Death on the Coast of Guinea

While Woodes Rogers had been struggling with debts and bankruptcy on his return to London, the man he had rescued from Juan Fernández was in a ship some 3,000 miles to the south. Following his marriage to Francis Candish in Plymouth, Alexander Selkirk had sailed to Portsmouth as mate of the Weymouth. At Spithead the Weymouth had joined the 50-gun ship Swallow, whose commander, Captain Chaloner Ogle, had orders to cruise against the pirates on the coast of Guinea – the name commonly given to central west Africa at this period. For six weeks the two warships lay at anchor in the lee of the Isle of Wight while they took on provisions and waited for a small convoy of merchantmen to gather. At 4 p.m. on 5 February 1721 the Swallow made the signal to weigh anchor and the two warships set sail, accompanied by the three merchant ships, Cape Coast, Martha and Whidah, and by three sloops. They made good progress as they headed south. They reached Madeira on 10 March, and were off Cape Verde on the 31st. Here they parted, the Weymouth heading due east to the River Gambier and the Swallow heading south-east to Sierra Leone.

The surgeon on the Swallow was John Atkins, who had joined the navy in 1701 and had considerable experience of treating men wounded in action. When he retired from the navy in 1723 he produced two interesting books. The first was entitled The Navy Surgeon, or, Practical System of Surgery and was notable for being the first publication to provide detailed descriptions of tropical diseases such as cerebral malaria, Guinea-worm and African sleeping sickness.1 His second book, A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil and the West Indies, was a journal of the voyage of the Swallow and Weymouth. Atkins’ descriptions of the places and peoples seen en route provide a vivid accompaniment to the typically brief comments to be found in the logbooks of the two warships. He described the River Sierra Leone as being as tidal at its mouth as the English Channel but after ten miles or so narrowing to half the breadth of the Thames at London. The banks were thickly lined with mangroves and the waters were infested with crocodiles and sharks, ‘the most bold and ravenous of the watery tribe’. He noted that the sharks would eat anything, including canvas and blankets. If a corpse was committed to the deep, the sharks would tear and devour it, ‘and the hammock that shrouded it, without suffering it once to sink, tho’ a great weight of ballast in it’.2

The Weymouth arrived at the entrance of the River Gambia on 2 April but ran aground on a sandy shoal in the middle of the estuary. The master’s log noted the part played by Selkirk in getting the ship afloat. ‘Mr Barnsly took the first Mate (Mr Selkirk) with him and went a sounding the Depth of water this morn: the Boates was sent to lay on the sands by directions of Mr Selkirk.’ To lighten the ship some of the fresh water was jettisoned overboard, and an anchor and hawsers were laid out astern so the ship could be heaved off. The ship was eventually floated off on the morning of 4 April but remained in the river for several more days while the crew went ashore to stock up on wood and water. They too were troubled by sharks. On one occasion the ship’s barge was attacked by a shark which seized one of the oars in its mouth and snapped it in two.

By the beginning of June the Swallow was sailing along the Ivory Coast, which Atkins observed was low, lined with trees and very straight, without bays and inlets. This made it difficult to distinguish landmarks and it was dangerous to send boats ashore because there was no shelter from the high surf caused by the heavy Atlantic swell. Only the natives were able to push their way safely through the surf in their long canoes, each carved out of a single cotton tree and carrying up to twenty rowers. At Cape Three Points the Swallow was reunited with the Weymouth and the two ships proceeded along the Gold Coast, where there was a series of trading posts guarded by forts or large castles. The oldest of these was at Elmina and had been established by the Portuguese in 1482. To the west of Elmina were smaller trading stations at Dixcove and Shama, and to the east was the massive structure of Cape Coast Castle. This was originally a Swedish trading post but it had been captured by the British in 1664 and had become the headquarters of the Royal Africa Company.

At the slave port of Whydah the two warships dropped anchor for two weeks in order to take in wood and water. There were several merchant vessels lying in the roadstead and the union flag was flying from the fort. On 20 July the Swallow and Weymouth sailed south-east across the Gulf of Guinea to the Portuguese island of Principe. They anchored in a deep-water harbour in a long, narrow inlet which was sheltered from the wind and was protected by a small fort. At the head of the inlet was a settlement of timber houses along two or three streets where the Portuguese Governor and the chief residents lived. Beyond was a thickly wooded landscape of hills and valleys echoing with the cries of parrots and monkeys. In the valleys were the villages of the black Africans who had been brought over by the Portuguese and who cultivated the plantations of yams, pineapples, bananas and Indian corn.

