July 22, 2012

Ayuh, ye mateys!

Did the pirates of the Caribbean build a lair in Down East Maine?

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and made superstars of its subjects: Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, Calico Jack Rackham, Bartholomew Roberts, the women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, and others. Most everything you've likely heard about these pirates came from this 1724 book, which inspired the later works of Robert Louis Stevenson and the Walt Disney Corp.

click image to enlarge

Staff photo illustration/Michael Fisher


Colin Woodard is state and national affairs writer at the Portland Press Herald. He is the author of "The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down," on which the forthcoming NBC series "Crossbones" is based.

And according to the General History, this is where one of the greatest pirates of the golden age came at the height of his power: the shores of the Machias River, not far downstream from the current site of the Route 1A bridge. Here he allegedly built a base, repaired his vessel, contemplated the creation of a revolutionary pirate republic, and prepared for a campaign of mayhem spanning nearly 2,000 miles.

It's a remarkable story, but is it true?

While writing a history of Blackbeard, Bellamy and the Bahamas-based pirate gang of which they were part, I had the opportunity to rummage in the archives of Britain and the Americas, piecing together their lives from letters, military records, period newspapers, court documents, baptismal records and the dispatches of colonial officials. The whole while I kept a special lookout for evidence that would support or disprove this greatest of pirate legends associated with my native state.

One fact became immediately clear: Black Sam Bellamy, the man said to have been the pirates' leader, didn't do the deeds ascribed to him in the critical passages of the General History. For much of the time in question, he was dead, his flagship shattered on the beaches of outer Cape Cod, his surviving men rotting in Boston's jailhouse.

But in many of its details, the pirates' Machias sojourn rings true, with some of the events corroborated by documents, adding credence to the others. Archival and circumstantial evidence suggest an intriguing possibility: a notorious pirate gang may well have visited Machias, but the authors of the General History confused their identity.

According to the General History, Bellamy came to Machias in April of 1717 at the crescendo of his brief, wildly successful career.

Bellamy had been a pirate for less than two years, having joined a spreading piracy outbreak after an effort to salvage a sunken Spanish treasure fleet off Florida came up dry. With his friend, Paulsgrave Williams (son of the attorney general of Rhode Island), he fell in with a gang led by Benjamin Hornigold, one of the founders of the famed pirate base at Nassau, in the Bahamas.

Pirates have been around since ancient times, and remain with us today, but this Bahamian pirate gang was different from the rest, both in terms of their motivations, and the degree of their success. At their zenith in 1717 and 1718, Blackbeard, Hornigold, Bellamy and their colleagues had paralyzed the commerce of three empires, terrorizing entire colonies and turning the naval warships tasked with policing the Atlantic into prey. Bellamy and others commanded swift, powerful, over-manned warships capable of overwhelming most any opponent.

Most disruptive, however, was their ideology. Many were former sailors who saw themselves as engaged in a social revolt against the shipowners and captains who had made their lives miserable. They elected and deposed their captains by popular vote, divided their plunder equally, and often welcomed escaped African-Caribbean and African-American slaves into their crews as equals. Colonial officials lamented the wide public support the pirates had among ordinary people and feared that if the pirates attacked their settlements, it would prompt mass slave uprisings.

Witnesses confirmed that Bellamy's crew was particularly idealistic, at least in matters of class if not race. In one action, they referred to themselves as Robin Hood's men. "They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference (between us and them)," Bellamy reportedly told one of his captives. "They plunder the poor under the cover of law and we plunder the rich under the cover of our own courage."

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