Thursday, December 8, 2011

People: The Villain Quelch

The story of John Quelch, mariner turned privateer turned pirate, is a controversial one. On the one hand, we have a man whose piracy is fairly well documented due to a sensationalized trial in Boston during the summer of 1704. Quelch did indeed sign aboard the Massachusetts privateer Charles, probably as First Lieutenant, where he preceded to lead his fellow crewman in mutiny, toss their captain overboard and make for the coast of Brazil to plunder Portuguese merchants. On the other, certain modern historians argue that Quelch, and the dozen or so men hanged with him, was the victim of railroading by prominent Boston businessmen who did not want their names attached to piracy. Either way, Quelch is one of the first men to be tried for piracy in the British Colonies of North America proper.


John Quelch’s early life is a mystery, which should surprise no one who studies pirates and piracy. Philip Gosse, who is one of Quelch’s main biographers, will say only that he was a native of Massachusetts Colony. He was certainly familiar with the sea when he signed aboard the brig Charles of 80 tons in 1703. Charles was captained by Daniel Plowman and was sponsored by a group of Boston businessmen who had obtained for her a letter of marque to raid French ships off the coast of Newfoundland. This was a potentially lucrative endeavor at the time with the fisheries off the coast of modern Canada booming. The problem for those at sea was the weather, cold and generally dirty even during the summer months, and the puny prizes available. A privateer in those waters would have to work almost as hard as the fishermen he preyed upon.

Whether or not this consideration was what drove Quelch to stir up a mutiny is unknown. What we do know is that, shortly after Charles departed from Marblehead, the crew took her over. They locked Captain Plowman away, either in his cabin or below decks, elected John Quelch as their leader and set a course for the coast of Brazil. Along the way, Plowman would be committed to the deep, either killed first or thrown overboard alive.

Upon entering Brazilian waters, Charles went straight to work. According to Clifford Beal in his 2007 publication Quelch’s Gold, Quelch and his men took nine Portuguese ships from late 1703 to early 1704. These were wealthy merchants full of not only saleable goods like cloth, hides, wine and guns but specie as well in the form of gold dust, jewels and coins. The value of Quelch’s haul has been estimated at over 1 million in modern U.S. dollars.

Apparently satisfied with this impressive booty, Quelch turned for home. According to local rumors, Charles landed at Star Island, New Hampshire where someone – possibly Quelch himself – buried some of the loot. This very unlikely happenstance grew into legend when gold coins were found beneath a stone wall on the island in the mid-1800s. Whatever the case, Charles returned to Marblehead and the crew quickly dispersed to spend their ill-gotten gains. Quelch seems to have had no qualms about what he had accomplished for he was very soon arrested and sitting in jail in Boston. Authorities sent navy ships to apprehend Quelch’s crew and a dozen or so were rounded up to join their former captain in gaol.

On June 17, 1704, a trial was held at the Star Tavern in Boston. The sailors, now beaten down after too much time chained in filthy cells, were by and large defiant nonetheless. Though extreme physical torture does not seem to have been used on the prisoners – that sort of thing being tacitly illegal in British courts – they do seem to have been badgered relentlessly for confessions and repentance by local ministers. Gosse, who’s The Pirates Who’s Who has an entry, however brief, on 40 of the pirates, notes that most were “wretched” and “beaten down” by the time they came to the gallows at Scarlil’s Wharf, Boston. Gosse quotes from “a pamphlet published at the time”:

The Ministers of the Town used more than ordinary Endeavours to Instruct the Prisoners and Bring them to Repentance.

What this means in practice we cannot say, but Massachusetts as a whole and Boston specifically was still a stronghold of Puritan religion in the New World. That these pirates were treated little better than the “witches” of Salem Village is probably a very safe bet.

Quelch and his men were marched through Boston barefoot to the wharf with a heavy guard and the silver Admiralty oar carried before them. This made their execution an official maritime punishment and they were hanged as if on the dock at Wapping, within sight of the ocean. Legend has it that they were buried on the shore at low tide. Only one of their number was pardoned; a thirteen year old boy named John Templeton was determined to have been “only a servant on board” and therefore no part of the mutiny that killed Captain Plowman.

The previously mentioned pamphlet has John Quelch saying to the crowd as the noose was placed around his neck, “They should take care how they brought Money into New England to be Hanged for it.”

Many historians believe that Quelch felt he was within the parameters of his letter of marque in taking those Portuguese merchants. Some have gone so far as to call the hanging of Quelch and his mates the “first case of judicial murder in America.” To me this statement goes too far and points to the misunderstandings still in circulation about privateering and letters of marque. If the facts as they have come down to us are true, then Quelch did turn pirate. His letter of marque was against French shipping only, making the taking of a ship of any other nationality piracy. Then too there is the little matter of murdering Captain Plowman if we want to do more than split hairs.

Whether Quelch was a bloodthirsty villain who got what he deserved or a pawn of greater men in the same manner as William Kidd, I’ll let you judge, Brethren. History is always one part detective work, two parts educated guess and a little crazy supposition thrown in to taste.

Header: Quelch’s alleged flag known as “Old Roger”: it is probably that the flag never flew from the masthead of Charles

2 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Is it just me or does “Old Roger” look a little like the titular alien voiced by Seth Rogen in the movie, "Paul"?

Coincidence?

...Or maybe ancient aliens were actually behind all this!

No, probably not. Nevermind.

Pauline said...

Holy buckets he does. He just needs to be throwing up "the finger" with that left hand to complete the picture. "And that's jenga."