The Swallow and Weymouth remained at Principe for seven weeks, the crew living ashore in tents while the ships were heeled and careened. It was during this time that the deaths began. Surgeon Atkins blamed the deaths on the excessive heat and the debauches of the seamen, who drank large quantities of palm-wine so that ‘they soon run into excess, which brought on an epidemical malignant fever’.3 Whether it was malaria or yellow fever is not known but the effects were devastating, particularly on the crew of the Weymouth. The first death took place on 3 September. The victim was John Herdman, who was presumably a relative of Captain Mungo Herdman. By 21 September twenty-six members of the crew were dead and so many seriously ill that they had to borrow men from the Swallow and take on some black African slaves to enable them to weigh anchor and set sail.

They made first for the larger Portuguese island of St Thomas (São Tomé) and then headed back to the Gold Coast. As they anchored off Cape Coast Castle on 22 October they received a salute of thirteen guns, which they answered with the same number. By now the Weymouth had buried forty-five men and the deaths continued inexorably for the next four months. On 10 December the ship moved a few miles west to Elmina and dropped anchor in eleven fathoms in the roadstead overlooked by the castle. According to the French merchant Jean Barbot, the castle was ‘justly famed for beauty and strength, having no equal in all the coasts of Guinea. It is built square, with very high walls of a dark brown stone, so very firm that it may be said to be cannon-proof.’4 All the stone for the construction of the castle had been transported in ships from Portugal but in 1637 the Dutch had seized the castle from the Portuguese and the Dutch flag flew over the battlements for the next 200 years.

It was while the Weymouth was anchored off Elmina that Alexander Selkirk’s name was added to the list of victims of the tropical fever which was decimating the crew. On 13 December 1721 the captain’s log recorded, ‘Little wind and fair weather … Mr Alexr. Selkirk died.’ He was forty-five years old. He had circumnavigated the world, lived through storms and mutinies, and had famously survived for four years as a castaway on an island in the South Pacific, but like so many sailors it was his fate to die of a tropical disease in a remote location thousands of miles from home. It is not known whether he was buried ashore or was buried at sea according to the usual custom of the Royal Navy. Captain Herdman later recorded that he buried no fewer than 196 men during the voyage.5 Atkins gave a much larger figure and noted that the Weymouth ‘brought out of England a compliment of 240 men, having at the end of the voyage 280 dead upon her books’.6 The additional numbers needed to sail the ship were made up by impressing men from merchant ships and by purchasing more African slaves. When he got back to England at the end of the voyage Captain Herdman set out his problems in a letter to the Admiralty:

In my late voyage to Guinea, there happened such an unusual sickness and mortality among the ship’s company under my command; that when I was upon my departure from thence in April 1722, I had not men enough in health to weigh my anchors or sail the ship; not above forty being able to come upon deck at a time to do their duty. In this extremity to comply with the orders I received to return home, I was obliged to purchase fifty negroes of General Phipps, the commanding officer at Cape Coast Castle.7

The Swallow had also suffered deaths from fever but to a lesser extent, and Captain Ogle was determined that the search for the pirates must continue. He ordered the Weymouth to cruise between Cape Three Points and Cape Palmas, while he took the Swalloweastwards and patrolled the coast between Cape Coast Castle and Whydah. On 10 January 1722 he learnt from General Phipps that two pirate ships had taken a French ship in the vicinity. As he was making his way along the coast he encountered several trading vessels and one of them sent a boat across to the Swallowwith news that the pirates were at Whydah. ‘On my arrival at Whydah I was informed that two pyrate ships one of 40 and another of 24 guns commanded by one Roberts had been there and had sailed about 36 hours before.’8 There were ten sailing ships at anchor in the roadstead, two of which were English, three French and five Portuguese. In order to save their ships each of the captains had been forced by the pirates to pay a ransom of eight pounds’ weight of gold or gold dust. The only ship to refuse to pay was the English slave ship Porcupine, commanded by Captain Fletcher. This provoked the pirates to cover the decks of the ship with tar and set her alight. They made no attempt to release the eighty black slaves who were on the ship, chained together in pairs. The terrified slaves had to choose between drowning or being burnt alive. Those who decided to jump overboard were seized by sharks and torn apart.

