Tuesday, July 25, 2017  

Pirates of the Chesapeake


Traveling on the Chesapeake Bay and the waters off the coast of Virginia was for the most part a joy in Colonial times. The friendly winds and sunny skies filled sails of ships from around the world. The growing economy demanded all sorts of goods from Europe: fine furniture, colorful silks, silverware and all the accoutrements of a sophisticated society. While the nation’s fertile fields offered ship load after ship load of cotton and tobacco, ships brought newcomers to the land and offered travel back to the homeland on, weather permitting, a seafaring adventure. It might seem to have been and idyllic arrangement. Yet lurking in the mind of everyone who ventured out on the Chesapeake or the water adjacent to the Virginia coast was the possibility that what might appear to be just another passing ship on the horizon flying friendly colors might turn out to be anything but friendly.

At anytime, any ship could suddenly be confronted by a ship that might seem to be friendly and perhaps just looking to exchange mail. Then suddenly the seemly friendly ship becomes an attacking pirate ship or privateer. There were many pirate captains who sailed the Chesapeake from lairs up and down the bay. Others preferred to attack vessels inbound to Virginia or outbound to cross the Atlantic once they had cleared the bay and were in open seas.

One of the best known pirates, Captain Blackbeard, used stealth and fear to intimidate the captains of the ships he attacked. His very name struck terror in the hearts of folks up and down the Virginia coast and on the Chesapeake Bay. One of his victims described him as “a tall, spare man with a very black beard which he wore very long.” The legend surrounding Blackbeard relates that following his decapitation during hand to hand combat, his body was thrown overboard and proceeded to do five laps around the ship. On November 22, 1718, two sloops hired by Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood, commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard and manned by a picked Royal Navy crew, attacked Blackbeard at Ocracoke Island. In a fierce naval battle Blackbeard and many of his crew were killed. The remaining pirates were captured and brought to Hampton Harbor with Blackbeard’s decapitated head reportedly hanging from the bowsprit of his sloop. His head was placed on a pole where today’s Blackbeard Point is located in Hampton on the University of Hampton Campus near the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. His reign of terror lasted just two years.

 Before he was known as Blackbeard, Edward Teach was a seaman born in Bristol, England. Other research indicates he may have been a Bath Town, North Carolina native named James Beard.Despite the questionable pedigree we do know the following: In 1716, Blackbeard was under the command of pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold. In 1717, Blackbeard commanded his own sloop with which he captured a French slave ship, armed her with 40 guns and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. Early in 1718 he established a lair on Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. While Blackbeard is not known to have sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, he attacked ships going to and from the Bay. Blackbeard then blockaded the port of Charleston, South Carolina menacing shipping and holding prominent passengers for ransom. Blackbeard was said to be the “Devil incarnate”, a ruthless murderer who intentionally used fear as well as his six pistols to intimidate. The reality is that there is no documentation that he killed anyone other than the sailors who attacked and ultimately killed him in 1718. One account says he appeared to have his beard on fire, which was actually oil soaked hemp rope tucked under his hat.

Pirates have plagued shipping worldwide for centuries. As early as 1621, pirates were at work in Virginia menacing shipping up and down the Chesapeake Bay and adjacent rivers. Palmer’s Island at the northern end of the Chesapeake was the site of an act of piracy in 1635. Lower Marlboro on the Chesapeake was plundered by pirate Captain Jonathan Robinson in 1781. Turkish pirates attacked the Tiger when it arrived enroute to Virginia from England in that year. Pirates knew large cargos were headed for the Chesapeake Bay because of its population’s growing needs and attacked as many as twenty seven ships headed for Virginia waters in a single month. In 1667 Governor Berkeley complained the seas were “so full of pirates that it is almost impossible for any ship to go home in safety.”

In 1645 merchant Captain Richard Ingle, who had his ship seized when the English Civil War broke out and he sided with the Puritans, returned to Maryland with a ship named Reformation and attacked the Maryland colony in the name of Parliament. Ingle attacked at the northern end of the Chesapeake and spent time around Kent Island. Ingle claimed he had a Letter of Marque to cruise the water of the Chesapeake Bay which he did attacking ships and looting their cargo at a reckless pace. A Letter of Marque was a legal authorization for privateering to ravage ships of an enemy. It was issued by the sovereign of one of two or more warring countries. Local colonists considered him a pirate. He was executed for piracy the following year.

By 1864 a group of pirates had settled on the Eastern Shore. The HMS Quaker was by then cruising the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in search of pirates. They were determined to rid the bay of the marauders. Tory sea raider Joseph Wheland made his winter quarters on Tangier Island in the bay. Watts Island, east of Tangier, was the base of operations for the pirate confederacy of Roger Makeele in 1685.

In 1709 lookouts for pirates traveling on the Chesapeake Bay were established on Point Comfort in Elizabeth City County, at Lynnhaven River and Cape Henry, Gwynn’s Island on the south point of the Rappahannock River, on Windmill Point, and on Damerons Point. Lookouts out patrolled the Capes to Currituck Inlet, a favorite hiding place for pirates.

