Chronicles of America 

Treasure Hunting and Pirates

To encounter a pirate craft was an episode almost commonplace and often more sordid than picturesque. Many of these sea rogues were thieves with small stomach for cutlasses and slaughter. They were of the sort that overtook Captain John Shattuck sailing home from Jamaica in 1718 when he reported his capture by one Captain Charles Vain, "a Pyrat" of 12 guns and 120 men who took him to Crooked Island, plundered him of various articles, stripped the brig, abused the crew, and finally let him go. In the same year the seamen of the Hopewell related that near Hispaniola they met with pirates who robbed and ill-treated them and carried off their mate because they had no navigator.

Ned Low, a gentleman rover of considerable notoriety, stooped to filch the stores and gear from a fleet of fourteen poor fishermen of Cape Sable. He had a sense of dramatic values, however, and frequently brandished his pistols on deck, besides which, as set down by one of his prisoners, "he had a young child in Boston for whom he entertained such tenderness that on every lucid interval from drinking and revelling, I have seen him sit down and weep plentifully."

A more satisfying figure was Thomas Pounds, who was taken by the sloop Mary, sent after him from Boston in 1689. He was discovered in Vineyard Sound, and the two vessels fought a gallant action, the pirate flying a red flag and refusing to strike. Captain Samuel Pease of the Mary was mortally wounded, while Pounds, this proper pirate, strode his quarter-deck and waved his naked sword, crying, "Come on board, ye dogs, and I will strike YOU presently." This invitation was promptly accepted by the stout seamen from Boston, who thereupon swarmed over the bulwark and drove all hands below, preserving Thomas Pounds to be hanged in public.

In 1703 John Quelch, a man of resource, hoisted what he called "Old Roger" over the Charles--a brigantine which had been equipped as a privateer to cruise against the French of Acadia. This curious flag of his was described as displaying a skeleton with an hour-glass in one hand and "a dart in the heart with three drops of blood proceeding from it in the other." Quelch led a mutiny, tossed the skipper overboard, and sailed for Brazil, capturing several merchantmen on the way and looting them of rum, silks, sugar, gold dust, and munitions. Rashly he came sailing back to Marblehead, primed with a plausible yarn, but his men talked too much when drunk and all hands were jailed. Upon the gallows Quelch behaved exceedingly well, "pulling off his hat and bowing to the spectators," while the somber Puritan merchants in the crowd were, many of them, quietly dealing in the merchandise fetched home by pirates who were lucky enough to steer clear of the law.

This was a shady industry in which New York took the more active part, sending out supplies to the horde of pirates who ravaged the waters of the Far East and made their haven at Madagascar, and disposing of the booty received in exchange. Governor Fletcher had dirtied his hands by protecting this commerce and, as a result, Lord Bellomont was named to succeed him. Said William III, "I send you, my Lord, to New York, because an honest and intrepid man is wanted to put these abuses down, and because I believe you to be such a man."

Such were the circumstances in which Captain William Kidd, respectable master mariner in the merchant service, was employed by Lord Bellomont, royal Governor of New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, to command an armed ship and harry the pirates of the West Indies and Madagascar. Strangest of all the sea tales of colonial history is that of Captain Kidd and his cruise in the Adventure-Galley. His name is reddened with crimes never committed, his grisly phantom has stalked through the legends and literature of piracy, and the Kidd tradition still has magic to set treasure-seekers exploring almost every beach, cove, and headland from Halifax to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet if truth were told, he never cut a throat or made a victim walk the plank. He was tried and hanged for the trivial offense of breaking the head of a mutinous gunner of his own crew with a wooden bucket. It was even a matter of grave legal doubt whether he had committed one single piratical act. His trial in London was a farce. In the case of the captured ships he alleged that they were sailing under French passes, and he protested that his privateering commission justified him, and this contention was not disproven. The suspicion is not wanting that he was condemned as a scapegoat because certain noblemen of England had subscribed the capital to outfit his cruise, expecting to win rich dividends in gold captured from the pirates he was sent to attack. Against these men a political outcry was raised, and as a result Captain Kidd was sacrificed. He was a seaman who had earned honorable distinction in earlier years, and fate has played his memory a shabby trick.

It was otherwise with Blackbeard, most flamboyant of all colonial pirates, who filled the stage with swaggering success, chewing wine-glasses in his cabin, burning sulphur to make his ship seem more like hell, and industriously scourging the whole Atlantic coast. Charleston lived in terror of him until Lieutenant Maynard, in a small sloop, laid him alongside in a hammer-and-tongs engagement and cut off the head of Blackbeard to dangle from the bowsprit as a trophy.

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