Roberts, the pirate leader mentioned by Captain Ogle, was Bartholomew Roberts, who was the most formidable and the most successful of the pirates who operated on both sides of the Atlantic in the period between 1715 and 1725. He was believed to have taken some 400 vessels during his two and a half years as a pirate, and this may not have been an exaggeration. A study of the many newspaper reports of his raids; the accounts of his activities in the Colonial Office papers; and the extensive and well-documented account of his life in Captain Johnson’s history indicates the range of his operations as well as his constant activity. His plundering cruises can be seen as the high point but also the final flourish of the Golden Age of piracy.

A stern and somewhat puritanical Welshman, Roberts was described as being tall, dark and ‘of good natural parts and personal bravery’. Born in the village of Newydd Bach (Little Newcastle), near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, he had gone to sea as a merchant seaman. In June 1719 he was second mate of the ship Princess of London, which was taking on slaves near Cape Coast Castle when his ship was attacked by a pirate ship commanded by Howell Davis, another Welshman. Eight members of the crew of the Princess, including Roberts, were forced to join the pirates. Roberts had no intention of remaining with the pirates at first but he soon became reconciled to life on a pirate ship, which was considerably easier and more rewarding than life on a merchant ship engaged in the slave trade. When Howell Davis was killed in an ambush during a visit to the island of Principe the crew took a vote and chose Roberts as their new captain.

After capturing a Dutch Guineaman and an English ship off Cape Lopez, Roberts took his ship across the Atlantic to Brazil. For nine unproductive weeks he cruised along the Brazilian coast until he came to the town of Bahia (now known as Salvador da Bahia) which was situated on a peninsula at the entrance of a great bay, the Bahia de Todos os Santos. Lying at anchor was the Portuguese treasure fleet of thirty-two armed merchantmen, together with two 70-gun warships which were to escort the fleet to Lisbon. Roberts’ ship, the 32-gun Royal Rover, was no match for the warships and was outgunned by many of the merchant ships, but Roberts managed to convince his crew that an attack was possible. Keeping most of his men hidden, he picked out one of the ships and headed towards her. As he came alongside he ordered her captain to come quietly aboard the Royal Rover and threatened to kill his whole crew if any of them offered any resistance. The pirates now appeared on deck and the sight of this alarming bunch of men flourishing cutlasses was enough to persuade the Portuguese captain to do as he was told. Once he was on board Roberts’ ship, he was asked, on pain of death, to reveal which was the richest ship in the fleet. He told them it was the Sagrada Familia, a ship of 40 guns.

Roberts sailed his ship to within hailing distance of the Sagrada Familia and got his captured Portuguese captain to invite her commander on board the Royal Rover. This time the element of surprise failed. The captain and crew of the intended victim became suspicious and took defensive action. Roberts and his men acted swiftly: ‘without further delay, they poured in a broadside, boarded and grappled her; the dispute was short and warm, wherein many of the Portuguese fell, and two only of the pirates.’9 So ferocious was the pirates’ attack that the Sagrada Familia soon surrendered. By now the rest of the fleet was alert to the trouble in their midst but they were far too slow to react. When the first of the warships bore down on the Royal Rover, Roberts swung her round and prepared for battle, which caused the warship to fall back and wait for her consort to join her. By the time both ships were ready to give chase the Royal Rover and her prize were clear of the anchorage and on their way.

In a daring attack worthy of Francis Drake or Henry Morgan, Bartholomew Roberts had got his piratical career off to a flying start and his crew were able to share the spoils, which included 90,000 gold moidores, jewels, a cross set with diamonds and a cargo of sugar, skins and tobacco. From Brazil they headed north to the Caribbean, taking a brigantine and a Bristol ship in the vicinity of Barbados. Towards the end of June 1720 Roberts sailed 2,500 miles north to Newfoundland and in the harbour of Trepassey he caused havoc, burning and sinking twenty-two vessels before moving on to the Newfoundland Banks, where he destroyed nine or ten fishing vessels and seized a French ship of 26 guns which he took over and named the Fortune. With this ship he attacked the Samuel of London, and then a Bristol snow, a Virginia ship, a brigantine and a sloop. By July Roberts was back in the West Indies, where he captured a French ship from Martinique which became his new flagship and was given the name Royal Fortune. At Martinique his men destroyed some twenty vessels, and off the island of Dominica they took a Dutch ship of 22 guns and a brigantine. These relentless and indiscriminate attacks on merchantmen in the West Indies continued until the crew voted to head for the Guinea coast, ‘where they thought to buy gold-dust very cheap. In their passage thither they took numbers of ships of all nations, some of which they burnt or sunk.’10

