On this date in 1961, two modern-day (but somewhat inept) pirates sailed into the history books by becoming the first U.S. citizens to be executed in the Bahamas.
Alvin Table Jr., 26, mounted the gallows in Nassau at 7 a.m.; William (Billy Wayne) Sees, 21, followed an hour later. Each was declared dead within three minutes.
The bizarre adventure that preceded the hangings had begun a year earlier in Texas, where Table wooed 18-year-old Barbara Fisher briefly before whisking her off to Mexico to be married. The couple returned to San Antonio and linked up with Sees. (In a post-crime interview, Barbara described Sees as Alvin’s friend, but it’s unclear how the two ever met. Table, a Californian, had a history of at least one bad marriage, some bad checks and an assault on the West Coast; Sees, a native of Arkansas, had a history of assault in the south and, according to one account, a conviction for murder in New York State.)
However the liaison was forged, the trio worked their way across the south, cashing bad checks along the way to pay for the trip. They arrived in Florida in April 1960 and, with the law closing in, tried to buy a boat in Key West with yet another bogus check. When the sale took longer than planned, they simply took the boat and headed for Cuba.
Their plan apparently was to take refuge in Cuba — or, as Barbara put it, to “get away from it all.” Unfortunately, their boating skills failed them, and they ran aground off Elbow Key in the Bahamas. (It didn’t help that they hadn’t filled the boat with gas before leaving Key West.)
For three days, they took refuge in the island lighthouse — and, according to Barbara, they “had a pretty good time”. But the good times lasted about as long as the food held out.
About the time they started to panic, a charter fishing boat, the Muriel III, spotted the castaways and radioed the Coast Guard of the situation. Sees swam out to the Muriel, clambered aboard, and turned a gun on the passengers. When the captain, Angus Boatwright, grabbed a rifle to defend himself, Sees shot him.
Alvin Table then joined Sees aboard the boat, and they let the four fishermen swim to shore, taking the captain’s body with them on a raft made of life jackets. Their attempts to keep the first mate, Kent Hokanson, on board, failed when Hokanson simply jumped overboard and also started swimming for the island. Table and Sees, apparently deciding that time was of the essence in the situation, let Hokanson go and fled the scene.
During the gun battle, Barbara Table was in the lighthouse, packing up the trio’s belongings for departure. She heard the gunshots, and on finding out what had transpired, wisely chose not to stand by her man. The Coast Guard eventually picked up all the survivors and flew them to Nassau.
Table and Sees did reach Cuba, but they were arrested there after again running aground — this time near Isabela de Sagua, 200 miles east of Havana. At the request of the British government, Cuba extradited the pair to the Bahamas. They were both charged with and convicted of murder and piracy, despite Table’s efforts to distance himself from the murder by pointing out that he wasn’t on board the boat when it happened. An appeal to the Privy Council in London fell on deaf ears, and the Americans were sentenced to hang.
Barbara Table was briefly held in the Bahamas on a charge of grand larceny in the theft of the boat but was later released; officials cited “a lack of evidence.” Mrs. Table returned to her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and quietly disappeared.
On a side historical note, the Bahamas retains the death penalty today, although it conducts actual executions so infrequently that the anti-death penalty watchdog Hands Off Cain considers it “abolitionist de facto”. According to researcher William Lofquist, no executions have been carried out in the Bahamas in the last decade. Lofquist observes that in today’s Bahamian justice system, “death sentences rather than executions have become the measure of the state’s resolve to maintain ‘order’.” Some of this is due to restrictions placed on the nation by the Privy Council in London, but while some chafe at those restrictions, attempts to create an appellate system separate from the Privy Council have failed. For more on Lofquist’s analysis of executions in the Bahamas over the centuries, and the cultural environment that shaped them, read his complete study. (pdf link to his “Identifying the Condemned: Reconstructing and analyzing the history of executions in The Bahamas,” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 16)
On this date in 1831, pirate Charles Gibbs hanged on Ellis Island.
This Rhode Island native followed his father’s trade in buccaneering and made an adventurously brutal life on the waves during the early 19th century’s brief piracy recrudescence.
Neither Gibbs himself nor subsequent writers fascinated by him shrank from embellishing his career, according to Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Life and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. Awaiting the gallows, Gibbs floated the story that he had first gone to sea under the Stars and Stripes during the War of 1812; that this turned out to be a fabrication has not prevented its repetition down the years.
