"The Life, Career and Death of Captain Thomas White” is the 20th chapter in The Pirates Own Book by Charles Ellms. I can find very little documentation of a pirate named White in and around the waters of Madagascar during that island’s piratical heyday (the late 17th and very early 18th centuries), but the story as Ellms tells it has value in the broad sense. Though the twenty pages devoted to White’s life read more like a local travel brochure than anything else, the main theme has a ring of unusually common truth.
According to Ellms, White was born in Plymouth, England. His father is never mentioned but evidently his mother kept “a public house” so we can reasonably assume that she ran a tavern and inn which probably catered to sailors and dockworkers. Mrs. White “took great care” with her son’s education and, when he announced his intention to go to sea, she “procured him the king’s letter”. White served aboard a man-of-war and then joined the merchant service, eventually taking command of a brig. He moved to Barbados and married, but his intentions to settle down in the Caribbean never bore fruit.
Instead, while sailing off the Guinea coast of Africa, his ship was taken by French pirates. These men were the picture of barbarous terrorists. Ellms, insinuating himself into his prose on a number of occasions in this particular chapter, tells us:
…I beg leave to take notice of their barbarity to the English prisoners, for they would set them up as a butt or mark to shoot at; several of whom were thus murdered in cold blood, by way of diversion.
White himself was marked for death but saved by a friend he had made aboard the corsair. The Frenchmen, being as drunk and incompetent as they are sadistic, manage to run their ship aground and sink it off Madagascar. White finds a friend ashore in another captain named Boreman and the two, along with a Captain Bowen, take a boat from local natives and make with their remaining crews for St. Augustine Bay. Here they are welcomed by a native king who, evidently tiring of feeding them, eventually pawns them off on a passing pirate ship captained by William Read. In this way, White begins his pirating career, as Ellms says, “…before the mast, being a forced man from the beginning.”
This is probably the most historically accurate observation in the entire chapter. Pirates, privateers and those straddling the invisible fence that separated the two frequently found themselves short of men. A prize ship worth keeping would need to be manned and, in the case of legitimate commissions, sent back to the prize courts for legal libel so that its goods, and possibly even the ship, could be sold. The idea of “forcing” men into service aboard them was in no way unusual for pirates. Ellms’ White, though he is referred to as “Captain”, is actually the picture of a typical jack in the wrong place at the wrong time who ends up a pirate without his consent.
Captain Read is lucky not only in the Indian Ocean but in the Red Sea as well. At one point the pirates come into contact with a French slaver and, boarding her as friends, are asked to dine. When gunplay erupts, the French Captain and his men rather amusingly try to stab one of the pirates at table with their forks. As Ellms tells it, “… but they being silver, did him no great damage.” This is why you can’t have nice things at sea! Needless to say the French ship is taken as prize and the Captain and some of his crew are given a small boat.
The successes continue to rack up while White toils away before the mast. At one point a young sailor named Hugh Man aboard the British slaver Speaker is bribed to wet the priming on his ship’s guns so that, when Read’s ship attacks, Speaker cannot answer. The humor of both the sailor’s name and that of his ship is a puzzle. Whether or not it was intentional is something only Ellms himself could speak to.
Captain Read seems to get a little full of himself after his success with Speaker which he fits out with 54 guns, 240 men and 20 slaves. Landing at “Zanguebar” his men go off to the “public houses” while he accepts an invitation from the local governor. The entire thing is a trap. Read and his entourage are killed by the governor’s men while the rest of the pirate crew is picked off as they flee toward their ship. Some of the men manage to escape in a smaller vessel where they elect Bowen as their Captain and make for the Red Sea to continue their piracy. White is evidently among them but Ellms does not return to him immediately.
Bowen leads his crew to great success in the Red Sea where the Mogul treasure ships sailed back and forth from Arabia to India. Eventually, with over 500 pounds each, Bowen’s crew decides to disperse. On St. Mary’s Island White is elected Captain of one of the groups and he proposes returning “home”. This is the first and last mention of what must have been White’s fond desire to see his wife and Barbados again. His crew, however, is eager for further booty and they return to the Indian Ocean in search of same.
The rest of the chapter is a catalogue of prizes, each it seems more grand than the last. White eventually is back “before the mast” under Captain John Halsey but the prize taking in no way slows down. The last paragraph wraps things up with ruthless efficiency. White returned to Madagascar after becoming ill with the flux “… which in about five or six months ended his days.” White provided for a son whom he had with a “… woman in the country” and asks that the three guardians chosen for the boy see to it that he is put aboard an English ship bound for England to “… be brought up in the Christian religion.” This done and seen to, the story simply ends.
The potential numbers of nameless “Thomas Whites” throughout the historical high points of piracy – including the one we are currently experiencing – are probably beyond imagining. Perhaps at some point the prospect of wealth or the idea of adventure sparks an interest where there never was one. Or perhaps a person simply adapts and evolves, just as all living things at sea always have.
Header: Hugh Man wetting the Priming of the Guns from The Pirates Own Book via Project Guttenberg