Pirates of the Guinea Coast: Roberts, Massey, and Cocklyn
Sail, was made on the Rover, and a course shaped to the southward, and finally for the coast of Brazil, where, keeping wholly out of sight of land, for over two months not a prize fell to them, not a sail showed white on the empty world of waters. Luck had fled with the death of Davis.
However, as the Rover ran in one day to make the land preparatory to taking a departure for the West Indies, off Los Todos Santos Bay gleamed the welcome topsails of no less than forty-two heavily laden Portuguese ships, a very feast of shipping for the pirates to gloat over. Every ship no doubt was armed, some heavily armed, and to leeward of them were two 70-gun ships-of-war, meant to act as convoy. But they were "only Portuguese," scornfully said the pirates, and Roberts never hesitated. Keeping his men carefully hidden, he ranged up on the weather side of the deepest-laden of the merchantmen, one straggling somewhat wide from the rest of the convoy, and ordered her master to come on board the pirate ship instantly and quietly, otherwise the Portuguese ship should be blown out of the water. Surprised and intimidated, the merchant skipper obeyed, and once on board
"Now," said Roberts, "point out to me the most richly laden vessel in your fleet. If you speak true, all shall go well with you; but if you hesitate, or deceive me, there ends your life."
The master, yellow with fear, pointed to a large vessel at no great distance, a ship of 40 guns and at least a hundred and fifty men. Not an instant paused Roberts to calculate chances. Said he to his trembling prisoner, as soon as the Rover drew within hail of her bulky foe,
" Invite her master to come aboard here."
"He would come presently," was the answer. But from the immediate bustle and hurry that were apparent on board, it was quite evident that the "Portugal"smelt a rat, and that they so answered merely to gain time. Without waiting to give them that time, the Rover poured in a broadside and sheered alongside to board. The fight was brief, if on the Portuguese side bloody. In the rush of boarding, two only of the Rover's men were killed, but the Portuguese fared ill at the hands of the pirates.
A pretty panic was there now in the convoy, guns firing on all sides, from every ship signals fluttering and constantly being changed, and the big men-of-war slowly bearing down towards Roberts, as he and his prize drew out from the crowd of shipping. The great 70-gunners, however, "made but sorry Haste" to the rescue; yet the prize sailed no faster than a hayrick, and however slow they came it was evidently but a matter of brief time till overwhelming force should snatch this rich morsel from the Rover's jaws. One of the ships-of-war was far in advance of her consort, and Roberts boldly played a trump card; he backed his main top-sail and waited for her.
But that did not suit the big ship; she would not venture to attack unsupported, and so she lulled up in the wind and also waited. That was what Roberts had calculated on; by the time the second man-of-war had got near enough to stiffen the resolution of the first, the prize was safe away, and the Rover then showed the big line-of-battle-ships her heels, without so much as having a shot fired at her. It was not exactly a glorious victory for the Portuguese.
Exceeding rich was this prize that the Rover had taken, and great was the jubilation over her capture. Sugar, skins, tobacco, four thousand gold moidores, jewels, gold chains, and, to crown all, a great diamond cross that was being sent home for the King of Portugal, formed the chief part of her cargo. To enjoy this booty the pirates put into the Surinam River (Dutch Guiana), at the appropriately named Devil's Island, where, we read, they "found the civilest Reception imaginable."
And here it was that events gave rise to the dispersal of the pirates, and to the eventual return of Roberts and a portion of his crew to their former haunts on the Guinea Coast. It chanced that the Rover was short of fresh provisions, and hearing from the master of a small sloop captured at the mouth of the Surinam River that a vessel laden with such stores as were needed was then due on the coast from Rhode Island, a sharp look-out was kept for her. Why indeed should they buy when they might so conveniently take!
In a day or two the look-out man reported a sail, without doubt the expected vessel, apparently making for the entrance. On the principle that if you want a thing well done, do it yourself, Roberts himself with an armed crew of forty men tumbled hastily on board the lately captured sloop, hoisted sail, and started to cut off the anticipated prize before she should enter the river. It was a job but of an hour or two; by the afternoon they would be again on board the Rover. But the stranger steadily kept her course down the coast to the southward, and the sloop gained slowly, if at all; nay, by nightfall the chase was hull down, and by morning all sign of her was gone. Worse still, wind and current were both against the sloop, and eight days' beating found her, with food and water both giving out, still ninety miles to leeward of Surinam, and without immediate prospect of being able to rejoin their ship.
As a last resource a boat was sent off to order the Rover to drop down for them. Dismal were the tidings the boat brought back after many days. Kennedy—he who had led the landing party after the death of Davis at Princes Isle—had been left in charge; and Kennedy had played them false. An ill dog was this Irishman, originally a pickpocket, then a housebreaker; reckless courage was the one quality that caused him to be tolerated by the pirates, who despised petty larceny or small crimes like burglary. But he had a following of his own on the Rover, and no sooner was the sloop out of sight that day when she left the river, than he had set about undermining Roberts's authority. To Kennedy, honour among thieves was a creed unknown. Here, said he, they had a good ship and a rich prize by her side; let them now clear out with both, for so much the greater would be each man's dividend if Roberts and his forty men were out of the division.
Little did Kennedy's treachery benefit him then or later. The traitors got clean away, it is true, for the time being at any rate, and some went one way, some another, carrying with them their plunder. The rich Portuguese prize, still half laden, was handed over to the master and crew of the sloop captured in Surinam River. From near Barbadoes a few of the absconding pirates took arbitrary passage on board a Virginian schooner, whose captain, a Quaker named Knott, later succeeded in bringing to the knowledge of Governor Spotswood of Virginia what manner of passenger he had been forced to carry, knowledge which speedily brought to the gallows four of the pirates. Kennedy and some of the others sailed for Ireland on board a Boston sloop then captured by them, though Kennedy, despised for his treachery even by those who had aided him, was permitted to join with them only after taking—to save his life—the most stringent oaths of fidelity. Those who remained on the Rover were never more heard of,—probably they landed at some convenient spot, some former haunt, for the ship was presently found drifting derelict among the islands, void of crew, but with still a few hapless slaves on board. Kennedy and those with him, who had shaped a course for the Irish coast,—it was in that green isle that they planned to scatter their wealth,—were so far out in their reckoning (one only amongst them had even a superficial knowledge of navigation), that the north-west coast of Scotland was the first land sighted. However, it was land, and there they left the sloop to look after herself, whilst they themselves, routing and roaring like wild bulls, to the terror of a quiet countryside, hastened townward, drawn by the loadstone of debauchery.
Not long did their "fling" last. As they neared Edinburgh, some while drunk and reeling along the roads were murdered for their money. Others, to the number of seventeen, on vague charges were laid by the heels in prison, and the proffered evidence of two brought a halter and the gallows to many. Kennedy, who had stolen over to Ireland, soon spent all his money, and destitute, made his way to London, where, lying in prison on charge of house-breaking, he was recognised by the mate of a vessel he had plundered, and was tried for piracy. To save his life, Kennedy turned King's evidence, which availed him not at all, and to the sorrow of none, not even of his comrades, who indeed are said to have heartily approved the sentence, he ended his evil career on the scaffold. Of those against whom he had informed, one only was taken, and he—various extenuating circumstances being taken into account—received a pardon. But "Walter Kennedy, a notorious Offender, was executed the 19 of July 1721."
Roberts, without provisions or water, and in no position to obtain either, was left, as we have seen, in a most unenviable situation, from which there was small chance of escape unless a prize should fortunately turn up. As it chanced, good fortune did attend him in that respect, and with immediate necessities relieved, the sloop bore up for the West Indies. Here prize after prize came to the pirates' net, and to prevent a repetition of treachery such as Kennedy's, Roberts drew up a stringent set of Articles for the better ruling of their affairs and for the better control and discipline of the crew. Every man had a vote; every one was entitled to an equal share of fresh provisions and liquor, to which he might help himself when he pleased, (a law which, however inevitable and excellent from a socialistic point of view, possibly might not lead to the easier control of individual members, nor to the greater well-being of the whole). Any man defrauding the company, to the extent even of one dollar, was to be marooned on some desolate isle or cape, provided only with a gun, some bullets, a bottle of water, and a bottle of powder. If a man stole from another member of the crew, he should also be set ashore, though not necessarily on an uninhabited spot, his nose and ears first being slit. No person was permitted to gamble for money with cards or dice. All lights must be out by eight o'clock, and any of the crew desiring to continue drinking after that hour must drink on deck. (This rule it was found impossible to enforce.) Deserting the ship, or deserting their quarters in action, was punishable with death; but in battle, also, the captain might with impunity shoot any man who refused to obey orders. Quarrels must be fought out on shore; no man might strike another on board ship. Such were some of the Articles. But perhaps, for a pirate ship, the most strange was Law XI., which provided that the ship's Musicians "should have Rest on the Sabbath Day." That pirates should cultivate music is almost as strange as it is to learn that they paid any form of respect to the first day of the week. Some recollection of boyhood's days, and the savour of a pious mother's upbringing, perhaps still clung to Roberts.
Many a hair's-breadth escape from defeat and capture had the pirates about this time, and notably they caught a Tartar and escaped with the skin of their teeth, when off Barbadoes they ran alongside one of two innocent-looking Bristol ships, which, as it happened, had been specially fitted out to deal with them.
Nevertheless, they increased in numbers, ever finding ready recruits. But Roberts's influence over them waned. He did not drink, (and in such a community sobriety brought a man under suspicion); and he kept, much and increasingly, to himself;—two offences hard to pardon. Probably for this reason, that they were getting out of hand, it came to pass that the mischief done became more wanton, the treatment of prisoners less humane. Thus, when with the Death's Head and Cross Bones flying, the pirates ran one day into a Newfoundland port, they burned there more than a score of vessels, and did incalculable mischief ashore, without excuse and without any possible benefit to themselves. Then, cruising on the Banks, they took many ships, sometimes sinking or burning wantonly, or throwing into the sea valuable merchandise they did not themselves need; sometimes, too, maltreating passengers. Utterly reckless and out of hand they had become, and they told one captain whose ship they had captured that "They would accept of no Act of Grace; that the King and Parliament might be d—d with their Acts of Grace for them. Neither would they go to Hope Point, to be hanged up a sun-drying, as Kidd's and Braddish's company was; but that if they should ever be overpowered, they would set fire to the powder with a pistol and all merrily go to Hell together."
It remained to be seen if they would carry out those easily made boasts; and on the Guinea Coast later the opportunity was given to show if they were real, or mere cheap bombast born of habitual alcoholic excess.
Roberts was then cruising in a fine frigate-built vessel captured at Sestos from the Royal African Company, the Onslow, re-christened by the pirates, in remembrance of another of their ships, the Royal Fortune, and fitted by them to carry 40 guns. Of the Onslow's crew, the majority readily joined the pirates, and even her passengers, a detachment of soldiers under orders for Cape Corso Castle, followed the example. These last, it may be said, were only tolerated and allowed to join as a favour, for the pirates held unbounded contempt for mere landsmen, especially for "sodgers." The soldiers' dividend, in fact, was to be but a quarter that of a fore-mast hand,—a trifling matter of charity indeed.