Roberts, like a few other pirate leaders such as Blackbeard and William Moody, usually operated with a flotilla of two or three vessels, which meant that most merchant ships had neither the firepower nor the crew numbers to offer any resistance. A notable feature of Roberts’ cruises was that any opposition to his attacks invariably provoked a savage response. A Dutch merchantman of 30 guns which was attacked by Roberts off St Lucia managed to hold off the pirates and kill a great number of them during a four-hour battle. When the Dutch crew eventually surrendered ‘what men the pirates found alive on board they put to death after several cruel methods’.11 And after the raid on shipping off Martinique ‘the men they took they barbarously abused, some they almost whip’t to death, others had their ears cut off, others they fixed to the yard arms and fired at them as a mark …’.12

By June 1721 Roberts and his pirates had crossed the Atlantic and arrived on the African coast near the River Senegal. From there they sailed to Sierra Leone and on to Jacqueville, ‘plundering every ship they met of what was valuable in her, and sometimes to be more mischievously wicked, would throw what they did not want overboard …’.13 At Cestos they found a fine frigate-built ship called the Onslow lying at anchor. She belonged to the Royal Africa Company and her commander, Captain Gee, and most of his crew were ashore. The pirates were able to come alongside and capture the ship with no resistance from those on board – several of whom subsequently joined the pirates. Roberts handed his French ship over to Captain Gee and commandeered the Onslow. Renamed the Royal Fortune and mounted with 40 guns, she became his new flagship. With this powerful ship and a much smaller ship (the Little Ranger) he made the murderous attack on Whydah which resulted in the burning and drowning of the black slaves. After six months of raids on shipping along the Guinea Coast, Roberts sailed south-east across the Gulf of Guinea to Cape Lopez, where there was a sheltered, deep-water anchorage in the lee of the cape. It was there that he was finally tracked down by Captain Chaloner Ogle.

The Swallow had sailed from Cape Coast Castle during the first week of January 1722. Leaving the Weymouth, with her much depleted crew, to patrol the coast in the vicinity of Cape Three Points, Captain Ogle took the Swallow across the Gulf of Guinea in the tracks of Roberts. He had learnt that Roberts had seized a French ship at Whydah and believed that the pirates intended to adapt her for their own use: ‘Therefore I judged they must go to some place in the Bight to clean and fit the French ship before they would think of cruising again.’ There was no sign of the pirates at the mouth of the River Gabon but at daybreak on 5 February, ‘I saw Cape Lopas bearing WSW about 3 leagues and at the same time discovered three ships at anchor under the Cape which I believed to be the pyrates …’14

The dramatic events of that day and those that followed were recorded by many of the participants and appear in their logbooks and letters, as well as in the transcript of the trial which took place at Cape Coast Castle seven weeks later.15 Captain Ogle wanted to lure the pirates out to sea and he succeeded in doing so. As his ship neared Cape Lopez he was forced to bear away to avoid an off-lying shoal called Frenchman’s Bank. The sight of the Swallow heading out to sea caused one of the pirate ships to weigh anchor and give chase. With smooth water and a brisk breeze from the south-east, the Swallow ran before the wind but Captain Ogle deliberately slowed her down, ‘keeping our main tack on board, our main sheets aft and our main yard braced to give him the opportunity of coming up with us’.16 The pirate ship was the French ship of 32 guns which Roberts had seized at Whydah. Now named the French Ranger to differentiate her from the Little Ranger, she was flying a Dutch pennant from her main masthead and an English ensign jack. By 10.30 a.m. she was within gunshot distance and fired several shots with her chase guns which splashed in the water alongside the Swallow. The pirates now hoisted a black flag at their mizzen peak, and the crew of the warship could see that she had her spritsail yard slung under her bowsprit ready for boarding when she came alongside.

