This article comes from our archives. It appeared first in the June 1998 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
We know very little about the working lives of black or white Bermudians in the 17th and 18th Centuries, but this extract from WILLIAM S. ZUILL’s book The Pirate Menace, shows what strange things could happen to a peaceful sailor and a warlike pirate. It was a difficult existence among pirates, for disagreements among crew members were frequent, and plotting was a way of life. The Bermudians seem to have stuck together and gained increasing influence, until at the end, they appointed the last pirate captain of their ship.
This is the story of a group of Bermuda seamen who were also slaves and how they became pirates. It happened early in the 18th Century, when there were pirate strongholds on the great island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and that seems to be where they ended up. The tale is pieced together from accounts in Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pirates, but the clues are strong, and as Captain Johnson’s book is one of the major sources of information about pirates, there is every reason to believe it to be true. Unfortunately Johnson never gives the names of any of the Bermudian seamen.
The story starts in the Bahia de Campeche, known to the English as the Bay of Cam peachy, which is the segment of the Gulf of Mexico which lies west of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Bermudians were there to gather logwood, that important (in those days) commercial tree, “Haematoxylon campechianum,” which was used to make dye. Cutting logwood was a harsh business carried out by hard men-some years later, Captain Nathaniel Uring described the logwood gatherers in these words: “The Wood-Cutters are generally a rude drunken crew, some of which have been Pirates, and most of them Sailors; their chief Delight is in drinking; and when they broach a Quarter Cask of a Hogshead of Wine, they seldom stir from it while there is a Drop left: It is the same thing when they open a Hogshead of Bottle Ale or Cyder, keeping at it sometimes a Week together, drinking until they fall asleep; and as soon as they awake, at it again, without stirring off the Place. Rum Punch is their general Drink, which they’ll sometimes sit several Days at also; they do most Work when they have no strong Drink, for while the Liquor is moving they don’t care to leave it. I had a very unpleasant time living among these People … ”
Unpleasant the life may have been, but it was a living, and for our Bermudian ancestors living on a island with few natural resources and struggling to wring a living where they could, it was a way of making some money, of showing a profit on a voyage so that food could be purchased to take back to Bermuda. And so the Bermudians were toiling away when word arrived that a pirate nan1ed Lewis was in the neighbourhood. Lewis sent a message to the Bermudians. He liked the look of the brigantine of Captain Tucker, and offered to purchase it.
That Lewis had lived to plague the Bermudians was something of a miracle. He became a freebooter when he was a boy, and was part of Captain Banister’s pirate crew. In 1687, Banister was captured by Captain Spragge, R. N., who took no chances on the uncertainties of a court trial – when he was nearing Port Royal, Jamaica, he hanged Banister from his yardarm and entered the harbour with the body swinging. There was some justification for this as Banister had broken bail and sailed his ship out of Port Royal one dark night in 1684, surprising the soldiers at the fort so that they only managed to let off one cannon before the vessel disappeared in the darkness.
Three years passed before Captain Spragge caught up with Banister, captured him and hanged him. The crew were brought ashore and went before a court. Most of them were found guilty, Lewis and another boy among them. Their youth must have moved Governor of Jamaica, Colonel Hender Molesworth, who decided to pardon them-a mistake as far as Lewis was concerned, as the lad soon proved.
Captain Johnson says Lewis had an unusual aptitude for languages, and could speak French, Spanish and English as well as the tongue of the Mosquito Indians, those invaluable Nicaraguan allies of English pirates and privateers who gave allegiance to the Governor of Jamaica. Was Lewis English? Captain Johnson did not know his country of origin and thought that he could equally well have been French.
After being reprieved, Lewis became a sailor and at one point was captured and taken into Havana by the Spanish. After a time he escaped with six others, stole a large canoe called a piragua, obtained two more volunteers, then started making captures. Soon he had 40 volunteers and forced men. They made their way to the Bay of Campeachy, taking other vessels, and heard about Captain Tucker’s fine Bermuda-built brigantine. Bermuda was the only place where the “Juniperis bermudiana”- the Bermuda cedar – was found and since cedar timbers resisted sea worms, the ships, known for their speed, also lasted longer.
Lewis wanted it, so he sent a letter offering to buy the vessel for 10,000 pieces of eight, warning that if Tucker did not sell, he would capture the ship and have it anyway. Tucker was not prepared to lose his brigantine, so he talked to other Bermuda skippers in the bay and suggested they send men aboard his ship so he could fight and defeat Lewis. They refused – perhaps they feared that if Tucker was getting the worst of it, he would sail away and leave them in the lurch-and said they would rely on their vessels’ sailing abilities and that everyone had to look out for himself.
