Cape Cod – Storms And Pirates – Pt. 2

THE sombre tale of wrecks will never be done, but pirate stories no longer incite youth to possible adventure. In the old days Cape Cod men had plenty of chances to show their prowess against such adversaries, and likewise against the privateersmen who sometimes made use of their letters of marque in highly personal ventures. Nor was danger from out-and-out piracy unfamiliar to peaceful folk ashore. The Earl of Bellamont, Governor of Massachusetts and New York, was “particularly instructed to put a stop to the growth of piracy, the seas being constantly endangered by freebooters”; and the achievement of his short incumbency was the apprehension of Captain Kidd. Kidd, duly commissioned a privateer, was one of those who turned to the more lucrative trade of pirate. Then, pushed hard, he buried his profits, to the incitement of many future treasure hunts, and thinking to escape detection through sheer boldness, appeared in Boston. But he was recognized, laid by the heels, and packed off to London where he was duly hanged. An earlier pirate of our coast with better fortune died in his bed, a respected country gentleman, no doubt, at Isleworth, England, in the year 1703. He had been pilot on a pirate-chaser appointed by Governor Andros to clean up the seas off New England, and in process of pursuing the pirates had opportunity to observe the ease of their methods.

In 1689 this Thomas Pound, in partnership with another master-mariner and duly commissioned to prey upon French merchantmen, set sail from Boston. But they had proceeded no farther than the Brewsters when they were holding up a mackerel sloop for supplies, and fifteen miles out they neatly exchanged their own boat for a better one Salem-bound, whose crew, save one John Derby who joined the adventurers as a “voluntary,” was to turn up at home and give news of the lately commissioned privateer, Thomas Pound, master. Pound, meantime, with a long advantage in the chase, was off for Portland and Casco Bay. Fully equipped from the Portland militia stores with clothing, powder, musket and cutlass, carbines and brass cannon, he made for Provincetown and again changed to a better boat whose master was sent back to Boston with the saucy message to probable pursuers that: “They Knew ye goat Sloop lay ready but if she came out after them & came up wh them shd find hott work for they wd die every man before they would be taken.” Boston, nevertheless, sent out its sloop, with orders to take Pound, or any other pirate, but quaintly, in so hazardous an enterprise, “to void the shedding of blood unless you be necessitated by resistance.” Perhaps Boston had heard the rumor that Richard, brother to Sir William Phips, Governor, was of the pirate company. Pound rounded the Cape, picked up a prize in the Sound, was blown out to sea, and re-turned to the rich hunting about the Cape by way of Virginia. Off Martha’s Vineyard, again, he drove a ketch into the harbor and would have followed and cut her out, if the inhabitants had not risen in force. In Cape Cod Bay he held up a Pennsylvania sloop that was such poor prey he let her go scot free; but off Falmouth he got a fine stock of provisions — which very likely was needed by now — from a New London boat. Then he lay-to for several days in Tarpaulin Cove where, at last, the merry cruise was to end. Boston was sending out another boat, under command of one Samuel Pease, with instructions to get the pirates but, again, “to prevent ye sheding of blood as much as may bee,” and with better luck this time for the avengers of the law. In Tarpaulin Cove they surprised the pirate, with the red flag at her peak. Shots were exchanged, and called upon to strike to the King of England, Pound answered in true pirate rodomontade. “Standing on the quarterdeck with his naked sword in his hand flourishing, said, come aboard, you Doggs, and I will strike you presently, or words to yt purpose.” Firing was renewed, and “after a little space we saw Pound was shot and gone off the deck.” Quarter was offered, and refused. “Ai yee dogs we will give you quarter,” yelled the pirates. Pease was also wounded, but his men boarded the pirate sloop, and “forced to knock them downe with the but end of our muskets at last we quelled them, killing foure, and wounding twelve, two remaining pretty well.” This ended the Homeric battle of Tarpaulin Cove. Pease, the king’s captain, died of his wounds, and offerings were made in church for his widow and orphans. The pirates were taken to Boston jail where they were visited for the good of their souls by Judge Sewall and Cotton Mather. In due process of law they were condemned to be hanged on indictments for piracy and murder. But the sequel proved that fashion and the elders, whether or not by reason of the claims of consanguinity, were interested for the scapegraces. Justice was appeased by the hanging of one lame man of humble origin, and Pound was taken to England, where later he was made captain in the navy and died, as we have seen, in the odor of respectability. Some say that his brief piratical career was induced by politics rather than a criminal taste. He and his men were royalists, it was said, and, siding with Andros in the colonial quarrels, meant to draw out of Boston Harbor for their pursuit the royal frigate Rose which the colonists were holding there. But if that were their game, it was spoiled by the sending out of the Province sloop under Captain Pease and the genuine fight at Wood’s Hole. In any case the Salem and New London boats they had looted were not disposed, probably, to distinguish them from pirates.

