Rhode Island's long history has been crisscrossed with episodes of pirates, privateers, buccaneers, "gentlemen of fortune,” free-booters, corsairs and "brethren of the coast.” The common denominators for all of these is the desire for adventure and the hope of obtaining sudden wealth. In some instances, especially after the many wars in which England engaged, there would be many ships laid up or abandoned and their crews disbanded. This often resulted in a large labor market vying for the few jobs available. In many cases the only positions for seamen, Dr. Philip Gosse, in his History of Piracy, notes, were on ships where no questions were asked and no wages given. Instead, the crew worked for a share of the profits, often obtained illegally.
Verrazano, our first pirate
The first known pirate to find Narragansett Bay a pleasant haven was Giovanni de Verrazano (c. l480-c. 1527). Verrazano is known primarily as an explorer and cartographer and Rhode Island's newest bridge has been named in his honor.
Nevertheless, Verrazano was a pirate. He was born in Florence at a time when Italy was merely a "geographical expression.” He learned navigation at an early age and, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, became a pirate, sailing with the French. He may have used the name "Jacques Florentine" and was known to the Spanish as Juan Florin.
Rhode Island's "discoverer" most likely raided the West Indies in the fashion of many French buccaneers and, in 1522, captured two ships that had been dispatched from Mexico by Hernando Cortez. These ships had been loaded by the Conquistador Cortez with the spoils from his looting of Tenochtitlan and were destined for the King of Spain. Instead, thanks to Verrazano, they were given to Francis I of France. As a result, this French king decided America was worth his attention after all and put Verrazano in charge of an American expedition to find a short route to the Indies and to claim North America for France.
The Bay of Refuge
Verrazano, with a crew of 50 aboard a small vessel, Dauphene or Dolphin, sailed directly west and began exploring the North American coast in 1524. It was during this voyage that he sailed into Narragansett Bay. When he first saw the triangular island we today call Block Island, he noted that it was similar to the Island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea. He named it Luisa in honor of the French king's mother.
Verrazano did not land here but instead went to what is today Newport, where he spent 15 days exploring and making maps. Verrazano not only brought Narragansett Bay to the attention of Europe, he is most likely responsible for the name for when, in 1638, John Clarke and William Coddington purchased Aquidneck Island, they named it Rhode Island, believing it was the island Verrazano had referred to as "like the Isle of Rhodes.”
Captain Baxter: pirate or privateer?
As early as 1653, only 17 years after Roger Williams established his colony in Providence, Rhode Island gave privateer commissions to Captain John Underhill, William Dyre, Edward Hull and Thomas Baxter. The reason given was that England was at war with Holland and these captains were given power "to goe against the Dutch, or any enemies of ye Commonwealth of England.” The commissions were granted by a Court of Trials in Newport under the governorship of William Coddington. According to historian Edward Field in his State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, this was at a time when the four towns in the colony were not united and Providence and Warwick objected to the commissions, saying, "...is like, for aught we see, to set all New England on fire..." and they inferred that the commissions were "illegal and unjust proceedings.”
In that same year, a mariner, Samuel Mayo from Plymouth Colony, claimed that his ship Desire had been illegally seized by Thomas Baxter under order of a commission from Rhode Island. Not long after, it was deemed that Rhode Island had no authority to issue commissions to privateers. Despite this ruling, Rhode Island refused to release Captain Mayo's vessel.
Privateering...debauchery and iniqity
While piracy is defined under English law as "taking a ship on the High Seas...from the possession or control of those who are lawfully entitled," and privateering is operating legally by commission of a duly recognized authority and only preys upon enemies in time of war, in fact, it is often impossible to separate the two. Cotton Mather, one of New England's most famous and influential Puritan preachers, said in 1204, "the Privateering Stroke so easily degenerates into the Piratical, and the Privateering Trade is usually carried on with an Unchristian Temper, and proves an Inlet into so much Debauchery and Iniquity.”
James I of England said, "...how this is, the hedge between profit and plunder, privateer and pirate.” The great English naval hero Lord Nelson also declared that all privateers were no better than pirates and Phillip Gosse, writing on pirates in Encyclopedia Britannica, notes, "Many a shady privateer was little better than a pirate, and the letter of marque under which he sailed a mere pretence..."
