Tuesday, March 2, 2010

History: Bigger Than Life

George Little was just a guy living in a time of upheaval for his country. He decided, once his colorful exploits were over and he was settled in Boston running a busy mercantile, that he would write it all down. The merchant Captain turned U.S. privateer had a bigger than life story to tell and today, Brethren, I offer it to you. I'll let you judge it's veracity for yourself.

In early 1812 Little found himself in Buenos Aires. He was off-loading cargo from his merchant vessel which was owned by a "house" or banking company in Rio de Janeiro. To his dismay he was approached by creditors of his bank who informed him that the house in Rio was insolvent. The men took his ship and the goods aboard it as partial payment for debts owed. Little went to Rio and unfortunately confirmed that the bank had gone under. As he writes: "...for all my two years' hard earnings were gone, with the exception of five hundred dollars."

Little made his way back to the states and, upon arriving in Baltimore, found the port ramping up for war with Britain. He witnessed that insidiously unnecessary torture, a tar and feathering, as well as an anti-British mob destroying the Federal Republican printing office. Thinking better of staying where tempers were so high, George hurried home to Boston.

Here he spent a month or so ruminating. His family wanted him to stay at home and pursue some business in the city. Even his father, a retired navy man, insisted on it. But Little, like countless sailors before and after, had the itch and he went looking for a berth on another ship. What he found was a converted schooner, not unlike the replica shown above, that had obtained a commission to privateer for the U.S. Little was taken on as First Lieutenant of the fast sailing George Washington. She left Boston on July 20, 1812.

From the get-go, George is not thrilled about the privateering life. In his own words:

...the captain was a tough, uncouth sort of a chap, and appeared to me to be fit for little else than fighting and plundering. The crew were a motley set indeed, composed of all nations: they appeared to have been scraped together from the lowest dens of wretchedness and vice, and only wanted a leader to induce them to any act of daring and desperation.

George Washington makes for the Main to hunt for British merchants out of Jamaica. She will use Cartagena as her home port thanks to the hospitality of Bolivar and his quest for liberation from Spain. When the first merchant is taken, Little continues with even more disdain than before:

This affair very much disgusted me with privateering, especially when I saw so much loss of life, and beheld a band of ruthless desperadoes, for such I must call our crew, robbing and plundering a few defenceless beings who were pursuing both a lawful and peaceable calling.

Here George Little shows his true colors. He is a merchant sailor to the end and - despite the war and the imperatives of his nation - cannot get his mind around the taking of a merchant ship.

The plundering goes on. Interestingly, George Washington spends some time in the company of another "U.S. privateer" Black Joke. Judging from the time frames, I have to assume that this is a separate ship from Benito de Soto's pirate schooner. Eventually "Captain S." hits upon a plan to carry both a U.S. and Cartagenan letter of marque and the prize taking begins in earnest.

At some point off the coast of Rio de la Hache (now Venezuela), water becomes scarce. Captain S sends Little in charge of a party of 20 men ashore to replenish the casks at an "Indian village." Little tells his captain that taking a Native or two as hostage would prevent potential unpleasantness should the locals turn out to be cannibals. The captain questions Little's courage and George and his men head out for the water. I know you all can see this coming.

Through a ruse, Little is captured by the Natives and his men soon join him. They are stripped, bound hand and foot and bludgeoned. George specifically is beaten so badly that he is unconscious for a good six hours. One of the Natives offers him refreshment when he wakes up but it is only a pleasant interlude. He and his mates are dragged to the center of the village and preparations are made to roast them alive at midnight.

Fortunately, the Natives got a hold of a great deal of rum from George Washington's most resent prize and they get, as George tells it, "dead drunk". When they awake in the morning, Little offers them a hefty ransom if he and his mates are let go. After drinking yet more, the Natives decide to pursue the ransom. Little says:

...the savages consented to let one man of their own choosing go off in the boat to procure the stipulated ransom.

The man chosen is a mulatto and a friend of George's. He brings boatload after boatload of "articles of various description" from George Washington who is standing off shore. The Natives allow everyone but Little to leave, thinking that they will ramp up their ransom demands. In the fashion of so many of these 19th century stories, George's mulatto mate refuses to leave him behind even when he is told to do so.

The Natives are foiled by an attack by another tribe and, while the two crush each others' skulls with "tomahawks" Little and his friend jump in the boat and manage to get back to their ship. Little is a mess, though, with "loss of blood and savage treatments, my limbs benumbed and body scorched by the piercing rays of the sun." It takes him some time to recover, and two of his fellows apparently die.

This is the last straw for George, what with his captain mocking him and the Native harassment that, to Little's mind, would never have happened had his advice been heeded.

I determined, therefore, in conjunction with the second lieutenant, to leave the privateer as soon as we arrived in Cartagena, to which port we were bound.

The pamphlet ends there and one can only imagine that Little put aside the sailor's life after his unnerving experiences on the Main. These kind of adventure yarns were best sellers in the 19th century and one has to imagine that Little's publisher at least made a fair profit. How true is the story? At this point it's impossible to say. All we can do is call it a tall tale and leave it at that.

[Ed Note: want to know more about George Little's seafaring adventures? Google Books has his Life On The Ocean available. Many thanks to member of the Brethren and historian extraordinaire Undine for the info and see the comments of this post for details. And if you are so inclined, stop by Undine's well written and researched blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe.]


Undine said...

I've read enough history to know you can't take anyone's word about anything, but I did a bit of checking up on Little (what can I say, I've got a slow afternoon on my hands,) and he seems to be taken at least fairly seriously.

In any case, he must have profited handsomely from his tale. His pamphlet was expanded into a full-scale autobiography (it's available on Google Books under the rather mundane title of "Life On the Ocean.")

It had at least fourteen editions!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! Thankee for the follow up and additional information. I have only read the pamphlet, which is fun, but fourteen editions makes that book pretty tempting.

I really enjoy that the story has all the conceits of a typical 19th century adventure - rough comrades, savages, a brave black man and a hero who overcomes enormous obstacles to get back to the bosom of his family. The only thing missing is a swooning damsel with dark hair and doe eyes.

But, come to think of it, she may be in the book!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I have not idea whether this story is true or not, but it is definitely entertaining. Nice to see that Undine has done some research on the subject. Sounds like another book purchase is in the offing, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Me either. My guess is that, like so many other seafaring tales, it's based in fact and then sexied up a bit with action, bloodshed and primitives to give the readers "what they want".

Come to think of it, I guess that's kind of what books like "A Million Little Pieces" are all about today. Makes me wish I could see George Little on Oprah.