Wednesday, February 17, 2010

People: The Welsh Pirate

Howell Davis was most probably born toward the end of the 17th century somewhere on the coast of Wales. He is frequently referred to as "The Welsh Pirate" in short biographical snippets on blogs and in books. This always elicits a chuckle from your humble hostess because Davis, as fascinating as his story is, can hardly be consider The Welsh pirate. There were scores of freebooters from the rugged land of Wales, first of all. Second - and perhaps more importantly - when the debate gets heated it has to come down to two very familiar names: Henry Morgan of buccaneering fame or Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful pirate of the Golden Age. But wait; maybe there's a tie-in after all...

By 1718, Davis was serving as Lieutenant on the British slaver Cadogan when she was taken off the West African coast by our old friend Edward England. England had the Captain and any crewmen who did not care to sign on with him killed. Davis was one of the men who decided to turn pirate. He evidently impressed England because, after the slaves were sold and the booty was shared out, Davis was given command of Cadogan.

Davis headed for Brazil but his crew had other ideas. They steered the ship to Barbados where they betrayed Davis, telling dockside authorities who boarded to inspect the ship that their Captain had forced them into piracy. Davis was jailed in Barbados but eventually released when none of his turn-coat crew showed up to testify.

Hoping to continue in the pirate profession, Davis took passage to New Providence but arrived too late. New Governor Woodes Rogers was already sweeping the former pirate den clean. Nothing if not persistent, Davis boarded the former pirate sloop Buck bound for Jamaica. En route, he managed to talk the crew into returning to their former piratical adventures. Davis was elected Captain and Buck made her new base in Cuba.

Davis and his men quickly took two French warships, using ruses both times to avoid injury to vessels or men. Davis appears to have been both crafty and charming and he virtually talked his way onto a prize rather than waisting time with messy cannon fire and boarding actions. His men looted the French ships, goods aboard were sold in Cuba, and then Buck headed across the Atlantic to the rich hunting ground off West Africa.

Buck and her Captain had a deal of success in African waters. When things got tight, especially close to shore when a refit or supplies were needed, Davis had no trouble convincing authorities that we was a legitimate English privateer. He managed to get a larger, heavier gunned flagship which he renamed Saint James by using his smooth talk on a local Portuguese governor. Further up the coast, he convinced the Governor of a Royal African Company slaving fort that he was a pirate hunter. Invited to dine aboard Saint James, the Governor realized the ruse too late. He was held until the Company paid Davis a substantial ransom.

Now at the height of his game, Davis found a protege in Bartholomew Roberts who had been a mate aboard a slaver captured by Saint James. Roberts was with Davis as he and the French pirate La Bouche went on a joint cruise. They took several slavers, including a ship that would become Davis' new flagship, Rover.

The word got out that there was a charming pirate passing himself off as a British privateer and authorities up and down the African coast became more suspicious. When Rover put in at Principe, off the coast Guinea, the Portuguese Governor was ready for his shenanigans. Smiling to his face as if he believed Davis' pirate hunter story, the Governor gave Davis open access to his city. Treachery was afoot, though. Davis and a group of his men were ambushed and brutally slaughtered by the Governor's men while away from their ship.

When word of the butchery got back to Rover, Davis' remaining crewmen elected Roberts Captain. Roberts took the well gunned ships captured by his mentor and bombarded the town with cannon in revenge. He then sailed off into history to use every trick he had learned from Davis.

Howell Davis was certainly an intelligent man who was able to appear comfortable in any situation or company. His brutal end was probably inevitable. But then that seems to be the case with most freebooters Welsh or not.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another fun post about a pirate with whom I, for one, was not familiar, but who clearly inspired Bart Roberts to follow in his footsteps and go on to even greater success... sort of a mentor, perhaps? At the least, a thought provoking read. Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee. I always liked Howell Davis with his unquenchable charm. Some of the best pirates are delightful gentelemen (Stede Bonnet not withstanding...)