Pirates of the Guinea Goast: England and Davis
There exists in an early Eighteenth Century book of travels an interesting chart of Sierra Leone Bay. On this chart, on the south side of the Bay, on a deeply-indented little bit of coast inside of Cape Sierra Leone, appears the following entry: Pyrates' Bay." A little to the east we find "Frenchman's Bay," with a "Water Place. Where a Boat may get in at high Water"; and farther along, opposite the Watering Place, the words: "Plenty of Oysters on the Mangrove Trees along this River." Farther still to the east lies "Bay de France," where is a Spring descending from ye Hills."
It reads as if the entries were culled direct from some piratical chart in a Boys' Romance, especially when one finds, in connection with old sailing directions, that The Cape of Sierra Leona is known by a single Tree much larger than the rest and high Land on the back of it." But they are genuine enough, those entries, and each bay and point no doubt had its own special tradition and history.
From Mr. William Finch, a merchant of London who touched at Sierra Leone in 1607 on his voyage to the East Indies, we learn that "on the further Side of the fourth Cove is the Watering Place of excellent Water continually running," where in six fathom of water ships lay "within Musket shot of the Fountain," (Bay de France, in all probability). "Here," one reads in Astley's Voyages, "on the Rocks they found the Names of divers Englishmen: Amongst the rest, those of Sir Francis Drake, who had been there twenty-seven years before; Thomas Candish, Captain Lister, and others." Drake, no doubt, as a young man may have been there more than once. Cavendish visited the Bay in 1586 when on his way, raid the Straits of Magellan, with a little squadron to harry the Spaniards in the Pacific.
This watering-place in the Bay de France is described by Barbot as being "one of the most delightful Places in all Guinea"; but, as to the source of that water, "there is no approaching it, for the many Tigers, Lions, and Crocodiles which harbour there"; and, alas, says Astley, "it must be observed that this Water has an ill Effect if taken in the beginning of the Winter, or Rainy Season . . . because the violent Heats having corrupted the Earth, and killed Abundance of venomous Creatures, all that malignant Matter is brought down by the great Floods, which descend at that Time and infect the Water, as hath been found to the Cost of many Sailors. Care like-wise must be taken not to eat the Fruit or drink the Water to Excess, because it causes a Sort of pestilential Distemper which is almost certain Death." Moreover, there were also Serpents "so monstrous big . . . that they swallow a Man whole."
This Pyrates' Bay, then, in spite of its close proximity to one of the most delightful spots in Guinea, and in spite of its romantic surroundings, had its drawbacks. But doubtless it suited reasonably well the gentlemen after whom it took its title. Here, at as late a date as 1720,—when the 50 gun frigate Swallow, under Sir Chaloner Ogle, visited the coast with her sister ship the Weymouth, for the purpose of putting down piracy,—dwelt the private Traders, or Interlopers, "about thirty in number, loose privateering Blades," who traded if they could, and if they could not trade, stole, "not so much to amass Riches as to put themselves in; a Capacity of living well and treating their Friends . . . and with their Profits purchase from Time to Time Strong Beer, Wine, Cyder, and such Necessaries, of Bristol Ships, which more frequently than others put in there."
John Leadstone, "Old Cracker," was the chief of those private Traders; he "had been an old Buccaneer, and in 1720 had the best house among them, with two or three Guns before his Door, to salute his Friends the Pirates when they put in there."
It was a haunt favoured of pirates in the olden days, this coast of Guinea; ships of war in those latitudes were never numerous, and seldom of great size or heavily armed, and if things piratical should chance to be dull, why, it was easy to load up with slaves and be off to a good market, another haunt of their kind more pleasant than West Africa, the Spanish Main.
"The world of waters is our home, And merry men are we,"
they might have sung, had Alan Cunningham's song of the sea then been written. "Merry" men they were, according to their own somewhat primitive and bestial ideas of merriment, rum, much rum, being one of their necessaries of life, and their chief ambition of no higher elevation than to lead a short life and a merry one.
Many a notorious pirate served his apprenticeship on this Guinea Coast, or perchance there ended his days. There were Roberts and Avery—Long Ben Avery—among the more famous; there was Massey—surely the gentlest pirate that ever
"Left a corsair's name to other times, Link'd with one virtue and a thousand crimes."
His crimes were not many, however, not numerous enough indeed to suit a pirate crew. Poor Massey! He gave himself up later, and insisted on being hanged as a salve to his conscience.
There were Cocklyn, England, Davis, Moody, Lowther, and many another, before some of whom—typical pirates, brutes without redeeming point—
"Hope withering fled, and Mercy sighed farewell!"
When Captain Thomas Phillips of the ship Hannibal (36), Letter of Marque, visited the Coast in 1693, he found everywhere the fear of pirates, in every port men looked at him askance. Even at the Cape de Verde islands, where he called on the way south, suspicion awoke with every strange sail that appeared. At St. Jago, in the Bay of Porto Prayo, the Hannibal was fired on before she brought to, for what cause Phillips knew not till he landed. Then the officer in command of the guard, "a well looking old man," explained matters in his quarters, over a glass.