Gosse also makes it clear that piracy was not a Rhode Island invention, as he notes that it is mentioned under the term "sea-rover" in Homer’s Odyssey, which may have been written as early as 1000 B.C. We are also aware that Julius Caesar (102-44 B.C.) when a young man was captured by pirates. This was a serious mistake for the sea-robbers, for after his ransom was paid and he was released, Caesar returned with soldiers and captured his late jailers and had all of them crucified.
Lucy and the Chinese pirates
Nearly every country has had its share of difficulties with pirates. Piracy as we know it continued well into the 19th century until public opinion finally turned against it and the steam-engine and the telegraph were invented. In China, piracy continued into the 20th century and even at this late date Rhode Island was affected when in 1923 Lucy Aldrich was captured by Chinese bandits and pirates. Lucy was the daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich, and after she gained her freedom, she noted that she "saved her chastity by cantankerousness, and her valuable jewels by stuffing them into the toes of her shoes.”
Much of the romantic images of the pirates or buccaneers came from the exploits of European sailors who preyed upon the Spanish in the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, this practice came as a result of the oppressive Spanish colonial policy in Hispaniola (now Santo Domingo) that had thinned out the native (Arawakan) Indians. When the Spanish, more interested in seizing the gold on the mainland, abandoned their domestic animals, they eventually witnessed large herds of wild cattle, goats and pigs on the island. The original buccaneers, mostly French, found they could find provisions on Hispaniola by taking and killing the wild animals.
The “Boucan” process
From the Arawakans, they learned how to preserve meat without the use of salt, which was very expensive and difficult to obtain. The Indians cured the meat in the sun and then smoked the product over a fire of green wood. The French called this process "boucan," which was later corrupted into the word buccaneer. The Spanish regarded these buccaneers as intruders and called them piratas or pirates. To stop the buccaneers from getting provisions from the islands, the Spanish slaughtered the animals. In retaliation, the buccaneers turned to the sea and preyed upon Spanish coastal vessels.
Various captains, claiming to be privateers with legitimate letters from established countries, saw an opportunity for quick profit. One celebrated case is that of an English pirate who received a letter of marque from the governor of a Danish West India island, who was actually a reformed pirate himself. The Englishman claimed that the commission, written in Danish, gave him the right to attack enemy ships. In reality when the latter was translated it simply entitled the bearer to hunt for goats and wild pigs on the islands and nothing else.
Long Ben: The Arch-Pirate
One of these early pirates who eventually involved Rhode Island was Captain John Avery, alias Every, alias Bridgeman and known far and wide as "Long Ben.” Avery gained prominence among pirates when as a mate on a merchant ship he headed a mutiny and was elected captain. He was a daring leader and very successful in the West Indies, later sailed to the Red Sea and on to Madagascar. He is reported to have seized a rich ship of the "Great Mogul," which had on board 100,000 pieces of eight and the Mogul's young and lovely daughter. He took both to Madagascar, where he settled down as a reigning monarch. In 1696, he and his crew came to Boston, where he allegedly bribed the governor to allow him to land and dispose of his plunder.
One of the most serious warnings given to Rhode Island in regard to harboring pirates was from the English Board of Trade in February 1697. At that time, some of Henry Avery's crew had been captured and went on trial in London. To gain clemency, they named a number of Rhode Islanders as pirates. The board, as quoted in Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, edited by John Russell Bartlett, charged that "several informations have been transmitted to us, wherein mention is made of Rhode Island, as a place where pirates are ordinarily too kindly entertained..."
Bartlett quotes from the document as follows: William Mews, a pirate, fitted out at Rhode Island. Thomas Jones is concerned... with Capt'n Want, and lives in Rhode Island. Want is gone...and in all probability is either at Rhode Island or Carolina by this time. Want's wife lives there (Rhode Island). Want spent his money there, and in Pennsylvania.…”
Samuel Cranston, who was governor at the time, denied the charges and called Avery a liar. Historian Edward Field, writing in 1902, quotes Cranston as saying that William Mayes (Mews) "had his Clearance from the Custom house at Newport, to go on a trading voyage to Madagascar with a lawful Commission from the Government, to fight the French, his Majesty's enemies; and the best information we have is that Captain Avery and his men plundered him..."
The story of Rhode Island and the pirates, including Captain William Kidd, Captain Thomas Paine, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard and female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read will be continued.