Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: "My First Crime Was Piracy"

Its that time again, Brethren! We haven't opened The Pirates' Own Book for a while and I thought the delightful tale of Charles Gibbs might be a handy distraction for a Tuesday afternoon. Without further introduction, here is Charles Ellms' take on the nefarious Gibbs the pirate.

Gibbs was a Rhode Islander by birth, according to the book, although I have seen other historians note that he was born in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. Either way it appears that he eventually came to call the US home. In the year 1809 he was 15 years old, had been expelled from school and was doing farm labor which did not interest him in the least. He had a "great inclination to roam" and therefor turned to the sea. He signed on board the Navy sloop Hornet and, as so many sailors did, worked his way onto a larger more prestigious ship. Ellms has Gibbs aboard the Chesapeake when she is engaged and captured by the British frigate Shannon. This conflict was the touchstone that sparked the War of 1812 and many of you have probably seen the famous painting showing the valiant Chesapeake trying in vain to overcome the heavier gunned Shannon. It has always struck me as serendipitous that both ships were named after rivers.

At any rate, Gibbs was imprisoned in Dartmoor, England and eventually exchanged. He made his way to Boston where he opened "a drunkery" in a questionable area of town. His establishment catered to the local harlots and it became Gibbs habit to let the girls "pay him in their coin" thus running the place into the ground for lack of funds. Time to go back to sea.

Evidently fed up with the Navy, Gibbs takes passage to Buenos Aires and secures a berth aboard an Argentinian privateer. First Consul Jose de San Martin was handing out letters of marque like Halloween candy around this time, so its not surprising that Gibbs was drawn to the fledgling country. At some point the crew mutinied over prize money and the mutineers turned to piracy. According to Ellms they "steered for the West Indies, with hearts resolved to make their fortunes at all hazards" and in the course of this endeavor they managed to slaughter four hundred of their fellow men. Ellms does not give us dates or even vague time frames but, no matter how you slice it, that's impressive.

Gibbs and his mates end up lodging in Havana for a time, although why is not discussed in the book. The raiding and murder continues until 1819, when Gibbs is in New York with $30,000 burning a hole in his pocket. Gibbs is quoted as saying at the time of his trial for piracy and murder that he "...fell in with a woman, and I am sorry to say that a heart that never felt abashed at scenes of carnage and blood, was made a child for a time by her..." I'm going to read "she took me for all I was worth" into that. The relationship was evidently too much for our pirate, and he returned to Argentina to take a post in the Navy there.

Here, Ellms switches to a first person style of narrative as if he is merely writing down an interview with Gibbs. He doesn't say that he has met or even seen the man, but none the less it is Gibbs' voice we appear to be listening to now. He rambles somewhat, about a trip to North Africa and an attempt to join the Barbary pirates. When this fails its back to independent piracy and, as always with Ellms, we now have the story of an abduction and rape. A "Dutch girl" is
taken by Gibbs and his pirate pals from a ship they raid. They kill all the other passengers - including her parents - and hold her against her will for two or three months until they finally give her poison. The prose is pretty purple here but Gibbs insists that he never touched the girl.

After this heinous interlude, Gibbs makes his way to New Orleans and signs aboard the ship of a Captain Thornby. The ship is not only transporting cotton, sugar and molasses but also $54,000 in "specie" or coin. I think we all know what happens next. Mutiny ensues and the narrative becomes somewhat confused as to who killed who on one fateful night off the coast of New England. At any rate, the Captain and his officers are murdered and thrown overboard, the money is taken to Southampton and buried on the island, and then one of the conspirators blabs to the local lighthouseman, Johnson. The cat is out of the back.

The rest of the story appears to be recordings of court documents with the defendants in the case, Gibbs and Thomas Wansley, accusing their fellows of selling them out to avoid hanging. If there is any truth to what Ellms has written, it appears that's exactly what happened. There is also a frank discussion of racial tensions, with Wansley - who was black - telling the court directly that he was being convicted more for his color than for his deeds. Again, judging from Ellms' account of the mutiny, he might very well have been right. Both men are hanged, and Ellms prints a series of letters attributed to Gibbs, one of which includes this poem:

Rising grief distress my soul
And tears on tears successive roll -
For many an evil voice is near,
To chide my woes and mock my fear -
And silent memory weeps alone,
O'er hours of peace and gladness known.

Pirate poetry, Brethren. You can't beat it. The final note in this chapter is both poignant and indicative of the time it was written. Directly from Ellms: "After the bodies had remained on the gallows the usual time, they were taken down and given to the surgeons for dissection. Gibbs was rather below the middle stature, thick set and powerful. The form of Wansley was a perfect model of manly beauty."

Very little has been written about Gibbs outside of Ellms' narrative so its hard to compare and contrast. It is documented that Gibbs was one of the men operating out of Cuba who was turned over to Commodore David Porter when he was hunting pirates in the Caribbean. From there he was, indeed, hanged. The rest is no more than speculation.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Another entertaining post. That Ellms was quite the yarn spinner, wasn't he? Oh well, I guess that was the whole idea... Sex and violence will always sell, won't they?

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! I guess that's why the book is so much fun. Even today in the "in your face with sex and violence!" environment we live in, its still nice to let your imagination do some of the work. And that's why I love Charles Ellms.