hundred castaways, crew of a pirate ship that had been sunk by the HMS Scarbourgh. The pirate captain and his officers had escaped in the longboat with most of the treasure, leaving his men to await the return of the authorities.
The castaways were more than happy to join Bellamy’s crew, but the sudden introduction of over a hundred new men were also a cause for concern. Would the newcomers be won over to Bellamy’s fight for freedom, or would they overpower Bellamy’s crew and take his accumulated treasure, much as Bellamy had done to Jennings less than a year before? Only time would tell.