Captain Ogle waited until she came within musket shot distance and then ‘we starboard our helm and ran out our lower guns’.17 As the Swallow swung round the pirates discovered too late that their prey was not a large merchantman but a 50-gun British warship. It was an unequal contest. The pirates survived the first broadside and swept past so that for a while the Swallow was unable to bring her guns to bear. Ogle noted that the pirate ship ‘sailed rather better than us’ but was steered so badly that the Swallowslowly closed the distance. At around 2 p.m. the warship’s guns brought down the pirate’s maintopmast and soon after that the pirates surrendered. Of the 123 men on board twenty-three were black.18 Twenty-six of the pirates were killed or seriously wounded, including the captain, James Skyrm, a 44-year-old former merchant seaman from Somerset. He had a leg shot off during the action but ‘his temper was so warm as to refuse going off the deck, till he found all was lost’.19 There were no serious casualties on the Swallow.

When emergency repairs had been carried out on the pirate ship, Captain Ogle put a prize crew on board and sent her off to wait for him at the island of Principe while he returned to Cape Lopez. He arrived within sight of the cape on the evening of 10 February. The weather had deteriorated. Fresh south-westerly gales and rain were sweeping across the sea. With darkness approaching Ogle had to stand off the land and sail to windward all night. At dawn he sailed back to Cape Lopez and saw three vessels at anchor. He knew from questioning some of the captured pirates that the largest ship was the 40-gun Royal Fortune and one of the others was the 24-gun Little Ranger. He would later learn that the third vessel was a trading pink called the Neptune, Captain Hill, of London.

The Swallow, which was flying a French ensign to confuse the pirates, had to make two long tacks and it was not till around 10 a.m. that she was in a position to bear down on the anchorage. On board the Royal Fortune there was much debate among the pirates as to the identity of the ship they could see heading their way. Some of them thought she was a Portuguese ship, some a French slave ship, and some thought she was the French Ranger returning. As she got closer a pirate named Thomas Armstrong, who was a deserter from the Swallow, correctly identified her as his former ship. Roberts was apparently undaunted by this news and ordered his men to prepare for action. At 10.30 a.m. the Royal Fortune slipped her anchor cable and got under sail. According to Captain Ogle, the pirate ship ‘came down upon me with English ensign and jack and a black pendant flying at her maintopmast head, and I showing him a French ensign, when he came within pistol shot I hoisted my proper colours, and gave him a broadside which he returned and endeavoured to get from me by making all the sail he could’.20

From Captain Johnson we learn that Bartholomew Roberts made a gallant figure on this, his last fight. He was dressed in a crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, with a red feather in his hat, a diamond cross hanging from a gold chain around his neck, a sword in his hand, and two pairs of pistols slung from his shoulders on a silk sling ‘according to the fashion of the pyrates’. He was killed in the first or second of the Swallow’s broadsides, struck in the throat by grapeshot. He collapsed across the rope tackles of a gun, and his body was thrown overboard ‘according to the repeated request he made in his lifetime’.21 The drama of the occasion was heightened by the weather. According to Captain Ogle’s logbook (and this is confirmed by the logs of the Swallow’s first and second lieutenants), around noon there was ‘much rain, lightning & thunder A small tornado about ½ past 10 clock the pyrates mainmast came by the board being shott just below the parrell The Mizn topmast ye same the first broadside …’. At 2 p.m. the pirates surrendered. Of the 152 men on board fifty-two were black.22 Only three pirates were killed in this action and again the Swallow had none killed or injured. Surgeon Atkins observed that the pirates, ‘tho’ singly fellows of courage’, were a contemptible enemy owing to their drunkenness and disorder.23

Two days later the Swallow and her prize anchored at Cape Lopez. The Neptune had disappeared and it soon became apparent that her crew had plundered the Little Ranger, which had been left at anchor with no crew on board – Roberts had ordered all the pirates to join the Royal Fortunebefore she sailed into battle. The captured pirates were dismayed to find that they had been robbed of several thousand pounds of gold and gold dust stored in their sea chests.

The weather continued to be stormy with heavy rain, more tornadoes and thunderstorms so fierce that on one occasion the Swallow’s fore topmast was split by a lightning strike. Atkins described the tornadoes as ‘fierce and violent gusts of wind that give warning for some hours by a gradual lowering and blackening of the sky to windward whence they come, accompanied with darkness, terrible shocks of thunder and lightning, and ends in rains and calms’.24 They stayed a week at Cape Lopez, replenishing their supply of water and heeling the Swallow so that they could scrub off the weed and barnacles. Apart from the weather it was a pleasant location. There were plenty of fish in the anchorage and grey parrots in the trees. The surrounding countryside was mostly savannah with wandering herds of buffalo. The local people were friendly and were pleased to trade goats, chickens and honey in exchange for linen, calico, pewter spoons and knives.

