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

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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.

These sorts of radical ideas were widely held among sailors and pirates in the period, more than half a century before the American Revolution. According to maritime historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, they had their origins in an earlier, failed revolution, the English Civil War of the 1640s, and its aftermath. "When Bellamy starts denouncing rich people, that's an echo of the rhetoric of the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, and other holders of radical ideas in the (English) revolution," he says. "They were suppressed by Oliver Cromwell and took an underground or underdeck life among working sailors who sometimes had the freedom and opportunity to enact them" -- by mutiny, for instance.

By the winter of 1717, Bellamy was also one of the most feared pirates, commanding a flotilla of armed vessels and a 30-gun flagship, the captured French slave ship Whydah. The captain of the Royal Navy's 22-gun HMS Seaford abandoned a patrol of the British Leeward Islands because he felt "in danger of being overpowered" by Bellamy's gang. While the Seaford cowered in Antigua in early February of 1717, Bellamy's men occupied the island of Virgin Gorda, seat of the deputy governor of the Leeward Islands, where they caroused, repaired their vessels and kept the authorities in a state of fear.

By early April, Bellamy was headed north up the Eastern seaboard in the general direction of Maine. Period documents place him off the mouth of the Chesapeake on April 12, when his fleet split, apparently intending to meet up at either Block Island, R.I., or, failing that, Damariscove or Monhegan Island here in Maine. They would never see one another again.

While passing Cape Cod on the night of April 26, 1717, the Whydah and other vessels in Bellamy's squadron were broken to bits on Wellfleet Beach by a terrible storm. Bellamy was not among the handful of survivors. Unaware of the tragedy, Paulsgrave Williams, the commander of the other detachment of vessels, sailed to Maine to meet Bellamy. He plundered vessels belonging to the Jordan family off Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth and lingered a week or two in the harbor of Damariscove, near Boothbay, before giving up on Bellamy and returning south.

Here's where the legend of Machias comes in.

The General History wrongly claims that prior to the terrible storm on Cape Cod, Bellamy and Williams had sailed together to Machias, anchoring "two miles and a half" upriver -- probably before the falls in what is now downtown but was then an uninhabited wilderness long claimed by France. They spent four days building fortified gun emplacements on either side of the river, with much of the work done by their prisoners, whom they allegedly treated like plantation slaves. Their position secure, the pirates then undertook the necessary but time-consuming task of beaching the Whydah, heaving her on one side and then the other and cleaning the accumulated growth off the underside of her hull, a process that probably took 10 days.

As the work neared completion, one crewman allegedly made an eloquent proposal for the pirates to establish "an empire" based in Machias, where they would build ships, "keep them constantly on the cruise" and conquer lands around them, forcing "the Kings and Princes of the Earth to send their ambassadors to court (an) alliance." Bellamy and Williams supposedly tabled the idea, ordering bowls of punch for the crew instead.

In reality, Bellamy was by then already dead, and Williams was waiting in vain for him at Block Island.

But the General History carries on, describing how the pirates left Machias and sailed around Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. They supposedly seized fishing vessels on the Grand Banks and engaged a 36-gun French frigate loaded with soldiers off nearby St. Pierre et Miquelon. Their flagship "very much shattered" by this unsuccessful engagement, they allegedly decided to return to New England, where they encountered the fateful April 26 storm.

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