American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

PIRATE LITERATURE. The earliest accounts of pirates were published by ministers and magistrates who used the authority of print to reinforce their public condemnations of both piracy and pirates. One of the first was Edward Randolph, surveyor-general of customs in the American colonies during the last decade of the seventeenth century. In his 1696 report, “A Discours about Pyrates, with Proper Remedies to Suppress Them,” Randolph complained that illegal commerce was not only allowed but encouraged by colonial officials, including the royal governors, specifically citing the Bahamas, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island as being pirate havens, though noting that active measures were being initiated to suppress piracy in American waters. Broadside* proclamations calling for the arrest of some of the most troublesome pirates were published by colonial governors, listing the crimes and contraband of the pirates.

Some of the most interesting accounts were published after the pirates were captured and condemned. Ministers, including Cotton Mather, published accounts of the last moments of pirates confronting death at the gallows. A familiar genre adapted from English criminal narratives, these accounts usually included the minister’s execution sermon, his dialogue with the pirates as they prepared for death, and their dying speeches. Intended to terrify readers, the ministers inevitably focused attention on the uncertainties of death rather than on the iniquities of life. In such publications as Faithful Warnings to Prevent Fearful Judgments (1704), Instructions to the Living, from the Condition of the Dead (1717), Useful Remarks: An Essay upon the Remarkables in the Way of Wicked Men (1723), and The Converted Sinner (1724), Mather depicted pirates as repentant sinners who approached their deaths warning both spectators and readers not to follow their bad examples.

Not all pirates were so contrite. John Quelch, who was executed on 30 June 1704, with five of his crew, considered himself a privateer rather than a pirate; he had attacked nine Portuguese ships off the coast of South America without knowing that England and Portugal had signed an alliance. According to the narrative published after his execution, An Account of the Behavior and Last Dying Speeches of the Six Pirates (1704), Quelch died demanding to know what crimes he had committed. His final warning was for captains to be cautious about bringing treasure into New England, declaring that they would be hanged for it.

Two decades later William Fly was even more defiant. From the time he was brought into Boston harbor to the moment he was executed less than two weeks later on 12 July 1726, Fly exhibited nothing but obstinacy and blasphemy. Although others of his crew confessed, offering details of their mutiny* and subsequent piracies, Fly refused to acknowledge his guilt, claiming he was falsely accused. Despite Cotton Mather’s considerable efforts, when led to the gallows, Fly not only refused to humble himself by uttering a final confession but also reproached the hangman for not understanding his trade; with his own hands he adjusted the rope that launched him into eternity. His final words reproached captains to treat their crews well. Ministers Cotton Mather and Benjamin Colman both published accounts of Fly, depicting the pirate as a hardened sinner on the road to hell. Mather’s The Vial Poured Out upon the Sea (1726) and Colman’s It Is a Fearful Thing to Fall into the Hands of an Angry God (1726) equally transformed the pirate’s defiance into damnation.

In addition to execution sermons, the most common pirate publications were the published proceedings of pirate trials, which often appeared together. While the ministers addressed the spiritual transgressions of the pirates, the trial accounts reproduced in print their criminal prosecutions, offering explicit evidence and testimony to reinforce the passing of sentence. A mixture of both narrative text and legal document, the trial accounts include the depositions of the accusers and the accused, often offering unusually rich detail about pirate life. In such accounts as The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy (1718), The Trials of Thirty-Six Persons for Piracy (1723), The Tryals of Sixteen Persons for Piracy (1726), and The Trials of Five Persons for Piracy (1726), the captains and crews of the plundered ships testify how they were captured and robbed, sometimes listing the confiscated items and their value, while the pirates declare their innocence, testifying that they were “forced men,” though the accounts often include the final confessions of the condemned men as proof of their guilt.