To another passenger on the Onslow, however, the pirates offered full dividends if he would but join. His work, said they, should be no more than to make Punch and to say Prayers. They never had had a real live Chaplain of their own, and to be complete their ship was in need of one. Here was the article ready made to their hand—the new Chaplain of Cape Corso Castle on his way out from England! Come he must and should. But the berth was not to the parson's liking. The honour was declined. Curiously enough, no resentment was shown by the pirates at the Chaplain's plain speaking; they even allowed him not only to retain all his own property, but to lay claim to anything else on the ship, and "in fine, they kept nothing which belonged to the Church, except three Prayer Books, and a Bottle Screw."
In this new Royal Fortune, then, Roberts sailed down the coast, carrying everywhere dismay and confusion, taking ship after ship, burning one, sinking another, letting a third go at ransom.
"This is to certify whom it may or doth concern, that we Gentlemen of Fortune have received eight pounds of Gold-Dust for the Ransom of the Hardey, Captain Dittwitt, Commander; so that we discharge the said Ship.
Witness our Hands this 13th of Jan. 1721-2.
So runs the copy of a document the duplicate of which was received in those days by many a vessel less unfortunate than some of her fellows. At Whydah, where presently the Royal Fortune put in, ten such papers were issued by Roberts. The pirates must have made here the pretty haul of close on £5000 in ransoms alone, and one might look with less jaundiced eye on the transaction, were it not for their treatment of an eleventh ship captured there, but not ransomed. The Porcupine, an old vessel of little value, but full of slaves, lay there at anchor amongst the others. Her captain, who was ashore at the time of her capture, did not think her—irrespective of her cargo—worth the ransom demanded, and he refused to pay. Roberts sent a boat to remove the slaves preparatory to burning the ship, but his men losing patience over the delay caused by unshackling the poor creatures, set her on fire as she lay, leaving eighty human beings to choose between death by burning and being torn in pieces by the sharks with which Whydah Road swarms. It was the worst, and among the last, of the many evil deeds that stand to the debit of Roberts and his men.
Into Whydah the Royal Fortune had run on this errand of ill, "a black Silk Flag flying at their Mizzen Peak, and a Jack and Pendant of the same: the Flag had a Death upon it, with an Hour Glass in one Hand, and Cross Bones in the other, a Dart by it, and underneath a Heart dropping three Drops of Blood. The Jack had a Man portrayed on it with a flaming Sword in his Hand, and standing on two Skulls." A terrifying enough sight, this, to honest traders, but dear to the hearts of ruffian sea robbers, who in all ages and races have affected the pomp and circumstance of the theatre, and who from ancient Sallee Rover down to present-day Chinese pirate have loved to strike terror to the hearts of their victims by use of ghastly or fear-imposing symbols.
On one other notable occasion Roberts's men flew those colours,—the last on which they ever fought under the ill-omened emblems.
At Whydah, Roberts, by an intercepted letter, learned how closely H.M.S. Swallow was dogging his course. But a few months now of beating up and down that coast, and then—the end. The Royal Fortune left Whydah on January 13th; the Swallow arrived four days later. In May, Chaloner Ogle in the Swallow, with his consort the Weymouth, was at Sierra Leone, and put to sea but a little time before Roberts happened to look in. There Roberts learned news which lulled the pirates into the carelessness of fancied security. The ships-of-war were foul from long cruising, and must clean. Moreover, before they finished cleaning at Princes Isle, an epidemic broke out on board which in three weeks' time carried off a hundred men, and left the ships' companies in a state too weak to handle them or to make sail smartly. It was all in favour of Roberts, and the pirates vapoured up and down the coast unmolested.
But there came a day when, near the dawning, the Swallow, off Cape Lopez, heard the report of a gun, and presently looking into the bay, spied three vessels at anchor, the largest flying King's colours and pendant. That this could be no King's ship was well known to the Swallow's people; therefore it must be some one, probably Roberts, for his own purposes masquerading as a ship of war.
Naturally, a trader putting in there, if she saw a King's ship lying at anchor, would, for the sake of security, moor as near to her as might be. Hence, when the Swallow made towards the strangers, no move was made on board the anchored ships. But when the Swallow, to avoid the Frenchman's Bank, a long and dangerous shoal, headed as if she might be trying to leave the bay in alarm, one of the smaller of the three strangers made instant sail, and gave chase. This confirmed the Swallow in her suspicions, so while feigning to clap on every rag of canvas that would draw, her commander yet so contrived to handle her that the pirate slowly but surely gained. Presently, but yet so far at sea that the sound of firing might not be heard in the bay, the pursuer had drawn near enough to fire her bow chasers; the black flag was run up, her sprit-sail yard swung amidships that nothing might prevent her running alongside to board the flying merchantman, her crew stood ready to jump, as they imagined, at the throats of terrified traders. Then in a twinkling all was changed. Suddenly the Swallow rounded to, up went her lower deck ports and a stinging broadside sent splinters flying about the pirates' ears and made the scuppers run blood. For two hours the action continued, till her main top-mast coming down by the run, and thirty of her men lying dead or wounded on her deck, the Ranger, of 32 guns and a hundred and three men, struck her colours. Skrine, her captain, had a leg carried off by a round shot, yet remained on deck and continued to fight his ship to the end. Her crew, it is said, "appeared gay and brisk, most of them with white Shirts, Watches, and Silk Vests"; but some of them, as the man-of-war's boats drew alongside, spoilt part of their finery by an abortive attempt to blow up the ship. Had there been powder enough, probably the attempt would have been successful; as it was, it but served to burn and disfigure those who tried it. Thus far at least they had justified their boasting. And some of the wounded men that night lay and raved in delirium that as soon as Roberts came they would be freed.
