A Tale of Two Pirates

pirate-faceBy Anthony Sweeting

Most of the men who made up the West Indies pirate fraternity were rough, crude and uneducated. Many were formerly indentured servants or came from the pressed ranks of the navies, having been sandbagged down some dark alley or outside a tavern after too good a night out.

Life on board the navy ships was certainly no picnic. The food was atrocious, the pay abysmal, the conditions harsh and overcrowded and punishments frequent and brutal. These unwilling sailors had nothing to lose and everything to gain, including possible personal wealth, by going “on the account” as pirating was called. Life was relatively free and easy by comparison, although even pirates in their lawlessness had a code of conduct about sharing plunder, duties, and behaviour on board.

The Spaniards had made it a policy to stock all the islands with a few cattle and hogs, so that shipwrecked crews would have a chance of survival. These animals had run wild and multiplied, so food was there for the shooting. One other essential was an ample supply of strong liquour, rum being the main staple, to keep the men “hot.” A well known saying of the day was that sailors would rather have strong drink than clothing.

The ship’s company was entitled to elect its officers and the Quartermaster was the most important, being responsible for provisions and liquor supplies, for discipline and overall welfare of the ship and crew. After a prize was taken, he decided what plunder should be kept, how it should be apportioned, and its value. The captain was selected for his fighting knowledge; he decided likely targets and battle tactics. During the chase and attack, his word was paramount. As the pirates never built a ship, but relied entirely on captured vessels to keep them in business, everyone had say in whether a newly taken prize should become their new home. All ships officers could be voted out if they didn’t measure up.

pirate-face2Unlike the Buccaneers, 40 years previously, whose terror was aimed almost exclusively at the Spaniards, anything and everything was fair game to the pirates, who operated as individual, self-contained units, usually sailing within sight of land. They preferred fast, shallow draught sloops that could quickly weave their way through the reefs, cuts and creeks that abounded in the islands. Being fore and aft rigged, these sloops were able to sail closer to the wind and were more easily manoeuvred than square riggers.

In the main, pirates didn’t often slaughter or mistreat their victims, especially if they offered no resistance and asked for quarter, as the pirates recognised the trials and tribulations of the ordinary sailor. They reserved harsh treatment for seamen in authority, especially if it was thought they had something to hide. One condemned pirate made this plea from the gallows: “I do wish Masters of vessels would not use their men with such severity as many of them do, for it exposes us poor sailors to great temptations.”

The Turks Islands — since the discovery and raising of the fabulous haul of silver from the wreck Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion by William Phips in 1687 on what is now called the Silver Bank east of Grand Turk — might provide a chance to waylay a successful treasure hunter. And, more particularly, the Caicos Islands were favourite hiding places for the pirates as they were well charted for the times and there was an abundance of shipping using the main Windward/Caicos Passage route to and from the Caribbean and the large islands of Hispaniola, Cuba and Jamaica. A very early chart shows a safe anchorage on the northwest coast of West Caicos and indicated a well on Providenciales, the only source of fresh water specifically mentioned on the chart.

piratepennantAmong those who favoured the Islands were Captain Charles Vane and his Quartermaster “Calico” Jack Rackam, so called because he always wore calico, a type of coarse cotton. They were among those who had made a fortune capturing the silver that the Spanish authorities had retrieved from the “Plate Fleet” galleons sunk by a hurricane off the Florida Keys. This put them high in the pecking order among the pirates based in the Bahamas.

It was known that Governor Woodes Rogers was bringing a King’s Pardon for those pirates prepared to surrender, but when news came that the new Governor had been appointed to terminate the pirate rule that dominated New Providence, Vane and his crew were all for terminating the Governor first. But Vane soon discovered that he was on his own in such a defiant gesture; however, he was not prepared to surrender.

When the Governor duly arrived, accompanied by two 28 gun Frigates and two 14 gun Sloops of War, Vane sent an ultimatum:

24th July 1718
To His Excellency the Governor of New Providence.
Your Excellency may please to understand that we are willing to accept His Majesty’s most Gracious Pardon on the following terms.
Viz: That you will suffer us to dispose of all our good now in our possession. Likewise to act as We see fit with everything belonging to Us, as His Majesty’s Act of Grace specifies. If Your Excellency shall please to comply with this We shall with all readiness accept His Majesty’s Act of Grace. If not we are obliged to stand on our Defence.
So conclude
Your Humble Servants
Charles Vane and Company.
PS We await a speedy answer.

The Governor was not impressed with such defiance and ordered the warships to block the harbour. Vane saluted them, but with guns that were loaded and shot away some of the rigging. At 8 o’clock that night, when one Man o’ War fired the 8 o’clock gun as regulations decreed, Vane replied with another shot which peppered the frigate. Vane and his crew knew that come daybreak, all attention and guns would be turned on them, so in the darkness they upped anchor and slipped away through the unguarded East Channel.

pirateonshipThey soon captured a prize and Rackam was given command, which caused a near fatal falling-out. Vane’s ship had run out of liquor and a message was sent to Rackam requesting supplies, as the newly taken prize had a large quantity of drink among its cargo. Vane was furious that Rackam hadn’t sent what Vane considered to be enough, so he rowed across to Rackam’s ship to demand more. A violent argument took place, during which time Vane tried to “pull rank.” Calico Jack reminded Vane that this was HIS ship and concluded the matter by saying “By my blood Sirrah, if you do not leave this deck I shall shoot you like a dog and sink your ship. Now Go!”

Vane was in no position to argue and left. Nor was Vane prepared to retaliate as Rackam’s ship was the larger. This encounter added hugely to Rackam’s prestige — Vane had backed down and sailed away.

