This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the November 1999 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
You could be forgiven for being somewhat timorous when meeting Hamilton Mayor, William Frith, the forbidding Hezekiah Frith’s direct descendant. Frith, the president of Frith’s Liquors, is the embodiment of old-fashioned Bermudian gentility as he recounts stories of his swashbuckling ancestor. Take Hezekiah’s battle with the infant Corporation of Hamilton over a law which required buildings to be erected nine feet back from the sidewalk.
Says William Frith: “Hezekiah hated the wooden galleries that were built on the Front Street houses over the sidewalk, circumventing the spirit of the law regarding the nine-foot ruling. He bought a lot at the west end of Burnaby and Front Street with a small stone building on it. The building was in line with the front of the other buildings but didn’t have a gallery. Hezekiah decided if the others could have galleries, then he’d build an extension.” Hezekiah won his battle with the Corporation – a special act was passed in 1829, which remains in effect to this day, exempting the property in question, Chatham House on Front Street, from the nine-foot law.
William Frith is proud to be a descendant of a man who embodied the mercantile spirit for which Bermudians became known. Adept at turning adversity to advantage, they capitalized on the Island’s position in the middle of the trade routes between Europe and the Americas. Bermuda’s maritime tradition fostered an enviable reputation for its small but fast cedar sloops. Writes Sister Jean de Chantal Kennedy in Frith of Bermuda: Gentleman Privateer: “For two centuries the only bargaining power were the cargoes of salt the sloops brought back from the salt pans at Turks Island, several hundred miles away.”
From the salt pans at Turks Island, which was considered Bermudian territory, cedar sloops loaded with salt sailed north several hundred miles to trade in the Americas. In New England and the Canadian Maritimes, salt was exchanged for salt cod caught off the Grand Banks. Salt cod was brought back to the West Indies and used to feed enslaved persons working on plantations. From there, rum might be brought back up to the American colonies to be traded for basic provisions destined for Bermuda, then a visit home to change captain and crew. This triangular trade occurred, according to historian William Zuill in The Story of Bermuda and Her People, during Bermuda’s second economic period – “the time of cedar, salt and sailors.” When tobacco farming went into decline towards the end of the 17th Century, Bermudians turned to the new trades, which served them well into the 19th Century, Zuill writes. Zuill also said that crews comprised both enslaved and free men.
Hezekiah Frith was born in 1763 at his father’s stone cottage on the corner of Cobbs Hill Road and South Shore in Warwick. His father, Captain William Frith, earned a modest living with his cedar sloop Experiment, which was based at Salt Kettle. Salt Kettle, recounts Sister Jean, was then a small but important community with shops, ship chandler’s stores, salt pans and a shipyard. Far to the east, a day’s trip away, St. George’s was still Bermuda’s only town. When Hezekiah was eight, his father died; by the time he was 12, the American Revolution had broken out. When the war ended in 1783, according to Sister Jean, “a new generation prevented by the war from following their rightful calling, scraped the barnacles from all available craft and made ready for the sea.”
Two years later, Hezekiah had his first independent command, the Sally. He traded successfully in Turks Island, and by 1787 was a part-owner of the brig. He married, settled in Salt Kettle, opened a store and built the 59-ton sloop Fanny and Betsey, launched in 1789. He alternated with his brother Isaiah as captain, trading in New York and the West Indies. To accommodate his growing family, Hezekiah moved to Turtle Bay and named the house, Spithead.
The French Revolution, in the meantime, had spread to France’s colonies in the Caribbean and while returning from a trip to Turks Island to collect salt, Hezekiah stopped in Haiti. His instinctive political acumen honed by his travels, he correctly surmised that French plantation owners were in no shape to overcome the Jacobin-inspired insurgents infiltrating the French Caribbean colonies.
And according to Zuill’s Story of Bermuda, Frenchmen escaping Haiti as revolts by enslaved men and women grew more successful were a target for privateers like Frith. After France declared war against Britain, Hezekiah’s first wartime mission was to sail the Fanny and Betsey to the British fleet in the Caribbean to fetch small arms and a few cannons for Bermuda’s defence. Not slow in recognizing an opportunity, he returned to put his sloop on stocks at Turtle Bay, dismantled the superstructure and mounted eight guns. With a crew of 30, he left for Haiti, some would say as a pirate.
The distinction between pirate and privateer was a fine one that many privateers from Salt Kettle and Riddell’s Bay transgressed with apparent impunity, Sister Jean wrote. A privateer was a private ship-of-war, usually a converted merchantman with a few mounted guns on deck, under commission of a letter of marque. The privateer’s role, of preying on defenceless merchantmen and disrupting supplies, was to assist the mother country’s navy in its war against the nation’s enemies. The privateer’s success depended on the speed of his vessel, and the number of crew he could spare to commandeer the prize. Although it was forbidden to attack ships of neutral powers, or to enter ports of neutral countries, the temptation to break the letter of the law was often too much for privateers.
The list of prizes taken by Hezekiah hints at the tremendous wealth he accumulated in a very short period. Between 1793 and 1800, Hezekiah brought in at least 26 prizes in addition to many others that were not reported. Sister Jean says the six years to 1800 were “perhaps the most important and certainly most adventuresome” in Hezekiah’s life. In 1794, he brought back to Bermuda five prizes from one cruise alone, according to the Gazette, and yet only two of these were officially recorded. Prizes taken in the Caribbean were often sailed to the closest British colonial port for adjudication, or if captured in northern waters, to Halifax.