Badly mauled and sinking as was the Ranger at the end of the fight, so sure was the Swallow's captain that the Royal Fortune would await her consort's return, that he lay alongside for two days, repairing the damaged ship, before bearing up once more for Cape Lopez. That he was right in his expectation was at once evident when again the Cape was sighted, for there was the Royal Fortune, just rounding the point, running in with a prize newly taken. That was evening, and for that night at least nothing could be done. But in the early morning, as the Swallow came round the Cape her topsails were seen by Roberts's man, showing over the tree-clad point of land that shut in the bay. Yet no notice was taken by any of them, no preparation made. "It's a Frenchman," said one; "a Portuguee," said another; "the little Ranger coming back," thought many. But most cared no whit either way, for they had passed the night drinking in their new prize's rum, "Success to pirating."
However, there was one pirate who knew her only too well as she came full in view, who saw her with sinking heart, a deserter from the Swallow, a man named Armstrong. He must have been below, or fuddled with rum, that time when she decoyed the Ranger out of the bay, or the pirates would have known better than to lie where they were. Now at least there were none who did not know what they had to expect, but the more pot-valiant boasted of what they would do with this King's ship. As the Swallow raised her ports and hoisted her colours, Roberts slipped his cable and made sail, at the same time beating to quarters. But, "It's a bite," he said with a bitter oath.
With every sail drawing and her black flag fluttering aloft, the Royal Fortune tried to slip past the Swallow without immediately replying to the latter's broadside, designing when once out of the bay to run before the wind, that being, as Armstrong reported to Roberts, the point on which the frigate sailed worst. If disabled, the pirates would run their ship ashore, land as best they might, and trust to getting clear away in the bush; or, if the worst came to the worst, then there was nothing for it but to close with the Swallow and try to carry her by boarding.
But things went amiss. The men were drunk, orders were not promptly carried out; the frigate coming round smartly let fly a second broadside, and bad steering or a sudden shift of wind caused the pirate to be taken aback. Even yet Roberts might have made a good fight. But as he stood by the mizzen rigging, a gallant if theatrical figure, clad in "a rich crimson damask Waistcoat and Breeches, a red Feather in his Hat, a Gold Chain round his Neck with a Diamond Cross hanging to it, a Sword in his Hand, and two pair of Pistols hanging at the end of a Silk Sling flung over his Shoulders," a grape-shot took him in the throat. "He settled himself on the Tackles of a Gun; which one Stephenson, from the Helm, observing, ran to his Assistance, and not perceiving him wounded, swore at him, and bade him stand up and fight like a Man; but when he found his Mistake, and that his Captain was certainly dead, he gushed into Tears, and wished the next Shot might be his Portion."
That practically settled the matter; there was little fight left in the pirates after the fall of their leader, and when another broadside carried away their mainmast by the board, they deserted their quarters and surrendered, calling out for quarter. But before they struck, some of the men, not forgetful of an old promise to Roberts, threw his body overboard in all its finery.
As the frigate's boats came alongside the Royal Fortune, a few of the more reckless of the pirates tried to blow her up, according to their boast, but the attempt was foiled by some of themselves, and soon all the survivors were under hatches, the bulk of them on board the Swallow, but a few, chiefly the wounded, on their own ship.
Thus was Roberts' whole squadron wiped out, for the pirates without even attempting to make sail deserted the other consort which had remained with him, and panic-stricken fled ashore. The prisoners, something like one hundred and sixty of them, were a dangerous lot for the frigate in her weakened condition to convey round to Cape Coast. It was an anxious time for officers and men, and more than one plot to rise and murder the crew was nipped but just in time.
Notwithstanding the fact that all the prisoners were shackled, some of them contrived to get rid of their fetters, and it had gone hard with the numerically weak prize crew on the Royal Fortune, had not a pirate, perhaps more timid, or more diplomatic, than his fellows, given timely information of a plot hatched and near brought to maturity by the pirate surgeon.
Some of the prisoners remained quiet throughout, frightened no doubt; one hesitates to say they were repentant, though a few, to the infinite annoyance and disgust of their more dissolute comrades, read the Bible and prayed often. A man named Sutton, one of the most profane and reckless of the lot, utterly unmoved by prospect of his almost certain doom,—he was amongst those afterwards hanged,—it chanced was secured in the same irons with another prisoner who read and prayed without ceasing throughout the passage. "This man Sutton used to swear at, and ask him, 'what he proposed by such Noise and Devotion?'
"'Heaven,' says the other, 'I hope.'
"'Heaven, you Fool!' says Sutton, 'did you ever hear of any Pirates going thither? Give me Hell, it's a merrier place. I'll give Roberts a Salute of thirteen guns at my Entrance.' And when he found such ludicrous Expressions had no Effect on him, he made a formal Complaint, and requested that the Officer would either remove this Man, or take his Prayer Book away, as a common Disturber."
With most, however, this recklessness and bravado did not survive the voyage. When they came to be under lock and key on land their tune changed, and the greater number joined twice a day in public prayers and the singing of Psalms. Poor wretches! There was heavy reckoning to pay. Of the hundred and sixty, seventy were condemned,—there was no evidence legally to convict the others,—and fifty-two were hanged "without the Gates of this Castle . . . within the Flood Marks," as the words of the sentence ran. Afterwards, according to the barbarous custom of the times, their bodies were hung in chains at various places along the coast, a grizzly spectacle. Mr. Joseph Allen, R.N., in the 1852 edition of Battles of the British Navy, says that "several of the gibbets until very lately remained standing."
