Around the globe, people were shocked by the recent attack by Somali pirates on the U.S. cargo ship the Maersk Alabama, and the abduction of Capt. Richard Phillips. The story was riveting. Who knew there were still pirates?
Pirates have always prowled the ocean. As Capt. John Smith wrote in 1630: “As in all lands where there are many people, there are some theeves, so in all Seas much frequented, there are some Pyrats.”
The image of course that springs to mind is more romance than horror, colored by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.
But were our own pirates truly better behaved and less brutal than today’s terrorists of the high seas? According to Vineyard historian Ann Coleman Allen, “Pirate bands have always attracted deranged criminal types, some of them outright psychopaths.” Clearly our image of pirates as lovable renegades is somewhat off-base.
The man who is credited with being the first pirate in New England waters was an Englishman named Dixey Bull who was living in Boston in 1631. He comes across as a fairly decent chap. He’d been trading furs with the Indians in Penobscot Bay when a French pinnace (a small schooner generally attached to a man-of-war) swooped into the bay and robbed Mr. Bull of his entire lot of furs and everything else not nailed down, including “ruggs, blanketts, bisketts, etc.”
Dixey Bull was understandably enraged. He loaded up his shallop (an open boat propelled by oars or sails) with a handful of adventurous men, his crew plus 15 soldiers on loan from Governor Winthrop, who appreciated Bull’s plan to light out after French privateers. But failing to find any Gallic vessels upon whom to extract vengeance, Bull began raiding Colonial ships and trading posts.
His initial forays met with no resistance, but a heist in Pemaquid, Me., invited musket fire from shore, and Bull’s second in command fell dead on the deck. The sight of blood so traumatized the virgin band of pirates that, according to one of them who confided later to a skipper from Salem, for a long time after this casualty in Pemaquid, Dixey Bull’s crewmen “were afraid of the very Rattling of the Ropes.” Some of the disillusioned men deserted. Dixey Bull himself evaded capture, likely returning to England where he disappeared from public record.
During what might well be called the golden age of piracy, from 1630 to 1730, vessels sporting the Jolly Roger were often spied in the vicinity of Martha’s Vineyard. And while no known pirates were ever born and bred here, Vineyard sailors were ever eager to chase after the scoundrels. In late September of 1689, Capt. Samuel Pease organized a crew for his sloop, Mary, and sailed west toward the Cape in pursuit of pirate chieftain Thomas Pound, who had rashly robbed the sloop Brothers Adventure, anchored in Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven), hauling away barrels of salted pork, beef, corn, butter and cheese.
Pease’s men caught up with Pound’s men between the southern Cape and Tarpaulin Cove. A northeaster swept in, making the pitched battle even more fraught with terror, but the brigands were quelled and brought to justice in Boston. Unhappily, the valiant Captain Pease was shot and killed.
Some Island historians maintain that pirates in the 18th and 19th centuries found a snug harbor in Eastville Beach, now a tranquil part of Oak Bluffs, in those days a rousing sailors’ shantytown packed with taverns, ship’s chandleries, and even a few low-key brothels. Custom had it that, from all the hundreds of boats resting at anchor between West Chop and East Chop, officers gravitated to the pleasures of the harbor in Holmes Hole, while the ships’ crews rowed ashore at Eastville, whose riotous entertainments earned it the nickname of New England’s Barbary Coast. In this rough-and-tumble resort, pirates from all over the world could sit at an upturned wooden barrel for a game of cards, order drinks for the house, join in a drunken round of chanties, and for an extra few shillings slip upstairs with a lady of the night.
So far in this telling, our local pirates appear more benign than sociopathic, but tales of savage practices abounded. New England pirates sank or burned countless ships, and they slaughtered untold numbers of sailors in the process of overtaking said ships. On the other hand, once a vessel was commandeered, the prisoners were of more interest to the pirates alive than dead, as a potential workforce. Many innocent sailors were in this manner forced into a life of crime, but on a number of occasions pirate captains would permit a contract to be signed stating that certain seamen had been impressed against their will. In the event the pirate ship was captured, the shanghaied men would have a defense in a court of law.
New England legends have probably done more to promote pirate cachet than actual recorded historical accounts. On the Vineyard there is an old tale of a strange, almost supernatural pirate event taking place off the rough seas of Wasque at the far end of Chappaquiddick. The year was 1703, and the sole white settler living on the tiny island was out wandering the cliffs at sunset. He spotted a pirate galleon anchored offshore and, crouching behind a rock to remain unnoticed, watched as a dinghy was lowered into the water. A half-dozen men rowed a man in a long black cape to the beach. The men set about digging a hole into which they interred a strongbox. Before filling in the hole, the pirate chieftain removed from the folds of his cape a strange leather satchel which he tossed on top of the chest.
Hidden behind his rock, the settler watched in amazement as a mushroom cloud of green light exploded from the hole, illuminating the countryside for miles around. When the mysterious light faded, the pirates shoveled soil over the strongbox and promptly rowed back to their ship.
The story inspired treasure hunts on Chappy for decades to come. Vineyard legend has it that danger lurks at the site of buried booty, and that the cursed site has the power to kill anyone without rights to the treasure. And as superstition has it, no one digging for pirate loot should utter a single word; the excavation must be carried out in strict silence.
There are no accounts of a Vineyarder ever recovering a cash of pirate doubloons, but perhaps out of interest of staying one step ahead of the tax man, such accounts have been kept quiet.