One of the most endearing things about Charles Ellms is his certainty in his facts. As a writer, he is solid, even emphatic, about every story he tells. The tales in his The Pirates Own Book are one hundred percent true if you base that statement solely on the sincerity of the writing. Even the fact that the book is over 150 years old does not cloud his certitude. Given all that, it is at least a little bit of a let down to find out that Ellms’ information is, for the most part, flawed.
Those flaws come across most clearly in chapters about pirates whose careers we are most familiar with. Take, as an example, Howell Davis. This Golden Age of Piracy freebooter is probably most famous for mentoring one of the most successful pirates of all time: Bartholomew Roberts. Davis was, by all accounts, an intelligent opportunist who liked to masquerade as a legitimate privateer or pirate hunter to get into the good graces of local authorities. Unfortunately though, he tried this trick once too often and got burned. Let’s look at the chronology of this short but merry life as Ellms lays it out, and then backtrack a little.
According to Ellms, Davis came out of Monmouthshire and was “… from a boy, trained to the sea”. He had his first brush with freebooting aboard the merchant sloop Cadogan when she was captured by pirates. The raiders killed Cadogan’s captain and installed Davis in his place. Though Davis would later claim to have been forced into piracy, it was the crew of his new command that rebelled against the idea. Arriving in Barbados with the ship’s cargo in tact, the crew ratted out Davis to the authorities saying he tried to exhort them to piracy. Davis was jailed but was later “… discharged without trial.”
Davis made for New Providence, which he had heard was a hotbed of piracy. He was a day late and a dollar short, however. By the time he arrived new Governor Woodes Rogers had rounded up any wayward pirates who would not accept the King’s pardon. Undaunted, Davis signed aboard Rogers’ own Buck as an able seamen. Once he found that a number of his mates were former pirates, he instigated a mutiny, set those who did not care to join him aboard a companion sloop and made for Martinique. Davis was duly elected captain and, after “… a short and appropriate speech” which was a rousing “… proclamation of war with the whole world” the men set out a-pirating.
As is typical with Ellms, a laundry list of engagements and prizes commences in the prose. Davis trades up to larger and larger ships with more and more guns, eventually captaining a flagship he named King James that could easily pass for an English sloop-of-war. He then crosses the Atlantic to the West African coast, planning raids on the wealthy forts of the Portuguese.
Several of the raids come off literally without a hitch. The general MO has Davis and a few of his officers dressing as gentlemen and going ashore to present themselves to the local Governor. Once the dignitary is comfortable that Davis is legitimate – either as privateer or pirate hunter – the wine begins to flow. Davis sends a signal to his men, the fort is captured with little resistance, and an orgy of pillaging and rapine ensues.
This general pattern continues until, after meeting up with an English pirate named Cochlyn and a French corsair named La Boise, Davis reveals his plans to attack the large fort at Sierra Leon. The two other pirates want no part of the scheme and sail off. After some entanglements, including the taking of the ship that would become Bartholomew Roberts’ Rover, Davis sets his sights on the Isle of Princes. Here he takes a French ship in the bay of Acra, claiming she was suspected of piracy and then sends his respects to the local Governor. This time, however, he invites the man and his retinue to dine aboard his ship.
The change in approach did not serve Davis well. Ellms tells us that a slave from the captured Frenchman manages to jump ship, swim to shore and worn the Governor of Davis’ plans to clap him in chains and hold him for ransom. When the Governor does not appear for dinner, the decision is made to attack the fort outright. The pirates storm the walls with Davis leading them but the Portuguese are ready for the attack. Davis is stuck, “… mortally wounded by a musket ball in his belly.” His men, confused and disheartened, drag their commander and the others who have been wounded back their ship. Meanwhile the Portuguese continue to pursue them, firing muskets as the pirates attempt to reboard their vessel.
In the end, Davis dies and his men sail away. As Ellms so eloquently ends this chapter:
And those on board, who expected to hoist in treasure had to receive naught but their wounded comrades and dead commander.
At no point does Ellms mention young Bartholomew Roberts, perhaps because Roberts is curiously altogether missing from The Pirates Own Book. Aside from that omission, the most glaring fiction in the chapter is the dramatic death of Howell Davis.
The pirate, who is thought to have been born in Wales, was indeed killed by the Governor of Principe’s men but he did not go down valiantly leading his men in battle. In fact he was ambushed and ingloriously slaughtered while out on the town with a few of his crew. This miserable death of someone he obviously admired so enraged Roberts that, once he was elected captain by his mates, he bombarded the capital of Principe. He sailed away without a scratch, leaving devastation and death behind him. As so often happens, the truth is more exciting and grisly than fiction.
Header: Retreat of the Pirates and Death of Captain Davis from The Pirates Own Book