Monday, November 7, 2011

People: Whydah's Pilot

The pirate ship of Black Sam Bellamy, former slaver Whydah, has become the stuff of legend thanks to the hard work of Barry Clifford and his team of treasure hunters/archaeologists. More is known about life aboard an early 18th century freebooter because of the recovered artifacts from that ship alone than arguably from any other source. What we don’t know, to my mind unfortunately, is much about the individuals who lived and died aboard her.

One exception is a man who went a pirating under Black Sam and became pilot of the Whydah after she was taken by Bellamy. Though we know very little about John Julian, what we do know speaks to how remarkably different pirate society was from the society it grew up in – and rebelled against.

National Geographic online says that Julian was part African and part Mosquito Indian. Philip Gosse, who does not mention Julian by name, says that the pilot of Whydah was “half Carib”. Which is true is lost to history but I have my own theory about Julian’s background. The future pilot probably met Bellamy while he was working in the wrecking or wracking trade, pulling up treasure from sunken Spanish galleons off the coasts of Florida that Cuba. Many South and Central American natives were employed in this trade because of their remarkable diving abilities. Particularly sought after were Guayqueries from the Island of Margarita off Venezuela, where pearl diving had long been a job these enslaved natives were tasked with. While Julian could have been Mosquito or Carib, it may be that he was an escaped slave from Margarita and therefore potentially Guayqueries. Just a thought.

What ever his origins, Julian clearly had a talent for piloting as he was the go-to pilot on each of Bellamy’s successively larger flagships. By the time Bellamy was captaining Whydah, it is certain that Julian was particularly capable as a navigator. Bellamy, who according to Gosse had a bit of a socialist bent, made it a habit to free any slaves he encountered aboard a prize. NatGeo estimates that his Whydah crew was comprised of 30 to 50 African or partially African men. John Julian was not an exception aboard Whydah.

The short but merry life of pirating came to an abrupt end for Julian and his mates when Whydah wrecked off Wellfleet, Massachusetts in a gale. Julian and ship’s carpenter Davis were the only two men to make it to shore, although Gosse counts the survivors’ number as six. Davis would hang in Boston but what became of Julian remains unknown.

A tantalizing theory proposed by NatGeo is that John Julian was sold into bondage. They go so far as to speculate that he was in fact the “Julian the Indian” recorded as a slave to John Quincy of Massachusetts. As a curious aside, this is the John Quincy who was father to the staunch abolitionist Abigail Adams. She in turn passed her hatred for slavery on to her son, future U.S. President John Quincy (pronounced Quin-zee) Adams.

NatGeo goes on to say that Julian was an “unruly slave” and eventual sold by Quincy. Julian made several attempts to escape his new master and was killed by a slave catcher while the man was trying to bring him back from one of these.

Whether or not that was actually the case, Julian’s life aboard Whydah was probably one of the best times for him. Thankfully the memory of that life, however speculative, remains as a glimpse of the freedom a man could find during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Header: Bellamy taking the Whydah via


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Very interesting post. The Whydah has spawned a lot of speculation and stories, but that is one I had not heard before. I like the tie in at the end with the Adams family (no pun intended).

I also think the painting is very cool.

Pauline said...

I think the bit about Julian the Indian and John Quincy may be stretching the story a bit since the documentation that Julian was sold into slavery is sketchy to begin with. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, however. And either way, it makes a good if sad story.