Monday, March 26, 2012

People: The Curious Captain Condent

Christopher Condent is a name that gets tossed around a fair amount when discussing the Golden Age of Piracy. Condent, apparently another native of that great breeding ground of sailors, Devon, has his story told with the same consistency we find in tales of bigger names like Blackbeard, Roberts and Morgan. From Charles Ellms to Philip Gosse, all the high points in Condent’s life are hit consistently. Does this mean that they all occurred as they have come down to us? No, but it certainly makes them a bit more creditable.

In The Pirate’s Who’s Who, Philip Gosse does not give a date of birth for Condent. As he was quartermaster aboard a New York merchant when Governor Woodes Rogers sailed into New Providence in 1718, it is probably safe to place his natal year some time in the 1690s. It is a consistent point in Condent’s story, regardless of who is telling it, that his anonymous captain saw fit to hightail it out of the Bahamas when privateer-turned-pirate-hunter Rogers showed up. This is probably a good indication that the New York “merchant” was already a practicing pirate at the time.

According to Gosse and Ellms, the ship was not a happy one. A Native American aboard her had been mistreated by other crew members and, in his rage, decided to take his revenge by blowing up the ship. The sloop had a fair amount of black powder aboard – another good but not altogether telling indication of piratical activity. The injured sailor locked himself in the powder magazine with intent to ignite the powder and blow up the ship. Condent took it upon himself to curtail the man’s plans, jumping into the hold through a hatch and dispatching the malcontent with a pistol shot to the face.

The rest of the crew, still obviously harboring a grudge, hacked the man’s body to pieces. Both Goss and Ellms tell us that the gunner went so far as to remove the man’s heart from his chest cavity, boil or roast it and serve it up for supper. This consistently retold vignette has a curious ring of truth if for no other reason than it is never thoroughly explained. Why eat a man’s heart? The answer, one imagines, might be why not.

After this bloody episode morale seems to continue to flag aboard the merchant-cum-pirate. An English prize, Duke of York, is taken in the Atlantic and a dispute over something to do with it splits the crew down the middle. The captain and his faction take the prize and sail away, while the remaining crewmen elect Condent their new captain.

Condent sets a course for the Cape Verde Islands and manages to take a number of small ships from the “salt fleet”. Next he is cruising near the island of St. Jago where he takes a Dutch ship. He likes this vessel more than his old sloop and trades up, naming her Flying Dragon and hoisting a black flag decorated with three skulls and crossed bones.

Heading back to the New World, Condent begins cruising off Brazil, taking Portuguese ships and torturing their crews. His ruthlessness earns him a reputation but he is clever enough to continue taking prizes in the area by pretending to be a harmless and friendly English merchant. Eventually his tactics earn him a firefight with a Portuguese warship, and Gosse tells us that Flying Dragon is lucky to escape.

Condent sets a course for the Indian Ocean and arrives at the island of Johanna near Madagascar. Here he runs into the former crew of Captain John Halsey who died in 1716. These men were probably happy to join Condent, and Flying Dragon proceeded to take more than one East Indiaman, using the nearby Ile Sainte-Marie as a base of operations.

It appears that the greatest prize of Condent’s piratical career was a galley carrying the Viceroy of Goa. What became of the official is not mentioned, but Gosse indicates that Condent and company took their prize to Zanzibar where “they plundered her of a large amount of money.”

Back home on Sainte-Marie, Condent seems to have second thoughts about piracy. He pays off his men, some of whom chose to settle on the island. Condent and a few others petition the French Governor on Mauritius for a pardon. The Governor is amenable as long as the pirates will break up their ship when they arrive on his island. This they do and they are allowed to settle down. Christopher Condent, now on the straight and narrow, courts and marries the Governor’s sister-in-law.

“A few years later,” Gosse says in summing up his entry on Condent. “The captain and his wife left the island and sailed to France, settling at Saint Malo, where Condent drove a considerable trade as a merchant.”

A rare and curiously happy ending to the story of another brutal freebooter.

Header: Replica of Christopher Condent’s flag via Black Flag Trading Co.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is an unusually upbeat ending to a typically bloody, but good pirate story.

Pauline said...

I think so too, which may be why I'm a little skeptical. But I'm just going with the flow here; Ellms and Gosse tell the story pretty much identically so, who am I to argue?

Blue Lou Logan said...

Nicely spun yarn there, mate. The vengeful Native American is colorful image: I picture him sitting on a powder keg with a lit match raving in his native tongue.

Pauline said...

Thankee indeed, Lou. It's definately an arresting if unsettling picture, isn't it?

Jack Durish said...

Why eat the heart? Cannibals ate their enemies to absorb their "strength." Some pirates descended to equal levels of depravity.

Read Frederick Marryat's book "The Pirate." Here is an 18th century author who was a fighting ship's captain who can provide some interesting insights.

Pauline said...

Excellent point, Jack. It does seem like an unusual tack for a European of the era, however. Although Francois L'Olonnais certainly used a similar tactic to terrify a few Spanish prisoners.

And Marryat - without who we would have no Hornblow nor Aubrey - is always a good reference for the Great Age of Sail. Good advice.