Tuesday, May 10, 2011

People: Lived Beloved and Died Regretted

So many of the famous pirates whose stories – I will not say “histories” because that’s stretching the truth to the point of breaking – are familiar to us today either did not exist or are so cloaked in the mantel of legend that sorting out fact from fiction seems impossible. Today’s gentleman rogue is part of the latter group, but is unfortunately no exception.

John Halsey (or Halsy or Halsie) was certainly born in Boston in the year 1670. Both Johnson in his General History of Pyrates and Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who tell the tale of Captain Halsey and the stories seem to jibe pretty well. Of course there is the issue that Gosse, writing in the 1920s, may have taken his information entirely from Johnson but let’s be optimistic, shall we.

Halsey was given a British privateering commission by the Governor of Massachusetts during the War of Spanish Succession which began in 1701. Halsey seems to have stuck to taking legal prizes at first. His brig Charles sailed from Boston to Newfoundland where Halsey got his feet wet, so to say, capturing French fishing vessels. He then set a course for the Azores and graduated to Spanish merchants. Along the coast of Portugal, some of Halsey’s men deserted. There was evidently conflict over a disagreement between Halsey and his First Lieutenant, who was put ashore at Cape Verde. There is documentation that some of the deserters were captured by authorities and returned to Halsey’s ship by the local Governor. This would verify the story that Halsey carried a legitimate commission.

Halsey was still hunting in the Atlantic when that commission expired, probably some time in 1705. Rather than turn home or to England to retrieve new papers, Halsey decided to go rogue. He took Charles around the Cape and sailed to one of the many piratical outposts on Madagascar. Here he refitted, watered, provisioned and took on new men. The Captain generously allowed those among his New England crew who did not care to go a pirating to leave his ship. Then Halsey set off for the rich hunting grounds of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Gosse tells us that Halsey decided not to go after “Christian ships” but instead announced his “… sudden determination to attack only Moorish ships in the future.” This decision seems to have enraged his pirate crew for, when they came upon a Dutchman they all agreed was a fat merchant on her way home from India, they threw Halsey and his few loyal mated in chains and proceeded to give chase. Unfortunately for the audacious crew, the Dutch ship was in fact a man-of-war – or at the very least an extremely well gunned merchant. She turned and began to fire on Charles rather than running, as the crew has expected.

A fire fight ensued and Charles was battered to the point of being in danger of wrecking. Halsey was released from irons and took charge immediately, managing to get his ship out of harm’s way. The now contrite crew decided to let their Captain run the show. On the flip side, Halsey seems to have reconsidered his prize taking stance. After a refit near the island of Reunion, Halsey set Charles on a course back towards Madagascar.

En route, the pirates met at least two English merchants, Essex and Rising Eagle, whom they managed to take without much trouble. The captain of Essex turned out to be a friend of Charles’ quartermaster and, due to this connection, Halsey allowed the man to keep all of his personal goods. It did not seem much of a loss to the pirates, however, as Gosse states that Halsey took sixty thousand pounds in “English gold” out of both ships. He also managed to ransom the ships, being paid cash for their return to their owners. Clearly the entire adventure netted the crew of Charles a handsome amount.

Sailing toward Madagascar, Halsey met two more ships. Gosse tells us that one, the Greyhound, was carrying goods from some of Halsey’s previous prizes. Whether or not this coincidence actually occurred, it is a good example of how close the businesses of privateers, pirates and merchants actually were when abroad on the high seas.

Halsey put ashore at last, probably at the pirate haven of Ile Saint-Marie, and settled down with his generous booty. Unfortunately the tropical climate does not seem to have agreed with him as he contracted a fever within a few months. He died, Johnson tells us, in 1708 (Gosse says 1716) and was buried with all solemnity on the island. His funeral included the firing of guns in salute and a church service.

Johnson concludes his chapter on pirate John Halsey with this:

He was brave in his Person, courteous to all his Prisoners, lived beloved and died regretted by his own People. His Grave was made in a garden of watermelons, and fenced in with Palisades to prevent his being rooted up by wild Hogs.

What more could a seaman ask for?

Header: Full Rigged Sailing Ship by C.L. Bille


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! What more could any of us ask for? Although when I go, you can skip the church service and move straight on to the firing of guns (or at least the hoisting of glasses) in salute...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Just bury me among the watermelons. I like watermelons.