On 18 February they set sail with the Royal Fortune and the Little Ranger. They called in at Principe to collect the French Ranger and on 16 March they anchored off Cape Coast Castle. The captured pirates were sent ashore and were presumably confined in the cells built to hold African slaves. These cells were underground vaults situated in the large quadrangle in the centre of the castle. They had iron gratings at the surface ‘to let in light and air on those poor wretches, the slaves, who are chained and confined there till the demand comes’.25 In the surrounding buildings, protected by massive walls and battlements, were lodgings for General Phipps and his officers, and for merchants, soldiers, miners and tradesmen. The castle had workshops for blacksmiths and coopers as well as a chapel and a large hall which would be the setting for the trial of the pirates

The Weymouth had been patrolling the coast some eighty miles away and did not learn of the Swallow’s success until 25 March. When Captain Herdman received the news he immediately headed east and at 2 p.m. on 27 March the Weymouth anchored off the castle. Events now moved rapidly. Within a day of his arrival Captain Herdman was appointed President of the Admiralty Court which was convened to try the pirates. (Captain Ogle was disqualified from taking part because he was the captor of the pirates.) Captain Herdman was assisted in his deliberations by James Phipps, the governor of the castle; by Edward Hyde, who was Secretary of the Royal Africa Company; and by Lieutenant Barnsley and Lieutenant Fanshaw of the Weymouth; and two merchants, Mr Dodson and Mr Boye. Surgeon Atkins was appointed Register of the court and later claimed expenses for twenty-six days’ attendance. The task before the court was daunting. Two hundred and sixty-two men had been captured by the Swallow. Seventy-five of these were black Africans and they were excluded from the trial. Several men had died from their wounds, but this still left a total of 168 men to be cross-examined and their innocence or guilt determined. In terms of the numbers of men accused it was the largest pirate trial of the period, and it would also break records for the number of men found guilty and hanged.

The charges varied slightly according to which ship the men were serving on when captured, but in summary they were accused of being ‘wickedly united, and articled together for the annoyance and destruction of His Majesty’s trading subjects by sea’. They were also accused of ‘sinking, burning and destroying such goods, and vessels as then happened in your way’. And most seriously they were indicted as ‘traitors, robbers, pirates and common enemies of all mankind’ because they had hoisted a piratical flag and fired upon His Majesty’s ship Swallow with the intention of ‘distressing the said King’s ship and murdering His Majesty’s good subjects’.

The full transcript of the trial is in the collections of the National Archives at Kew, and Captain Johnson reproduced much of the transcript in his General History of the Pyrates. The statements of the accused and of the witnesses provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of the pirates: who they were and where they came from; and how and why they found themselves on pirate ships. Almost all the men captured were former merchant seamen. There were a few men who had been pirates for three or four years, some of whom had served with Howell Davis, but the majority had joined the pirates voluntarily or involuntarily during Roberts’ recent cruises along the coast of West Africa. Apart from a group of eighteen Frenchmen and seven Dutch seamen, almost all the rest were British. Most came from major English ports such as London, Bristol and Plymouth but there were also men from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and the West Indies. Of the fifty-two men found guilty of piracy the average age was twenty-eight, a figure which is in line with several studies made of the pirates of this period, and is similar to the average age of men in the eighteenth-century Royal Navy.26 The oldest of the pirates was forty-five and the youngest was nineteen. A common thread running through the pirates’ statements is the emphasis on drink. Many men seem to have spent most of their time drunk. John Jaynson ‘was more busy at drinking than anything else’. Michael Lemmon was ‘as often drunk as the rest of the crew’. A witness said of Robert Devins that he never saw him sober or fit for any duty, and Joseph Mansfield admitted that it was drink that had drawn him into the company of the pirates, ‘the love of drink and a lazy life having been stronger motives with him than gold’.27

In spite of the numbers involved, the members of the Admiralty Court made a point of questioning all the accused men individually and seem to have done their best to get evidence from eyewitnesses. At this period, and for decades to come, the response of the authorities to crimes against property was draconian. It was common for men and women to be hanged for a variety of petty crimes such as the theft of a silver tankard and a silver spoon, or the theft of three bedsheets and fifteen napkins. Highway robbery was invariably punished by death.28 Given this background the Admiralty Court showed considerable sympathy towards most of the poor seamen who came before them. Captain Herdman, in his role as President, particularly admonished the hard core of seasoned pirates who were on trial, for robbing honest and needy seamen ‘who are purchasing their livelihoods through hazards and difficulties’ and who were then forced to join the pirates ‘to their own and families ruin, removing them from their wives and children, and by that, from the means that should support them from misery and want’.29