A close perusal of the “Pirate’s Own Book,” published at Portland in 1859, would no doubt reveal further adventures involving Cape Cod; and in 1717, at any rate, there was an encounter with pirates off the “Back Side” that was brought to a successful con-elusion by the wit of a Cape Cod seaman. The Whidah, Samuel Bellamy, captain, of some two hundred tons burden with an equipment of twenty-three guns and one hundred and thirty men, while cruising offshore had the good fortune, which turned to ill, to take seven prizes. Seven prize crews were put aboard to take the vessels to port there, presumably, to sell them at a price. The master of one, seeing that his captors were drunk, took his boat straight into Provincetown and gave the pirate crew into custody. Nor was their chief to meet a better fate. One of his prizes was a “snow,” and seeing a storm coming up, he offered its skipper the boat intact if he would pilot the Whidah safe around to Provincetown Harbor. The bargain struck, a lantern, as guide, was hung in the snow’s rigging. Some say the skipper, trusting to the lighter draft of his boat, ran her straight for shore, the heavy pirate craft floundering after; another story has it that he put out his mast-light and flung a burning tar-barrel overboard to float ashore and lure the Whidah to her doom. Be that as it may, the sequel was successful. The Whidah and two of her attendant ships were dashed on shore near Nauset, and only two men of the crews, an Englishman and an Indian, escaped drowning. As for the storm, it was sufficiently heavy to furrow out the first Cape Cod Canal, the ocean making a clean break across the Cape near the Or-leans line, and “it required a great turnout of the people and great efforts to close it up.” Captain Cyprian Southack, sent from Boston to inspect the wreck and landing on the bay shore, refers in his report to “the place where I came through with a Whale Boat,” and adds that he buried “one Hundred and Two Men Drowned.” Having buried the pirates, Southack set a watch over their property, and had some complaint to make of the inhabitants, who came from twenty miles around to share in the spoils. As usual, there seems to have been a clash between government and individual rights; but Southack advertising retribution for any private profiteers, several cartloads of the stores were retrieved and sent to Boston. And there is a story of the right pirate cast in regard to a man “very singular and frightful” in aspect who, every season for many years after, used to revisit the neighborhood of the wreck. Taciturn and uncommunicative in his waking hours, his dreams were perturbed as needs must be, and then such ribald and profane words passed his lips as proved him in league with evil spirits with whom he communed on past bloody deeds. Plainly he was the one English survivor of the Whidah returned to the scene to dig for buried treasure; and to prove the case, when he died a belt filled with gold was found on his person.

