Capt. Edward Low was known for his extremely cruel treatment of prisoners. Theodor Horydczak Collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The South Portland Historical Society will hold its annual meeting at the South Portland Community Center, 21 Nelson Road, Wednesday, May 25, at 6:30 p.m. The evening will begin with a brief business meeting and will then be turned over to society vice president Seth Goldstein for his lecture, Pirates of New England.

South Portland Historical Society will hold its annual meeting on Wednesday, May 25, at the South Portland Community Center. Seth Goldstein will present a lecture on Pirates of New England. South Portland Historical Society photo

Admission to the lecture is free for current members of the South Portland Historical Society. Non-members may attend with a $15 donation. Attendees can renew their membership or become a member at the door. If you are renewing or starting your membership, please plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early so that we can check everyone in and start on time. This is a cash/check event as the historical society doesn’t have the capacity to process credit cards at the South Portland Community Center. The Community Center is handicap accessible.

When one thinks of pirates, one typically thinks of sparkling Caribbean waters and palm trees. Yet New England has a rich and colorful history of piracy.

Growing up on Cape Cod, I became fascinated with pirates when the wreck of the pirate ship Whydah was discovered off the coast of Wellfleet in 1984. The Whydah was a slaving vessel named after the West African port of Ouidah, in modern day Benin. She was captured by “Black Sam” Bellamy during her maiden voyage in 1716.

The Whydah had already delivered her human cargo when she was captured by Bellamy’s small flotilla of pirate ships in the Bahamas. Bellamy and his crew made the Whydah their flag ship and packed her with cannons, small arms, and treasure. The pirates then sailed for Cape Elizabeth where they intended to “careen” (a process of burning marine growth off the ships’ hulls to facilitate speed) their vessels. For reasons unknown, Bellamy diverted his voyage to the shores of Cape Cod, where a horrific storm caused the Whydah to break up on a submerged sandbar. Of the 146 men onboard, only two survived the frigid North Atlantic waters and made it to the beach.

When the shipwreck was discovered by maritime salvager Barry Clifford, she became the world’s first ever authenticated pirate shipwreck. Clifford and his team have recovered over 200,000 artifacts in 30 years of archaeological work. His team’s research reflects that the Whydah’s crew was multi-ethnic and included Indigenous Americans, formerly-enslaved Africans, free Africans, as well as Europeans from a variety of nations.

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In Maine waters, Wabanaki freedom fighters were considered “pirates” by the English colonists when they attacked and repurposed English fishing vessels. An article recently published in Sea History Magazine titled “[They] saile incomparably well” discusses how the term “pirate” was used by English settlers to justify colonial expansion and explain away defeats at the hands of expert Wabanaki mariners.

An image of Capt. Edward Low in a hurricane in 1743. Theodor Horydczak Collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Dixie Bull is considered the first pirate in New England waters. He was likely sent to the region by colonial land proprietor Sir Ferdinando Gorges.

Bull was unlucky enough to run into a group of French in Penobscot Bay. According to “The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730,” the French took Bull’s shallop (a small one-masted sailing vessel) and his trade goods consisting of “coats, ruggs, blanketts, bisketts, etc.” Determined to get revenge on the French and replace his stolen goods, Bull hunted for French ships up and down the Maine coast in 1632. Unable to find any French vessels, he attacked the English trading post at Pemaquid Harbor.

An attack on a trading station of his own nationality made Bull a pirate. He managed to escape numerous attempts at capture and he disappeared from the historical record in 1633.

The fishing fleet that summered off the coast of Newfoundland was regularly attacked by pirates in the late-17th and early-18th centuries. One of the pirates engaged in this plunder was Edward Low of Boston, who was known for his extremely cruel treatment of prisoners. This included some very creative methods of torture. Captured fishermen were compelled to join the pirate crews as “forced” men.

We hope you’ll join us at the Community Center on Wednesday, May 25, to learn more about the interesting history of pirates in New England.

South Portland Historical Society image

Note: The South Portland Historical Society’s museum at Bug Light Park is now open for the 2022 season. The society is still looking for volunteers to help staff the museum. Volunteers work a three-hour shift, either weekly or bi-weekly. No prior experience or knowledge of local history is required. The society provides training. If you are interested in volunteering, please reach out to us by email at [email protected], by phone at 207-767-7299, or stop by the museum.

Seth Goldstein is a South Portland resident and serves as vice president of the historical society. He teaches history at The Maine College of Art and Design where he is currently teaching a course on global piracy. The historical society can be reached at [email protected]

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