"This old Officer had an old House, with a crazy Pair of Stairs, which they ascended into a large open Room. Here he gave them a satisfactory Account why he fired so eagerly at their Entrance, (for he had shot three Times, and the last with a Ball,) taking them to be Pirates." A pathetic, neglected figure, courteous and dignified, was this old officer, "decoyed hither by fair Promises from the Governor of Lisbon, which were never performed"; a brave man, flung aside and forgotten, yet putting the best face on the matter, and striving to do his duty, though sore harassed by his commanding officer, the Lieutenant-Governor, a youth of twenty, "proud and empty," with an "insolent Air," says Phillips.
The Governor, an older man than this youth, gave Phillips a most indifferent meal, consisting of "a Loaf of good white Bread, a Box of Marmalade served on a Napkin; and for Drink there was a Squeeze-Case Bottle half full of Madeira wine, but so thick, foul and hot, that the Author had much ado to drink it." Even for this unappetising repast Phillips had to pay in presents; but not to be out-done in hospitality, he invited the Governor to come on board the Hannibal.
His Excellency, however, could not be prevailed on to quit solid land. How did he know, indeed, that Phillips was not a pirate, who merely wanted to get him on board in order to keep him there till he (the Governor) had sent ashore orders to supply the ship with whatever was demanded, and having got everything the island could provide, then be off to sea, paying for all with a fictitious bill of Exchange on London, drawn, (as was later done by Avery in dealing with the Governor of San Thomé), "on John a Noakes or the Pump at Aldgate"? (Avery had a pretty wit—for a pirate.)
The Governor of St. Jago was a "a Man of good Parts, Experience, and Subtility," we read, and of noble family; but his "Clothes very ordinary. He had a long black Wig which reached to his Middle, but somebody had plucked out all the Curls." Even a pirate might not covet that wig. He had not, perhaps, a very attractive personality, this Governor.
It was not till she had run some way down the African coast, and sighted Cape Mesurado, that the Hannibal fell in with trace of pirates. Off this cape, signals from her consort, the East India Merchant, under Captain Shurley, which had lost her fore top-mast and fore yard in a tornado, caused her to run in and let go her anchor. Here, living amongst the blacks, they found a Scotchman "who could give no good account of himself." Anxious to get away, this man wished to ship as A.B. on board one of the two English vessels, but he had "so much of the villain in his face" that neither Phillips nor Shurley "cared to meddle with him."
He was a pirate, Phillips learned later, and had belonged to a small brigantine, under a ruffian named Herbert, who had seized her in the West Indies, and, to avoid unpleasant results, had made his way with her over to the Guinea Coast. Here the crew quarrelled and fought desperately amongst themselves—as pirate crews were wont to do when over-much rum was aboard. When the fight ended, there was but this one man left capable of handling the vessel, and he, to save his own life, ran the brigantine ashore, when all his wounded shipmates perished. He had, we learn, "a long flaxen Wig, and a white Bever Hat"—a costume singularly inappropriate to the West African coast, one would suppose,—and with "much of the villain in his face," he was no doubt a sufficiently unattractive object. Another ship did eventually take pity on him, but speedily put him ashore again on Sherbro Island, and one hears no more of this particular rascal. If he did not die of fever and rum, not improbably he ended his days at Execution Dock, or perhaps, as John Silver said of Roberts's crew, he was "hanged like a dog, and sun-dried like the rest, at Corso Castle."
Men changed their flag easily in those breezy times; it was that of England which flew over them one day, and the next, perhaps, they were under the Jolly Roger, showing their heels to a frigate, or were themselves snoring through the water in hot pursuit of some fleeing, hard-pressed merchant-vessel, half of whose crew when the chase ended—as it mostly did—in capture, would light-heartedly turn pirates. After all, for those who already were inured to the horror of trading in human flesh, it was no great step from Slaving to Piracy. It was the commonest thing in the world. Some of the very men-of-war's men, for example, who behaved with such conspicuous gallantry when capturing the notorious pirate Teach, or Black Beard, themselves afterwards became pirates. And of the crews of nine vessels (of from two to twelve guns each) taken by England the pirate on the Guinea Coast in the year 1719, no less than fifty-five without hesitation joined the Black Flag. One of Phillips' own men, indeed, at the end of this voyage turned pirate. William Lord, his trumpeter, "a most dissolute, wicked Wretch," having the misfortune in a drunken quarrel to stab in the stomach another roysterer, was put in irons, and so kept on the ship's poop during the voyage from St. Thomas to Barbadoes, where it was Phillips' intention to hand him over to the discipline of a man-of-war. But Phillips relented, and pardoned the man, who straight-way ran off, and with many seamen from other ships joined a vessel which was then setting out with the ill-concealed purpose of preying upon the ships of the Great Mogul in the Red Sea. Piracy was winked at in those days by men in high places, or was called by some prettier name. In this particular instance, Colonel Russel, then Governor of Barbadoes, was a shareholder in the venture. "The Pretence of the Voyage was for Madagascar to purchase Negros; but Phillips had been well assured that her Design was for the Red Sea, to make the best of her Market with the Mogul's Ships; which having done, and bought a few Negros for a Colour, she might safely return to Barbadoes . . . What became of her he knew not."
Whilst Phillips was still on the African coast, at Cape Coast Castle; there arrived two Danish ships of twenty-six guns each, specially sent out from Denmark to treat with the blacks for the restoration to the Danes of their fort at Cape Corso, "for which end they had brought a Governor, Soldiers, Provisions, Ammunition, Merchandise, etc." This Danish fort had, a little time before, been surprised and pillaged by the negroes, the Governor escaping, sore hurt, by flinging himself from a window. At the time of Phillips' visit, the black "General,"—or "King," as he is indifferently called, though he had in reality merely been cook at one of the English factories,—was masquerading as Governor, amusing himself generally by indulging in too much strong drink, and in firing salutes on every possible and impossible occasion; even when Phillips was regaled with rum, the occasion was celebrated by every gun in the fort being discharged.
This coloured gentleman, however, when sober was remarkably acute, and he not only successfully bargained with the Danish ships that neither he nor his followers were to be held responsible for the plundering of the fort, but that in consideration of his vacating the building, he was to receive fifty marks in gold.
Having concluded this bargain, and left in the fort a new Governor and garrison, the two Danish vessels sailed for Whydah to buy slaves; but unfortunately for themselves on the way thence to the West Indies they called at Prince's Isle to, water. Here they fell in with Avery, the pirate, who, in spite of their fifty-two guns, "fought, took, plundered, and burnt them, which was the unhappy End of their Voyage." It was a notable exploit for Long Ben, who indeed was more famed for his cunning than for his courage. But perhaps sight of the dreaded black flag flying at Avery's peak took all fight out of the Danes; crews that allowed a rebel black cook to overreach and browbeat them, in any case probably had little backbone. Ill fortune pursued that Danish Governor whom the negroes had turned out of his fort. Depressed by prospect of the censure and probable ruin that awaited him in Denmark, he had accepted a passage to England offered to him by Phillips, but when ships under the flag of his own nation arrived on the coast, not unnaturally he had changed his mind and preferred to sail with them, with the result that in the end he fell into the hands of Long Ben and his crew of ruffians.
Edward England was another pirate who was on the Guinea Coast after this time. Mate of a sloop trading out of Jamaica, he was captured by Captain Winter, a notorious West Indian pirate. Nothing loth, England joined Winter's crew, and soon was given command of a small vessel, in which he presently set off to the African coast.
England was a man not ill educated, possessed of "a great deal of good Nature, and did not want for Courage; he was not avaricious, and always averse to the ill Usage Prisoners received; he would have been contented with moderate Plunder, and left mischievous Pranks, could his Companions have been brought to the same Temper; but he was generally over-ruled and as he was engaged in that abominable Society, he was obliged to be a Partner in all their vile Actions, in spite of his natural Inclinations."'
However good his natural disposition, he had not that ascendancy over his men which would have enabled him to maintain some sort of discipline, and consequently terrible scenes were sometimes enacted on his ships, or on vessels captured by him. There was, for instance, that dreadful business of the Cadogan snow of Bristol, which he captured at Sierra Leone. Her master, Skinner, was brought on board England's vessel, and it so happened that the first man of the pirate crew Skinner there set eyes on had at one time been his own boatswain. There had been, it appears, something of the nature of a mutiny on board, and this boatswain, with a few of the other hands prominent in the mutiny, had been handed over by Skinner to a man-of-war with which he fell in. At the same time, he considered this an occasion on which it was right to refuse payment of wages due to the mutineers. These men had afterwards deserted from the man-of-war, and had joined England.
Now the tables were indeed turned on poor Skinner. Swaggering up to him with the look of a malignant fiend, the boatswain stared hard in his face, then, with the smile of a devil, said:
Ho! It's you, Skinner! The very man I most wanted to meet. I've owed you something this long while, and now I'm going to pay you in your own coin."
Calling some of his fellow-ruffians, they lashed poor Skinner to the capstan, and amused themselves for a time throwing glass bottles at him, till his face and hands streamed with blood; then stripping the poor man, they flogged him round the decks till that amusement, too, palled upon them. Finally, because, said they, he had been a good master to his men, and should therefore die an easy death, they put a pistol to his head and blew out his brains.
Doubtless England was powerless to prevent such horrors, even if he had the inclination to do so. There is no doubt that occasionally—as for instance in the case of Captain Mackra of the Cassandra, whom he captured off the coast of Madagascar—he did successfully incline his ruffians to mercy, at least to a modified form of mercy. And by such acts he quickly lost influence with his crew. "D—n England! We may thank him for this,"they began to say when things went not to their liking. The end was that, led by a scoundrel named Taylor—who afterwards took command—" a fellow of a most barbarous Nature, who was become a Favourite amongst them for no other Reason than that he was a greater Brute than the rest," the crew marooned England and three of the more mercifully inclined of his men on the island of Mauritius.
It was to the Indies that England had sailed in the Cassandra after converting her to his own use; the same Cassandra that Jim Hawkins (of Treasure Island), lying hid in the apple barrel, heard John Silver talking of:". . . the Cassandra, as brought us all safe home from Malabar, after England took the Viceroy of the Indies." And John Silver,—surely he sailed with England! In Johnson's History of the Pirates it is told of Captain Mackra that "when they were in a Tumult whether they should make an End of him or no . . . an Accident happened which turned to the Favour of the unfortunate Captain; a Fellow with a terrible pair of Whiskers, and a wooden Leg, being stuck round with Pistols . . . comes swearing upon the Quarter-Deck, and asks, in a damning Manner, which was Captain Mackra; the Captain expected no less than that this Fellow would be his Executioner;—but when he came near him, he took him by the Hand, swearing, 'D—n him, he was glad to see him; and show me the Man,' says he, 'that offers to hurt Captain Mackra, for I'll stand by him,' and so with many Oaths he told him, 'he was an honest Fellow, and that he had formerly sailed with him.'" Surely this was John Silver in the flesh.
Of the many vessels taken by England on the Guinea Coast, two or three, under new names, were fitted out as pirate ships; a few, a very few, were let go; several were burned,—at Cape Coast, where two English vessels had run in and anchored so close under the Castle's guns as to prevent the possibility of capture by the pirates, England utilised one of his prizes as a fire ship in a vain attempt to burn the fugitives; and one, the Cadogan (whose master, Captain Skinner, as already related, was so brutally murdered), was handed over to her own mate, Howel Davis, a man who afterwards, as a pirate, like England made his name notorious, but who, unlike England, was able to keep his wild beast crew in some semblance of order.
Davis maintained that England on this occasion "mightily solicited" him to join the pirate crew, and that he, defying the Pirate captain, refused, saying that he "would sooner be shot to Death than sign the Pirates' Articles." On which England, pleased with Davis's boldness, sent him and his crew back on to the snow, with permission to continue their voyage. Perhaps Davis really did refuse; he had no lack of courage. But taking into account what one knows of his after life, one cannot help suspecting that his refusal might possibly arise not so much from superior virtue as from the feeling that England did not offer him terms sufficiently attractive. Possibly, too, he was disgusted at the sight of wanton bloodshed; or he may have been ambitious, and disinclined to serve under any man's command.
England, Davis says, before they parted company gave him a written paper, with orders not to open it until he should reach a certain latitude, and that at the peril of his life he must follow the instructions therein given. Davis accordingly at the appointed spot opened this document and read to the crew the contents. It proved to be something in the nature of a Deed of Gift of ship and cargo, and it ended with directions to proceed at once to Brazil, there to dispose of the latter for their own benefit.
Davis was not unwilling, but to his infinite disgust the crew would have nothing to say to any such arrangement; it was piracy pure and simple, they thought, leading in the end to the gallows' foot. For the times, it was a crew singularly virtuous, or cautious to an unwonted degree. But whatever may have been the cause, they insisted on heading for Barbadoes, to which island they knew that part of the cargo was consigned. At Barbadoes the information supplied by the crew as to the death of Skinner and the proposal made to them by Davis, led to the latter being committed to prison; but as no act of piracy had actually been committed, he was liberated in the course of a few months—in no wise, one may suppose, better reconciled to the Law by his confinement.
All chance of honest employment in Barbadoes, however, now being gone, Davis made his way to the island of Providence, in normal times then "a kind of Rendezvous of Pirates," meaning there to ship with some crew of Rovers. Disappointment awaited him; the pirates, taking advantage of the Act of Grace which had lately come from England, had all surrendered to Captain Woods Rogers.
Unemployment, however, from a piratical point of view, was in those days seldom of inconveniently long duration. Ere many weeks had passed, Davis had shipped on board a trading sloop laden with rich goods, and finding amongst her crew not a few of the pirates who, under the Act of Grace, had recently been pardoned, he had no difficulty in persuading them to join him in seizing the ship. At Martinique, therefore, they rose in the night, secured the master in his cabin, and soon had possession of the sloop. Her consort, which lay at anchor near at hand, they knew also to be full of ex-pirates, and very soon both vessels were in possession of the mutineers.
Here, then, were pirates sufficient to man with some strength one of the sloops, and nothing remained but to appoint a captain. Over a big brew of punch,—little was done in those days without a brew of punch,—the choice fell almost unanimously on Davis, who indeed had been the moving spirit in the whole affair. The appointment secured, Davis, knowing the value of a good beginning with such a crew, struck while the iron was hot, and drew up Articles to which the men readily enough agreed. Of these articles, one, indicative of Davis's character, and entirely at variance with generally accepted piratical usage, was to the effect that, on pain of death, whenever an enemy called for quarter it should be granted.
The question next arose, where first to try their fortune. Coxon's Hole was chosen, a secure haven in the East end of the island of Cuba, with an entrance so intricate and narrow that one vessel might readily prevent any hostile force from entering. Here they careened, and cleaned the sloop's bottom, determined at least to hold the advantage of being able to show a clean pair of heels if chased. Then setting forth, they, with a crew of no more than thirty-five men, took a 12-gun French vessel. Even as they boarded her, another sail hove in sight, which the master of the prize pronounced to be a Frenchman of 24 guns who had spoken him the previous day,—heavy odds against a crew of thirty-five, twelve of whom were now away in the prize. A man-of-war of 24 guns in those days would carry a crew of one hundred and sixty men; no doubt this Frenchman would have at least two or three times the number of men that were on board Davis's ship.