Mention has already been made of Captain John Massey, whose reign as a corsair was singularly brief, unstained too by bloodshed or by other crime common to the vile brotherhood that served under the black flag. Massey seems indeed to have embarked on the life more in a fit of anger at real or fancied ill-treatment by the Royal African Company, than from any special attraction that such a career held for him. He was in fact the dupe of others. A gentleman and a soldier, entirely unused to a sea-faring life, Massey was as little fitted to be a Pirate as he was to be an Archbishop. Sent out from England in 1721 in command of a detachment of soldiers under orders to garrison Fort James in the Gambia, after its capture and destruction by Davis, he discovered there a state of affairs which roused all his professional prejudices, and hurt his natural pride as a man. Instead of finding himself treated with respect, and with some show of deference, as commander of the garrison of a rising settlement, he realised that in effect he was nothing more than a sort of upper servant of the merchants and factors of the Gambia. Moreover, the provisions and liquor supplied to his men by order of those merchants were not only bad in quality but insufficient in quantity. Massey remonstrated. He had not come to the Gambia to be a Guinea slave, said he. He alone was responsible for the welfare of the soldiers under his command, and he had promised them good treatment and good and sufficient food and drink. Things must be altered speedily, or he would "take suitable measures for the preservation of so many of his countrymen and companions." His remonstrances were but so much wasted breath. The merchants were probably making far too good a thing out of supplying the garrison stores to pay any heed. Massey consulted the new Governor, Colonel Whitney, and found him equally with himself simmering with indignation. Moreover, he had found himself treated with no greater deference or respect than was Massey; his position was just as little satisfactory. But the Governor was sick of a fever and in no condition to cope with the difficulty. What he could say, he did say; and perhaps, for Massey's good, he said more than he should have said, or Massey's just indignation put on his words a construction they were not meant to bear. Sick men do not always choose their words with discretion. At all events, Massey was encouraged to rebel, to take what he thought to be "suitable measures."
It so chanced—unhappily for Massey—that on the Gambia Castle, the vessel on which he and his men came from England, there was a certain George Lowther, her second mate, with whom during the voyage he had become very intimate. Lowther was a coarse but plausible man, a great favourite with the crew, though on bad terms with his captain, with whom he had quarrelled during the voyage, and whom indeed only the threatening attitude of the men had prevented from putting the second mate in irons. Thus both Lowther and Massey had a grievance, and as they nursed each other's wrath, gradually the former fanned the soldier's indignation to the striking point. Massey burned to take his men away from this vile hole. Well, why should not he and Lowther seize the ship and go home, suggested the latter. The crew, said he, would stick to him through thick and thin. The idea struck Massey as magnificent; more "suitable measures "could not possibly be devised, and he knew that where he led his men would follow without question.
So the plot ripened. And one day when the captain was on shore, Lowther seized the ship, and sent to Massey a message that "Now was the time." Massey hastened to the barracks. "You men that are of a mind to go to England, now is your time," cried he. Naturally they were all of a mind to go to England if their commanding officer gave them the chance. The fort was seized, the guns dismounted, the store-house ransacked for provisions and wine for the voyage.
Then Massey found that the Governor, whatever his feelings might have been when the question of "measures "was originally discussed by them, was not with him in what had now been done, and would have none of it. But it was too late to draw back; to England they must go without Colonel Whitney. And so the soldiers soon found themselves on board the Gambia Castle, standing down the river towards the open sea, none the worse of the few shots fired at them by other ships, and lucky in getting off a mud-bank on to which the stream set them.
Once at sea, Lowther came out in his true colours. To take to piracy had been his intention all through, he owned. Whether he liked it or not, Massey had taken part in an act of piracy, and he had better make the best of it; there was no escape now, for to England he (Lowther) had no intention of going. Say what he might, do what he could, Massey was helpless. And, moreover, he did complicate matters sadly a few days later, by joining in the capture of a vessel. But she was French, and to harass the French under all circumstances was no doubt in his eyes a virtue. To harass the French, indeed, was now his one idea, and when the ship arrived in West Indian waters he entreated Lowther to give him thirty men and to let him go ashore to harry the French settlements. Lowther refused, and out of his refusal grew a quarrel so bitter that in the end, finding Massey hopeless as a Pirate, he put him, and ten of his soldiers who disliked ship life and piracy as much as did their leader, on board a captured sloop and left them to shift for themselves.
Massey headed at once for Jamaica and gave himself up to the Governor, Sir Nicholas Laws, telling him the entire tale, sparing himself in nothing, and owning that he certainly merited hanging. But, said he, "'twas to save so many of His Majesty's subjects from perishing; and his design was to return to England, till Lowther conspiring with the greater part of the company went a-pirating with the ship."
The Governor was not greatly struck with the blackness of Massey's guilt, and allowed him to go free, allowed him even to help in the attempt to capture Lowther. But Massey was afflicted with a most morbid and inconvenient conscience; his guilt preyed upon his mind, and he could not rest content with the Governor's pardon. He must needs go home, and accuse himself there; nothing apparently would satisfy him but that he should be hanged as high as Hainan.
So to England went Massey, even borrowing money from Sir Nicholas Laws to pay his passage. Arrived in London, with conscientious zeal this repentant sinner sat down and wrote to the Governor and Directors of the African Company a long and particular account of his misdeeds. "Rashness and Inadvertency, occasioned by his being ill used, contrary to the Promises that had been made him," was the one excuse he urged. For the rest, he owned that his crimes deserved death. "Yet," concluded this pitiful, pathetic letter, "if you have Generosity enough to forgive me, as I am still capable to do you Service as a Soldier, so I will be very ready to do it; but if you resolve to prosecute me, I beg only this Favour, that I may not be hanged like a Dog, but suffered to die like a Soldier, as I have been bred from my Childhood: that is, that I may be shot."
Poor Massey! Did he think that a Board of Directors could be delivered of an offspring so angelic as Mercy; that on a question which touched their pockets they would return an answer savouring of leniency! Their reply was that he "should be fairly hanged."
Why did the man not go away, even now! They had nothing except his own word on which to proceed against him, no evidence worth a jot from a legal point of view. There were no witnesses in England who could testify to anything, and if Massey chose to hold his tongue, how could they even prove that he had written to the Board that accusatory letter?
