Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pathetic Pirates: Bad Company and Good Intentions

Today's entry under the Double P title is not as pathetic as some of our previous guests. He seems like a diligent sort, brave under fire and capable of command. All the same he ended up far worse than many less famous than himself. His two fatal flaws - neither of which might have bothered him much in another profession - were being a bad judge of character and lacking natural cruelty. And so, a brief look at the life of Edward Seegar known as pirate Captain Edward England.

Born some time around 1700 and probably in Ireland, Edward Seegar joined aboard a merchant ship as a young man. Like so many others whose stories will never be told, Edward was just doing his duty when his ship was taken by pirates. In 1717, Captain Christopher Winter captured the merchant vessel in question and took it back to New Providence, Bahamas as prize. It seems that Seegar voluntarily joined up with Winter and then changed his last name to England.

England crewed with Winter until that fateful August in 1718 when Woodes Rogers showed up and kicked the pirates out of their base on New Providence. England, perhaps seeing an opportunity in the chaos, took a prize sloop with a small crew and became Captain. Shrewdly seeing that the Caribbean would be crowded with displaced pirates, England set out for the west coast of Africa to plunder the rich slave trade.

The new Captain cruised the African coast for some months and took several prizes. He began to amass a small fleet as he went along, always moving to a larger and more heavily gunned flagship as he captured them. Eventually he headed south and rounded the Cape of Good Hope, intending to begin plundering the merchant fleets in the Indian Ocean.

By now, England had given a captured sloop - Victory - to a man he thought he could trust, John Taylor. The two Captains put in at Madagascar for victuals and the careening of their ships. Some surviving documentation of their extended visit recalls that they partied hard with the spoils of their hunting and "...[made] free with the Negroe women." Good times, evidently. But not for long.

Back at sea, England's little flotilla captured his new flagship Fancy of 34 guns. She was certainly a frigate and therefor unusually large for a pirate ship. Taylor moved into England's former ship, Pearl, and the hunting continued. In August of 1720, England and his boys ran into three East India merchants off Johanna Island, north and west of Madagascar. Two of the ships chose to run but the largest and best armed, Cassandra, stood her ground.

While Taylor gave chase to the other ships, the fighting between Fancy and Cassandra was brutal and bloody. The ships exchanged broadside for broadside at close range. Hours later, Cassandra was forced to limp off to Johanna where her Captain, James MacCray (or Macrae) beached her and off loaded those of his crew that survived. Cassandra suffered 37 dead and Fancy lost upwards of 85 men.

While MacCray hid in the jungle, England's men ransacked Cassandra. Goods inside were estimated at a worth of 70,000 English pounds but the magnitude of the prize did not quell the blood lust of the pirates. Some of Fancy's crew grumbled about revenge for their lost mates.

By the time MacCray and his men were forced to reveal themselves for lack of fresh water, Taylor had returned. England took the merchant crew as prisoners and Taylor suggested death for one and all. England put his foot down and, as commander, allowed MacCray to leave the island with his remaining crew. This set Taylor's teeth on edge and he began to suggest mutiny to England's pirates.

It didn't take long for the men to be convinced. England and three others still loyal to him were marooned on a small island not far from Madagascar. Somehow the men managed to make it to the pirate port on the larger island but the damage had already been done. His spirit broken, England was reduced to begging on the streets at Madagascar. In 1721 he died, either of some illness or outright starvation.

Edward Seegar England appears to have been a thoughtful, intelligent and inappropriately kind hearted man who simply couldn't pick a trustworthy second in command. Unfortunately, his shortcomings in the pursuit of pirate glory eventually made him pay the ultimate price.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another interesting and illuminating post. Unfortunately, as you pointed out nicely "being a bad judge of character and lacking natural cruelty" really were (and/or are) two extremely "fatal flaws" for a pirate. I suppose that is probably still true today. It makes me doubt if I would be cut out for the job, if I were to chose such a career (I hesitate to use the term vocation). Anyhoo, Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It's pretty clear that Captain England shows us, once again, that the very best pirates - from Ivar the Boneless to Jean Laffite - had to be shrewd assholes. Not saying they weren't without their charm, of course. (Although I do wonder about Ivar.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Pauline,

The Victory had been captured off the West Coast of Africa by England. Her original name was the Peterborough, a 30-gun sloop. For more detail, see my book on shipwrecks of Madagascar ( Johanna island is the present Anjouan in Comoros.
Pierre van den Boogaerde

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Pierre! So happy to have you stop by and add info to the always-too-truncated tales of real pirates. I appreciate it much. Please try to make it a habit.

Anonymous said...

Thank Pauline. I sure will comment regularly


Pauline said...

Love it, Pierre! Look forward to hearing from you.