Tuesday, April 5, 2011
People: The Couple That Plunders Together...
Eric Cobham was allegedly born into a poor family in Poole, England around 1700. He grew up largely on the streets, pilfering what food he could and it seems rarely returning to the lean-to that amounted to home. His parents had a number of children and were evidently in the business of picking up animal waste at night for delivery to a local tannery at dawn. This work was not uncommon for the poor in large cities at the time; the tanneries fermented the waste and used it to remove hair and fat from animal hides.
By the time he was a teenager, Cobham was involved in a local smuggling ring that brought goods from the continent into Poole. His cleverness and charisma ensured that young Eric would soon be a leader among his fellow smugglers. His largest success appears to have been a shipment of some ten thousand gallons of brandy which arrived in Poole safely and was sold quickly.
Not long after this remarkable achievement, however, Cobham’s small penace was found and confiscated by the King’s men. Though neither Cobham nor any of his associates were arrested, this incident seems to have steeled the smuggler’s resolve. He bought a sloop, fitted it out with ten fourteen pound cannon and went a-pirating.
Cobham’s first prize was an East Indiaman that yielded 40,000 pounds in specie and saleable goods. Feeling flush and, Gosse tells us, having a way with the ladies, Cobham went ashore at Plymouth and met a native girl down by the docks: Maria (or Mary) Lindsey. Maria’s background is completely unknown but she is always described as “young” and, given her whereabouts when she met her future husband, it is not going too far out on a yardarm to speculate that she was a prostitute.
Eric and Maria hit it off and she boarded his ship with her meager belongings in tow just a few days later. This new arrangement caused some grumbling among Cobham’s crew. As Gosse describes it:
… where a man is married the case is altered, no man envies him his happiness; but where he only keeps a girl, every man says ‘I have as much right to one as he has.’
Maria seems to have managed this problem herself not only by marrying Cobham (thus diluting the envy a good deal, it goes without saying) but also becoming a valuable member of the crew. She knew her way around a ship, stood up for men who enraged her quick-tempered mate and showed herself perfectly lethal if the situation called for it. And later on, even if it didn’t.
When pirate hunting in the English Channel made those waters unattractive, the Cobhams crossed the Atlantic and set up shop in Newfoundland. It was here, hunting between Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, that they became notorious. The Cobhams embarked on a career as “no quarter” pirates, killing prize crews to a man seemingly without remorse. Stories abound of men being tied up in sacks and thrown overboard, stabbed, torn limb from limb or hoisted up on the yards to be used as targets for the pirates’ pistols. In most of the tales it is Maria who proves herself the most bloodthirsty. At one point, we are told, she poisoned the entire crew of a captured East Indiaman as they languished in chains in her husband’s ship’s hold. This act was apparently committed for no other reason than it pleased Mrs. Cobham to do it.
The pirate couple, managing somehow to avoid being caught, finally retired with an enormous amount of wealth to an estate at Le Havre in France. Cobham bought a yacht, became a French citizen and rose to the position of local magistrate. Life on the Bay of Biscay did not suit Maria so well, however. She became reclusive, going out only to cruise on the family’s ship. The couple had three children but this did not seem to help Maria’s state of mind. She descended into madness. Gosse claims she killed herself, taking huge doses of laudanum to dull her aching conscience. Others, including Howard Pyle, tell us that Eric got fed up with his wife’s ravings and dispatched her himself.
Only Eric Cobham seems to have escaped a bloody end. He lived, Gosse says, to a “good old age”. His descendants were, by the dawn of the French Revolution, “…moving in the first grade at Havre”. A history maven like me has to wonder if, in the final irony, the Cobham’s children’s children had to flee back to their parents’ native England in the face of Robespierre and his Terror. Unfortunately none of the sources say. Whatever the family outcome it would appear that even the couple that plunders together will not actually stay together. Particularly if we favor Pyle’s telling of the story.
Header: French Couple c 1730 from a Victorian engraving