Davis, to give the devil his due, was not the man to be dismayed by odds. "That's the ship we need, and that's the ship we're going to take," said he, to his hesitating and uncertain crew. And such already was his ascendancy over the men, such their faith in him, that they made the attempt. "They wondered at his Impudence," one reads of the other ship—a giant opposed to a pigmy,—but partly by force, partly by supreme audacity and "bluff," Davis took the giant, and without loss to himself soon had her crew in irons under hatches. It was a great achievement,—one cannot help admiring the man at all times for his reckless gallantry. In other circumstances, in another Age, he might have been one of his country's Heroes.
This big prize, however, proved to be a very dull, lumbering sailer, so after taking out of her, and also out of the smaller prize, everything that could be of use to him, Davis handed back to the Frenchman the two vessels, and went on his way in the sloop originally seized at Martinique.
Here a prize and there a prize dropped into his hands, and from each came willing recruits to join him. Ere long the pirates mustered a crew of ruffians of all nations, desperate villains, most of them, who would stick at nothing, yet fearing and obeying their leader as a dangerous dog obeys and fears his master.
But prizes grew scarce in West Indian waters; so they sailed for the Cape de Verdes, anchoring presently at St. Nicholas, where the Portuguese, taking the ship to be an English privateer, showed much civility to them. "Davis, making a good Appearance, was caressed by the Governor and the Inhabitants, and no Diversion was wanting which the Portuguese could shew, or their Money purchase." So charmed, indeed, were the pirates with this paradise of St. Nicholas, that in five weeks' time when the sloop again put to sea, several of the crew remained behind, having taken to themselves wives of the island,—a benefit that St. Nicholas might well have dispensed with. Are there descendants of these pirates there to this day, one wonders; and to what form were the English names converted in the Portuguese tongue?
The island of Bona Vista next had Davis's attention, but here the covert was drawn blank, no ship-ping was in port. In the next island visited, however, fortune favoured them; "they met with a great many Ships and Vessels in the Road, all of which they plundered, taking out of them whatever they wanted . . . also strengthened themselves with a great many fresh Hands, who most of them enter'd voluntarily." Indeed there were now crews sufficient to man two vessels, so one of the last captured prizes, fitted with 26 guns and re-named the King James, was pressed into the service.
Unbroken success and long impunity now tempted the pirates to water at St. Jago, and here the Governor, meeting Davis on shore, did not scruple to express doubts as to the honesty of his ship. In a word, he and his men were pirates, said his Excellency. Davis stormed, and brazened the thing out. He "scorned the Governor's words," said he. But nevertheless he got aboard his ship with all speed, vowing vengeance. That night, well-armed boats' crews stole quietly ashore and surprised—it was easy to surprise—the not very vigilant garrison. Captain Phillips' "Old Officer," troubled no more by the broken promises of men in high places, must long ere this have gone to his rest, or the feat might not have been so easy.
Without giving the alarm, Davis's men succeeded in entering the fort, where the garrison quickly giving way, ran into, and barricaded themselves in, the Governor's house, into which the pirates not being able to force an entry, threw "Granadoe Shells, which not only ruined all the Furniture, but killed several Men within." And so when it was day, the pirates, having dismounted the guns of the Fort and done all the mischief possible, with the loss of but three men rejoined their ships, not caring to face on land the wrath of an aroused populace.
Fort James on the Gambia was the next bait that tempted Davis. There was always there great store of money, said he to his crew; it was well worth running some risk.
"But the place is too strong; moreover, it is garrisoned by the English," argued his crew. "The thing is impossible; too hard a nut altogether." (Truly, it was, as Barbot says, "the next best Fortification to Cape Coast Castle of all that are to be found on either the North or South Coast of Guinea.")
"Trust me, and I'll get you in," answered Davis. And without more ado they shaped a course for the Gambia, trusting confidently in their leader's luck and courage.
Arrived within sight of the fort, all his men, except so many as were absolutely necessary to work the ship, were ordered to keep below out of sight, so that the garrison seeing a vessel come to the anchorage in lubberly fashion, handled by a numerically weak crew, might have no suspicion of treachery or imagine that she was anything except what her appearance indicated, an innocent trader. Dropping anchor as close to the fort as the water would allow, Davis, with the master and the surgeon rigged as merchants, and with a boat's crew of six men in slovenly dress (all of whom had been instructed what to answer if questioned), was rowed clumsily ashore, where he was received by a file of soldiers and conducted to the Governor's quarters.
He was from Liverpool, said Davis, laden with iron and plate, bound for the River Senegal to trade for gum and elephants' teeth. He had been chased by two French men-of-war, and had very narrowly escaped. Rather than again run the risk of capture in an attempt to reach the Senegal, he was minded to make the best of a bad market and discharge in the Gambia.