The two most remarkable publications about pirates in the Americas were published in Europe. In 1678 Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin published De Americaensche Zee-Rovers, which was published in London six years later as Bucaniers of America (1684). Exquemelin, who lived among the buccaneers of Tortuga and Hispaniola, offers a vivid and often bloody account of pirate pillage and cruelty. Several of the most notorious buccaneers and their exploits are described, including Henry Morgan and his sacking of Panama City in 1671.

The most important of all pirate publications was Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (London, 1724). Mistakenly believed to have been written by Daniel Defoe, Johnson’s work gathered together court proceedings, newspaper accounts, and personal testimony to create the most comprehensive and graphic account of pirates ever published. The bloody careers of the most notorious pirates in American waters are described in detail, including those of Henry Avery, Edward Teach, Stede Bonnet, Samuel Bellamy, George Lowther, Edward Low, and William Kidd. Johnson even includes chapters on the two most notorious female pirates, Mary Read and Ann Bonny, when they sailed the Caribbean* with John Rackam and his crew. Johnson’s remarkable compendium remains the standard source for 1690-1725, the period historians call the “golden age of piracy.”

Focus on this golden age, however, has led to a misleading assumption that pirates disappeared from American waters by the 1730s. If the number of publications about them is any indication, pirates were thriving a century later. Throughout the eighteenth century any criminal activity at sea, particularly mutiny and murder, was labeled piracy, and trial and execution narratives of such crimes were often published. While outwardly similar in convention to the narratives published by the Puritan ministers, these later publications focus less on the pirate’s preparations for death and more on his transgressions in life. In 1769, the year that Joseph Andrews was executed, three different accounts were published, all describing his brutal murder of the captain, mate, cabin boy, and two passengers on board the sloop Polly (The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Joseph Andrews, A Narrative of Part of the Life and Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and An Account of the Trial of Joseph Andrews). Equally sensational, “The Confession of Alexander White, Pirate” was published as part of America’s first criminal magazine, The American Bloody Register (1784). In his unusually explicit account, White admits that his love for a woman of higher rank led him to commit murder and mutiny.

Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the narratives became more graphic, romanticized, and sentimentalized, blurring the lines between myth and reality and indicating that even as pirates became less of an actual threat, they were becoming more popular as fictional characters. In the popular A Narration of the Captivity of John Fillmore (1790), for example, the narrator vividly describes how he and several other “forced men” killed the notorious pirate John Phillips and took over his ship in 1724. Although Fillmore died before the narrative was published, and although the story was related indirectly sixty-six years after the events, the printer nevertheless makes use of Fillmore’s first-person voice to describe Phillips and his pirate crew.

Perhaps the most poignant and thrilling of pirate narratives published during the nineteenth century are tales of victims and survivors. In 1822 Barnabas Lincoln published the Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Escape of Capt. Barnabas Lincoln and His Crew, an account of the horrid treatment he and his crew received after they had been taken by Mexican pirates in December 1821 off Key Largo. For more than a month the pirates ransacked the American ship and abused its crew, finally leaving them marooned* on a desolate island. Daniel Collins’ Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Brig Betsy and Murder of Five of Her Crew by Pirates (1825) describes how his ship was wrecked when it ran aground off the coast of Cuba and how Collins and six others rowed to a small island in their longboat, where they were met by several local fishermen. Their joy was short-lived, however, for the fishermen sold them out to a group of cutthroat pirates, who butchered five of the survivors before Collins escaped into a mangrove swamp. The most affecting and popular of the pirate captivities was Lucretia Parker’s Piratical Barbarity, or The Female Captive (1825). Similar to the narratives of Lincoln and Collins, Parker’s book describes her experiences after her ship was attacked by a group of murderous pirates. A helpless captive, Parker watched the captain and crew being murdered, while begging for their lives.

The most popular of all pirate captivities were the tales of Americans captured by Barbary Coast pirates and sold into slavery. During the last decades of the eighteenth century, a dozen or more American ships were captured, and, according to one estimate, over 150 Americans were enslaved. In response to the public outrage, writers began to treat the theme of enslaved Americans in both novels and plays. In one of her first efforts on the American stage, Susanna Rowson* wrote and produced a comic opera, Slaves in Algiers, in 1794. Three years later Royall Tyler published his novel, The Algerine Captive* (1797), and John Foss followed with an excellent firsthand account of the capture of an American ship by Barbary Coast corsairs, A Journal of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss, an American, Several Years a Prisoner in Algiers (1798).

