Piracy, Eighteenth-Century Style

When we think of 18th century pirates, we cannot help but picture the same clichés Hollywood has ingrained in our heads over the many years: lawless, ruthless, squash-buckling adventurers on the high seas. Common sense tells us that we must draw the line somewhere and be open to a more realistic interpretation of the 18th century pirate. Perhaps we can ignore the images of the peg-legged, eye-patch wearing, buccaneer with the parrot on his shoulder. Interestingly enough, we do not have to ignore all that Hollywood has given us. Indeed; what took place on September 7th 1736 on the cargo ship Dove Brigantine plays out as if it were a scene in a Hollywood blockbuster, complete with fighting, stowaways, conspiracy, looted booty, gunfire, drama, murder and as a little added bonus – a chase scene. And much like a Hollywood film, this event goes through the 5 stages of plot development: Introduction, raising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

On the 24th of February 1737, 6 men were brought to trial, not only for the murder of Captain Benjamin Hawes of the cargo ship Dove Brigantine, but also of plundering the cargo held within. The six in question were as follows: Edward Johnson, Nicholas Williams, Lawrence Senett, Nicholas Wolf, Pierce Butler, and John Bryan (aka O’Bryan). The murder took place off the coast of Leghorn in the captain’s cabin on board the Dove Brigantine – a cargo ship that has for years carried merchandise from Harwich, London to the Mediterranean – among many other places. And, as these pirates take the stand, their tale begins to unfold.

During the introduction phase of storytelling, the audience is first introduced to the characters in which the story will revolve, and what better place to begin with than on the ship?

Trading ships, like the Dove Brigantine were an ideal choice for pirates to seize due to the fact that these ships carried cargo worth selling (the ship itself would fetch a high price). Like many trading ships during the time, the Dove Brigantine would at times employ workers who were only hired for an indefinite amount of time, creating a revolving-door employment policy. If that weren’t bad enough, background checks were not needed for a mariner to be hired on board a ship, making it easier for pirates to join a crew with little to no suspicion, this is how Edward Johnson came to be one of the ships foremast men. Nicholas Williams himself used to be a prisoner before he took his position as captain’s mate on board the Dove Brigantine. In fact the only person Captain Hawes kept for a long period of time was his apprentice Richard Walker who has been with Hawes for a total of nine years, who also happen to be on board on the night of the murder. Given his part in the story, he conveniently plays the role of our protagonist.

Like Williams and Johnson, Senett was able to acquire a position on board the ship. In fact he had been on the ship the longest (a total of six weeks). But there’s more than one way to get one board a ship. Unbeknownst to the good captain, Bryan, Wolf, and Butler boarded the ship the night before the murder (perhaps being a stowaway was easier in the 18th century). With the six men in place their plan could finally begin, which will lead us to the second stage of plot development: the rising action.

On that night of September 7, around 10 o’clock, Walker retired to his cabin only to be awoken 30 minutes later by the sound of a shriek and a groan coming from the captain’s cabin. Hearing these sounds Walker decides to investigate. However, immediately after leaving his cabin, walker runs into Johnson holding a bloody knife in his right hand. Best judgment dictates that probing Johnson for answers would probably not be the best idea. And after calling Williams three times to get a better grasp of the situation, Walker was given the explanation that the captain must be dreaming. Still unsure about the incident, Walker confronts the others on the ship only to find them heaving up the anchor and trying to set sail. The night (according to Walker) was too calm to set sail, but this did not stop the crew from trying, after all, captain Hawes did order to set sail on the 7th of September. Walker being obliged to help set sail went down in the cabins for his shoes and finally seen the severity of the situation. Captain Hawes laid dead, half on the bad and half on the floor in a pool of his own blood. Frightened by what he saw, Walker went up on deck and confronted Williams. Expecting Williams to chain Johnson to ring-bolts, Walker was astonished to see that Williams took no action against Johnson. In an unfortunate turn of events, Johnson grabbed a hold of Walker and said “G**D*** you, you dog, I’ll kill you too”. At this point we become worried that this will be the end of our plucky young hero. Luckily for us we are now entering the third stage of plot development: the climax.

With a swift strike to Johnson’s arm Walker is able to make his daring escape by jumping overboard as Johnson shouts, “damn the Dog, kill him, kill him, don’t let him go”. And as our Hollywood villains prove – the bad guys always have poor aim. Upon jumping into the sea, Walker is nicked in the buttocks by a flying dagger (this incident can also serve as the comic relief that breaks up tense moments). Luckily for Walker, the dagger is only able to cut through his trousers but not his flesh. Nonetheless, the chase ensues, with Johnson and Butler jumping into a small life raft and start rowing their way towards Walker. The chase ends some 800 yards later when Walker swims towards and Italian vessel seeking refuge. Johnson and Butler end their chase thinking that Walker has been injured and is in no condition to swim. Amazingly, the Italian vessel that took Walker in was not the only vessel near the coast. After explaining the situation to the Italians, Walker also speaks with one John Legard who is the Chief Mate of the Lavent. In a fortunate turn of events no less than five armed vessels seek out the Dove Brigantine in hopes of apprehending the pirates. With Walker out of harm’s way, Legard (along with many others) boards the ship to find Wolf hidden under buffalo hides and O’Bryan throwing himself over board only to be met with more awaiting vessels. At this point our protagonist has successfully foiled the plans of the evil pirates, which means that we now begin the fourth stage of plot development: the falling action.

Legard confronts Williams about the whereabouts of the captain, and after a long silence Williams admits “he’s a dead man, and not a man for this world”. Along with Legard, a man known only as Mr. Rogers also boards the Dove Brigantine in search of the culprits. After finding a lantern, Rogers makes his way down into the cargo bay, and there, underneath a pile of hides lay Johnson, Butler, and Senett, who after refusing to come out, have no choice but to comply or be shot. Thus the ordeal finally ends with the apprehension of all six pirates. Now we enter the final stage of plot development: the resolution.

This narrative has begun with a trail taking place months after the incident occurs – and so this is how it must end (the trail being the narrative framework in which the story is told). On the 24th of February 1737 Edward Johnson and Nicholas Williams were found guilty for the murder of Captain Hawes and of conspiring to steal the Dove Brigantine. Lawrence Senett, Nicholas Wolf, Pierce Butler, and John Bryan (aka O’Bryan) were also found guilty of lesser charges. Those that received a death sentence were, Edward Johnson, Nicholas Williams and Lawrence Senett. Giving this tale its happy ending.

Like a modern day movie, this tale has everything an audience could want (or at least what an audience is used to). Though comparing this trail to a Hollywood movie may not be the most conventional method of understanding 18th century piracy, there is an upside – knowing that by slightly altering the narrative one can absorb information more easily and readily, as well as increase the entertainment factor for those not used to reading trail transcripts.

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