Charter Advisors Special Feature
BVI History From The Cockpit - Part 2 - PIRATES
by Capt. Kev
In Part one I touched on a bit of the history of the British Virgin Islands. Part two is all about the more notable characters that plied their waters.
Pirates, Buccaneers, and Privateers of the BVIs
The untouched beauty of the BVIs were not lost on "gentlemen of fortune." Many of the hidden bays and sheltered coves were discovered by some of the most famous pirates and privateers of this era such as Black Beard, Norman, Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Captain Morgan, and Jost Van Dyke. Several of the islands here, including Norman, Jost Van Dyke and Great and Little Thatch, are named after these legendary characters. It's no wonder that the English crown referred to the BVIs as the "pirate's nest."
Pirates kept their activities as secret as possible, so there is little "official" record of their goings on in the BVIs. But, it is a known fact that pirates used the Virgin Islands as a place to hide and rest after long sea voyages and to muster their crews before battle. The lay of the islands and the bays that make up the BVIs would have been perfect for hiding large ships and crews.
Famous pirates like Blackbeard and his ship the "Queen Ann's Revenge" was only one in a long list of pirates and vessels in the BVIs. In 1685, a Spanish pirate ship called the Longue attacked Tortola and captured an English ship and its crew, but killing only one.
The next year, another Spanish pirate flotilla led by an English doctor of all things, attacked and successfully held Tortola for days. Plantations were raided and Thomas Bisse, the Deputy Governor's son, was taken and beaten. The damage was so great that the small colony on Tortola was in total ruin and nearly collapsed. Pirates took much from the BVIs but in the process, stamped them solidly in the history books.
The last recorded act of piracy in the islands was actually as recently as 1869, with a ship called the Telegrafo.
One of the most infamous Pirates in British Virgin Island history was Edward Teach (or Thatch ... nobody knows his last name for certain), who became better known as Blackbeard. By all reports, his very long and unruly beard covered the majority of his face, which, presumably, had never been introduced to a razor.
When in the British Virgin Islands Blackbeard was known to hold up in a natural large deep water harbor in the west end of Tortola now called Sopers Hole. His fleet of ships could lay in wait, hidden from the shipping channel where Spanish treasure ships frequently sailed through. Both Thatch Islands (Great Thatch and Little Thatch) are said to be named by him. His ship the "Queen Ann's Revenge" has recently been discovered off the coast of the Carolinas. A wealth of historical artifacts lifted from his ship (including cannons fired by Blackbeard himself) are now on display in museums there.
One of the most famous and well documented pirates of the BVIs was Owen Lloyd. Lloyd commanded a ship of mutineers from the treasure gallon Nustra Senora de Guadelope. They stole a portion of her highly valuable cargo and fled first to St. Croix where they hid a portion of the ill gotten booty.
From St. Croix, Lloyd set sail for Norman Island where the rest was buried. With the majority of treasure hidden way, they took off for St. Eustatius, but it was a bad move. They were apprehended on arrival.
Lloyd's treasure could not be kept secrete for long. Word had spread though the Tortola colony that there was treasure on Norman Island. The president of the Tortola Colony, Abraham Chalwill, and a group of local planters headed to Norman Island and recovered the treasure. Though some say they did not find nearly all of it, they split up the treasure but their joy was short lived. Upon hearing of the treasure find, the Lieutenant Governor of the British Leeward Islands sent a British naval ship to recover the treasure from the local planters. The planters didn't get left completely high and dry, they received a small amount of the treasure each, as an "old world finders fee." You can still view a copy of the British receipt of payment to the planters on Tortola.
Sir Francis Drake
His name is known by all modern-day British Virgin Island sailors thanks to the island channel named after him. But even with this name recognition, not much is known about Drake's background. Even the year of his birth is in question. Best guesses range from 1538 through 1542. What we do know is that when Drake got older, his family moved to Kent where they lived in the hull of an old ship. Ironically, Edmund Drake, Francis Drakes father, was a preacher to naval sailors. Living by the sea and hearing stories told by sailors was fascinating to Drake. Some say it was this move to Kent that set him on his path to the sea.
As a young man, he apprenticed with a man who owned a small freighter. It worked out well for him when the man died. He willed Drake the boat having no family of his own. This first boat would be one of many, setting in motion his voyaging future.
For his accomplishments Drake was knighted and became very wealthy. His old home in Buckland Abbey in Devon is still the building where "Drake's Drum" can be found. Legend says that when the drum is drumming, England is in danger.
Drake sailed around the world between 1577 and 1580. This achievement earned him a place in the English history books.