Well," said the Governor, "iron and plate are wanted here, and I am willing to fill you with slaves to the full value of your cargo, if that will meet your views."
Yes; Davis thought that would suit nicely.
"Had he any European liquor on board?" then asked the Governor.
"A little, for their own use only," said Davis, "but a hamper was at the Governor's disposal."
Thereupon the unsuspecting Governor very politely asked them to stay and dine with him.
"But," said Davis, "I am commander of the ship, and I must go aboard again and see her securely moored, and to give some necessary orders. Those other gentlemen may stay if they choose, and I myself will be back in time for dinner; and I'll bring the case of liquor with me."
And off he set. But all the time during his visit, Davis had been making careful mental note of everything, where the sentries were posted, where was the guard-room, how the men on duty carelessly stood their muskets in a corner of the building, where, also, the small arms were kept in the hall opening off the Governor's quarters. Nothing escaped him.
"If you men don't get drunk meantime, it's a sure thing," said Davis, when he got on board his own vessel. "Keep sober, and send twenty hands ashore well armed, as soon as you see me strike the flag that's flying over the fort."
But an awkward circumstance here presented itself. A sloop, running in, had anchored close to the pirate ship, and any unusual bustle on board the latter, any appearance of a crew more numerous than her appearance as a trader might warrant, would certainly rouse suspicion and cause the sloop to warn the garrison.
"Go quietly aboard that sloop," said Davis to some hands whom he could trust; "clap the master and crew in irons, and bring them here."
Ashore again went Davis and his boat's crew, each with a pair of pistols concealed under his clothing.
"Go into the guard-room, get into talk with the men, and if possible get between them and their muskets, and when I fire a pistol through the Governor's window, jump up and secure all the arms. Smartly now," whispered Davis as they secured the boat at the landing.
Dinner was not ready when Davis reached the quarters of the Governor, and the latter, poor man, bent on hospitality, was making a big bowl of punch wherewith to regale his guests. To him went Davis, by way of helping; and just then the coxswain of the pirate boat, masquerading as his captain's servant, whispered, "All's ready!"
"You are my prisoner!" cried Davis, clapping his pistol to the Governor's breast. "Hold up your hands, and quickly; and make no noise, or you're a dead man."
The Governor, "being no ways prepared for such an Attack, promised to be very passive and do all they desired." Poor man, what else was there for him to do on the spur of the moment? Now, having secured and loaded all arms in the room, Davis fired his pistol through the window, as already planned, his men sprang on the muskets of the soldiers, and in a trice the whole garrison was under lock and key, closely guarded. Fort James was taken, without drop of blood spilt on either side, without hurry, without confusion, by the exercise of little but supreme audacity.
Davis harangued the soldiers, we are told, and many of them without hesitation exchanged the uniform of King George I. for the, to them, more congenial life of a pirate. Many a gaol-bird helped to fill the ranks of our army in those days; whole batches of recruits were often but the scourings of the streets of London. In this case, the men who would not join him Davis sent on board the sloop from which he had so lately removed the master and crew, and to prevent the necessity of keeping a guard over them, he simply took away from the sloop all boats and sails, so that they lay there in the river helpless and at his mercy.
The remainder of this day "was spent in a kind of Rejoicing, the Castle firing her Guns to salute the Ship, and the Ship paying the same Compliment to the Castle." One may assume that the timing of the salutes would not be very accurate, the number of guns not strictly in accordance with regulation; they merely blazed away a deal of powder, punctuating the salutes with bottles of rum as long as rum allowed the men to load and fire. However, the next day, we are told, they "minded their business," which was, of course, to collect the booty. Very considerable was its amount, but not so considerable as the pirates had reckoned on;—two thousand pounds in bar gold, and "a great many other rich Effects" they got, indeed, but most of the money in the fort, a large sum, unfortunately (or fortunately) had been sent away a few days before. What they valued they took on board; what was of no immediate use to them they made a present of to the master and crew of the little sloop, to whom also they returned that vessel.
Then to work they set, blowing up the fortifications, dismounting the guns, wrecking the entire place so far as lay in their power. Unhappy Fort James! If it was. not Pirates, it was the French, and if it was not the French it was pirates, who continually made hay there. The place was not weak, yet it fell continually with extraordinary facility, almost, like the walls of Jericho, at the blowing of a trumpet.
But it was not, as we shall presently see, the only fortified place that yielded to Davis.
Ere almost he had finished with the sacking of Fort James, while yet the fumes of its rum sang in his men's heads, there came sailing up the Gambia River on the flowing tide a ship showing French colours, that boldly bore down on them, evidently under the belief that here was a rich prize ready to hand. Davis, not to be caught napping, got up his anchor and made sail, and the enemy, seeing his decks crowded with men, and a formidable number of guns grinning through his ports, rather hung in the wind for a minute, hesitating, till, bolder councils prevailing, she suddenly fired a gun, ran up the black flag, and bore down to board. Thereupon Davis also fired a gun and hoisted similar colours. The rival pirate was a Frenchman of 14 guns and a crew of sixty-four, half-French, half-negroes, commanded by one La Bouse, who now effusively and with enthusiasm embraced Davis, who on his part agreed to sail in company down the coast with La Bouse.
