Hanged on the Waterfront

The trial of the ten men accused of mutiny and piracy took place on Tuesday 9 and Wednesday 10 December 1718 at a special Admiralty Sessions sitting in accordance with an Act of Parliament which had been passed in 1700.1 Before that date all pirates captured in the British colonies had had to be sent back to London to be tried under the jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty. If found guilty the pirates were hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames waterfront near the Tower of London. The ‘Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy’ ended the requirement to send the accused men back to England and enabled Admiralty Courts to be held overseas. These courts were usually presided over by the colonial governor sitting with a judge and six or seven local merchants, planters or the captains, lieutenants or warrant officers of British warships in the vicinity. They had the authority to impose the death sentence. There had been very few pirate trials in the colonies during the War of the Spanish Succession but from 1717 a number of pirate trials were held at Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; James Town, Jamaica; Newport, Rhode Island; and Williamsburg, Virginia. It was usual for the pirates to be hanged on the waterfront and the dead bodies of the more notorious pirates were displayed on gibbets set up at a harbour entrance as a warning to sailors.

Woodes Rogers presided over the trial at Nassau and was assisted by William Fairfax, who acted as Judge of the Admiralty, and by six others, including Robert Beauchamp, Thomas Walker and Captain Wingate Gale, the commander of the Delicia. The setting of the trial was grandly described as ‘his Majesty’s Guard-Room in the City of Nassau’. We know from a later description that the guard room was a simple timber building which had been erected within the walls of the fort. It had been built on the orders of Rogers soon after his arrival. It measured thirty-six feet in length and was nineteen feet wide and sixteen feet high. It cannot have been a very solid structure because it was totally demolished in a hurricane in 1729.2

The ten accused men were brought into the room and ordered to stand at the bar while the lengthy accusation against them was read out. They were aged between eighteen and forty-five and were a mixed bunch of seamen. The oldest of them, William Cunningham, had been a gunner with Blackbeard. William Lewis, aged thirty-four, was a former prizefighter. Thomas Morris, twenty-two, was described as an incorrigible youth. He would prove defiant and unrepentant to the end.

The formal accusation against the men was couched in such tortuous legal language that it must have been almost incomprehensible to them. The most serious charge was that most of them had ‘lately received the benefit of his Majesty’s most gracious pardon, for your former offences and acts of robbery and piracy’ but, ‘not having the fear of God before your eyes, nor any regard to your oaths of allegiance to your Sovereign, nor to the performance of loyalty, truth and justice; but being instigated and deluded by the Devil’, had been persuaded ‘to return to your former unlawful evil courses of robbery and piracy’.3 This preamble was followed by a detailed description of their offences. In brief they were accused of mutiny on board three vessels at anchor at Green Key; they had combined together to rob the cargoes of the vessels and had sailed away with one of the vessels; and they had marooned five men on Green Key, a deserted island seventy miles south of New Providence. On being asked how they intended to plea, all of them pleaded not guilty. The witnesses for the prosecution included all five of the men who had been marooned, with the addition of Captain Greenaway, the commander of one of the vessels, who provided the clearest description of what had taken place.

According to Greenaway, the schooner Batchelor’s Adventure and the sloops Mary and Lancaster were anchored at Green Key on 6 October when the mutiny took place. Greenaway had rowed across to the schooner to inform her commander that he intended to sail that night. He had been confronted by Phineas Bunce, who had ordered him down into the cabin and told him he was a prisoner. Dennis Macarty then ‘presented a pistol at this deponent’s breast, and told him if he spoke a word he was a dead man’.4 Bunce, the leader of the mutiny (subsequently killed when the mutineers were intercepted by Hornigold), told Greenaway that most of the crew of the Mary were on his side and he was taking command of the vessel. Five of the sailors refused to join Bunce and they were put ashore on Green Key. Greenaway was not marooned with them because the mutineers thought that because he was a Bermudian he would be able to swim back to one of the anchored vessels. He was therefore made a prisoner while they plundered his vessel. As they sailed away they warned Greenaway that he must remain where he was for twenty-four hours. Greenaway ignored this direction and set sail for New Providence the next morning. He was sighted by the pirates, who took him back to Green Key and cut away the mast of his vessel and scuttled it. While they were doing this Greenaway escaped and hid on the island until the pirates departed.