In 1793, 10 privateers were operating out of Bermuda, cruising against the French. Others were soon to join them, enticed by the stories of money, silver plate or enslaved persons. As fortunes were made, customs officials complained the privateers were stopping in at their home wharves before reporting in with their cargoes intact, as was required by law. Customs hoped the centrally located new town of Hamilton would minimize the problem, although that was hardly the motivation for promoting the new town for privateers like Hezekiah.
The spoils were so lucrative that Hezekiah realized he needed a bigger boat to bring back all the prize ships he could be taking. He sought subscribers for a new ship to be built as a private ship-of-war rather than a merchantman. He named the 149-ton boat the Hezekiah and began immediately looking for a crew. The prospect of becoming rich, not patriotism to the Crown was the motivating factor, according to Sister Jean.
Hezekiah returned to stalking merchantmen in the Caribbean while waiting for the Hezekiah to be built. Searching along the coastlines of the devastated islands, he came across survivors of the British garrison at Owia, in St. Vincent. Their rescue gained him increased stature and influence with the British government. But by then, the ruined French plantations were providing slim pickings and privateering was becoming costly. As the French resorted to the same tactics, many Bermudian boats including the Fanny and Betsey, fell victim to French privateers.
There was no limit to Hezekiah’s audacity. When he heard that French cruisers had attacked a British convoy, he captured the loaded transport Mary of Bristol, and towed her to Haiti. He resolved to take her with his new ship the Hezekiah. In an incredible feat worthy of James Bond, he slipped into the harbor at night and boarded the Mary of Bristol while the crews slept. With the entire French crew of 70 locked below hatches, the Mary of Bristol was towed out of port, under the guns of the fort.
An affluent Hezekiah returned to Bermuda to attend to his stores and become a financier. Still, the lure of the sea beckoned, and Hezekiah set sail again. While pursuing what he determined was a Spanish merchantman, the innocent-looking ship fired at the Hezekiah, revealing itself to be a Spanish frigate under disguise. It was his second loss and Hezekiah’s reputation as a lucky captain was tarnished.
Released in New Providence under an exchange of prisoners, the undaunted Hezekiah collected the insurance on his boat, promptly bought the 50-ton schooner Experiment and sailed home. He commissioned another privateer of 228 tons, also named the Experiment, to be built at the shipyard at Port Royal in Southampton. Hezekiah and his partners paid £8,000 down payment, the remainder to be financed from the anticipated booty she would soon earn. Disputes over the seaworthiness of second-hand rigging led to the October departure being delayed until January 1800. The wait was to Hezekiah’s advantage. Sailing between Puerto Rico and Haiti, he intercepted a French schooner l’Augusta. On board was the Jacobin general Laveaux, commanding officer of the French forces in the West Indies. Despite pleas and offers of substantial bribes, Hezekiah transferred Laveaux to the British ship Surprise. Not all of Laveaux’s entourage was transferred to the British ship. Hezekiah detained a beautiful young Frenchwoman, who he took back to Spithead and set sail with again, much to the consternation of his family, but not necessarily to the detriment of his reputation.
In the Caribbean, the Experiment fell in with the British frigate the Neriade. Hearing of Hezekiah’s previous exploits, the captain promptly commissioned Hezekiah as an officer in the British Navy. Along with British naval ships, the Experiment wreaked havoc on ignorant merchantmen sailing into Curaçao. Two Dutch frigates, three large ships over 1,000 tons each and 27 other vessels were seized. As part of the British squadron however, Hezekiah could claim little of the prize money. The Experiment was released from further duty and returned home.
Hezekiah didn’t wait long before recruiting 110 men for the Experiment and her tender Tryall, and setting sail south. The prizes soon arrived back in Bermuda with the biggest prize of all, the Peggy, from Baltimore, intercepted off the north coast of South America while heading for Caracas, loaded with 400 kegs of gunpowder hidden in hogsheads marked ‘Indian Meal’. Although more prizes continued to come in, the unexpected truce of the Peace of Amiens in 1802 curtailed further cruises.
No longer in need of so many boats, the original Experiment was sold and the larger Experiment stripped of its arms before Hezekiah set sail to England to do his banking and to take on a full load of provisions. Hezekiah returned to his store in Bermuda believing himself to be a wealthy man. He was not as wealthy as he thought. Prizes brought in by privateers had to be formally condemned to be confirmed legitimate prizes. The lists of reversals from the Lords of Appeals in Britain covered many of the prizes condemned by the vice-admiralty court in Bermuda. Hezekiah would have to pay back considerable sums of money that had already been spent. After settling his reversals, Hezekiah set out in the new Experiment to trade and build up his fortune once again. Off Caracas, a French cruiser approached with her ports open. Fate had caught up to Hezekiah. Unbeknown to him, war had broken out with France again and just as he had done himself on behalf of the British, he was taken as a prize to a French port, never to see the Experiment again. It was his third and final loss.
At home, Hezekiah became nearly bankrupt after more list of reversals. He went back to less risky business, trading out of his store at Salt Kettle and pursuing his debtors to placate the vice-admiralty. The loss of his boats and the lists of reversals discouraged Hezekiah Frith from privateering again, but his notoriety as a successful privateer was such that his reputation would endure through the generations. Even the home where he once lived, Spithead, later to owned by American playwright Eugene O’Neill, is among Bermuda’s best-known properties.
William Frith, the proud owner of Hezekiah Frith heirlooms, including a silver mug, concedes that life has changed since the days of his infamous ancestor, who died in 1848, eight years before privateering was outlawed by Queen Victoria. As Mayor of Hamilton, William Frith heads the same group whose members Hezekiah did battle with over Chatham House in his day. In fact, Hezekiah was instrumental in the formation of Hamilton, became a member of the Corporation and was also elected to the House of Assembly, his derring-do on the high seas, apparently serving him well on land. He had said Sister Jean, a reputation of getting things done.