His first corsair crew was the Maria, a privateer out of Colombia outfitted for the independence war against Spain. Gibbs — back when he was known by his birth name, James Jeffers — joined a mutiny that overthrew the irritating shackles of a letter of marque in favor of the pleasures of independent predation.
It was a fine time for such entrepreneurship; the recent upheaval of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars and the New World breakaway provinces had preoccupied the Spanish navy.
For the next several years, the raiders — “principally Spaniards and Americans” — preyed on commercial shipping in the Caribbean, cruelly murdering the entire crews of their captured prizes, whose booty they would then sell in Havana.
The voyages of the Maria and her successor ships with this band would suffice for a full pirate’s rollick, though they were only the first chapter of Gibbs’s career. For instance, by the time Gibbs had risen to leadership of the crew,
a Dutch ship from Curacao was captured, with a cargo of West India goods, and a quantity of silver plate. The passengers and crew, to the number of 30, were all destroyed, with the exception of a young female about 17, who fell upon her knees and implored Gibbs to save her life. The appeal was successful, and he promised to save her, though he knew it would lead to dangerous consequences among his crew. She was carried to Cape Antonio [Cuba], and kept there about two months; but the dissatisfaction increased until it broke out at last into open mutiny, and one of the pirates was shot by Gibbs for daring to lay hold of her with a view of beating out her brains. Gibbs was compelled in the end ot submit her fate to a council of war, at which it was decided that the preservation of their own lives made her sacrifice indispensable. He therefore acquiesced in the decision, and gave orders to have her destroyed by poison.
That’s from the “Confession of Gibbs the Pirate” elicited from the condemned raiders in the days before his execution, and widely reprinted in American papers. (My quotes are from the version that appeared on April 9, 1831, in the Baltimore Patriot.) In it, the title character struggles to recall the many ships he has hijacked over the years. “Brig Jane, of Liverpool” — “Brig (name forgotten) of New York” — “Two French Brigs, in the Gulf of Mexico” — “Bark Dido, of Bremen” — “Ship Earl of Moria, of London”. Over and over his entries end with the words vessel and crew destroyed.
There were some fortune exceptions, but the pirates “knew that the principle inculcated by the old maxim that ‘dead men tell no tales’ was the only safe one for them.” Overall, his confessions involve him in “the robbery of more than forty vessels, and in the destruction of more than twenty, with their entire crews.” He might have gone to the gallows with literally hundreds of murders to his conscience.
What can be said for certain is that the USS Enterprise trashed Gibbs’s pirate fleet in 1821 and sent our man fleeing on foot into the Cuban mountains.
This incident aside, Americans’ naval presence was still not yet substantial enough to consistently trouble pirates. American ports, too, were quite ready to accept the coinage spent by pirates; the Spanish embassy would complain to Washington of the easy egress which Gibbs too availed. He even took a passenger ship from Boston to Liverpool where he dissipated a fortune in the vain pursuit of a respectable woman.
The late 1820s find him back in his familiar habit of seagoing carnage as a privateer for Argentina in its war against Brazil. The whole Atlantic was his home, and its many conflicts each offered the prospect of regular employment (or sudden, violent death).
When Argentina and Brazil made peace, Gibbs made for Algiers then under French blockade. He was, alas, unable himself to slip the blockade and thus frustrated of his design to seize Gallic prizes for the Barbary pirates.
Instead, he settled for joining the crew of a brig called the Vineyard — and promptly executing a mutiny. It was for this revolt, and the murder of the captain and first officer which it entailed, that Gibbs eventually swung: the mutineers scuttled the ship and struggled ashore in Long Island, where he and his fellow mutineer Thomas J. Wansley were seized and sentenced to death at a trial in New York City. While the Vineyard was the specific matter at hand in that case, and more than sufficient on its own to condemn them, the long and bloody career that preceded it became the talk of the nation. As the foregoing excerpts will indicate, they enjoyed at least a last consolation of celebrity, for they occupied the weeks approaching execution entertaining a slew of curious visitors.
