Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Pirates Own Book: "A Great Villain"

Charles Vane was one of those who stole away the silver which the Spaniards had fished up from the wrecks of the galleons in the Gulf of Florida, and was at Providence when governor Rodgers arrived there with two men-of-war.

Thus begins the 22nd chapter in Charles Ellms’ The Pirates’ Own Book entitled “The Exploits, Arrest and Execution of Captain Charles Vane”. This particular chapter is surprisingly accurate in its brief retelling of the life a Vane, an Englishman who began his piratical career under Captain Henry Jennings. Jennings is most noted for his 1716 attacks on Spanish wrackers who were pulling up the riches lost when their treasure fleet sunk off the coast of Florida in 1715.

Ellms is usually pretty shy about giving specific dates but he speaks of Vane being at the helm of his own ship by May of 1718. He goes on to note that Vane arrived at New Providence, The Bahamas just as the new Governor was sailing into the bay to put down piracy. Vane, who refused to take the King’s pardon, sailed out to the Caribbean again “… with their piratical colors flying, and fired at one of the men-of-war.” Though in the end Vane would be branded a coward by his own men, he started his pirate career with a defiant lack of reverence for any authority.

Ellms tells us that Vane and his men went out on a prize-taking spree and, as usual, details each prize as if he has a checklist in front of him. In short order, though:

… Vane went to a small island and cleaned; where he shared the booty and spent some time in a riotous manner.

By the end of the summer Vane is leading a small flotilla of prizes that he has given to his various lieutenants to command. Ellms notes that Vane “… always treated his consorts with very little respect…” and his attitude begins to rankle among the men in charge of these ships. The men “…caballed together…” and determined to part with Vane as soon as an opportunity arose. Led by Captain Yeates, the ships did just that and headed for the outer banks south of Charleston in what is now South Carolina. It is here that Yeates petitions for the King’s pardon and in the process appears to inform the Royal Navy of Vane’s favorite hunting grounds.

One Colonel Rhet is dispatched to find Vane and bring him to justice but he was given false information by a merchant ship previously taken by Vane. This was not through any fault of the seaman aboard the merchant but in fact a clever ruse by Vane: he had fed his prisoners incorrect information on purpose. As usual with Ellms, the plot thickens.

Meanwhile, heading in the opposite direction from Rhet, Vane has met up with Blackbeard himself, Edward Teach. Both pirates having had good luck with prizes, they decide to take a break from plundering “… and mutual civilities passed between them for some days.”

Back out at sea in October, Vane’s ship meets a French man-of-war. Though Vane and his First Lieutenant Robert Deal want no part of the Frenchman, quartermaster Jack Rackam and several members of the crew argue otherwise. Though the French Navy ship is avoided, the discussion turns to argument and Rackam accuses Vane of cowardice. A vote is called for and the majority decide with Rackam, who is made captain in Vane’s stead.

Vane and his few remaining followers, including Deal, are given a provisioned sloop and sent off on their own. They head for the Bay of Honduras and have a little luck there, finally deciding to winter at the Island of Barnacho. Setting out in February, Vane’s sloop is hit by a hurricane and wrecked. Ellms tells us that “most” of the men drown but that Vane survived “… reduced to great straits for want of necessaries.”

In fact Vane’s sloop did wreck off Honduras and he and one other man were cast ashore on an unpopulated island where they survived alone for some time. Ellms adds a nice twist to this final stretch in Vane’s career by having a ship captained by an old “acquaintance” of Vane’s put in at the little island for water. Captain Holford immediately recognizes Vane but refuses to rescue him saying:

“Charles, I shan’t trust you aboard my ship unless I carry you as a prisoner, for I shall have you caballing with my men, knocking me on the head, and running away with my ship pirating.”

Vane, of course, wants no part of being taken prisoner and makes a show of outrage at Holford’s accusation. A rather amusing exchange ensues in which Vane asks Holford how he should get off the island and Holford tells him to steal a fishing dory from one of the locals. When Vane says he couldn’t steal a boat Holford replies:

“Do you make it a matter of conscience… to steal a dory, when you have been a common robber and pirate, stealing ships and cargoes, and plundering all mankind that fell in your way? Stay here if you are so squeamish!”

The point is well made but this entire interlude appears, unfortunately, to be a piece of fiction. Needless to say, Holford sails away leaving Vane to argue with his conscience. Another ship soon appears and rescues Vane but the pirate’s luck has run out. Wouldn’t you know that this ship’s captain is a close acquaintance of Captain Holford, and that the two friends’ ships meet, and that the captains get together for a meal, and I’m quite certain you can figure the rest out.

In fact Vane was rescued only to be recognized by one of the rescuing ship’s crew who served on a merchant taken by Vane in the not so distant past. Either way, Vane is brought in to Jamaica, tried and hanged along with his friend and former first mate Deal. Ellms ends this chapter with the thought that:

It is clear from this how little ancient friendship will avail a great villain, when he is deprived of the power that had before supported and rendered him formidable.

Header: Vane arrested by Captain Holford from The Pirates Own Book via Project Guttenberg


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, I think Vane might almost qualify as a "pathetic pirate"... He certainly doesn't seem to be such a "great villain".

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Round about Triple P he is considered a pathetic pirate but Charles Ellms always throws a few extra tidbits into any story no matter it's origin. Gotta love that.