Sierra Leone was the first port entered, and here "they spied a tall Ship at Anchor," which showed no uneasiness at the near approach of suspicious strangers, on whose decks men clustered like swarming bees, and which made no attempt to get away. She must be strong, concluded Davis, as, far in advance of La Bouse, he drew near to the still anchored vessel And strong she was. As Davis ranged alongside, the stranger brought a spring upon her cable and fired a whole broadside into him, at the same time running up the black flag. Davis at once hoisted his own black colours, and, to show he was a friend, fired a gun to leeward. Birds of a feather were indeed now flocking together. This was a ship of 24 guns, commanded by the pirate Cocklyn, who had lain there like some foul spider imagining that Davis and La Bouse were two innocent flies blundering into his web.
No great harm had been done to Davis's ship by Cocklyn's broadside, no harm at least that the carpenter and his mates could not readily repair, and the three pirates agreed to join forces: for "Hawks pyke not out hawks' een." Davis was chosen as Commodore of the squadron, and the first enterprise entered on was characteristic of him,—no less than the reduction of Sierra Leone castle. He ever flew at big game.
At high water on the third day after meeting, the three captains, with a full crew in Cocklyn's brigantine, dropped anchor within musket-shot of the fort, the commander of which having a shrewd suspicion of the strange vessels' intentions, at once opened heavy fire, The brigantine replied as hotly, and for many hours the two hammered away, till the other pirate vessels coming up to take part in the fray, the garrison were overcome with panic and fled, leaving everything to the tender mercy of the pirates.
In this castle they remained seven weeks, mean-time cleaning their ships, and taking now and again some unfortunate vessel that happened unsuspectingly to put in. Here, too, Cocklyn captured Snelgrave, the slaver already mentioned in a former chapter. "Cocklyn and his Crew," says Snelgrave, "were a Set of the basest and most cruel Villains that ever were." They had chosen Cocklyn to command them, Snelgrave learned, "on account of his Brutality and Ignorance; having resolved never again to have a Gentleman-like Commander, as they said Moody was." (Moody was a pirate captain, who, not caring to associate with Cocklyn and such as he, had some months before marooned him and his men, an action, however, which was of little benefit eventually to Moody, for the remainder of his crew presently marooned him and twelve others in an open boat, and they were never heard of more.) As to Davis, of whom also at this time Snelgrave saw not a little, he is described as "a most generous and humane Man," and elsewhere as "a generous Man, and kept his Crew consisting of near a hundred and fifty Men, in good order; nor did he join with the others, to the Author's misfortune."
But before telling the tale of Snelgrave's captivity amongst the pirates, it is well perhaps to finish with Davis.
No more than seven weeks lasted this alliance between the three captains; then they quarrelled during a drinking bout on Davis's ship. Cocklyn and La Bouse became more brutal than Davis could tolerate.
"Hark ye," said he, starting up, "you Cocklyn and La Bouse. I find by strengthening you I have put a Rod into your Hands to whip myself. But I am still able to deal with you both. However, since we met in Love, so let us part, for I find that three of a trade can never agree long together."
And that was the end; they met no more, each sailing on a separate course, each, like some foul bird of prey, questing on his own account.
Davis held on down the coast, taking, plundering, and then letting go, several English and Scottish vessels. The most formidable foe that he fell in with was a large Dutch interloper of 30 guns and ninety men. Off Cape Three Points the two met and fought it out. The Hollander was the quicker to get in a first broadside, killing at the one discharge no less than nine of Davis's men; but Davis, not behind, replied as warmly. And so, from two bells in the afternoon watch, through all that evening, throughout the long dark sweltering tropic night, the thunder of their guns echoed, like summer lightning their flash lit the sky, and till nine next morning that stubborn battle raged. Then the Dutchmen gave way and struck their flag. Davis's greater tenacity and the superior discipline of his men told their tale, as they ever must tell where strength is anything like evenly balanced.
A welcome capture was this interloper, and Davis converted her to his own use under the name of the Rover, mounting in her 32 guns and 27 swivels. In every respect she was a vessel far superior to his own. In the Rover, one of his first captures was that of the ship Princess, whereof the second mate—as his ill fortune willed it—was a man afterwards very famous, or infamous,—Roberts the notorious pirate. Of whom more hereafter.
After this, running down the coast for Princes Isle, capture after capture fell to Davis, and one of them he handed over to his Dutch prisoners, for Davis was, as Snelgrave said, "a generous man," far removed from that type of pirate who caused his prisoners to walk the plank. As a general thing, indeed, he got rid of captured ships by presenting them to those prisoners who declined to serve with him. Sometimes even he restored at once to its commander a captured vessel,—after having, it must be admitted, removed to his own ship everything of value in shape of money or merchandise. Such an instance was that Dutch vessel on board of which the Governor of Acra was taking all his effects and his fortune home to Holland. Money alone to the amount of £15,000 sterling was the haul on this occasion, besides much else that was of value. Thereafter the Dutchmen received their vessel back again, none the worse in hull or rigging, save for the one broadside which Davis gave her before she struck. And it is to be hoped that the Governor, poor man, esteemed himself lucky to escape sound in wind and limb, if considerably lighter in pocket.
