- Historic Sites
War Makes Thieves, Peace Hangs Them
In an era that condoned smuggling and lawbreaking the transition from privateer to pirate was easy
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Yet in the early years of the Eighteenth Century, piracy was not as disreputable—at least in America--as it later became. Like smuggling, it was often thought to be a protest against the injustices of British maritime law. The tough, hard-drinking, picturesquely profane Samuel Bellamy echoed these sentiments in a speech he delivered to an unhappy lawabiding skipper whose sloop he had captured, plundered, and sunk. He apologized lor the sinking, which he said had been done by his crew contrary to his wishes, but he added:
“Tho’, damn ye. you are a sneaking Puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by Laws which rich Men have made lor their own Security, for the cowardly Whelps have not the Courage otherwise to defend what they get by their Knavery: but damn ye altogether: Damn them for a Pack of crafty Rascals, and you, who serve them, for a Panel of hen-hearted Numskuls. They villify us, the Scoundrels do, when there is only this Difference, they rob the Poor under the Cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the Rich under the Protection of our own Courage; had you not better make One of us … ?”
A early as 1700, the city of New York had acquired a reputation for greed, sharp trading, and cynical corruption. Established by the Dutch as a trading depot, it had continued under the English with business the main preoccupation. Hither had come people from all parts of Europe, each seeking some kind of fortune. Politically there had been chaos. The stupid, drunken, or prideful Dutch governors had been followed by a succession of weak or corrupt Englishmen. In 1691 the insurgent German-born Jacob Leisler had almost brought the colony to civil war. A few vears later, while Benjamin Fletcher occupied this powerful and despotic post, New York became a Utopia for pirates.
During Fletcher’s administration, the New York merchants attained a position of wealth and arrogance they had never known. One of the great sources of their riches was the vast, wild no man’s land of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa. As the island belonged to no one but the savage tribes that had always inhabited it, the pirates were safe there; they made it their rendezvous, the depository for their stolen goods, and a market for trade with New Yorkers. Ships out of New York would land at Madagascar laden with goods the pirates wanted—mainly liquor and ammunition. The profits to the New Yorkers were astronomical. Rum that sold for two shillings a gallon in New York would bring £3 a gallon in Madagascar. A pipe of Madeira wine costing £19 in New York could be sold for £300 there. Coming back, the merchantmen brought the loot the pirates had captured all the way to India. Encouraged by the friendliness the New Yorkers showed them in Madagascar, the pirates came themselves to New York and were welcomed.
They had, to be sure, to make it worthwhile for the collector, the customs officers, and the magistrates at New York not to have them arrested. When these gentlemen were taken care of, it was customary to make friends with the Governor. Fletcher seems, from his later testimony, to have been confused as to who was a privateer and who a pirate. It was estimated that before a pirate and his crew could land, the cost of protection was £100 per man. The buccaneer Edward Coates, a frequent visitor to the city, maintained that he had paid some £1,300 directly to Governor Fletcher.
Once the sea robbers had paid the price of the racket, they were free to dine at the houses of the best families—who often found it good business to invite them—or to swagger through the streets, drunk, boastful, and exceedingly generous with silver and gold. They were popular with rich and poor alike. People of all conditions gathered round them to hear their yarns. They sold their loot at bargain prices, under-selling legitimate goods. Some they gave away to adorn the houses of important officials.
The genial Governor seems to have justified himself by the fact that war with France was in progress during his administration and that some of the alleged pirates had privateer commissions. This did not, of course, entitle them to capture neutral and even English ships or to carry on the Madagascar trade, and it failed to explain the presents the Governor received.
When, in 1697, the King replaced Fletcher with the Earl of Bellomont and instructed the new governor to end the piratical trade in New York, the situation there was wholly out of hand. Bellomont found not only that the powerful merchant body was solidly behind Fletcher, but also that there were no instruments of Iaw enforcement that he could use. In his report to the home government he stated that he would rather have an honest New York judge than a man-of-war. He found the city literally a nest of pirates. Everywhere they were living in luxury, sheltered by the merchants.
In his first year, however, Bellomont did meet with some success—at least, in 1698, he so reported.