The Bermudians put out into the bay. The wind dropped and a calm ca.me over the sea, and there, approaching steadily, was Lewis’s vessel wider oars. Some of the Bermuda sloops had four guns, some two, and some none. Joseph Dill had two cannon which he brought to one side of his vessel and fired. Unfortunately one of this guns split, and killed three men.
Tucker cal.led to the other Bermudians again to urge them to send him men, but they refused once more. A breeze came up. Tucker trimmed his sails, loosed a broadside into Lewis’s vessel, and sailed away. Another vessel tried to slip away, but Lewis fired a shot into her and she surrendered. Lewis summoned her captain to come aboard and asked why he had surrendered when he could have escaped. He had betrayed his owners, Lewis said, and started chasing the man about the deck with a rope’s end and then with a cane. Terrified, the captain said he had been trading in the sloop for some months and had a lot of his owners’ money hidden aboard.
Lewis said he was a rascal and villain for betraying his owners, and laid about him the harder…but also sent for the money. There were other depredations from the Bermudians. Lewis took over the largest of the vessels, which was a sloop of about 90 tons. He also took 40 able black seamen-almost certainly slaves – and a white carpenter.
Captain Johnson’s story is corroborated to a degree by a report sent to London by the Early of Bellomont, Governor of both New York and Massachussets – a combination engineered by the Earl himself, not only to provide a sufficient income for his own needs, but also to act more efficiently against pirates and, when necessary, the French and other enemies of England. On April 23, 1700, Lord Bellomont heard from Captain John Trimingham (probably a Bermuda Trimingham) who said he saw three Bermuda sloops taken by a pirate in the Bay of Campeachy. Later on, a similar tale reached London from South Carolina, forwarded by Edmund Randolph – a fascinating personality whose waspish reports tell much about the colonies he visited and their officials, a man with so vitriolic a way of writing that he suffered imprisonment in Bermuda at the hands of Governor Samuel Day… but that is another story.
Not that anything was done about the piracy. Sea distances were too great and warships too few to chase pirates whose exploits took place a month or so before word of them reached authority. So Lewis and his crew of 80 had a free hand, and cruised in the Gulf of Florida, capturing ships bound from the West Indies to Europe which were plundered and released. They sailed north to Carolina and careened the sloop in an obscure creek, buying rum and sugar unknown to the proprietary government in Charleston. Several forced men ran away. Putting the sloop to rights, Lewis continued his depredations on the Carolina and Virginia coasts and pressed more men to join him.
He now had a great many Frenchmen aboard, and hearing that the English members of his crew were planning to maroon him, he surprised the suspects and forced them and al.I the other English sailors to get into a boat. They were 30 miles off the coast, and for supplies were given 10 pieces of beef. Johnson says they were never heard of again.
Now Lewis had only black and French sailors on board, and he decided to leave that area altogether, and try his luck on the Grand Banks. So the sloop sailed north to Newfoundland and the pirates ransacked several fishing vessels, but these early successes nearly ended in disaster in Trinity Harbour in Conception Bay. There were several merchantmen in the harbour, and Lewis seized a 24-gun galley called the Herman. The master, Captain Beal, said that if Lewis sent his quartermaster ashore, he would be given more goods. Lewis did so, but on shore the masters of the other vessels got together, seized the quartermaster, and took him to Captain Rogers-the redoubtable Woodes Rogers, who in later years would lead a highly successful, richly rewarded privateering expedition around the world and after that eject pirates from the Bahamas.
Rogers chained the quartermaster to a sheet anchor which was on shore and set up guns at the entrance to the harbour to prevent Lewis getting out. However, night fell, and Lewis, abandoning the Herman, managed to row the sloop out under fire from Rogers’ impromptu battery, suffering some damage. Lewis was determined to save the quartermaster, so he seized two fishing vessels and sent word ashore that the captains would be executed if the quartermaster were not sent off at once. One of the fishermen was Captain Beal’s brother. The quartermaster was sent back at once, and said he had been treated “very civilly” ashore.