Rackam’s prize was heavily loaded, but they couldn’t go back to New Providence to dispose of their loot in the light of Vane’s act of defiance to the Governor, so they sailed to the deserted islands in the south where the plunder was divided among the crew. The loot was then packed into casks and buried on an unidentified island. All that was known was that the island had a name that began with the letters PR and sounded something like Princes.

Whilst there, the vessel was careened (scrubbing the hull), a job that had to be done at least twice a year, or more often if they wanted the chase to be effective. It was during this careening that they were at their most vulnerable, with the ship unloaded, on its side in shallow water and defenceless. Two naval ships came across the unprepared pirates who fled inland whilst their prize was re-floated and taken to Jamaica. Rackam and his crew were in dire straits with only two small boats and a canoe left. So they decided to try to sneak back into Nassau to take the King’s Pardon.

This they did, taking with them the most valuable of the loot that they were able to carry. They sold what plunder they had and went on the town, during which time Rackam met Anne Bonny and “took a great fancy to her.”

As well as always being ready to squander their hard-won money when in town, pirates were only too happy to put ashore on some deserted island for rest and recreation, just as tourists do today. They particularly enjoyed play-acting, where they enacted a mock trial portraying their version of justice (or lack of it). One such “play” has been reported in its entirety, and goes like this:

“The Court and Criminal being both appointed, as also Council to Plead, the Judge got up in a Tree and had a dirty Tarpaulin hung over his shoulders. This was done by way of Robe, with a Thrum Cap upon his head and a pair of Spectacles upon his nose. Thus equipped he settled himself in his place and an Abundance of Officers attending him below, with Crowbars and Handspikes, etc. instead of Wands and Tipstaves and such like.

The Criminals were brought out, making a Thousand sour faces; and one who acted as Attorney General opened the charge against them; their speeches were very laconik and their whole proceedings concise.

ATTORN. GEN: An’t Please Your Lordship, and you Gentlemen of the Jury, here is a Fellow before you that is a Sad Dog, a Sad Sad Dog, and I humbly hope Your Lordship will order him to be hanged out of the way immediately. He has committed Pyracy upon the High Seas, and we shall; prove, an’t please Your Lordship, that this Fellow, this Sad Dog before you, has escaped a thousand storms, nay has got safe shore when the Ship has been cast away, which is a certain sign that he was not born to be drown’d; yet not having the Fear of Hanging before His Eyes, he went on robbing and ravishing Man, Woman and Child, plundering Ships’ Cargoes fore and aft, burning and sinking Ship, Bark and Boat as if the Devil had been in him. But this is not all My Lord, he has committed worse Villanies than all these, for we shall prove that he has been guilty of drinking Small Beer and Your Lordship knows there never was a sober Fellow but was a Rogue. My Lord, I should have spoke much finer than I have now but as Your Lordship knows our Rum is all out, and how should a man speak good Law that has not drunk a Dram. However, I hope Your Lordship will order the Fellow to be hang’d.

JUDGE: Harkee me, Sirrah! You lousy pitiful, ill-look’d Dog; what have you to say that you should not be tucked up immediately and set sun-drying like a Scarecrow? Are you guilty or Not guilty?

PRISONER: Not Guilty an’t please Your Worship.

JUDGE: Not Guilty! Say so again Sirrah, and I’ll have you hang’d without any Tryal.

PRISONER: An’t please Your Worship’s Honour, My Lord, I am as honest a poor Fellow as ever went between stem and stern of a Ship, and can hand, reef, steer and clap two ends of Rope together as well as e’er a He that ever crossed Salt Water. But I was taken by one John Rackam (or the name of him that sits as Judge), a notorious Pyrate, a Sad Rogue as ever was unhang’d and he forc’d me, an’t please Your Honour.

JUDGE: Answer me Sirrah. How will you be try’d?

PRISONER: By God and my Country.

JUDGE: The Devil you will. Why then Gentlemen of the Jury, I think we have nothing to do but proceed to Judgement.

ATTORN. GEN: Right My Lord, for if the Fellow should be suffered to speak he may clear himself, and that’s an affront to the Court.

PRISONER: My Lord. I hope your Lordship will consider . . .

JUDGE: Consider! How dare you talk of considering! Sirrah!, Sirrah! I never considered in my life. I’ll make it Treason to consider.

PRISONER: But I hope your Lordship will hear some Reason.

JUDGE: D’ye hear how the Scoundrel prates? What have we to do with Reason? I’d have you know Raskal, we don’t sit here to Reason — we go according to Law. Is Dinner ready yet?

ATTORN. GEN: Yes My Lord.

JUDGE: Then harkee, you Raskal at the Bar. Hear Me, Sirrah, hear me. You must suffer for three Reasons. First because it is not fit that I should sit here as Judge and Nobody be Hang’d. Secondly, you must be hang’d because you have a damned hanging look. And thirdly, you must be hang’d because I am hungry; for know, Sirrah, that ’tis a custom that whenever the Judge’s dinner is ready before the Tryal is over, the Prisoner is to be hang’d, of Course. There’s the Law for you, ye Dog. So take him away Gaoler.”

After his set-to with Rackam, Charles Vane disappeared from the scene until he was cast ashore on an island in the Bay of Honduras. His privation was finally brought to an end when a passing vessel stopped to refill their water casks and he was rescued. He had the bad luck to be recognised and was immediately overpowered, clapped in irons and delivered to Jamaica where he was tried and executed by hanging.

Rackam, on the other hand, became more notorious in his own right, especially when he took up with female pirate Anne Bonny.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read sailed on Calico Jack’s ship until its capture by the British Navy in 1720, when all the men were executed. The two women could not be killed because they claimed to be pregnant.

Anthony Sweeting’s interest in Turks & Caicos history was sparked by Bertie Sadler of Grand Turk and Mary Kalton, who helped him with research in London.

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