These English accolades meant little to the Spanish; to them he was nothing more than a murderous pirate. To them he was one who apprenticed under John Hawkens no less. Drake was feared by the Spanish, they called him "El Draque" (the Dragon). Drake's fleet of ships were a constant trouble for Spanish bullion ships departing out of what is now Mexico and South America. Spanish ships were either sunk or were boarded and their valuable cargo taken. The queen did not "officially" endorse Drake's escapades, but she didn't put a stop to them either. Nor did she mind the treasure and jewels Drake brought back for her.
He bolstered his reputation to near legend status when he sailed his fleet into Cadiz in 1587, and attacked the Spanish fleet on their home waters. The fleet Drake destroyed was to have been part of the Spanish Armada of 1587. The damage he and his men inflicted on them delayed the Armada for over a year.
Sir Francis Drake died in 1596 in the Caribbean after a respite in the North Sound (Gorda Sound) British Virgin Islands. He continued his fight against the Spanish in the North. He caught fever (some say of the "bloody flux") and died on January 28th of that year. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin off of Puerto Bello, Panama.
Hawkins was a regular in British Virgin Islands. He sailed with his former apprentice Francis Drake in a "military operation," the goal of which was to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet. The voyage ended in failure, but it gave the idea to many other English pirates who followed in their footsteps.
What some might not know is that Hawkins is also know for the improvements he pioneered in ship construction and rigging. He found ways to keep worms from eating holes in the ships hulls, he introduced detachable mast tops that could be taken down in rough weather and hoisted up in fair weather. Hawkens also stepped masts further forward and cut his sails flatter. Compared to other ships of the day, his were racers, with longer waterlines and smaller fore and aft castles. It was this inventiveness that gave the edge to the English in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Pirate or not, Hawkins was knighted for his part in the "great battle."
Jost Van Dyke
Captain 'Jost Van Dyke' was a 17th Century Dutch pirate who used the harbors of his namesake island as a hideout and to attack ships passing North of the island on way to Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Cuba. In "traditional" pirate fashion his choice of prey was the treasure galleons of the Spanish.
Pirates From the BVIs?
Yes indeed. BVI Islanders also partook in the "sweet trade" during the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence. The British issued letters of Marque to expand their own naval ranks to Caribbean planters who became known as privateers. But they didn't just attack enemies of England. Attacks on neutral countries were just as common. They had to be careful in these "other" attacks. If caught, their letter of Marque became meaningless. Those were considered acts of piracy, carrying a penalty of death.
The BVI islanders attacked so many neutral countries though that their letters of mark were all recalled by England. The last "recorded" act of piracy in the BVIs was in 1869, with local pirates aboard the Telegrafo. The ship and her crew were held in Tortola but were released because the legal system at the time could not prosecute such a case.
There is a mysterious history of piracy in the BVIs. Fact and legend can become blurry when discussing the subject. But there is one fact that can't be disputed. Pirates sailed the BVI waters and left their mark. And some of what they left, may yet to be discovered.
Original Dead Mans Chest "Diddy"
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Drink and the devil had done for the rest. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
This Revised version was originally created 1891 added to in 1901 and used in the original play and movie "Treasure Island."
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Drink and the devil had done for the rest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike/The bosun brained with a marlinspike/And cookey's throat was marked belike/It had been gripped by fingers ten/And there they lay, all good dead men/Like break o'day in a boozing ken/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men of the whole ship's list/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/The skipper lay with his nob in gore/Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore/And the scullion he was stabbed times four/And there they lay, and the soggy skies/Dripped down in up-staring eyes/In murk sunset and foul sunrise/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Ten of the crew had the murder mark/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead/Or a yawing hole in a battered head/And the scuppers' glut with a rotting red/And there they lay, aye, damn my eyes/Looking up at paradise/All souls bound just contrariwise/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men of 'em good and true/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Ev'ry man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/There was chest on chest of Spanish gold/With a ton of plate in the middle hold/And the cabins riot of stuff untold/And they lay there that took the plum/With sightless glare and their lips struck dumb. While we shared all by the rule of thumb. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
More was seen through a sternlight screen/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Chartings undoubt where a woman had been/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/'Twas a flimsy shift on a bunker cot/With a dirk slit sheer through the bosom spot/And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot. Oh was she wench or some shudderin' maid. That dared the knife and took the blade. By God! she had stuff for a plucky jade/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Drink and the devil had done for the rest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight/With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight/And we heaved 'em over and out of sight/With a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-you-well/And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell/Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
- Charter Review: The Moorings 5800 Ocean Suite by Captain Kev
- Charter Review: VOYAGE Charters, VOYAGE 520 Silver Lining by Capt. Kev