In 1772 there was a pirate story less well authenticated which served chiefly as a bone to worry between Tory and Whig. A schooner flying signals of distress was boarded off Chatham, and the single seaman found there, appearing “very much frightened,” said that armed men in four boats had overhauled the craft and murdered the master, mate, and a seaman; himself he had saved by hiding. He supposed the men, he cunningly said, came from a royal cruiser, a story ridiculous on the face of it. At any rate, a royal cruiser, the Lively, under command of Montague, the admiral who had advised the two Truro captains to undertake their whaling voyage to the Falklands, set out in pursuit of a possible pirate, with no result; and the up-shot was that the whole story was suspected to be an invention of the survivor to conceal his own guilt. The jury sitting in the case disagreed, and in the fevered state of public opinion, it was used in mutual recriminations by Whig and Tory: the Whigs con-tending that the English navy had committed the footless outrage, the Tories, more reasonably, that the seaman was a liar and murderer. But controversy could not restore the dead, who had all hailed from Chatham.

The Cape, as it reached out for its share in the commerce that developed after the Revolution, was as intimately concerned in pirate adventures off the Spanish Main as it might have been in Cape Cod Bay. By 1822 our shipping was so harried by pirates in those southern seas that the Government sent out armed boats to protect our merchantmen, among them the sloop-of-war Alligator. And a story, in which the Alligator is concerned, typical of many another of the time, is told by one of the last of the old Cape Cod sea-captains who died some twenty years ago. He sailed as cabin boy, for the Spanish Main in the brig Iris commanded by a Brewster man and carrying a crew of eleven and one passenger. As the Iris neared the Antilles, two suspicious ships were sighted, and suspicion turned to certainty when they hoisted the red flag, put out their “sweeps,” and one pirate made for the Iris, the other for a Yankee schooner Matanzas-bound. The Iris was no clipper, and was quickly brought to by a shot over her bow. The passenger and captain had meantime gone down to the cabin to hide their valuables; and the cabin boy also, he tells us, “went down and took from my chest a little wallet, with some artificial flowers under a crystal on its front, in which were three dollars in paper money and a few coppers. This I hid in the bo’sun’s locker and went on deck again.” The lapse of seventy years had not dimmed his memory of the precious wallet.

The pirate ship, bristling with guns, was now along-side, her deck crowded with men dressed in white linen and broad straw hats, quite like Southern gentlemen, and soon a yawl filled with men armed to the teeth put off from her side. The Iris, with forced courtesy, lowered a gangway for their reception, and six of the strangers climbed on deck. Their leader inquired of the cargo, and was told that the Iris was practically in ballast.

“Have you any provisions to spare? We’re a privateer out for pirates. Seen any?” asked the officer.

“No,” answered the captain, looking him in the eye. “I can let you have some salt beef and pork.”

The play at civility was soon ended, the ship searched, and the stranger, reappearing on deck dressed out in the captain’s best clothes, cried jovially: “Well, sirs, we’re pirates, and you’re our prisoners.”

The Iris under her new command tacked back and forth toward the shore, and the prize crew found some rum for their refreshment, and thought, by threatening the cabin boy, to find treasure concealed in the ship. Trembling, he climbed up to the locker, and produced his wallet, but so far from being placated by this offering one pirate knocked him down and made as if to skewer him with a cutlass, while another vowed to throw him overboard. Then they ordered him off to bed, and he crept into the sailroom. Next morning all were called up to man ship, and captor and prize beat down the coast to “Point Jaccos” where the boats lay-to and the pirates spent the night in drinking and the Yankees in keeping out of their way. The captain and the cabin boy hid under the longboat. In the morning they put into a bay, a true pirate rendezvous, with mangroves growing down to the water’s edge. The cargo was transferred to the pirate ship, and their captain, boarding the Iris, ordered his officer to get money from the Yankees or kill all hands and burn the brig. But the Yankees understood his Spanish, and Captain Mayo, averring still that he had no money aboard, offered if the pirates would send him into Matanzas to return with any ransom they should name.

“Very good,” said the pirate. “I give you three days. If you are n’t back then with six thousand dollars, I’ll kill all the crew and fire the brig.”