In 1682 the homes of Yorktown residents, Mrs. Rebecca Leake and Mr. John Williams, were attacked by pirates who had sailed from the Chesapeake up the York River to Tindall’s Point opposite what is presently called Yorktown. To protect the colony from the threat of further pirate raids, Colonel William Cole was ordered to outfit a ship, bark or ketch with suitable equipment to take on pirate vessels in and out of Virginia water. Eventually two of the pirates, William Harrison and John Manly, were caught and returned to Jamestown were they were sentenced to be hanged. They escaped the night before the hanging but three nights later they returned voluntarily. Governor Howard pardoned the men with their assurance they would not again be pirates. In March of 1692, the King ordered that property of the pirates be restored to them with the exception of three hundred pounds and a fourth part in their servant Rowe’s hands. The money was “to be devoted to the building of a college in Virginia, or to such other charitable objects the King shall direct.” Records at the College of William and Mary indicate the sum of three hundred pounds was received from the three pirates.

In 1699 Colonel John Custis of Northampton County wrote to Virginia Governor Nicholson, “Pirates had landed on Smith’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay and killed some beeves (cattle).” Smith Island was an ideal place for pirates because they could find there plenty of food, secure water and a good place to careen their ships. Careening is a technique where a ship is beached at low tied then pulled over on her side by attaching ropes to her masts. She is then cleaned of barnacle. Smith Island gave pirates a broad view of the bay and early warning of approaching danger.

Lookouts employed at Point Comfort, located at the entrance to historic Hampton Roads, an important harbor situated at the mouths of the James, Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers, patrolled the shore around Lynnhaven River and Cape Henry. If the vessels they spotted looked suspicious the militia, a standing force in 1700 of some eighteen thousand men, was mustered to defend the colony. At least 70 pirate captains menaced the water of Virginia.

The pirate rules were surprisingly democratic. Each crew member was given a specified share and the captain was elected. Most swore to a set of pirate rules which included electing the captain.The decision to become a pirate was for many a choice for a better life even if it was shorter than most occupations. Life as a seaman was harsh with minimal rewards. For captured slaves, a life of piracy was an opportunity to gain equality under the pirate code.

Several notorious pirates were at first privateers, a form of legalized piracy. They had A Letter of Marque issued by a sovereign granting them the right to attack any ship belonging to the sovereign’s enemies. Captain Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake were probably the best known privateers. During the American Revolution, Colonial seamen often made huge profits preying on British ships. During the War of 1812, specially designed privateer ships were very successful. Unfortunately, when wars were ended many privateers turned pirate. Letters of Marque were issued to hundreds of Colonial privateers when the war with France and Spain resumed in 1740 culminating in what has been called the great age of privateering. Colonial privateers preyed on the French in the 1680s especially during the Queen Anne’s War. In 1775 The United States utilized privateers as a way to strike at the British at no cost. Some 3,000 British ships were captured.

 Pirates were good sailors first and took calculated risks hoping to intimidate a ship into surrendering rather than go to battle. The true pirate stories of the Chesapeake Bay are being researched and preserved through the efforts of dedicated living historians and educators that belong to the Hampton and Deltaville based groups the Colonial Seaport Foundation (http://www.colonialseaport.org ) and their sister living history and entertainment group, Blackbeard’s Crew ( http://www.blackbeardscrew.org ). The stated mission at CSF is to preserve facets of America’s colonial (17th-18th Century) maritime heritage by providing historically accurate information and education to the public. To that end, they are engaged in the conversion of a neglected old ketch into a functional 18th century trading sloop similar to Blackbeard’s last command, the Adventure. Once completed, the Luna will be used as a “floating classroom”, teaching children, students, and the public about the bay’s rich maritime history, technology with an emphasis on the ecology and preservation of the Chesapeake Bay.

Funding for the Luna has come from several sources including NASA, the city of Hampton and various pirate festivals. However, private individual donations play a major role in keeping the project afloat. In addition to money donations, volunteers to actually work on the Luna are always welcome. CSF members, Jock Collamore and his dad Chip, a master shipwright who is retired from his deadrise building company, Hulls Unlimited, are just two of many who spend their free time working on the Luna which is a work in progress. Jock and his wife Grace are deeply involved as maritime living historians participating in pirate and maritime festivals up and down the East Coast. As knowledgeable pirate historians, they are an important part of the Hampton Blackbeard Festival which is the largest historically based pirate reenactment in the nation, which will occur on the Hampton waterfront May 31 through June 2, 2013.
Understanding just how much treasure pirates were able to accumulate can be difficult. One of the best ways to appreciate just how much was horded and became the pirate’s bounty can be better understood by learning about a treasure that has been retrieved from the ocean floor. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford found the wreck of the pirate ship Whydah which was captained by Black Sam Bellamy. Bellamy is believed to be one of the most successful pirates of all time. His former slave galley was sunk off Cape Cod in a storm in 1717 with roughly four and one half tons of gold onboard. Learn more at: whydah.com/whydah-museum.

In the long gone days when pirates roamed the Chesapeake, one never knew if their ship would be attacked by pirates. Even after Blackbeard had been killed piracy continued. Most of the better known pirates were killed off in battle or hanged by the year 1720. Yet a certain amount of piracy continued on through the eighteenth century. When voyaging by ship, one had to consider the perils of weather, the possibility of capture by pirates and the danger of disease aboard many ships. Crossing the ocean was indeed a dangerous endeavor. The sudden appearance of a ship, often flying the flag of a friendly nation, quickly turned the experience from joy to abject fear when the ominous skull and cross bones flag was hoisted.