But the unhappy man on receipt of the Board's reply must needs go off to the Lord Chief Justice's Chambers, enquiring there, "if my Lord had yet granted a Warrant against Captain John Massey for piracy?" No such warrant had been applied for; even the Board of the African Company was in no hurry. There was yet time for this self-accused pirate to take himself off. If he would but have owned to himself that he had been a dupe and not a villain! But no man likes to write himself down an ass; even the victim of the Confidence Trick seldom confesses to himself how simple he has been.
Massey left his address at the Lord Chief Justice's Chambers, against the time when he should be wanted. It was a new experience for my Lord's clerks to have a pirate storming the very citadel of the Law, but they took down his address in writing, and a few days later the Runners found Massey at his lodgings, patiently waiting for them. Nothing could be proved at his trial; he went about for months on bail, till witnesses—the Captain of the Gambia Castle for one—had been brought from the Guinea Coast; and then, at last, they condemned him to death. Poor, simple Massey! He was not even shot, as he desired to be. He died the one death he dreaded, the death of a Dog. He was hanged at Execution Dock on 26th July 1723.
What, one may wonder, would have been the opinion held of Massey by such a man as Captain Cocklyn, his very antithesis, a man whom no qualms troubled, for whom nothing was too gross and brutal? In a former chapter it has been mentioned that brutality alone gained for Cocklyn "that bad eminence" of leader in a murderous band. The life and doings of the ordinary pirate of those days do not make savoury reading; they were drunken scoundrels for the most part, except when led by a man like Davis unrestrained by even a lingering sense of decency. The fiends in hell might have shrunk from presuming to vie with them in their brutal lusts; at sight of their lighter amusements, the angels in heaven must have shuddered. Even the Red Indians of North America were not more fiendishly cruel in the tortures inflicted on their prisoners, than were those white men in the fashion in which they made merry at the expense of members of captured crews who refused to join the brotherhood.
If by chance the pirates were in sportive mood, their wretched captives were not made to walk the plank and so become food for sharks; some of them, mayhap, would be run up in the bight of a rope to the main or mizzen top, and the rope belayed for a brief period, leaving the man dangling. Then suddenly—perhaps simultaneously in the case of two victims, in order that the pirates might bet on which would first touch the deck—the rope would be cast loose, and down in a heap would fall the unhappy wretches, if not breaking bones, at least otherwise painfully injuring themselves.
Or they would "sweat" a man, a favourite amusement. Sweating was performed in this way: A circle of lighted candles was placed round the mizzen mast between decks. Around this circle stood those pirates who, in jocular frame of mind, were about to take part in the game, each brute armed with a pen-knife, a pair of compasses, a steel fork, or other small and sharp-pointed instrument. Then the "patient" was introduced within the circle. As the pirates closed in nearer the unsuspecting victim, one, with, it might be the fork, would run the instrument deep in a fleshy part of the body; the recoil would naturally place him within reach of a second stab, say, this time with the penknife. And so from reach of one pirate the poor wretch would shrink and jump, only to place himself within striking distance of another, until—while the brutes yelled with ever increasing riotous glee—the tortured victim fell, utterly spent. Then maybe they would give him what was called "his discharge," which meant that every one present administered ten lashes with the "cat." If he were unable to jump up and run for such shelter as might be found, so much the worse for him.
In all these pastimes, and more, Cocklyn and his crew indulged. Many of their misdeeds will not bear re-telling; the mind wearies of the sameness of their brutality, shrinks from its grossness.
Yet Snelgrave's account of his capture and detention by Cocklyn contains a good deal that is of interest, and gives some idea of the senselessly improvident ways and objectless lives of the Pirates.
When Snelgrave, fresh from England in the Lion galley, made the land off Sierra Leone river on April the 1st, 1719, it chanced that the wind fell light and presently altogether left them, so that when the ship, now embayed, had ceased to drift inward on the flowing tide, as the sun went down they were forced to drop anchor in deep water near the shore. Far distant up the estuary, beneath the golden glory of sunset, the naked spars of a vessel lying at anchor traced themselves sharply against a background of vivid green, but save for this and a thin column of smoke rising sluggishly among the trees on the nearest point of land, and hanging motionless over their tops, there was no sign of life. Little wisps and wreaths of mist stole over the water shoreward, and darkness, as is its way in tropical latitudes, came with a rush, closing round the ship, blotting out everything but the stars overhead. An evening still as the hush of death itself.
On such a night sound travels far. Thus it came to pass that as Snelgrave sat at supper the officer of the watch sent to him a message asking him to come on deck; he fancied he could hear a boat at some distance approaching the ship from direction of the vessel seen at anchor as they came in. The tide was on the turn when Snelgrave went on deck, but the Lion still lay with her head to seaward. Listening, he could distinctly make out the cheep and muffled thud of oars astern.
"Send twenty men aft here with muskets and cutlasses," ordered Snelgrave. Then, "Boat ahoy!" he hailed. "What boat's that?"
"The Two Friends, Captain Elliot, of Barbadoes," came an answering hail, after momentary hesitation.
"I mislike it," muttered Snelgrave to the officer who had sent for him. "Smartly, below there, with those muskets." Then again, to the approaching boat, "Where are you from?"
And with the words came a volley of musketry singing past the ears of those standing on the quarter-deck.
"Fire on them through the steerage ports," cried Snelgrave to Jones his first Mate, who was below with the men. But never a musket cracked in response to his order. Jumping down below, himself, he found his people huddled together, staring stupidly at the Mate and at each other, and neither musket nor cutlass yet served out. The Arms chest could not be found," some one said, lamely enough, by way of explanation. In any case, it was now too late, the attacking party was already on board firing pistols, (whereby one of Snelgrave's men was killed,) and throwing hand grenades down between decks.