Then they gave him back his best clothes and his watch, and put him aboard a passing fishing-smack with orders to land him at Matanzas. There he was not too generously received, and all but despairing of help, as he walked on the quay next morning he spied an American man-of-war coming in — a schooner with fourteen guns and well manned—in short, the Alligator. Captain Mayo aboard, the Alligator put about, and on the morning of the third day, with no time to spare, sighted the pirate rendezvous and four vessels at anchor, the two pirates, the Iris, and the schooner that had been Matanzas-bound, her fellow-prisoner. The pirates were brave fighters of unarmed men, but had no taste for warships. At sight of the Alligator, the men on one boat fired a gun to warn their comrades on the prizes, took to their sweeps and made off to sea. The Yankees on the Iris had been confined in fo’c’s’le and cabin, and were awaiting with some perturbation the dawn of the third day that was to bring them Captain Mayo and the ransom or death, when they were startled by a cannon shot that was succeeded by a stillness above decks. Rushing up, they saw their captors making off, the first pirate schooner showing a clean pair of heels well out at sea, the second rounding the harbor point with three boats in chase. The sun rode high in the heavens, the sea was like glass, and it seems that Lieutenant Allen, of the Alligator, unable to handle his vessel in the calm and eager to secure at least one of the pirates, had attacked from his small boats, with disastrous results. The pirate escaped, he himself was mortally wounded, several of his men were wounded, and a retreat was ordered to the Alligator, which withdrew, Captain Mayo and the ransom still aboard, without further casualties. But the second pirate craft remained, a speck to the sight, at the head of the bay, and as the cabin boy was pouring coffee for the meal that had been laid on the quarterdeck, a boat was seen to put off from her and pull toward the Iris. The Iris hailed her sister captive, the Matanzas schooner, which begged her to take off the crew when they would make common cause against the pirate. Nothing was more certain than that the boat that swiftly drew nearer was intent on their destruction. The first mate of the Iris and one sailor jumped into a boat and, pulling for the schooner, took off her crew, but instead of returning, made for the shore. Now, indeed, all seemed lost for the hapless men and the boy aboard the Iris. He and the sailors fled for the hold, while on deck the second mate and the passenger awaited what should come. The pirates, once aboard, slashed at the mate and threw him overboard, the sailors were haled on deck and forced to run for their lives, forward and aft, the pirates cutting at them as they ran. Poor Crosby, the mate, half drowned and weak from loss of blood, clambered aboard again, sank down on the windlass, and gasped out: “Now, then, kill me if you like.” Perhaps thinking him worth a ransom, the pirates ordered him into their small boat alongside.

Meantime the boy, half dead with terror, had stowed himself away in a corner of the hold; nor was his terror lessened at the appearance of a pirate, cut-lass in hand, slashing right and left in the darkness. He was about to cry for mercy when the man gave up his search; and an old sailor, who had been pals with the boy, now advised him to go boldly on deck as the pirates were sure to have him in the end, and in any case were likely to burn the brig. No sooner was he there than the pirates began a cruel game, making a circle about him, cutting at him with their swords, some crying to kill him, others to let him go, he was only a boy. They called for powder; he told them there was none. They called for fire; he told them he could get none. They threw a demijohn at him and told him to fetch them water. They knew well they had finished the rum. As the boy went below, he met his old sailor, who, offering to fetch the water, turned back, and was seen no more. The boy, reappearing, was ordered into the boat where the wounded mate, the passenger, and the sailors were already seated, the pirate muskets piled up astern, and a pirate standing there on guard. The mate, seeing his chance, heaved the pirate overboard, and pushed off. The pirates on deck pelted the boat with anything at hand, but the Yankees had all their fire-arms. And Crosby, seizing a musket, cried : “There, damn you, throw away ! ” The Yankees bent to their oars. “Are we all here?” cried Crosby to his men. But the old sailor who had gone to get the water was missing. They pulled up at a safe distance, hoping in vain that he might jump overboard, and then, when needs must, made for Matanzas, rowing along shore to provide for escape in case of pursuit, a distance they supposed of some thirty-five miles. A freshening breeze favored them, and by nightfall they made the harbor, rowing in with muffled oars as they wished to avoid Spanish vessels there and the fort. They were soon hailed by a friendly English voice, clambered aboard ship, the captain there got out his medicine chest and dressed their wounds, the sailors spread their mattresses on deck, and the refugees “lay down to such peace and rest,” said the cabin boy, “as you may well appreciate.” As for the ill-fated Alligator, having returned to Matanzas with her dead and wounded, she was ordered to Charlestown with the boats she had captured on her cruise, and the second night out grounding on a Florida reef, which has been named for her, was lost. The captain of the Iris, in the general settlement at the home port, bought for each of his crew, as a memento of their adventure, a pirate musket and a pirate sword.