“It’s as well,” Lewis is reported as saying, “for had you been ill-treated, I would have put all these rascals to the sword.” The quartermaster whispered to the hostages that if Lewis had known what really happened then the hostages and all their men would have been cut to pieces. Later, when the fishing boats had gone, the quartermaster told Lewis the truth, saying that he had lied earlier because he did not think the innocent should suffer for the guilty.
On shore word was quickly sent to St. John’s, where H.M S. Sheerness, Captain Tudor Trevor, lay. Sheerness put to sea but missed the pirate by four hours. As Lewis moved along the coast, making prizes, he heard of a 24-gun French vessel which had been built as a privateer for the War of the League of Augsburg-King William’s War. Lewis wanted her, so he sailed the sloop into the harbour, and said he was from Jamaica, with a cargo of rum and sugar. The Frenchman was suspicious, having heard there was a pirate on the coast, and manned his guns. Lewis sailed out to sea, while the French master landed guns to make a battery to protect the harbour. Lewis stayed out of sight for a fortnight, then captured two fishing boats which belonged to the French ship. Thus disguised, the pirates slipped into harbour early in the morning, and while one boat landed sailors to attack the shore battery, the other came alongside the ship herself, which was soon captured.
Lewis loaded the French vessel with arms, ammunition and provisions from his sloop, then removed most of the fish and gave the sloop to the Frenchman, who told him how to trim the new pirate ship so she sailed best. Lewis named his capture Morning Star, because the morning star had just appeared when he took her.
It was time for a new cruising ground, and Lewis steered south-east for the slave coast of Africa, where the nations of Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon are to be found today. It was known as the Guinea Coast and for pirates was an area where many good prizes might be found, for ships involved in the hideous and inhuman trade of slavery often carried considerable sums of gold to pay for their human cargoes. Lewis had in1mediate successes, seizing English, French and Portuguese vessels.
It was while he was chasing one of them, a South Carolinian commanded by a Captain Smith, that he made a compact with the devil. Captain Smith fired at the Morning Star and a lucky shot carried away her fore and main topmasts. Lewis ran up the shrouds to the maintop, and tore off a handful of his hair. He threw it to the wind, shouting: “Good devil, take this until I come.” With that the Morning Star tore through the water and caught up with her quarry. So Captain Johnson says.
Surprisingly, Lewis behaved well to Smith, giving him presents until the Carolina man had received more than was stolen from him. Lewis said that when he had made enough money he would retire to Carolina, and expected Smith would help him. But it was not to be.
The French and English aboard the Morning Star started quarrelling and resolved to part company from each other. The French, who were more numerous, decided to shift to a newly captured sloop with their share of the booty. They chose a captain whose name was Le Barre, loaded the sloop, and shoved off. The wind got up, and as the sloop’s decks were encumbered, they stood in to the coast and anchored.
Lewis persuaded his men that the Frenchmen should be forced to give back what they had taken, and ran the Morning Star alongside with guns loaded, telling Le Barre to cut away his mast. Le Barre did so, and then the Frenchmen were ordered to go ashore, and were only allowed to take their small arms with them. The sloop was plundered and sunk, and the French pirates begged to be taken on the Morning Star again. Lewis allowed only Le Barre and one or two others to do so, then spent the night drinking with them.
The black sailors-obviously the Bermudians captured at the Bay of Cam peachy-told Lewis the French planned to kill him. Lewis said it was his destiny, for the devil had come to him in the great cabin and told him he would be slain that night. And so it was.
When darkness fell the French slipped back out to the ship in canoes, got aboard and murdered Lewis. Then they fought the rest of the crew, but after an hour and half were defeated and forced back to their boats. The quartermaster, John Cornelius, an Irishman, became the new captain… presumably he was the same person Lewis had saved in Newfoundland, and the Bermudians had a new master – although very likely they were by now regarded as full members of the crew, not slaves.
John Cornelius made several prizes as he cruised the coast, normally plundering English vessels and releasing them, but burning Portuguese captures. There was a great battle with one ship, an English slaver, which many months later would have a profound effect on the fortunes of the Bermudians. The Morning Star came up and pretended she was a Royal Navy ship, but the captain of the slaver was suspicious, and prepared to defend his vessel. He had on board a man named Joseph Williams who could speak the tribal language of the slaves lying in irons in the hold. Williams told the slaves the pirates were cannibals and wanted to kill and eat them all. Naturally the slaves wished to defend themselves against this new horror, and Williams picked out 50 of the men and armed them with lances and small arms.
