1609: Captain John Harris, Captain John Jennings, and 15 other pirates at Wapping

Add comment December 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date* in 1609, seventeen pirates hanged at Wapping’s “Execution Dock”. Though English, a large number of them had been taken in Ireland.

Elizabethan England had cultivated a reputation for the quantity and ferocity of her buccaneers, profitably plundering Spain’s New World treasure galleons and establishing themselves as a terror in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic — some, like Sir Francis Drake, with official blessing as privateers, and many others operating off-book knowing that a crown thirsty for specie would turn a blind eye to their business.

This sector was a rising tide that lifted many boats: commoners on the make and lords of the realm alike invested in pirating, and the proceeds washed over Britain’s wharfs to all the landlubbers who called pirates family, or who received their stolen plunder, or who sold ale to the conquering corsairs.

In 1603, the arrangement changed.

With Elizabeth’s death the crown passed to a man who disdained the profession and wanted to bring English hostilities with Spain to a close. James I had not yet even been crowned king in England when he published notice of a sea change in the piracy policy.

We are not ignorant that our late dear Sister, the late Queen of England, had of long time wars with the king of Spain, and during that time gave Licences and Commissions to divers of her, and our now Subjects, to let out and furnish to sea divers ships warlikely appointed, for the surprising and taking of the said King’s subjects’ goods, and for the enjoying of the same, being taken and brought home as lawful Prize.

We further will and command, that our men of war, as be now at sea having no sufficient commission as aforesaid, and have taken, or shall go to sea hereafter, and shall take any the ships or goods of any subject of any Prince in league or amity with us, shall be reputed and taken as pirates and both they and all their accessories, maintainers, comforters, and partakers shall suffer death as pirates and accessories to piracy, with confiscation of all their lands and goods, according to the ancient Laws of this Realm.

These are fine words for the diplomatic pouch but veteran raiders weren’t just going to throw over their only profession** and in practice James lacked the naval muscle to enforce his writ very far from English shores. Ireland, and in particular its most distant southwest province of Munster, had become a fine pirate haven jutting into Atlantic hunting-grounds, where the denizens of ports like Baltimore and Crookhaven merrily continued to welcome English sea rovers.

“Although these things happen more often in England than Ireland, by reason there is more plenty of Ports and Shipping, as also more abundance of Seamen,” wrote the English mariner Henry Mainwaring, who was alternately a pirate and a hunter of pirates.

yet in proportion Ireland doth much exceed it, for it may be well called the Nursery and Storehouse of Pirates, in regard of the general good entertainment they receive there; supply of victuals and men which continually repair thither out of England to meet with Pirates. As also, for that they have as good or rather better intelligence where your Majesty’s Ships are, than contrariwise they shall have of the Pirates. In regard of the benefit the Country receives by the one, and the prejudice, or incumber as they count it, of the other. Unto which must also be added the conveniency of the place, being that the South, the West, and the North Coasts, are so full of places and Harbours without command, that a Pirate being of any reasonable force, may do what he listeth. Besides that, many of that Nation are scarce so well reduced to any civil jurisdiction, as to make a conscience of trading with them.

And here we come to our post’s principal characters … who, it turns out, could not indeed do exactly what he listeth.

Bristol-born and ranging all the way to the Barbary Coast, Captain James Harris favored the port of Baltimore,† along Ireland’s southern coast, as a handy sanctuary where he “repaired and fresh victuald our ship” … but he should have favored it less. Having recently called there, Harris returned too soon, over the objections of his crew, who accurately warned that his name having been bandied about town was liable to attract some attention. He found an English warship waiting for his return but he was a game sport about the turn of fate that brought his end to show that he was no hypocrite since formerly, “making my felicity out of others mens miseries, while I thought prosperity at sea, as sure in my gripe, as the power to speak was free to my gontue, my actions were so imboldened, and my heart so hardned, that I held it a cowardise to dispaire to attempt, and effeminacy to pitie whosoever did perish.” Harris flung his hat to the crowd come to watch him die, and when someone shouted a question about a reprieve, he jauntily replied that he had “None, sir, but from the King of Kings.”

Preceding him at the Wapping gallows with a like prediction of eternal salvation, Captain John Jennings had a more operatic undoing when, likewise victualing at Baltimore, he insisted on taking his Irish lover aboard and triggered all the seamen’s superstitions when the pirates immediately ran into one of His Majesty’s warships, and soon thereafter barely survived a bloody scrap with two Spanish vessels that cost the pirates 10 crew members dead. The surviving crew huddled up and agreed that their rum luck “was a just judgement of God against them, in suffering their Captaine to bring his whore aboard.”

A mutiny overthrew his authority, and although it was eventually restored after the new guy proved himself a Queeg, the morale hit was obviously permanent, for much of his band deserted him the next time he put in at (again) Baltimore. With skeleton crew, he limped along the coast to the Earl of Thomond where he hoped for a hospitable reception; instead, his remaining mates betrayed him (and his last two loyal retainers) into English hands when the dissipated captain was blind drunk.