On the heels of these were two fictionalized accounts, Humanity in Algiers or, the Story of Azem, by an American Late a Slave in Algiers (1801) and The History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin Who Was Six Years a Slave in Algiers (1801). Following Rowson on the stage were Maria H. Pinckney’s The Young Carolinians, or Americans in Algiers (1818), Mordecai Noah’s The Siege of Tripoli (1820), Jonathan S. Smith’s The Siege of Algiers (1823), and J. S. Jones’ The Usurper, or Americans in Tripoli (1841). Understandably, both novels and plays dramatized strong nationalistic and libertarian themes.

American print culture never produced the likes of Long John Silver or Captain Hook, but during the first part of the nineteenth century several historical pirates gained brief textual fame. Jean Lafitte* was certainly the most famous, generating several novels and plays; Samuel Tully, Cornelius Wilhelms, and Charles Gibbs also gained notoriety when their narratives were published. Less than a week after he was executed for murder, mutiny, and piracy in December 1812, Tully was resurrected in print when The Life of Samuel Tully was published. Similarly, when Wilhelms faced the gallows in 1839, a remarkably sensational account was published, the Life and Execution of Wilhelms, the Braganza Pirate!, to exploit the excitement caused by his crimes and condemnation. Charles Gibbs achieved even greater literary effect; in addition to ephemeral publications, such as The Pirate’s Advice to Those Who Witnessed His Awful End (1831), Gibbs’ life and crimes were fictionalized in several collections of criminal biographies.

As printing technologies improved, the popular press led to an explosion of both publications and readers; stories about pirates thrived. In both the Record of Crimes in the United States (1833) and The Lives of the Felons (1847) pirates were centrally featured along with murderers, robbers, and counterfeiters.

The first American pirate anthology, The Pirates’ Own Book, was published by Charles Ellms* in 1837. Rivaling Johnson’s General History in popularity, the book was such a success that it was reprinted seven more times during the next two decades and is available today in an unabridged Dover reproduction (1993). Herman Melville* mentions it in Redburn* (1849). Similar in manner and almost as popular was The Pirate’s Almanac (1844).

By the middle of the nineteenth century the marketplace was flooded with hundreds of cheap pamphlet novels about exotic adventurers, many of whom were outlaw heroes who were often depicted sympathetically. Alongside such stock character types as highwaymen and frontiersmen, pirates often appeared as romantic swashbucklers. As bold, masterless men, pirates personified many of the most positive qualities in the American myth of the free individual. In The Florida Pirate (1823), for example, the anonymous author depicts the adventures of a courageous black captain who chooses piracy over slavery. In a competitive, often ruthless world, piracy provided an alternative that seemed less deceitful than many of the more lawful professions, such as Samuel Judah describes in The Buccaneers (1827). Filled with scenes of war and plunder, Judah’s popular historical novel characterizes piracy as a justifiable means of dealing with an unjust world.

Two of the most interesting popular novels from the antebellum period describe the heroic adventures of two female pirate captains, Maturin Murray Ballou’s* Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain (1845) and Lorry Luff’s Antonita, The Female Contrabandista (1848). In both, the protagonists exceed their male crews in courage, skill, and even virtue. [See also BEHRMAN, S. N.; BROADSIDES; DRAMA OF THE SEA; WOMEN AT SEA]

FURTHER READING: Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York: Random, 1995; Cordingly, David, ed. Pirates: Terror on the High Seas. Atlanta: Turner, 1996; Cordingly, David, and John Falconer. Pirates: Fact and Fiction. New York: Cross River, 1992; Creighton, Margaret S., and Lisa Norling, eds. Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996; Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987; Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Daniel E. Williams