Cornelius opened fire, but the slaver was bravely defended, the slaves fighting as hard as anyone, and the battle went on for 10 hours. At about 8 p.m. there was an explosion near the stern of the slaver, and she sank rapidly. Her crew only managed to launch her yawl, and pulled away from the vessel, leaving the rest of the crew and the slaves to perish.
Williams was one of those left behind, and as the ship sank, his clothes were caught by the mizzen truss and he was carried down deep in the water until he managed to slash the waistband of his trousers with his knife. Up he came to the surface, and after begging hard, was allowed into the yawl, already overloaded with 16 men – others who tried to get aboard had their heads beaten or their fingers cut. The Morning Star took them aboard after they had agreed to serve under Cornelius.
The Morning Star had more successes. More vessels were captured, and more men pressed to do the hard work of the ship. Eventually the pirates decided to go around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean. There they spied a squadron of three Royal Navy warships. An attack was discussed, but the crew argued the vessels were men of war, and 70 of their own crew were forced men. Cornelius agreed not to attack, and the Morning Star sailed on to Madagascar and put into the Methelage River on the northwest coast, anchoring off the town of Pombotoque.
The ruler of the country, Andian (King) Chimenatto, had defeated his brother Andian Timanangarivo and conquered the kingdom with the help of men from two New York ships. New Yorkers were busy establishing trading relations with the Madagascar pirates and the Malagasy (the people of Madagascar). They had chosen the winning side, and were rewarded with a gift of 6,000 slaves, and when the ships sailed, several sailors stayed behind to help Andian Chimenatto with his wars, 911 the promise of more slaves. Among other tribes defeated were the Tyloutes, a seagoing people who were descended from Arabs, and the Vaujimbos, said to be the meanest tribe on the island.
Chimenatto was now a great king, and it was obvious he felt his good luck was dependant on good relations with white men. So he gave Cornelius and his crew provisions and gunpowder, saying if they made money he would accept a gift, but otherwise all was free. It was too much for some pirates, says Johnson. They ate to excess after being on short rations, drank too much honey “toke,” a favourite beverage on Madagascar, and were, Johnson says, “too free with the women.” Thus they “fell into violent fevers” which killed 70 of them.
They heard about the capture of a great merchantman called the Speaker, Johnson says, and Cornelius decided to try and catch up with her and followed her north expecting to find a piratical ally. But the Speaker went to the Red Sea while the Morning Star sailed to the Persian Gulf, and they never met. Cornelius decided to careen the Morning Star at Antelope Island, and put a good part of their goods and water casks ashore-when suddenly they saw two warships coming toward them. Working like demons, the pirates got some of their goods and provisions back on board, and when the two ships came up, made sail, exchanging a broadside as they did so.
They were Portuguese ships, one of 26 guns and one of an overwhelming 70 guns. The Morning Star hoisted all sail to flee, and fortune favoured her, as the larger ship twice failed to come about in tacking and had to put her stern to the wind and wear (jibe), and the smaller vessel briefly ran aground. Eventually the smaller warship began to catch up, and Cornelius hove to and waited for her…but the Portuguese captain hove to in his turn to wait for his larger consort.
Night fell, and Cornelius turned back, slipped by the Portuguese vessels and ran up the other side of the Gulf, finally coming to anchor next day at his old station. He found the Portuguese had staved in all his barrels. Nevertheless the pirates did careen the Morning Star, and started making captures – most of them of little value. So they sailed south headed for the island of Johanna near Madagascar. There was a plot to maroon the black pirates who, Johnson says, “were all bred among the English.” In other words, they were not Africans, which is a strong clue they were the Bermudian sailors.
Williams let the black men, who were in the majority, know about the plot, and persuaded them to join with the English members of the crew (about one-third of the whites) to deal with the problem which they did by securing all the arms in the ship. Then the black sailors, deposing Cornelius, gave Williams the command, and the Morning Star sailed back to the Methelage River. By this time the ship was in a bad state as her bottom was eaten by worms, so the pirates gave her to the new King, Andian Chimave, son of Andian Chimenatto, who had died.
Five months later Cornelius died and, says Johnson, “was buried with the usual ceremony.” Johnson does not tell what happened to the crew. Did they settle down to serve Andian Chimave, or did they find another ship and go to sea again?
Few pirates ever came back to the Atlantic from Madagascar, and it is likely that descendants of Bermudians are Living in Madagascar to this day, little knowing, perhaps, of the way in which their forefathers were captured one calm day in the Bay of Campeachy.