Anyone who could prove that he had been forced to join the pirates against his will and had refrained from taking an active role in robbing ships was acquitted. This particularly applied to those men with specialist skills useful to the pirates such as carpenters, caulkers and coopers. John Lane, a boatswain’s mate, was told by Bartholomew Roberts that ‘such men we want, and you shall go with us’. John Johnson was another skilled man and the pirates, ‘hearing he was a tailor and wanting such a man very much, did oblige him to continue on board them’. Nicholas Brattle, who played the fiddle and was one of four musicians captured, ‘was only made use of, as musick, which he dared not refuse’. All these men were acquitted.

On the other hand the court was merciless towards those who were found guilty of actively plundering ships; or showed violence towards their shipmates; handled swords, cutlasses or pistols, or fired the guns when going into action. In the words of Captain Herdman, ‘To a trading nation, nothing can be so destructive as pyracy, or call for more exemplary punishment.’ And the punishment was indeed exemplary. Those found guilty were hanged in batches of between four and fourteen men within a day of their sentence being pronounced. The gallows were set up on the beach in front of the castle’s gates and between the high- and low-water marks. After the execution the Provost Marshal was directed to cut down the bodies, to secure them in chains and to hang them on ‘the gibbets already erected on the adjacent hillock’.

Thomas Armstrong, the 34-year-old deserter from the Swallow, was executed in the manner reserved for naval deserters. On 24 April he was hanged from the fore yardarm of the Weymouth. He spent his last hour bewailing his sins, urging the spectators to lead an honest and good life and asking them to join him in singing two or three verses of Psalm 140. This psalm begins: ‘Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man.’ After this warning the psalm concludes with some reassuring words: ‘I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and the right of the poor. Surely the righteous shall give thanks unto thy name: the upright shall dwell in thy presence.’

The trial lasted for four weeks. In a letter which he sent to the Admiralty a few months later Captain Ogle included a summary account of the fate of the men taken by the Swallow off Cape Lopez. Of the 262 men found alive on the pirate ships, seventy-five were black Africans excluded from the trial, nineteen died of their wounds before they came to trial, seventy-seven were acquitted, fifty-two were hanged, twenty were condemned to seven years’ servitude in the Cape Coast mines, seventeen were sentenced to imprisonment in London’s Marshalsea Prison and two had their execution ‘respited till the Kings pleasure is further known’.30

Early in May 1722 the Swallow and Weymouth left Cape Coast and sailed across the Atlantic to Brazil and then north to the Caribbean. They called in at Barbados and then headed for Jamaica. On 24 August they dropped anchor in the harbour of Port Royal. Four days later a hurricane swept across the island, causing almost as much damage as the great earthquake and tidal wave of 1692 in which a whole section of the town had slid beneath the sea.

Captain Ogle reported that the wind began to blow very hard at half past eight on the morning of 28 August. Lying at anchor in the harbour were nearly thirty merchant vessels as well as the Swallow, the Weymouth and two other warships, the Falkland and the sloop Happy. As the wind increased to hurricane force the crews of the naval vessels put out more anchors and then cut away their masts to prevent the ships heeling over. By eleven o’clock the harbour was lashed by torrential rain and Ogle reported ‘as much wind in my opinion as could possible blow out of the heavens’.31 Prodigious waves were throwing up tons of stones and rocks over the sea wall at the eastern end of the town and the streets of Port Royal were flooded to a depth of five feet. Apart from the naval vessels only two merchant ships and a sloop remained at anchor. The rest were blown ashore or sank on their moorings. The ships of Bartholomew Roberts came to a suitably violent end. ‘The Royal Fortune formerly called the Onslow, and Little Ranger pyrate prizes both drove ashore on the rocks under Salt Pan Hill and were cast all to pieces in less than an hour.’32

The death toll of between 400 and 500 was not comparable with the 1692 earthquake, when more than 2,000 people died, but according to Ogle, ‘the island received more damage by this hurricane than ever was known’. In Kingston more than half the houses were destroyed.33 Sugar mills across the island were blown down, plantations were flattened and the streets of Port Royal were strewn with the wrecks of ships, the debris of buildings and dead bodies.

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