Then some one sang out for quarter, whereon down came a man cursing and swearing and calling out, "Where's your Captain?"
I am the person that was captain up to now," said Snelgrave.
" Then what the – do you mean by telling your people to fire on us through the steerage ports?"
With that he clapped his pistol to Snelgrave's breast, and fired. But Snelgrave struck the weapon partly aside, and the bullet passed between his arm and his ribs without wounding him, whereupon the man brought him to his knees with a blow over the head from the pistol butt. Quickly recovering his feet, Snelgrave jumped for the quarter-deck, where another man, swearing no quarter should be given to a captain who tried to defend his ship, struck viciously at his head with a cutlass. Snelgrave ducked, and the weapon bit deep into the quarter-deck rail, breaking short off at the hilt. By great good fortune this man's firearms were all discharged, otherwise Snelgrave most certainly would have been shot. As it was, the brute tried to beat out his brains with the butt end of a pistol. It had gone ill with Snelgrave now had not some of his own men cried out: "Don't kill the Captain! We never sailed with a better man." (For it was customary with the Pirates to spare the captain of a captured vessel against whom his crew had no ill-will; at least they would seldom go to extremities unless his crew made complaint against him,—a tenure of life a little precarious, one would think.)
In celebration of their success, the pirates now began firing volleys of musketry; and this led to things more serious. Cocklyn, who commanded the ship from which the pirates had come, hearing the continual rattle of musketry and imagining that fighting still went on, cut his cable, drifted down with the now ebbing tide and fired a broadside into the Lion.
"Vast firing there," called out one of the ruffians.
We've taken a fine prize with plenty of rum and fresh provisions aboard."
That brought Cocklyn himself in a trice, with a crowd of others, all intent on an orgie. Liquor flowed; geese, turkeys, ducks, fowls were taken, and without being even plucked, except as regards the tail and wing feathers, were pitched into the ship's copper in the galley, accompanied by several Westphalia hams and a big sow, newly killed, from which they had not troubled to scrape the bristles, and the cook was ordered to boil them all together and serve up as quickly as possible,—a Gargantuan meal.
It was for Snelgrave the beginning of a life more strenuous than desirable.
"What o'clock is it by your gold watch?" demanded one ruffian. And, however much against the grain, Snelgrave knew that he must hand over his excellent watch—there was nothing else to be done. The pirates kicked it about the deck like a football, till they tired of the game, when it was pitched into the common chest, to be sold at auction before the mast. Davis bought it later for £100, in spite of the ill-usage it had undergone.
After the rape of his watch, Snelgrave was taken from his own ship to that of the pirate, and there questioned closely as to the sailing qualities of the Lion, the result being that Cocklyn joyfully fitted her out for his own use. It was a bad time for Snelgrave, this first night on Cocklyn's vessel, and it had like to have been his last on earth had it not been for the intervention of one of the pirate crew, a man named Griffin, who, as it turned out, had been at school with Snelgrave. This man swore to protect his old schoolfellow, and indeed passed the hours till morning marching up and down with pistols and cutlass alongside the hammock where lay Snelgrave, sleepless owing to "their horrid oaths and blasphemies."
Towards 2 A.M. there returned to the ship, very drunk and quarrelsome, that man who had attempted to cut Snelgrave down on the quarter-deck of the Lion.
"Where's Snelgrave?" he bawled. "I'm going to slice his liver for offering to fire on us! Where's that—Snelgrave? I'll slice him!" And assuredly he had engaged in that delicate operation if Griffin with his cutlass had not driven the drunken brute off. Nor was this by any means the only attempt on Snelgrave's life made by the same man. On at least one other occasion the brute tried to shoot him. But here the would-be assassin came badly off; in the dark he fired at the wrong man, a mistake which cost him dear, for he was hunted round the ship with a naked cutlass till his condition was little better than if he had been "sweated."
The following day came the overhauling of Snelgrave's cargo. Overboard, into the sea, went everything, bales and cases, no matter how valuable, if they did not suit the needs of the pirates. Overboard went all Snelgrave's "private adventure," (captains were allowed to trade on their own account in those days); overboard, too, went his library,—"enough jaw work here to poison a ship's company," swore one of the pirates. Soon nothing was left to him of all his own belongings.
Later, a good deal of his private property was restored at the intervention of the pirate Davis, and also, strangely enough, through the intercession of one Captain Henry Glynn, a private trader who lived on shore here, and who was afterwards Governor of Fort James in the Gambia. On curiously friendly terms with the pirates was this embryo Governor when Snelgrave met him at Sierra Leone. To hunt with the hounds and run with the hare was apparently in those days' a feat not hard of accomplishment on the Guinea Coast.
After all, the good-will of Davis and Glynn availed Snelgrave little. His things, mostly tied up in bundles, were brought to him in "the great cabin," it is true, but presently in came a party of drunken pirates, who, stumbling over the bundles, in a fit of rage threw them overboard, leaving one only remaining. This also soon disappeared. A man—as chance ruled, it was Kennedy, he who afterwards played Roberts false—coming in, just drunk enough to be persistent, and answering all Snelgrave's mild expostulations by blows from the flat of his cutlass, took the bundle to examine its contents. A good new black suit and a hat and wig were what he found, and the pirate must needs put on the suit and go swaggering on deck in it. The result was that the other pirates, resenting his fine feathers, soused him with buckets of claret, and the suit being thus ruined after half an hour's wear was also thrown overboard.
