Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Pirate Nests

The image of a pirate haunt – or pirate nest, as they were sometimes called by royal authorities and customs officials, calls up images of violence, debauchery and decay. After all, who would let pirates wander freely around their town, among their wives and children?

Well, as it turns out, a lot of people would. Pirate “nests” included Charleston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Newport, and Boston. These were towns where a pirate ship could go through the charade of stowing the Jolly Roger, breaking out a more acceptable flag, and sailing grandly into port.

Philadelphia, Pirate Nest. 

 Then, with a wink and a nod, the ne’r do wells would go about selling wares of dubious origin. If questions were asked, the answer might be that the goods “Had been retrieved from a ship that was taking on water, and needed to lighten her load.” This, they claimed, explained the lack of manifests, bills of sale, or known port of origin.

But questions were seldom asked. When good are being sold at half, perhaps a third, of their actual value, why ask? Everyone knew the sellers were pirates, after all. And those that played along made a handsome profit.

Boston Harbor

 In the late 1600’s goods were coming from all over the world. Pirates, who had been robbing the Spanish for over a century, were also taking silks, velvets, gold and ivory from the Moghul Empire in India. Many pirates of the time used the island of Madagascar as a base of operations, but they needed civilization to fence their goods. So when it was time to settle down, they went to English colonies in North America.

Most Englishmen were okay with robbing this guy

 Goods purloined from merchant ships helped to build the New World. Dealing with pirates helped the British colonies feel – and be – independent of the Crown. Here, far from “the law” fortunes could be made. All you had to do was to not look too closely at who you were dealing with.

When the better-prepared pirates wanted to leave the life, they might settle down in such a place. The Governor Eden of North Carolina issued the King’s pardon to Blackbeard, then helped him to set up a suitable house. Local rumors said that the newly pardoned pirate married a local girl – though there is no proof.

The man who signed Blackbeard's pardon/ 

 But many respectable merchants were fathers-in-law to retired pirates. Money mattered more than family in the new world, and when a dashing, rakish young man showed up with plenty of money and a history of dealing with the locals, it was natural that young women would be interested, and their fathers accepting.

When pirates bought property, and married into prominent local families, it was natural that communities would rally around a pirate who was under attack or suspicion from the authorities.

Jailbreaks and riots organized in support of alleged pirates happened throughout the British Empire during the late seventeenth century. Local political leaders openly protected men who committed acts of piracy against powers that were nominally allied or at peace with England. In large part, these leaders were protecting their own hides: Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of the instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

Riot in progress!

 One example of a pirate protected by his community was a former pirate named Moses Butterworth, who in 1701, was languishing in a Middletown, New Jersey jail, accused of piracy. Butterworth had already confessed to sailing with the notorious Captain Kid.

Governor Andrew Hamilton and his entourage rushed to Monmouth County Court to try Butterworth for his crimes.

But Samuel Willet, a community leader, sent a drummer to sound the alarm. Thomas Johnson gathered a company of men who, armed with guns and clubs, attacked the courthouse. A contemporary estimated the crowd at over a hundred East Jersey residents. The noise of shouting men, along with the “Drum beating,” made it impossible to speak to Butterworth. No one was able to ask him about his financial and social relationships with the local gentry.

After a scuffle in which two townsfolk were injured, the so-called pirate was freed and the Governor, a sheriff and judge were locked up in his place. When the judge and his people were finally released they confessed that they had feared for their lives.

Governor Andrew Hamilton

 The townspeople believed that they were protecting their own freedom to deal with whomever they pleased. But these people were protecting their own hides as well.  Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of these instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

But these otherwise upstanding members of the community rebelled in support of sea marauders. Many colonists were afraid that crack-downs on piracy hid darker intentions to strengthen royal authority, or perhaps set up admiralty courts (which operated without juries,) or even force free-thinking colonials to join the Anglican Church.

So protecting pirates was a social, economic and political statement.


  1. I wish lots of people defended immigrants like they did pirates...

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  3. 'Pirate “nests” included Charleston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Newport, and Boston. These were towns . . .' all towns except NJ! otherwise a good post as usual.

    1. I mean, speaking as someone from NJ: The entire state was likely pirates. It would explain /so/ much. :P

  4. Are you okay?
    Missing your blog.