Tuesday, June 12, 2012

People: The Pirate Governor

For those who study the histories of seafaring and piracy, the story of Henry Morgan quitting the buccaneering life and becoming the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica seems very novel indeed.  A wicked, cruel man by any account, Morgan turned his ferocity on the men with whom he had once sailed, and hanged old mates not long after shaking their hands.  Another, and lesser known pirate-turned-Governor went in the opposite direction, harboring pirates and protecting them from his own Danish government.  Or so it would seem.

Adolph Esmit was a real person.  We know from records on the island of St. Thomas, now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and from Waldemar Westergaard's exhaustive The Danish West Indies under Company Rule that Esmit was Governor of the island from 1683 to 1684 and then again from 1687 to 1688.  According to The Pirate's Who's Who by Philip Gosse, Esmit was also a freebooter in his own right, and something of a rebel to boot.

Other than his birth in Denmark and his travels to the Danish West Indies in the late 1670s, there is very little information about Esmit's early life.  He was married to a woman named Charity who some historians speculate may have been an English Puritan.  Regardless of her religious background, Charity was willing to separate from her husband and plead his case for inauguration as Governor of St. Thomas in Copenhagen.

Esmit probably started out as an able seaman aboard merchant ships sailing for the Danish West India Company.  Eventually, it seems, he was captaining his own slave ship.  It was not unusual for slavers to turn pirate and there are hints that is exactly what Esmit and his crew did.  In need of a home port, he put in at St. Thomas some time in 1682 where his brother Nicolai was Governor.

By land, Esmit seems to have become very popular with the largely English population of the island.  He was a big spender, making local merchant's happy.  Within a year of his arrival at St. Thomas, he began to foment an uprising against his brother's leadership and eventually managed a sort of bloodless rebellion.  Adolph ousted Nicolai and, with Charity's aforementioned help, managed to secure an official inauguration as Governor in 1683.

Henceforth, St. Thomas became a buccaneer haven.  Governor Esmit would welcome fugitives from other island governments, harboring them and claiming that he had libeled their ships and goods when other Governors complained.  A particular case in point was that of Point Goave buccaneer Jean Hamlin who took refuge from Jamaican Governor Lynch at St. Thomas.  When asked, Esmit refused to release either Hamlin or his ship to the English.

It appears that Esmit even built and fitted out ships specifically for piracy on the high seas.  Whether or not he distributed letters of marque is in question, but his actions soon drew not only local attention but that of the Danish government.

A replacement Governor, Gabriel Milan, arrived at St. Thomas in 1684.  Rather than packing Esmit off to Denmark as he had been ordered, he imprisoned the former pirate and tried to extort money from him.  How Esmit managed to wriggle out of this sticky situation is unclear, but by 1687 he was again the official Governor of St. Thomas.

At this point, Esmit's renown as a friend of local buccaneers began to erode his credibility with the Danish government and, probably through the auspices of the Danish West India Company, Esmit was again deposed.  This time he was returned to Copenhagen to give an account of his service and, most probably, to face a prison sentence or worse.

Though history does not say exactly how, Adolph Esmit managed to avoid this final reckoning.  According to Westergaard, who calls Esmit "shift, shrewd, vain and at times boastful," the old buccaneer managed to escape to Courland, a small Duchy near Lithuania.  Here he and his wife may have lived out their days under aliases.  What actually became of the, beyond that, can be left only to educated speculation and/or fictional fantasy.  I'll let you chose for yourselves, Brethren.

Header: Iron Men and Wooden Ships, woodblock print by E.A. Wilson


Timmy! said...

It certainly sounds like he was fairly shrewd, or at least lucky, based on his overall record of successfuly escaping punishment, Pauline.

Pauline said...

It would seem so. I'm wondering how much his wife, the shadowy Charity Esmit, had to do with Adolph's timely escapes...

Charles L. Wallace said...

Courland.... a duchy, one of the smallest of the European states to establish overseas colonies. One was on Tobago, the other near Benin or thereabouts. Betcha Esmit made some connections previously, maybe called in some markers. Shrewd...

Pauline said...

Excellent point, Wally and well made. I'd bet dollars to rum bottles that you are spot on in your speculation.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Thank you, ma'am :-)
We'll probably never know for certain, but what we know as a mystery gets lived as reality by the somebodies in the story.... they "passed from history", but that just means that no one wrote about it ;-) hahaha!