All the liquor on Snelgrave's ship had been brought up on deck to be divided amongst the three pirate vessels then in the bay, and the casks not immediately removed to Davis's and La Bouse's ships were straightway up-ended and had their heads knocked out that cans and bowls might the more readily be dipped in when men wanted to drink. They did things in a large way, those topers, and wild were the scenes and great the havoc that followed. Cocklyn bawled healths to the Pretender—King James the Third, they styled him; they drank confusion to the House of Hanover; they drank to everything and to everybody; and what liquor they could not pour down their own capacious throats, in sport they threw over each other. With what remained in the casks of claret they washed down the decks in the evening; nothing was left by nightfall save a little French brandy. Everything was wasted, wine, cheeses, butter, fresh food of all kinds, thrown into the sea by those improvident scoundrels. It was a heart-break to Snelgrave, who moreover had the additional anxiety of not knowing the day or hour he himself might not be knocked on the head and sent after his goods, to feed the sharks.
The net result of Snelgrave's first day among the pirates was that he lost everything he possessed, save only the clothes he stood up in and a hat and wig. And the wig, it may be thought, in such a climate might be a luxury of doubtful value or utility. With a thermometer standing in the neighbourhood of 100° in the shade and an atmosphere humid as the steam off a heating cauldron, one can imagine that article to have been little less blighting in effect than all the Plagues that smote Pharaoh and his people. Of his "private adventure" sorry was the fate. His bales of fine holland were dragged up on deck, opened, and spread in heavy folds to serve as soft couches for those whose potations had been over deep, and the whole, beds and men, were presently soused with claret by the more facetious and less drunken of the pirates.
A box containing three second-hand richly-embroidered coats was seized by Cocklyn, and lots were drawn for choice of garment by Cocklyn, Davis, and La Bouse. Now it chanced that the first named was short of stature, almost dwarfish, and the Fates willed that to him fell the longest coat, so long that it covered his ankles and brushed the deck as the little man, in some doubt at first as to the effect, strutted about with a lurch in his gait.
"Change with me, Davis! Change with me, La Bouse!" he implored. "It don't (hiccup) seem to favour me."
But they refused, pointing out how striking was the effect, how gay the contrast of its scarlet cloth with the silver braid, and in the end the stunted little rascal swaggered off ashore in it, beyond measure vain of his appearance. Even a pirate of the most brutal type, one sunk below the level of the beasts that perish, steeped in crime as was Cocklyn, is still swayed by the pettiest vanity. Indeed those coats made trouble throughout the pirate squadron, for so envious were the men of the effect produced that they insisted on the garments being put into the common chest. It was no part of a pirate captain's privileges that he should wear fine clothes, from the use of which the men were debarred,—good, sound, socialistic doctrine, no doubt.
Snelgrave's time amongst those villains must have been even more hazardous than it actually was, had it not been for the presence and influence of Davis, that "generous and humane" pirate, his constant protector so long as the squadron kept together. To a less degree he was indebted to Griffin. It was through Davis indeed that he regained liberty; it was through him that a captured vessel (of no great value) was handed over to Snelgrave, with the battered remnants not only of his own cargo, but of those also of several other prizes, to the value of some thousands of pounds. The fore-mast pirates, indeed, desired,—at a time when Davis had fanned their weathercock sentiments momentarily to white heat in Snelgrave's favour,—to take him with them down the coast, handing to him all the proceeds of their villainies not immediately wanted by themselves. He might then sail, said they, for the West Indian island of St. Thomas,—a free port in the possession of Denmark,—there realise a fortune by their sale, and return home to snap his fingers at the merchants of London and Bristol. It needed all Davis's tact to smooth away the resentment felt by the pirates at the rejection by Snelgrave of their generous offer. They could not understand why their gift of cargoes plundered from captured vessels should not legally be Snelgrave's property.
It was, later, owing to Griffin's friendship that Snelgrave got clear away on shore at a time when the commoner and more brutal pirates, incensed against him for some trumpery cause, were vowing to cut him in pieces or to flog him.
Of his old crew, the majority remained faithful and accompanied Snelgrave on his homeward voyage after the departure of the pirates. Some (near a dozen) threw in their lot with the latter, among them Jones, the Mate, who came to Snelgrave with a cock-and-bull story of how he had a wife at home whom he could not love, to whom he felt he could not return; rather than continue to live with one so uncongenial, he had tardily decided that it was preferable to join Cocklyn and his rovers. The man was probably a sentimental humbug. As Snelgrave learned later from his men, Jones had divulged to them on the voyage out his scheme for turning pirate, and it was he who had hid the arms chest before the Lion was boarded at Sierra Leone.
Snelgrave's detention by the pirates lasted a full month, four weeks of turmoil and anxiety, weeks that cost him dear. On more than one occasion the vessel on which he was detained was set on fire through carelessness, or by one of the pirates when drunk, and it was each time with difficulty saved. Once a cask of rum was accidentally set alight, and exploded violently not far from the magazine; and once a fierce fire broke out almost in the magazine itself. It is a marvel that any pirate ship survived a single cruise.
Snelgrave was not altogether ruined in pocket, and he got command of another ship with but small delay after his return to Bristol. History is silent as to his subsequent career. Doubtless he visited the Guinea Coast again, traded in "black ivory," and risked the pirates. But Davis was gone, and Roberts; Cocklyn and La Bouse were no longer there to terrorise. Along the Coast dead pirates swung in the wind and the sun, creaking in their chains as the breeze wantoned with its grizzly playthings.
They were a curious mixture of evil and of good; much evil, relieved by perhaps an infinitely small leaven of good. But all were not brutes such as Cocklyn or Kennedy, La Bouse or Captain Teach, and many another. Roberts was not all bad, and Davis had many virtues. So had Griffin, who escaped later and made his way (honestly) to the West Indies, where he died of Yellow Fever.
A many of them erred through weakness; not all through vice. There were others besides Massey remorseful, others besides Griffin who longed to escape from the life and to begin anew. Yet as a whole one would neither feel pity for, nor exercise mercy towards, the Pirates. For with the same measure that they did mete withal it shall be measured to them again.