Cape Cod sailors were in like degree, and with varying success, using their wits to elude pirates of the farther seas, swift Chinese lorchas, and low-hung craft in the Malay Straits. A Truro captain, commanding the Southern Cross, was shot by pirates in the China Sea in the presence of his wife. A Falmouth whaling captain, by his skill and coolness, saved his men from massacre by natives of the Marshall Islands. A Dennis captain, in 1820, had been murdered by pirates off Madeira. Another Dennis captain, of the barque Lubra, lost his life as late as 1865, when, one day out of Hong Kong, he was overhauled by so large a force of pirates that resistance was hopeless. Some of the crew took to the rigging, and two of them were shot there; others jumped overboard and were picked up by the pirates, who boarded the barque and proceeded to ansack her. The captain, whom they found in the cabin with his wife and child, they shot dead. Then, having stolen all valuables, destroyed the boats and nautical instruments, and set fire to the ship, they made off, leaving the crew to their fate. But with true Cape Cod pluck, the survivors of the tragedy managed to save the ship and somehow navigated her back to Hong Kong.

They were now sailing seas the world over, these Cape Cod men: farmers, fishermen, whalers as they had been, they were manning merchant ships that were carrying the American flag into every port. Yet from the first they had furnished some seamen for the traders: for as early as 1650, it is said, both at Saint Christopher’s and Barbadoes, “New England produce was in great demand”; and Gorhams and Dimmocks of Barnstable had acquired fortunes in the coasting and West Indies trade. An interesting little industry, in addition to fishing on the Banks, was carried on by a few boats that were fitted out to go to the Labrador coast to collect, on the rocky islands offshore, feathers and eider-down for the Cape Cod housewives. There, in the nesting-season, were held great battues, when the birds were killed wholesale with clubs or brooms made of spruce branches. Rich tells us that the sack that left home filled with straw returned filled with down for bed and pillows, “the latter called `pillow bears,’ and apostrophized by the old people as `pille’bers.’ ” Mountainous beds of feathers or down were then in order, and “boys used to joke about rigging a jury-mast and rattle down the shrouds to climb into bed.” Two Barnstable men, we know, coopers and farmers by trade, went on some of these “feather voyages,” which, however, were not long continued, as the merciless slaughter made the birds wary of their old haunts.

As early as 1717 hundreds of ships in the year were clearing from Boston and Salem for Newfound-land and “British plantations on the continent,” for “foreign plantations,” and the West Indies and the Bay of Campeachy, for European ports and Madeira and the Azores. And when all Europe was exhausted by the Napoleonic struggle, the United States, neutral and safe three thousand miles away, snapped up the carrying trade of the world; from fish cargoes for the hungry combatants the transition was easy to more varied commodities. Their own wars, French and English, had been good training schools for men of enterprise, and immediately the Cape Cod sailors were to prove their mettle in this new era of adventure. They bought shares in the ships they sailed, and profited, and bought more. Some of them, shrewd traders by instinct, gave up the sea for an office ashore, and as East India merchants laid the secure foundation of more than one snug urban fortune that survives today.