The other witnesses provided additional information. During the mutiny Bunce had demanded and drunk two bottles of beer and had struck a man with his cutlass. And John Hipps, Captain Greenaway’s boatswain (and now one of the prisoners at the bar), had been forced to join the pirates by threats that he would otherwise be beaten and marooned on a deserted island. After hearing all the evidence the court adjourned for lunch. At 3 p.m. the trial continued and the afternoon was devoted to hearing the defence of the prisoners. A number of witnesses spoke in favour of Hipps and confirmed that he had been compelled to join the pirates and that he intended to desert them at the first opportunity. The other prisoners could offer little or nothing in their defence. Macarty had been heard to say that ‘he was sorry for his unadvisedness, which might bring great troubles on his poor wife, having a small child’.5

The court assembled at ten o’clock the next morning. The prisoners were brought in and each was asked if he had anything further to say in his defence. Hipps again produced witnesses to speak in his favour, but the eighteen-year-old George Bendall had been heard to say that he wished he had become a pirate sooner because he thought it a pleasant life. The evidence for and against the prisoners was then debated and considered. All except Hipps were unanimously found guilty. It was agreed that judgement on Hipps should be delayed till the following week. The remaining nine prisoners were then informed that they had been found guilty of mutiny, felony and piracy. Their names were read out and the awful words of the death sentence were pronounced. They were to be ‘carried to prison from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead, dead; and God have mercy on your souls’.6 Rogers, as president of the court, announced that their execution would take place in two days’ time at 10 a.m.

Early on the morning of 12 December each of the pirates was asked if he had anything to confess which might be a ‘load upon their spirits’ but none of them had anything to declare. At ten o’clock they were released from their irons. The Provost Marshal pinioned their hands and ordered the guards to take them up to the ramparts of the fort, which looked out across the harbour and the sea beyond. In the presence of about 100 soldiers and supporters of the Governor a service was held with prayers and psalms selected at the prisoners’ request. When the service was finished the pirates were taken down a ladder to the ground at the foot of the walls, where a gallows had been erected. A black flag had been hoisted above the gallows and below was a temporary stage resting on three large barrels. The condemned men climbed another ladder to get on the stage and the hangman fastened a noose around each man’s neck. Three-quarters of an hour passed while some more psalms were sung and the men were allowed to take a final drink and say any last words. John Augur, aged forty, who had spent many years in command of vessels at Jamaica, appeared extremely penitent. He was unwashed, unshaven and wearing his old clothes. He had been given a small glass of wine on the ramparts which he drank ‘with wishes for the good success of the Bahama Islands and the Governor’.

William Golding and William Ling also behaved in a penitent manner and George Bendall was sullen. By contrast the 28-year-old Dennis Macarty had changed his clothes and wore long blue ribbons at his wrists, knees and on his cap in the manner of a prizefighter. He appeared cheerful and defiant. Up on the ramparts he had declared that there was a time when the many brave fellows on the island would not have allowed him to die like a dog ‘and at the same time pulled off his shoes, kicking them over the parapet of the fort, saying he had promised not to die with his shoes on’.7 Three of the others were equally defiant. Thomas Morris, aged twenty-two, wore ribbons like Macarty but in his case they were red ribbons. ‘We have a new governor,’ he said, ‘but a harsh one.’ And he wished that he had been a greater plague to the islands than he had been. William Lewis, thirty-four, who had actually been a prizefighter, appeared unconcerned about his imminent death and asked for liquor to drink with his sufferers on the stage and with the onlookers. William Dowling, twenty-four, who was reputed to have lived a wicked life and spent much time among the pirates, had confessed that he had murdered his mother before he left Ireland. His behaviour on the stage was described as ‘very loose’.