But now Fortune wearied of Davis. His day was done; at Princes Isle came the end. Running in to the anchorage under English colours, Davis gave out that he was a King's ship in search of pirates, of whose presence on the coast he had information. The Portuguese saluted as the Rover ran in and anchored under the fort's guns, and Davis returned the compliment in real man-of-war style.
Then ashore went he, where the Governor with a guard of honour ceremoniously awaited him. Everything, of whatsoever kind, that he needed should be promptly supplied, promised the Governor. And "Thank your Excellency. The King of England will pay for whatever I take," answered Davis. And all went merry as a marriage bell Even when a French vessel came to an anchor in the Road, and Davis, unable to resist the temptation, plundered her, alleging to the Portuguese Governor that she had had dealings with the pirates, and that in fact he had found on her "several Pirates' Goods" which he had confiscated "for the King's use," no suspicion was aroused; on the contrary, the Governor highly commended his vigilance and promptitude.
Days passed, till, having cleaned and overhauled his ship, Davis felt that he must now turn his attention to the island itself and its Treasure Chest. But where lay this Treasure Chest? To find that was the difficulty. So he hit on a stratagem. A dozen negro slaves were to be presented to the Governor as a small return for his civility and attention to the wants of this English man-of-war; then following on the presentation, the Governor, the chief men of the island, and some of the priests, should be invited to a great banquet on board the Rover. Once on board, it should go ill if they got off under a ransom of £40,000. A very pretty scheme no doubt, but one in which there was a flaw that proved fatal. A Portuguese negro lad on board the Rover had overheard the pirates discussing this plot—rum had loosened their tongues and dulled their ears and wits. He swam ashore during the night and gave information.
Now, the Governor of Princes Isle was a cunning man, in his own estimation a diplomatist of no mean order, haughty and proud. It hurt his sense of the fitness of things that impostors, common pirates, should plot to deceive and to kidnap him. "Nay! I know a trick worth two of that," thought his Excellency. So he kept a still tongue. No word said he, but he smiled, when Davis, to do him, as it were, the greater honour, in person brought the invitation to his banquet. "Would the Governor go? Assuredly; with unbounded pleasure; the honour was great. Meantime would the English captain with his officers and boat's crew before returning to their ship be pleased to partake of refreshment in the Governor's poor abode?"
Alas for Davis! No suspicion crossed his mind. As they passed a clump of bushes on the way to Government House, at a given signal a volley of musketry dropped every man of the pirates save one, and that one, flying for his life, alone escaped on board. Davis fell, shot through the stomach, but struggling again to his feet, in great agony vainly tried to regain the beach. Poor Davis! Feebly he strove to hold himself erect and to stagger shoreward; but strength failed and he fell, and died, even as he died firing his pistols at those who only now dared to face him.
He was a great scoundrel, no doubt;—a gallows-bird. Yet he was a brave man and never a cruel one, and one cannot withhold from him a sneaking kind of regard. A gallant life wasted! Had his lines fallen differently, what might he not have done, fighting his Country's battles as an officer in the grandest Service the world has seen, the Royal Navy? He might have lived to fight, with Vernon, at Porto Bello, or with Anson have circumnavigated the Globe.
Dismay and rage were on the Rover that night, dismay and rage, and a consuming hunger for revenge. In their own way, his men, even the baser among them, loved Davis, and they thirsted for the blood of his murderers. But first a leader must be chosen.
Though he had joined the pirates with reluctance, and had been in all but six weeks on board, the choice fell on Roberts, who accepted the post not over graciously. "Since he had dipped his hands in muddy water, and must be a pirate, it was better to command than to serve," said he. No choice more likely to bring success could have been made. He was known to be a skilled seaman and navigator, he had proved himself to be a man whom nothing could daunt, he was not given to drink, and, as the Articles afterwards drawn up by him prove, he was, or wished to be, a disciplinarian. His was, in short, like Davis's, a good life thrown away.
Roberts's first act on assuming command was to send ashore a force sufficient to deal out punishment. Thirty pirates, led by one Kennedy, a North of Ireland man, a daring fellow, but save for brute courage without one redeeming quality, attacked the fort, from which the Portuguese fled without making any pretence of defending it. Thereupon the Rover's men marched in, rolled the guns down the cliff into the sea and set the place on fire. But this was not enough, and most of the crew voted for sacking and burning the town. Roberts, however, restrained them, showing how lean would be the advantage gained, and at what risk of being cut off, and instead suggested that the French ship lately taken should be lightened so as to draw very little water, and, mounted with 12 guns, should be run in close to the town, where she could securely and at leisure knock the place about the ears of the inhabitants. Having carried out this plan to their hearts' content, the pirates handed back the French sloop to her owners and withdrew from the bay, leaving behind them a mass of ruins on land, and a bonfire of Portuguese shipping on the water.