For some reason, Gibbs’s skull wound up in New York’s John M. Mossman Lock Museum. (“Lock” isn’t part of the benefactor’s name. The museum exhibits locks, but also has a skull labeled “James D. Jefferson, known as Gibbs the Pirate”.)
On this date in 1862, the American commercial shipper Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs for slave trading.
Importing slaves to the U.S. had been nominally illegal for over half a century, but had never been strongly enforced. In 1820, slaving (regardless of destination) had even been defined as piracy, a capital crime.
Importation of kidnapped Africans into the United States did significantly abate during this period, and that was just fine with U.S. slaveowners everparanoid of servilerebellion.
But a voracious demand for conscript labor persisted elsewhere whatever the legal situation. About 3 million slaves arrived to Brazil and Cuba, the principal slave shipment destinations, between 1790 and 1860 — even though the traffic was formally illicit for most of this time.
Great Britain was endeavoring to strangle the Atlantic slave trade, but the diplomatic weight she had to throw around Europe didn’t play in the U.S. Washington’s adamant refusal to permit the Royal Navy to board and search U.S.-flagged ships made the stars and stripes the banner of choice for human traffickers profitably plying the African coast. “As late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports,” one history avers.
Hanging crime? No slave-runner had ever gone to the gallows as a “pirate” — not until Nathaniel Gordon.
The U.S. Navy did mount its own anti-slaving patrols, but the odd seizure of human cargo was more in the line of costs of doing business than a legal terror for merchants.
So Gordon, a veteran of several known slaving runs, didn’t necessarily think much of it on August 8, 1860, when the Mohican brought Gordon’s ship to bear 50 miles from the Congo with 897 naked Africans stuffed in the hold, bound for Havana. Half of his slaves were children.
“The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive,” Harpers reported.
Gordon chilled in very loose confinement in the Tombs, even enjoying family leave furloughs as he readied for the customary slap on the wrist.
But with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Gordon was promoted to demonstration case.
After a hung jury in June 1861, the feds won a conviction and death sentence on those long-unused piracy laws in November 1861.
Many New Yorkers were shocked at the prospect of such draconian punishment.
Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by appeals public and private against the unprecedented judgment. “For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” Gordon’s counsel Judge Gilbert Dean wrote in an open letter to the President* — an argument that could hardly be more poorly calibrated to impress in 1862.
Despite Lincoln’s famous proclivity for the humanitarian pardon, he stood absolutely firm on the precedent Gordon’s hanging would set — especially in the midst of a bloody civil war driven by the very legal sanction Dean had cited so approvingly. As Lincoln wrote on February 4, 1862,
I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.
Gordon’s hanging was the one case — the only one ever.
On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.
Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*
Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.
After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.
The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.
One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.
A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.
The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.
The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.
As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 11, 1835.
The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.
De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.
* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.
On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.
They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.
Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.
With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.
They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.
The Harpe Brothers
This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.
Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”
Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.
This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.
Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…
The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)
TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.
“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.
That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.
For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.
Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.
Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.
* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”
It was 2 Oct 1629, Dutchman Jeronimus Cornelisz was noosed along with 15 other men by the Dutch East Indies Company for a reign of terror that included mutiny and murder off the coast of Australia.* Six others would eventually hang in the infamous affair, two marooned on the Australian mainland, and many more punished for the gruesome atrocities committed on the Southern Ocean.
Cornelisz was not such an assuming character when he boarded the vessel Batavia in 1628.
Rather, he was a marginally failed merchant, someone who could buy his way on board as an under-merchant** and sail to the southern seas for the prospect of a new life. It has been speculated (here, for instance) that his move to Indonesia was motivated by a desire to put oceanic distances between himself — an apothecary who couldn’t make it in Haarlem — and prosecutors pursuing Anabaptists and other heretics. It didn’t help, either, that his infant child had recently died of the disgracing condition of syphilis. All that is enough to send a man to Indonesia, apparently.
Though Cornelisz was not a successful businessman, he was an energetic protagonist from his own station in life and could, eventually, win over any suggestible person with his intelligence and wit. It didn’t take long to do just that to the ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz — who already held a grudge against the Batavia‘s upper-merchant (and fleet commander), Francisco Pelsaert.
In due time their thoughts turned to the ship’s valuable cargo — silver and trade goods headed for the Mughal Empire. As night follows day, the next thoughts turned to mutiny.