At the last moment, just as the condemned men were expecting the order for the hanging to be given, Rogers asked for young George Rounseval to be untied and led off the stage. He was the son of ‘loyal and good parents at Weymouth in Dorsetshire’, and Rogers, who had been born and raised in that county, must have felt some sympathy for him.8 He later wrote on his behalf to London in the hope that the royal pardon could be extended to him. As soon as Rounseval was clear of the gallows the barrels holding up the stage were hauled away, ‘upon which, the stage fell, and the prisoners were suspended’.

The hangings at Nassau have become one of the best-known and most often quoted events in the history of the pirates of this period.9 This is partly because full details of the trial and execution of these pirates have been preserved, but also because it was one of the landmarks in the British Government’s campaign against piracy. It marked the end of Nassau and the island of New Providence as a base for the pirates and it was a clear signal to the hundreds of pirates still operating in the Caribbean that the Bahamas were no longer a free zone for piracy. Rogers still had many setbacks and misfortunes ahead of him but the pirates were no longer a major problem. It would be for other colonial governors and the Royal Navy to track down and bring to trial the pirates who had dispersed. Some had headed south to the Windward Passage and the eastern Caribbean, some to the east coast of North America and a few to the west coast of Africa.

Three weeks before the hangings at Nassau another key event in the campaign against the pirates had taken place among the mudbanks and shallows of Ocracoke Inlet off North Carolina. This was the death of Blackbeard. His career as a pirate leader had lasted no more than two years and yet in that time he had established a reputation which eclipsed those of all other pirates of his day. His exploits were reported in the newspapers and subsequently inspired eighteenth- and nineteenth-century plays and melodramas and later several Hollywood movies.10 He continues to be the subject of books and documentary films, the interest in him no doubt boosted by the discovery in 1996 of the remains of a ship which is almost certainly the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Unlike with pirates such as Charles Vane, Edward Low and Bartholomew Roberts, there is no evidence to show that Blackbeard or his crew killed or wounded anyone during their attacks on shipping, nor is there any record of his torturing his victims. His fame seems to have been largely due to the violent and dramatic circumstances of his death and the vivid account of his brief life and ferocious appearance which appears in Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates. We know from several sources that Blackbeard had a long black beard but it is Johnson who supplies the other memorable details about him. According to Johnson, he would go into battle with three brace of pistols hanging in holsters from a sling round his shoulders and would stick lighted matches under his hat ‘which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure, that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to look more frightful’.11

It is Johnson who tells us that Blackbeard married a young girl of sixteen, this being his fourteenth wife, and that after he had lain with her at night it was his custom to force her to prostitute herself with five or six of his crew while he watched. And Johnson also has the story of Blackbeard drinking one night with Israel Hands and two others in his cabin. Unobserved by them, he draws and cocks two pistols under the table, blows out the candle, crosses his hands and fires, shooting Israel Hands through the knee. When asked why he did this his only answer is to swear at them and tell them ‘that if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was’.12

While some of this may be the product of Johnson’s imagination, there is reliable evidence for Blackbeard’s brazen attack on the town of Charleston, South Carolina. On 22 May 1718 the Queen Anne’s Revenge and three pirate sloops appeared off the harbour bar of the busy port. When a pilot boat went out to meet them the pilot and his crew were taken captive. During the course of the next few days Blackbeard and his men intercepted and plundered eight merchant ships as they entered or left the harbour. These included the ship Crowley, commanded by Captain Clark, which was bound for London; the William from Weymouth, Captain Hewes; a brigantine with a cargo of African slaves; and a ship from Boston. With a number of Charleston’s citizens held hostage on board his pirate ships, Blackbeard made an unusual demand. In the words of Robert Johnson, the Governor of South Carolina, ‘Several of the best inhabitants of this place … then sent me word that if I did not immediately send them a chest of medicines they would put every prisoner to death.’13 Several theories have been put forward to explain the pirates’ urgent need for medicines, the most likely theory being that some of Blackbeard’s crew were suffering from venereal disease. The usual treatment for syphilis at this period was an injection of mercury – and one of the objects recovered from the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge was a metal syringe which proved on analysis to contain a high concentration of mercury.

