On this date in 1705, another century’s supposed terrorist was hanged on Leith Sands with two of his “pirate” crew by a Scottish court “drunk with patriotic prejudice.”*
This execution took place in the feverish run-up to England and Scotland’s Acts of Union welding the neighboring realms into Great Britain in 1707.
Arising as it did from the same causes that animated that national marriage of convenience, Green’s execution also endangered it: Daniel Defoe, who was at this time a pro-Unionist mole (and prolific pamphleteer) for English pol Robert Harley, described this hanging as one of the six crises that had to be overcome en route to the Union.
A Man, A Plan, A Calamity
That’s where it all started, for Green and Union alike.
Mired in economic backwardness as neighboring European states carved up the world, Scotland made a bold, doomed bid for a chit in the empire game: the Darien scheme. One part visionary and (at least) two parts daft, this venture attempted to establish a Scottish colony on the Isthmus of Panama (aka the Isthmus of Darien) with a view to porting freight across the narrow strip of land separating Atlantic and Pacific, and dominating the dramatically more efficient east-west trade route that would result.
The intended Scottish colony in Panama; map from this University of Glasgow exhibit.
Students of the Panama Canal project will be aware that this malarial tropic would not be described as especially hospitable; to the natural disadvantages of the climate were added the political interpositions of England herself, whose hostility to the advent of her Caledonian neighbor as a New World rival was expressed in legislation choking the Darien adventure of foreign aid.
(Also a problem: Spain. The colony was abandoned at last under Spanish siege.)
So Scotland went it intrepidly, injudiciously alone in this last bid for real independent muscle in Europe. The hyperbole of the Isthmus’s publicists eventually sucked in 20 percent or more of the capital circulating in Scotland. And when Darien-dot-com went bust by 1700 at the cost of a couple thousand lives, it cratered the Scottish economy too. That set the stage for Edinburgh’s partnership in a different scheme: Great Britain.
Green with Envy
In the years following the Darien catastrophe, the Scottish corporation chartered to undertake it was still throwing stuff against the wall in the world trade game, trying to get something to stick to at least take the edge off the losses.
This company (theoretically a potential rival of England’s own East India Company) had suffered the further national indignity of having one of its ships, the Annandale, seized in the Thames for infringing the East India Company’s royal monopoly. Its appeals for redress falling on deaf ears, the Darien company apparently induced Scottish authorities to undertake the retaliatory seizure of an English merchant ship, the Worcester, that had the ill luck to weather a storm at the Firth of Forth.
Rumor soon connected this ship to another vanished Darien company vessel overdue from its return trip from the East Indies … and, as it quickly became understood by all right-thinking Scots, overtaken in the Indian Ocean by this same Worcester and its crew butchered.
Captain Thomas Green and his English crew were hailed before an Admiralty court** on piracy charges on this extremely fantastical connection in a virtual mob atmosphere.
It never was clearly established that an act of piracy had been committed as a distinct fact, but by putting certain circumstances together it was inferred that Green was guilty of piracy. The very shape in which the accusation is set forth, shows that the accusers could not point to the specific act of piracy which had been committed …
[There] was no specification as to the vessel taken, which might enable the accused to prove that it had not been taken; no names of parties murdered, who might be shown still to be alive; no ownership of cargo, which might admit of proof that the owner’s goods had arrived safe. As Green himself is made justly to say in the document published as his dying speech, “We are condemned as pirates and murderers on a coast far distant from this place — is there any of you who wants either a friend whom we have murdered, or whose goods we have taken?”
The Worcester‘s Malabari cook provided a highly dubious charge — dubious, for he was not yet among the crew when it last called at the location he claimed the crime took place — of Green and crew hatchet-murdering approximately ten English-speaking mariners on an unnamed vessel off the Indian coast.
Upon this evidence, 14 or more members (the ready sources are a little loose on the total number) of the Worcester crew were condemned for piracy, and initially slated for three batches of hangings. Queen Anne‘s personal intervention managed a stay,
The Scottish Privy Council unto the very last hours debated what to do with the diplomatic appeals, with evidence forwarded from London to the effect that the crew these Worcester men had supposedly slaughtered were alive, their vessel having been hijacked in another place, by another man.
But a surging Scottish mob aggrieved by the preceding years’ misadventures and the impending shotgun marriage to Westminster rather than anything Green himself had really done was already engorged on the blood of the supposed English corsairs. Most of the Council thought better than to deny them their sacrifice.†
The Streets fill’d with Incredible Numbers of Men, Women and Children, calling for Justice upon those ENGLISH Murtherers. The Lord Chancellor Seafield‘s Coach happening to pass by, they stop’d it, broket he Sashes, haul’d him out, and oblig’d him to promise Execution should speedily be done before he could get from ’em … According to the Chancellors promise, soon after, on the same Day, being Wednesday, Captain Green, Madder [the mate], and Sympson [the gunner] were brought out, and convey’d to Execution, which was at Leith Road upon the Sands, and all the way was Huzza’d in Triumph as it were, and insulted with the sharpest and most bitter Invectives. Being come to the place of Execution, Good God! what a moving sight was it to see those Men stand upon the very Varge of Life, just launching in to Eternity, and at the same time see the whole Multitudet ransported with Joy!”
-From an anonymous Letter From Scotland To a Friend in London, quoted by James Kelly, “The Worcester Affair,” The Review of English Studies, Feb. 2000
In the event, these three were the only ones actually hanged; passions cooled enough for the other “pirates” to be quietly released.
But the wider, national passions unleashed by this date’s executions would long provide fodder for intemperate patriotic recrimination, and specifically anti-Unionist propaganda — on both sides of the border.
Competing propagandistic broadsides framed and re-framed the events, as the affair of unscrupulous English buccaneers or perfidious highland barbarians. (Defoe, maneuvering for Union, wrote to chill such bad-for-business hostility: “Nothing could be more horrid, than that the Scots should Execute these Men on a meer Pique at the English Nation. Nothing can be more like it, than to conclude rashly, that it is so, and improve it on purpose to Exasperate our People against the Scots.” (Kelly))
And that, of course, is precisely the viewpoint that prevailed.
While the hemp neckties issued to Green et al this date threatened to (ahem) scotch the Union project, that very danger might have ultimately hastened its completion — as elites recognized, in Defoe’s words, that Union represented “the only way to preserve the publick Tranquillity, and prevent the certain Mischiefs that threatened the whole Body,” (Kelly, again) and rammed it through with dispatch.‡
* English historian G.M. Trevelyan.
** A lengthy account of the trial can be found in this Google books freebie
† In their very scanty defense, the Scottish magistrates had reason to fear Scottish citizens.
‡ The ebb and flow of national resentment continued long after the Acts of Union, of course; continuing Scottish support for the restoration of the Stuart monarchy was one expression of Scottish nationalism and anti-Union sentiment.