Cornelisz pulled in people from each of the major groups onboard† to help with his mutiny without attracting the attention of the Pelsaert. All the plot needed was a kickstart to turn enough people against the commander.
In the part where the villain reveals his plot, Cornelisz’s goes like this: A group of hooded mutineers assaults the mostly widely lusted-after woman among the socialite passengers, Lucretia (Creesje) Jans; once the assault is reported, the commander must respond; but if the assailants are well-hidden, he must make an example arbitrarily, which pushes his men towards mutiny.
And, like a movie villain’s evil plot, Cornelisz’s didn’t come off.
The captain punished nobody for the assault, as Creesje could not identify the assailants. The shipboard mutiny withered on the vine. But lucky for Cornelisz, the captain had no inkling that the ship’s under-merchant was involved — though he was pretty sure the skipper and boatswain had something to do with it.
In the midst of those days of planned insurrection, the Batavia hit a slightly larger speed bump. On June 4, the vessel ran aground on Morning Reef.
There were few casualties from the initial crash, and the remainder escaped in groups, crammed onto small coral islands in the remote but plausibly survivable Houtman Abrolhos chain off the west coast of Australia.
The ship’s complement was eventually transferred to Beacon Island and Traitors Island — with limited water (but plenty of silver!), it was clear to Pelsaert there would be few people left if they didn’t get some help. Off went the captain with 47 crew and passengers in a longboat, leaving more than 250 behind to fend for themselves on the isles.
Two months later, Pelsaert found himself in the colonial city Batavia (today, the Indonesian capital Jakarta) appealing to the local authorities at the Dutch East Indies Company for a ship to rescue his stranded crew and passengers. He was quickly given the Sardam — another vessel in his fleet — with a skeleton crew to pick up the passengers (oh, and all that silver).
But he wasn’t going to need all those passenger quarters.
Cornelisz, as under-merchant, had technical rank in the emergency, and he had taken over the situation at the islands when the commander left. The refugee pharmacist reveled in the power, certainly amplified by the dozen chests of treasure the Batavia carried.
So here’s your motivation: a fortune in booty and the South Seas as your playground. This is the stuff of rum wishes and buccaneer dreams.
And Lord of the Flies nightmares.
Sensing the the time was ripe to lighten the group’s victual needs, Cornelisz‡ sent 15 men to search a larger island visible to the west for water. This journey, Cornelisz was convinced, would be fruitless, so any possible power rivals he could find went off. As well, Cornelisz shipped a larger group to Long Island to get more space.
And then began the killing.
Detail view (click for the full image) of a 1647 engraving of the carnage on Beacon Island. Cornelisz had a good 110 homicides on his soul’s account by the time it was all said and done.
Some 20 mutineers formed a tight inner circle with fantasies of having their way on the island until the rescue boat could be commandeered for piracy. The purpose of the killings was simply to knock the number of residents down closer to 40 or 45 so that the mutineers would be overwhelmingly dominant when the rescue boat came. That’s a tough task when starting with almost 200 people.
At first, killings proceeded under faux-juridical cover: theft and slander were enough to endanger everyone in these cramped quarters, so Cornelisz would have his men claim illegal activities were afoot and kill one or more of the people he considered either threats or non-entities among the group.
A few loyal footsoldiers did most of the killing, along with some pressed into service with the threat of violence; pretty soon the numbers on the island had dwindled noticeably.
With vague ideas of riches and a growing bloodlust, killing essentially became sport. Families were done to death wholesale, by whatever means were available — drowning, slitting throats, bludgeoning. Those liable to fight back might be jumped by a group at the beach, sometimes getting all of the above.
And before you go thinking murder was the only thing the mutineers had on their minds, they retained at least a few women (including Creesje) as private consorts.
Now is the time to mention that Cornelisz was personally acquainted with notorious (and then-imprisoned) degenerate artist Johannes van der Beeck. This is van der Beeck’s Faun and Nymphs.
But remember those doomed guys searching for water two islands over?
Turns out they found it, along with ample food, and they were now occupying the largest island in the chain.
They, along with 30 or so who escaped Cornelisz’s clutches over the course of two months, were the Resistance, and they were full of incriminating knowledge about what had been going down over on psycho isle.
One of the original group, Wiebbe Hayes, had taken charge of the island’s affairs, and he had done quite well. Those living on what is now known as West Wallabi Island were far better off than their Beacon counterparts.
Back on Beacon, Cornelisz was forced to ration water — even to his favorites — and had thoughts that the High Islanders might scupper his search party takeover plot. So late in July, he sent an amphibious landing team to attack High Island. Cornelisz’s men were met with a line of opposition at the beach, armed with pikes made of driftwood with nails. The mutineers retreated.
Weeks later, Assault II began; like most sequels, it fell on its face. Assault III, Cornelisz decided, should include cunning, cunning like an ostensible negotiation to trade the clothing Cornelisz had hoarded for water and food.
Hayes was even a little more cunning that that, and when Cornelisz and his four top lieutenants came ashore and began sweet-talking, he and his men seized four of them. (The fifth, Wouter Loos, escaped.)
Knowing that having mutineers on his island would be trouble, Hayes convened his council, which swiftly decided to dispatch any prisoner not named Jeronimus: that one was tossed in a pit and given birds to pluck for Hayes’ army.
Two weeks went by before the mutineers (now led by Loos) got up the courage to attack again, but by the time they took to the channels and began a long-range gun assault, the Sardam was in the archipelago. Hayes got to Pelsaert first and informed him of the planned mutiny. Pelsaert trained all his weapons on the mutineers’ boat until they decided to disarm.
The trials were done in the Dutch way, including some amount of torture. Pelsaert finally decided he had enough evidence against the mutineers, and his small tribunal passed 16 death sentences. (One was commuted to exile.) That included a half dozen who had one or more hands lopped off before their passage to the gallows.
Detail view (click for the full image) of the mutineers’ execution.
Three weeks later, when the Sardam returned to Batavia, five more of the rescued mutineers were executed, and a sixth — the boatswain involved in the assault on Creesje — was put to death while Pelsaert was out.
Once word got out, Cornelisz’s heinous crimes were known around the world and Southern sailors heard the tales for hundreds of years to come.
Pelsaert, meanwhile, was partly blamed for the incident and saw the Company seize his assets: he was dead within a year. As for Hayes, he was promoted, but his further adventures are unknown.
* Technically the first European settlers in Australia.
** Dutch merchant vessels were headed by an upper-merchant, who had control over decisions on the ship and represented the overriding interest of the Dutch United East India Company. In addition, an under-merchant was taken aboard as his second-in-command Company man. The skipper was considered head of the crew and placed in charge of navigational concerns, but his role was subordinate to the upper-merchant.
† Like all Dutch merchant vessels, the Batavia featured four major classes of people on board:
a standard crew to run the vessel;
a complement of soldiers who were generally kept below-decks but could be recruited to maintain order and would disembark at the destination;
a group which tended to shipboard needs (surgeon, cook, and so on);
and merchants and passengers, who had social standing over the rest.
‡ Technically, Cornelisz was part of a three-member council in charge of the shipwrecked. The initial council was selected from among the socially significant survivors, but Cornelisz used his rank to quickly dissolve that group and appoint two of his own future mutineers as his cohorts. Needless to say, the judiciary wasn’t independent after that.
By the 1720s — and with a bad eye necessitating that most trite of pirate accessories, the eyepatch — Levasseur had a mixed-race crew raiding the east African coast and the Indian ocean.
His most renowned exploit put him decisively in piracy’s 1%.
Descending upon the Portuguese galleon Cabo — fat with gems and gold bars and loose guineas and silks and a gigantic decorative cross and a noble’s diamond-encrusted +3 vorpal sword, all en route from the wealthy colony of Goa but disarmed at anchor off Reunion Island after having barely survived a storm — Levasseur’s band was able to plunder something on the order of a present-day value well north of £1 billion.
A lot more than that.
This stupendous fortune, even after dividing it democratically with the crew, would cinch Levasseur’s fame, and his fate.
La Buse (“the Buzzard”; alternatively, “la Bouche”, “the mouth”) naturally tried to take advantage of the next available pirate amnesty to cash out and retire, but found that he’d be expected to cough up his loot as part of the deal. So he hoarded his treasure instead, hung up his pirate’s cutlass, and tried to hide out. He was eventually captured casually working as a ship’s pilot off Madagascar and strung up by the French; you can still pour out a rum for him at his grave at Saint-Paul.