Captain Richards, who commanded one of the pirate sloops, was despatched by Blackbeard to fetch the medicines. He was accompanied by Mr Marks, a local resident, and Blackbeard made it clear that if Richards or Marks failed to return he would sail over the bar and burn all the ships in the harbour. To save the lives of the hostages Governor Johnson and his council ‘complied with the necessity and sent aboard a chest valued at between £300 and £400, and the pirates went back safe to their ships’. After stripping the hostages of their valuables and sending them ashore, the pirate flotilla lifted the blockade of the town and sailed away.

Blackbeard now came up with a devious plan to rid himself of his flagship and most of his crew. We can only guess at his motives. He may have realised that his recent exploits were likely to spur the authorities into hunting him down (which would prove to be the case). The Queen Anne’s Revenge was too conspicuous a target and her deep draft made her unsuitable for hiding among the shallow creeks of Pamlico Sound or Chesapeake Bay. He may have decided that after his relatively successful stint as a pirate he wanted to pursue a quiet life. He was certainly intending to apply for the royal pardon at some time in the near future. Whatever Blackbeard’s motives his solution was a drastic one. Around the beginning of June his flotilla arrived off Topsail Inlet (now called Beaufort Inlet), a relatively narrow channel between the sand dunes leading to the town of Beaufort, which was then a small village. The Queen Anne’s Revenge led the way up the channel and as she drew level with Beaufort she was deliberately run aground on a submerged sand bar. Israel Hands, in command of the sloop Adventure, was asked to help tow her off but, since he was part of Blackbeard’s plot, he simply towed the big ship further on to the sand bar, and then ran his own vessel aground. Both vessels were wrecked beyond repair.

Major Stede Bonnet, who was still aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge in an honorary capacity, was persuaded by Blackbeard to seek the royal pardon from Governor Eden of North Carolina. While Bonnet was away Blackbeard and twenty or thirty selected members of his company fitted out one of the two remaining sloops, plundered the other vessels of loot, provisions and gear and then sailed out of Topsail Inlet, leaving more than 200 of his pirates behind. For some reason Blackbeard wanted to teach a lesson to one group of pirates. According to Captain Johnson’s account he arranged for seventeen members of his company to be marooned on a small sandy island ‘where there was neither bird, beast or herb for their subsistence, and where they must have perished if Major Bonnet had not two days after taken them off’. Bonnet returned to find a lot of disgruntled pirates marooned on the island or abandoned ashore at Beaufort. He had been granted a pardon by Governor Eden but foolishly, and fatally, decided to return to piracy. With some loyal followers in the sloop Revenge (later renamed the Royal James) he set off to find Blackbeard but, failing to find him, he cruised off the mouth of the Delaware River, where he captured and looted a number of small merchant vessels.

In September 1718 Bonnet was tracked down by a pirate-hunting expedition led by Colonel William Rhett, a war hero and a leading member of the South Carolina Assembly. Rhett’s two armed sloops found Bonnet’s Revenge with two of her prizes at anchor in Cape Fear River. A confused and hard-fought action followed on a falling tide among the shoals. Three of the vessels ran aground. The sloop with Rhett aboard and Bonnet’s Revenge were grounded within musket shot of each other. For nearly six hours ‘they were engaged very warmly, until the water rising set our sloops afloat, about an hour before the pirate, when Col. Rhett making the signal, and they prepared to board him, which the pirate seeing, sent a white flag, and after a short time surrendered’.14 Rhett’s privateers lost fourteen men killed and sixteen wounded in the action; the pirates had seven killed and five wounded.

Bonnet and his crew were put on trial at Charleston on 28 October. The judge described Bonnet as ‘a gentleman that have had the advantage of a liberal education, and being generally esteemed a man of letters’ but, far from helping the defendant’s case, this was held against him.15 Bonnet was found guilty of piracy and sentenced to death. He was overwhelmed by the verdict. ‘His piteous behaviour under sentence very much affected the people of the province, particularly the women, and great application was made to the Governor for saving his life, but in vain.’16 Twenty-nine members of Bonnet’s crew were executed on 8 November and Bonnet himself was hanged on the waterfront at Charleston a month later.

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