Block Island and Indian Pirates

July 20 – I’m vacationing on Block Island, a charming little island 13 miles south of Rhode Island in the Atlantic Ocean. To the Narragansett Indians this place was known as Manisees, “Island of the Little God.”  I have been coming here since I was 14-years-old – mostly spending summers working on various archaeological projects my uncle, Dr. Kevin McBride, had been directing.  I thought I’d take a break from my month of traveling and do some spearfishing, reading, and catching up on my massive backlog of email.  It’s the reading part that always gets me. I couldn’t help but revisit Samuel Truesdale Livermore’s A History of Block Island and the story of the pirate Aaron Church.  The following story and an unpublished book review of Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations will foreshadow some of my work and demonstrate to my audience that I have interests that lie outside of whaling.

The Story of Aaron Church quoted from Livermore (1877:64-65):

Aaron Church…from his connection with the pirate Gibbs, has left a reputation that indicates his descent from the murderers of Capt. Oldham. In the year 1830 he shipped on board the brig Vineyard, early in November, at New Orleans, for Philadelphia.  William Thornby was captain, and William Roberts, mate. After the vessel had been several days at sea Charles Gibbs, Thomas J. Wansley, and Aaron Church – desperate characters, especially the first-named, entered into a conspiracy to capture the vessel, which contained a cargo of sugar, molasses, and also $54,000 in specie. On the 23d of Nov. they executed their piratical purpose, in the night, by killing Captain Thornby and his mate, William Roberts, with a “pump-break,” and threw their bodies overboard. Others of the crew, to save their lives, became feigned accessories, until they reached the shore and could expose the pirates with safety. Wansley was the steward, and a negro. Church was part Indian, and Gibbs, a native of Rhode Island, was a notorious villain who probably led his accomplices into this their last crime.  When about fifteen miles from Long Island, having divided the money, which belonged to Stephen Girard, Gibbs took the long boat, and Church the jolly boat, sharing the money between them. One Atwell was with Church. Gibbs landed on Long Island, was arrested, tried, and with Wansley executed in New York April 22, 1831. Church started, it is said, for Block Island, with sails set in his jolly boat, in a rough sea, and was foundered, and drowned with his companions in sight of Gibbs and Wansley who “saw them clinging to the masts.” Thus the pirate Aaron Church went down with his ill-gotten gain.

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My unpublished book review written for a graduate seminar in the UConn History Department in the Fall of 2007.  

Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Marcus Rediker. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Villains of All Nations explores in detail the period between 1716 and 1726, the golden age of piracy when those who sailed under the Jolly Roger all but ruled the Atlantic. Here, Marcus Rediker draws on much of his previous work on pirates, weaving together eight self-contained chapters and a conclusion that trace the origins of piracy, its growth and culture, and eventual downfall. In his present work, published in 2004, Rediker has also found a certain contemporariness, not only in the popular image of pirates in Hollywood but, more importantly, in how we conceptualize terrorism in a post-9/11 world.

At the outset, in “A Tale of Two Terrors” (Chapter 1), Rediker depicts piracy as growing out of class conflict between the ruling elite including Christian ministers, merchants, ship captains, and government officials and the common sailor as a laborer. In the increasingly brutal commercial system developing in the transatlantic trade, Rediker argues that these class differences were expressed in “a dialectic of terror” (p.6). As the elite sought to protect the source of their wealth at any cost, rules and laws were constructed which resulted in the harsh and unjust treatment of crews. In their relentless efforts to maintain social order, the merchants and their principal representative at sea, the captain, often pushed their limits to the point considered “bad usage” (p.2) by the sailors. Rediker presents this argument as the principle vehicle driving as many as 4000 sailors towards piracy during its Golden Age.

Though piracy has tremendous time depth, in “The Political Arithmetic of Piracy” (Chapter 2) Rediker is interested in examining why and under what circumstances piracy exploded in the years between 1716 and 1726. Ironically, this age of “terror” at sea followed the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of Spanish Succession. With peace between America’s colonizing powers “legalized” piracy or privateering was now forbidden and transatlantic trade blossomed at the expense of both privateering seamen and those mariners employed by the British Royal Navy. Along with many other unemployed and displaced people from the margins of the Atlantic world, sailors as pirates developed new strategies (social and political) and economies to resist and undermine colonial authority and disrupt trade networks. As Rediker sees it, the elaboration of pirate tactics and culture emerged in three phases: 1) 1713 to 1716, the privateer-to-pirate phase which involved selective attacks on colonial vessels depending on remaining allegiances; 2) 1717 to 1722, which represented the unmitigated and anti-national heyday of piracy; and 3) 1722 to 1726, when pirates, under severe pressure, fought “less for booty than for their very survival” (p.37) and finally succumbed to government and merchant sponsored naval action.