* The key source on this event is “The Lives, Apprehensions, Arraignments and Executions of the 19 late Pyrates, namely, Capt. Harris, Jennings, Longcastle, Downes, Haulsey, and their companions, as they were severally indited on St. Margret’s Hill, in Southwark, on the 22 of December last and executed the Friday following.” The title implies, wrongly, that the pirates were tried on Friday the 22nd and executed on Friday the 29th; in fact it is explicit right in the text that Captain Jennings “from a free and vnburthened heart, a patient mind and willing steps, I goe out of my chamber in the Marshalstes, the Friday morning being the two and twenty day of December to make my death-bed at Wapping.”

** Besides freebooting, English privateers were also keen to obtain new commissions from the Low Countries in the latter’s long-running revolt against Spain. But whether licensed or no, most regular sailors were scarcely in a position to hang up their cutlasses. “Those that were rich rested with what they had,” Captain John Smith wrote about the aftermath of James’s settlement with Spain. “Those that were poore and had nothing but from hand to mouth, turned Pirats; some, because became sleighted for those for whom they had got much wealth; some for that they could not get their due; some, all that lived bravely, would not abase themselves to poverty; some, vainly, only to get a name; others for revenge, covetousness, or as ill.” Plus ça change
.
† Baltimore figures in our story as a pirate-friendly landing; however, it’s most famous in buccaneering annals as the target for an infamous 1631 raid by Algiers corsairs, who carried off most of the villagers as slaves . See The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Mass Executions,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

10 comments April 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, John Harris hanged in Pretoria Central Prison for an anti-apartheid bombing: the first and only white person put to death for political crimes in apartheid South Africa.

An idealistic young teacher, Harris planted a bomb in a whites-only section of Johannesburg’s Park Station, intending to demonstrate that whites, too, opposed racial segregation. But the bomb threat he phoned in was not acted upon, and the symbolic device killed a 77-year-old woman and badly burned many others.

5.30 am was the time set for the execution. We were all awake, thinking of John. Not long afterwards the phone rang. Ad Hain answered. The voice said: “Your John is dead.” She recognised the voice as one of the Special Branch men’s.

-John Harris’s widow’s testimony to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

His death (reportedly with “We Shall Overcome” on his lips) earned affecting tribute and flattering comparisons from his black countrymen.

Mr. Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party since 1960, is one of those few courageous White men in South Africa who believed passionately in racial equality, identified himself with the oppressed people and suffered persecution. His passport was seized in 1963. He was served with banning orders in February 1964 preventing him from continuing his work with the Liberal Party and the Non-racial Olympic Committee.

Like many others, he became convinced that there was no way left to influence the situation except by clandestine activity. When most of his colleagues in the underground organization, the African Resistance Movement, were jailed or fled the country, he tried to plan a spectacular demonstration. He placed a bomb in the Johannesburg station and telephoned the police so that the area would be cleared. The police did not act promptly and an elderly lady lost her life as a result of the explosion.

Under the prevailing circumstances in South Africa, the means of struggle are for the liberation movement to decide in the light of the conditions in the country.

The responsibility for the consequences lies very much on the rulers of Pretoria who, in defiance of the world and all sense of decency, created a situation which left no other alternative to decent people than to engage in violence.

In mourning the execution of Mr. Frederick John Harris, let me say that it will not be forgotten that in the struggle of the South African people this man, a member of the privileged group, gave his life because of his passionate belief in racial equality. This will serve to strengthen the faith of all those who fight against the danger of a “race war” and retain their faith that all human beings can live together in dignity irrespective of the colour of their skin.

I have recently received a message sent by him from his death cell in Pretoria Central Prison in January. He wrote:

“The support and warm sympathy of friends has been and is among my basic reinforcements. I daily appreciate the accuracy of the observation that when one really has to endure one relies ultimately on Reason and Courage. I’ve been fortunate in that the first has stood up — my ideals and beliefs have never faltered. As for the second, well, I’m not ashamed — I know I’ve shown at least a modicum of the second. ”

When I think of John Harris, the first White martyr in the cause of equality in South Africa, I am reminded powerfully of a great White American, a man who gave his life over a century ago — on December 2, 1859, to be exact — because of his passionate hatred of slavery: I mean John Brown.

People said then that John Brown was eccentric, that he was unwise in attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and that his act would only strengthen the slave lords.

History has made a very different judgement. Whether the particular act of John Brown was right or wrong, wise or unwise, his cause was right and invincible.

-1965 statement on this date’s hanging by Achkar Marof

Harris’s conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his compatriots in the white anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. For this betrayal, John Lloyd earned his freedom and had already moved to England by the time Harris was executed.

Lloyd built a public service life of his own in the UK. However, his bid for parliament on the Labour ticket in the 1990s was scotched when public exposure of his past (as (a) a leftist terrorist; and (b) a betrayer of his fellow-leftists) brought him more baggage than one man can tote in a general election.

Harris’s rough treatment under arrest also continues to haunt his former interrogators in South Africa.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,South Africa,Terrorists

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