By Tonton Bernardo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
So much for Levasseur.
The reason we’re still talking about him three centuries on is that he’s alleged,* just before he dropped, to have hurled a bundle of parchments and/or a cryptogram necklace into the crowd assembled to watch him die, crying “find my treasure, who can!” or “my treasure for he who understands!”
And that’s pretty tantalizing stuff, considering the treasure has never since been found.
Levasseur’s boodle, if it did then and does still exist, is thought to be stashed somewhere on the Seychelles island of Mahe, and the slow and tantalizing unraveling of our corsair’s mysterious clues have seduced generations of treasure-hunters right into the present — like this fellow, or this one,** chasing after Masonic codes and rock etchings and Labors of Hercules and the promise of turning a five-figure investment in dynamite and scuba gear into a nine-figure payday and all the Discovery channel specials you can handle.
Until that day comes, Olivier is only a minor cinematic fixture. Basil Rathbone portrayed him (loosely) in the 1935 Errol Flynn vehicle Captain Blood (in that version, Rathbone dies by Flynn’s sword). An accessible treasure of this production, courtesy of YouTube: this 1937 radio drama of that same adventure, voiced by the principal actors:
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.
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 propagandisticbroadsides 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.‡
‡ 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.
Of John Stewart, who was executed within the Flood-
Mark at Leith, upon the 4th January 1711, for
the Crime of Piracy and Robbery.
UPON the 28 Day of March, one Thousand seven Hundred and Ninteen Years ; I Sailed from Dartmouth in England, in the Ship, called, the Mark de Campo, belonging to Ostend, Captain Mathias Garribrae Commander, in Order to make a Voyage to Guinea, and Mosambequie in the East-Indies; and having in some short Time thereafter arrived upon the Cost of Guinea; We hapned to our sad Misfortune upon the 2d Day of June next, thereafter, to be taken by a Pirate Ship, commanded by Captain Davies;* after we had made what Resistance we could, they compelled me and several others out of our Ship to go along with them; and upon our Refusal threatned to puts us immediatly to Death, or leave us upon some Desolate Island, which was nothing better than Death; and I refer it to every ode to Judge, whither or not any Man would have preferred immediat Death to go along with them, while there remained some Hopes of making an Escape, which I and those that were taken with me still endeavoured, and made several Attemps to Effectuat.
And I do solemnly Declare as a dying Man, that whatever I did while I was Aboard of the Pirate Ship, was by Force, and upon the Peril of my Life; and that I and these taken With me, are not only Innocent of What is laid to our Charge, but during the Time We Was Aboard of them, I never seed them wrong Man, Woman or Child; and I with several others having at last made our Escape, We Sailed for Britain, with no other Design but to free and clear our selves from the Tyranny of those Pirates, that had detained so fair contrary to our Inclinations; and having landed in the West of Scotland, every Body knew how we have been treated since that Time, and I might have purchast my
Life, had my Conscience allowed me to Comply with the Sollicitation of them, who would have had me appear as an Evidence against those that were as Innocent as my self, but I never could think of Saving my Life at so dear a Rate.
And for the Judge and Jury I shall not Reflect on them, but do declare that I am Innocently put to Death, as to the Crimes for which I am condemned; And beg GOD Almighty that he may not lay this Innocent Blood to their Charge, but forgive them as I do. And begs GOD may forgive my other Sins, (through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST my only Redeemer) which has been the Cause of this Dismal Death.
Into thy Hands, O GOD, I recommend my Spirit.
EDINBURGH, Printed by Robert Brown in Forrester’s-Wynd, 1721.
(From the National Library of Scotland’s Digital Library here.)
* Stewart apparently refers to the Welsh buccaneer Hywel Davies, aka Howell Davis, and this story of hijacking would put Stewart in some pretty august company: it was approximately this time and area that the Davies crew captured the slave ship Princess carrying third mate Bartholomew Roberts, who was pressed into navigational service for the freebooters.
Davies was killed in another pirate adventure later that same month of June 1719, and Roberts was elected to succeed him despite being only a few weeks aboard the ship. The latter went on to one of the most illustrious raiding careers in the Golden Age of Piracy … the original Dread Pirate Roberts.