So who were these pirates? In “Who Will Go “a Pyrating”” (Chapter 3), Rediker describes the background of the men who became pirates – the twenty-something males from the lowest social class who only knew wars of wealth between nations. This does not, however, appear to significantly differ from his understanding of the common sailor as presented in his earlier work Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. There appears to be a particular threshold at play here. Was the tendency towards piracy solely in the hands of the captain and his treatment of the crew? Or was piracy principally influenced by the “love of drink and a lazy life” (p.59)? Perhaps one should ask why, given the depiction of almost universal brutality at sea, many sailors chose not to become pirates. Was this based on shared and accepted ideology of social order? Or was the pirate life a certain death wish many hoped to avoid? Or something else entirely?

Villains of All Nations explains the development and “striking uniformity” (p.64) of pirate culture as it emerged in the early eighteenth century. “The New Government of the Ship” (Chapter 4) frames the construction of a second or “new social order” (p.60) on pirate ships that included minimized physical labor, no harsh treatment, an all-volunteer crew, egalitarian social structure, shared wealth through a more uniform distribution of “booty,” generous distribution of food and drink, and a social security system for injured crew members. This “shipboard democracy” (p.69) stood in stark contrast to life on the floating “factories” (p.20) of merchant or naval vessels. Captains did not hold absolute authority over the crew and were permitted no special privileges. Equal distributions of pirate resources were ensured by a quartermaster who, along with the captain, was elected by a common council. The notion of a common council was drawn from older maritime traditions that gave voice to all members of the crew. Ultimate power on board a pirate vessel resided with the council.

In this chapter on pirate social organization, Rediker updates his brilliantly constructed diagram (p.80) tracing the social connections that existed between the crews and captains of various pirate ships. Unfortunately, he spends less than a page elaborating many of his interpretations of how these connections actually functioned. How did a crew splinter? How many and how often did pirate crews sail in consort? Where in the Atlantic did they operate? How opportunistic were they and did they patrol shipping routes? Were there differences in the way piracy functioned in various parts of the Atlantic? It seems that there might be some interesting patterns and yarns yet to be spun.

Continuing his examination of pirate culture and their motivations in Chapter 5, “To do Justice to Sailors,” Rediker undoes the notion that pirates were self-serving, rapacious, and bloodthirsty freebooters. Seeking to move beyond the pirate as culture hero or anti-hero, he builds depth and context into the story of these maritime bandits. By demonstrating that “pirates had a profound sense of community,” a fraternity of sorts, Rediker begins to address how pirate culture “transcended nationality” (p.94). Unified by common ideology, pirates, in their counter-campaign of fear and terror, attempted to alter the standards of treatment for laborers on merchant vessels. To this end they spared the ship captains who were reputed by their crews to be honest and fair and executed those accused of “bad usage.”

Rediker also explores the significance of “The Women Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read” (Chapter 6). That women, who were traditionally prohibited from maritime labor, were knowingly included as pirates confirms both the tenacity of these individuals and the open society that characterized piracy. Though numerically limited these unconventional women actually became leaders in the “homosocial and hypermasculine” (p.75) environment of the seafaring vessel. Drawing evidence of their existence and roles from the Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates and the published trial testimony of their crew, Rediker examines the contemporary impact of these stories and their lasting influence on popular culture. While raising important social and cultural issues, an entire chapter devoted to the only two confirmed female pirates seems misplaced and somewhat gratuitous in this book.

It is with the inclusion of the chapter on “The Women Pirates” that it becomes clear a significant discussion of piracy’s “all nations” is absent. Throughout the book, Rediker notes the presence of Africans and Native Americans as crew members of pirate ships, but only spends four pages addressing their origins, roles, and experiences as pirates. In contrast to the two female pirates, people of color sometimes comprised 50-60% of pirate crews. Though the documentary record for maritime people of color is thin, these pirates of non-British origin demand further investigation. Furthermore, there is little discussion of the on-shore pirate bases located in the Bahama Islands and on Madagascar where “a dark mulatto Race” emerged. What were these and other “maroon societies” like? Did these produce generations of pirates? How did they contribute to the social organization of pirate vessels?

