Did the pirates of the Caribbean build a lair in Down East Maine?
It was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and made superstars of its subjects: Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, Calico Jack Rackham, Bartholomew Roberts, the women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, and others. Most everything you’ve likely heard about these pirates came from this 1724 book, which inspired the later works of Robert Louis Stevenson and the Walt Disney Corp.
And according to the General History, this is where one of the greatest pirates of the golden age came at the height of his power: the shores of the Machias River, not far downstream from the current site of the Route 1A bridge. Here he allegedly built a base, repaired his vessel, contemplated the creation of a revolutionary pirate republic, and prepared for a campaign of mayhem spanning nearly 2,000 miles.
It’s a remarkable story, but is it true?
While writing a history of Blackbeard, Bellamy and the Bahamas-based pirate gang of which they were part, I had the opportunity to rummage in the archives of Britain and the Americas, piecing together their lives from letters, military records, period newspapers, court documents, baptismal records and the dispatches of colonial officials. The whole while I kept a special lookout for evidence that would support or disprove this greatest of pirate legends associated with my native state.
One fact became immediately clear: Black Sam Bellamy, the man said to have been the pirates’ leader, didn’t do the deeds ascribed to him in the critical passages of the General History. For much of the time in question, he was dead, his flagship shattered on the beaches of outer Cape Cod, his surviving men rotting in Boston’s jailhouse.
But in many of its details, the pirates’ Machias sojourn rings true, with some of the events corroborated by documents, adding credence to the others. Archival and circumstantial evidence suggest an intriguing possibility: a notorious pirate gang may well have visited Machias, but the authors of the General History confused their identity.
According to the General History, Bellamy came to Machias in April of 1717 at the crescendo of his brief, wildly successful career.
Bellamy had been a pirate for less than two years, having joined a spreading piracy outbreak after an effort to salvage a sunken Spanish treasure fleet off Florida came up dry. With his friend, Paulsgrave Williams (son of the attorney general of Rhode Island), he fell in with a gang led by Benjamin Hornigold, one of the founders of the famed pirate base at Nassau, in the Bahamas.
Pirates have been around since ancient times, and remain with us today, but this Bahamian pirate gang was different from the rest, both in terms of their motivations, and the degree of their success. At their zenith in 1717 and 1718, Blackbeard, Hornigold, Bellamy and their colleagues had paralyzed the commerce of three empires, terrorizing entire colonies and turning the naval warships tasked with policing the Atlantic into prey. Bellamy and others commanded swift, powerful, over-manned warships capable of overwhelming most any opponent.
Most disruptive, however, was their ideology. Many were former sailors who saw themselves as engaged in a social revolt against the shipowners and captains who had made their lives miserable. They elected and deposed their captains by popular vote, divided their plunder equally, and often welcomed escaped African-Caribbean and African-American slaves into their crews as equals. Colonial officials lamented the wide public support the pirates had among ordinary people and feared that if the pirates attacked their settlements, it would prompt mass slave uprisings.
Witnesses confirmed that Bellamy’s crew was particularly idealistic, at least in matters of class if not race. In one action, they referred to themselves as Robin Hood’s men. “They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference (between us and them),” Bellamy reportedly told one of his captives. “They plunder the poor under the cover of law and we plunder the rich under the cover of our own courage.”
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.
“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.
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.