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
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† 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.

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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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