In their effort “To Extirpate them out of the World” (Chapter 7), Rediker examines how royal officials and the colonial elite effectively terminated piracy by 1726. Mirroring the contemporary “War on Terror,” this chapter captures an ongoing dialectic between the powerful and the weak, the Christian and anti-Christian, the civilized and the barbarous. “Pirates, their enemies never tired of saying, were cruel, barbarous, and bloody” (p.132). Through various forms of print literature and the spectacle of public executions, pirates were recast as the enemy of all people. This transformation from ““Robbin Hoods Men”” (p.85) to dehumanized monsters hell bent on destroying property “disconnected him [the pirate] from the social order” (p.146) and paved the way for the subsequent (and apparently very successful) naval campaign against piracy. In describing an almost singular event though – the capture of two of Black Bart Roberts’ ships in 1722, Rediker misses an opportunity to further explore the collapse of piracy. How many naval engagements were there? How did the timing and location of public hangings influence this downfall? How many pirates were turned in for a reward? How many were granted amnesty? What is the relationship between the changing pirate image, public executions, and naval victory? It is hard to understand how these things affected each other and how they collectively ended piracy. Furthermore, many of the naval battles, trials, and hangings to which he refers occurred before 1722. Surely with so many pirates in the Atlantic, there must have been a more sustained and systematic naval response in the years between 1722 and 1726. Here, Rediker keeps us guessing.

In his final chapter, “Defiance of Death Itself,” Rediker seeks to understand the “contradictory, ironic, and humorous embrace of death by the pirates” (p.154). Here pirates undertake the ultimate form of resistance by attempting to control their own fate, by suicide if necessary. This death wish is articulated in and symbolized by the anti-national and fear-inducing black flag of Jolly Roger. To their enemies, pirates warned “whatever you fear – violence, destruction, the devil, death – we are that. We embrace it. We are the other. We are your nightmare” (p.168).

The notion of terror has not figured prominently into Rediker’s earlier work, but in Villains he probes the relationship between power and terror. Common sailors who became pirates were the most visible and well known terrorists of their day, but he cautions that the “keepers of the [nation] state in this era were themselves terrorists of a sort…They have become, over the years, culture heroes, even founding fathers of sorts” (p.5). Subtly, Rediker presents a cautionary tale, for in a post-9/11 world this “dialectic” between the weak and the strong must be recognized and understood.

In Villains of All Nations, Rediker masterfully weaves together much of the known literature on piracy – court records, correspondence, primary accounts, contemporary histories – with his own social history database of 778 named pirates and his examination of social connections among Atlantic pirate crews. In spite of its above noted shortcomings, Villains of All Nations provides a well organized and thoughtful narrative about pirate history, culture, and symbolism to varied audiences. In today’s world where pirates are depicted as heroes and popular icons in such things as the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series, at Halloween, and as mascots in the sports arena, their lives may be better remembered in the context of labor movements and perhaps more importantly as reminders of another threshold – the point at which resistance becomes terror.

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4 Responses to Block Island and Indian Pirates

  1. Gloria Hazard Miller says:

    Dr. Mancini
    Aaron Church was my 3rd great grand aunt’s spouse (Emmiline Kokling Sands Church)

    • jrmancini says:

      Gloria,
      Thanks for following. That’s very interesting and as far as I know Sands is an old Block Island Indian name, too. There are several members of the Church and Sands family that end up in Stonington and some remained connected to the Narragansett, I believe.
      Jason

  2. Gloria Hazard Miller says:

    I love your articles – I’m going to try and find more time to check them “all” out. Many of Southern New England’s people of color that have roots going back a couple hundred years connect in some fashion or another.

    • jrmancini says:

      Thank you Gloria! In addition to this project, I have another, in database form, at the Pequot Museum called People of Color. There are over 50,000 entries in the database so far. We have lots of work ahead of us, but it is allowing us to tell many new stories about the population of color – long disregarded by history and historians. The Indian Mariners are just one piece of the story 🙂 – Jason

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