Thursday, September 1, 2011
People: Miss Nanny
The ship upon which John Walden served was called the Blessing and she was taken without resistance off Newfoundland by that famous freebooter Bartholomew Roberts. Roberts, who coined the charming phrase about short and merry lives at sea, was fond of taking men aboard him but only if they were willing to go a pirating. As we’ve discussed on more than one occasion hear at Triple P, Roberts was a fair and sober captain whose one vice seemed to be fashion and jewels. His straight forward, honest attitude probably appealed to men worn out from hard work at scant pay on merchant and fishing vessels; of course the huge, diamond and ruby encrusted cross dangling around Black Bart’s neck was probably some encouragement as well.
Walden joined the crew of Roberts’ Royal Fortune and clearly became something of a focus for the other men. Though few of the doubtless innumerable nicknames shared among pirates have come down to us in the histories, we know that Walden was known to his fellows as “Miss Nanny” (or Nanney). The reason for this moniker has been the source of more than one assumption by modern scholars, but we’ll have a look at that in a minute.
A seemingly capable sailor, Walden was also known for his hot temper and rash action. His fighting skills were more than adequate and he is mentioned in court records as being part of almost all of Roberts’ boarding parties. He was also said to be a brutal man. One fellow pirate alleged under interrogation that Walden had set fire to a ship in which a number of Africans were still in chains, burning the unfortunates alive. Whether or not this story was true, or just an attempt to deflect blame under scrutiny, is still a mystery.
The most famous tale told of Walden concerns the taking of the merchant vessel King Solomon in January of 1722. Royal Fortune met her off Africa’s Cape Appolonia and demanded she heave to and strike. Her captain, a Welshman named Traherne, instead fired upon the pirates while trying to warp his ship out of range with anchor, cable and capstan. This only infuriated Roberts, who seethed to the point of boarding the merchant once she surrendered. “What were you thinking?” he asked the Welshman. “Did you not know you faced the dreadful Roberts?”
At this point Walden raised his boarding axe and cut King Solomon’s anchor cable. “Captain,” he asked Traherne. “What signifies this trouble of yo-hoping and straining in hot weather? There are plenty more anchors in London. Besides which, your ship will surely be burned.”
If the story is true it shows Walden’s place of prominence in Roberts’ eyes. In time of battle, a pirate captain had unquestionable authority. To speak so freely in such a situation – and throw away a potentially valuable piece of equipment without Roberts’ order – Walden clearly felt comfortable in his position aboard ship.
Comfort did not save John Walden from the fate of his mates, however. Royal Fortune famously met HMS Swallow captained by pirate hunter Cholaner Ogle in February of 1722. Roberts was killed by a blast of grapeshot and, seemingly losing their will with their captain, the Royal Fortunes surrendered after tossing Roberts’ lifeless body into the sea. Some 210 plus men were taken in chains to Cape Corso on the West African coast where they were subjected to interrogations, quick trials and hanging. John Walden went to his death in the hot African sun at the stunningly youthful age of about 24.
No mention of what some modern sources now speculate about Walden came out in the course of those trials, though his temper and brutality did. Walden’s nickname and his apparent closeness to Bartholomew Roberts have led to some researchers stating that he was a homosexual and indeed Black Bart’s lover. While homosexual pirates and privateers were certainly no less present than they were in the general population at any given time, the theory has yet to be proven. As Terry Breverton says in his book Black Bart Roberts:
One noted writer on pirates believes that Miss Nanny was an 18th century term for a homosexual, but this author can find no such reference. The writer uses this to make the connection that Walden was Roberts’ lover, but again there is nothing to prove the allegation. Surely this ‘fact’ would have been noted in the interrogation and trial transcripts of over 200 men if it was the case. To this author, it seems that Roberts was asexual if anything.
Why Walden was called Miss Nanny is perhaps the most tantalizing mystery of all the things we don't know about him. Was he indeed gay? Did he have a “motherly” quality or was he the ship’s ersatz surgeon? Or did he simply have an affinity for the ship’s goat, which I must add opens up a potentially off-putting can of worms? Clearly we will never know for sure but then that’s part of the joy of this pursuit; there is always more to learn.
Header: Illustration by Howard Pyle c 1911 from his Book of Pirates