October 24, 2014
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Pirates: Governor Cranston accused of ‘Conniving at pirates and making Rhode Island their sanctuary’(2)
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

All pirates were not beneficial to Rhode Island, of course, and some of them were not as fortunate as Malbone. One example of the wrath that could descend on the pirates came in 1723 when two sloops that had been committing extensive piracies in the West Indies decided to move north in the area around Narragansett Bay. According to reports in the Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, edited by John Russell Bartlett (1859), the pirate ships, named the Ranger and the Fortune, captured a Dutch ship on May 8, 1723 commanded by John Welland. Bartlett says, “They plundered her of money and a considerable amount of stores, cut off one of the captain’s ears, and afterwards sunk the vessel.”

After harassing and attacking other ships, the pirates made a fatal error when they attacked what they thought was a rich merchant ship. The ship was, however, His Britannic Majesty’s sloop-of-war, the Greyhound, commanded by Captain Solgard and carrying 20 guns. The pirate vessels tried to get away. One did, but after a desperate struggle in which seven were wounded on the Greyhound, the pirate ship, with a great number wounded and disabled, was captured. The 36 men who formed its crew were taken to Newport to be tried. Their trial lasted two days and resulted in the conviction of 26 of the pirates. They were hanged July 19, 1723, on Gravelly Point (also called Bull’s Point). The bodies were buried on the Goat Island Shore, between high and low water marks or, as reported by Bartlett, “within the flux and reflux of the sea.”

It was a great event for Newport. People flocked into the town from all the surrounding counties to see the wonderful sight. Wilfred Munro, in his account of the event says, “One of the more aesthetic spirits among the pirates composed a poem for the occasion, and almost all of them took advantage of the unequaled opportunity that was afforded them to address the spectators in most edifying terms.”

One of the most daring of all exploits against the pirates came when two young brothers, John and William Wanton, captured a pirate ship of 300 tons, mounting 20 cannons. This pirate craft appeared off the harbor of Newport, cruising between Block Island and Point Judith.  Munro tells us the ship was “interrupting every vessel that attempted to pass, capturing property, and treating the officers and crews with great severity.…”

The two young men, William and John Wanton, sons of Edward Wanton, one of Rhode Island’s early settlers, were determined to capture the pirate ship. Their method was “novel and the success was glorious….” The Wantons disclosed their plans to other young men of their acquaintance and about 30 men joined them. They managed to get a sloop of 30 tons to go against the pirate ship of 10 times its size.

Munro says, “The brave fellows went on board with only their small arms to defend themselves and sailed out of the harbor, apparently on a little coasting excursion, every person being concealed below except the few required to navigate the vessel.…” He goes on to say, “As they drew near the piratical vessel, with the intention, apparently, to pass, the pirate fired a shot at them. This was what they desired in order to give them an opportunity to approach the pirate.”

According to plan, the Wantons’ sloop immediately lowered the peak of her mainsail and luffed up for the pirate, but instead of going alongside they came directly under her stern. Her men at once sprang upon deck and, with irons prepared for the purpose, grappled their sloop to the ship and wedged her rudder to the sternpost so as to render it unmanageable. This was accomplished without alarming the pirates, who believed they were simply being approached by a little coaster. Once the Rhode Islanders attached themselves to the ship, each man seized his musket and, taking deliberate aim, shot every pirate as he appeared on deck.

The pirates, realizing they had fallen into a trap, made great efforts to disengage themselves, but to no avail. Without hope, the surviving pirates surrendered and were taken into the harbor of Newport and turned over to the authorities. They were brought to trial, found guilty and hanged. When this affair took place, William Wanton was but 24 and John 22 years of age. In 1702 the Wantons went to London and were received at court by Queen Anne, who granted them an addition to their coat-of-arms and presented them each with two pieces of plate (silver).

More often than not, however, pirates were welcomed in Newport rather than hanged. At one point, in 1744, the French charged Newport was a “nursery of corsairs” and planned its capture.”

“Perhaps we had better burn it as a pernicious hole, from the number of privateers there fitted out as dangerous in peace as in war,” wrote one French officer to his superior in rank.

The story of Rhode Island’s privateers and pirates will be continued.


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