Monday, December 9, 2013
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Staff photo illustration/Michael Fisher
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
"There simply wasn't enough time for Bellamy to have been on the Capes of Virginia on April 12 and done everything he was said to have done before the 26th," says Ken Kinkor of the Expedition Whydah Museum in Provincetown, Mass. Kinkor is the leading scholarly authority on Bellamy, who he believes was likely in Long Island Sound during the days in question.
But what if someone else did the deeds the General History ascribed to Bellamy?
One thing I learned about the General History is that its author or authors only rarely invented passages, but regularly confused timing, events and particularly the identities of individual pirates, especially when several gangs were operating in the same area with similarly sized vessels. I suspect that's exactly what happened in the Machias-and-Newfoundland passage, which is remarkably fine-grained and detailed to have not been based on actual events, even if they were garbled.
Consider this: One of Bellamy's close colleagues was also in the area at the time, with a large, heavily armed ship not dissimilar to the Whydah. In English records, he and his ship were last seen in early July of 1717 bound eastward across the Gulf of Maine. He didn't reappear until 10 months later off the coast of South America -- plenty of time to have careened ships in Machias, plundered ships in Newfoundland, and perhaps continued with the prevailing winds to Europe, Africa, and back to Brazil along the traditional great circle route.
Olivier La Buse (aka Louis Labous) was a French pirate who had sailed in consort with Bellamy for much of 1716. La Buse arrived in New England waters a few weeks after Bellamy, with a 250-ton ship bearing 20 guns and 200 men "of all nations," including an English subordinate named Mr. Main who did most of the negotiations with captives. On July 4, La Buse's gang plundered a sloop from Portsmouth, N.H., off the coast of Virginia; the pirates told the sloop's captain, John Frost, that they were headed for the New England coast where they "had a consort ship of 20 guns" -- possibly a reference to the Whydah. The senior British naval officer in Boston reported that a pirate ship matching that of La Buse "plundered several ships and vessels" in the area and that it was the only pirate in the area for weeks to come.
Unlike Bellamy, La Buse would have likely been familiar with French colonial claims and territories in North America, including eastern Maine and the south coast of Newfoundland. French archival documents describe the fishing fleet on the Grand Banks being attacked by pirates for the first time that summer, and that the pirates forced 25 fishermen to join their crews -- further evidence that the General History's account was based on actual events. Even the spectacular claim that the pirates engaged a 36-gun French troop transport bound for Quebec rings true, according to James Pritchard, professor emeritus of history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, an expert on New France in this period.
"It's entirely likely such a vessel would have been bound for Quebec," he says.
"I don't see any reason why La Buse couldn't have done it," Kinkor says of this hypothesis, though he also thinks it's possible that other French pirates could have visited Machias, or that the Maine passage was added to the text to advertise eastern Maine to potential real estate investors. (Daniel DeFoe, one of the suspected authors, is said to have had ties to those with title to eastern Maine.)
We may never know for sure if a pirate visited Machias and, if so, who it was; but I suspect that if the answers are not one day found in the soil of one of the headlands along the shore, they may be unearthed in the archives of France.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: