Going On The Account: Blogtober – The Pirates of New York: Two

Welcome to the twelfth day of Blogtober, on which my true love gave to me:

12 raiders raiding

11 sloops a sailin’

10 wenches wenching

9 guns a’ firing

8 blunderbusses

7 fine cutlasses

6 swashbucklers

5 buccaneers

4 treasure chests

3 galleons

2 doubloons

and a shot at the Treasure Fleet

Yes, at least someone is thinking about me today…


And as you can savvy from the above, it’s time for the next part in our popular history mini-series, where some of the research for the first book into a section that got cut from the final draft gets some use here online.  Truth be told, some of those lost chapters might find their way into print someday in another work; as I’ve noted elsewhere, lots of stuff I write that doesn’t see the light of day the first time can get another chance.  Like George Harrison’s solo tracks he wrote while with the Beatles, I try to find a place for those down the road…

In the meantime:

Part the Second: The Colony of New-York, or Pay to Play

Before we move further beyond 1664, when the English sailed into the harbor, claimed New Amsterdam for themselves and hung an “Under New Management” sign on the palisade Wall Street is named after, let’s take a moment to look at that other not-entirely-above-board sea trade that often occurs alongside piracy, smuggling.

Both acts share a number of common elements, obvious and otherwise.  Both revolve around the movement of goods by vessel, goods that the possessor is not entitled to.  Good seamanship is a necessity for success in either endeavor.  And perpetrators of both acts often need to find confederates with whom to trade and/or sell their illicit cargoes with once ashore.

The reason this needs to be brought up is the symbiotic relationship between the two trades:  Where there were smugglers, there would well be pirates, with conditions in an area equally able to breed both.  Sometimes a captain may move between careers depending on the circumstances, needing to smuggle to keep revenue coming if armed seizure of cargoes was not an option, or to seize cargoes at sea that might not otherwise be loaded aboard his vessel.

As an island nation whose lifeblood was circulated by vessels at sea, England had quite a number of corners that cultivated these practices.  Cornwall, of course, was the most famous breeding ground in England for pirates and smugglers (and their bastard children, the wreckers), but as of 1664 a new piece of the expanding British Empire soon brought forth more opportunities to practice both trades, sometimes simultaneously.

For the newly seized colony, named after Charles II’s brother James, the Duke of York, who would soon be the center of an interesting tale involving amazing seamanship himself, the conditions were right for smugglers and pirates to find booty around this addition to empire:

  • England had their hands on a well-placed colony with one of the best harbors in the New World
  • The new harbor was centrally located, surrounded by resources the English had either cultivated or just grabbed from the Dutch and Swedes, that needed to be shipped back home from this port
  • The citizens in the newly acquired colony were geared towards commerce, which was the guiding principal that drew them to these shores under the guidance of the Dutch West India Company
  • The English had passed the year before the ironically-named “Act for the Encouragement of Trade” which legislated that all goods going to American holdings had to be shipped on English vessels via English ports, where the goods would be inspected and taxed, after which the shippers would pass on the fees to the colonists

So, a perfect port, with loads of goods coming in and out, peopled by traders in the New World to make a fortune, where the authorities are skimming as much as they can; you can almost hear the furious unfurling of sails within three days of the Verrazano Narrows as you think about it…

And people wonder why the mercantilist system and the Golden Age of Piracy coincide so nicely…

So, you may ask, if New York was such a pirate haven, why did it not get the same reputation as Port Royal?

In a word, subtlety.  That, over and above Port Royal being closer to the action as far as going after the Plate Fleet and being warmer year-round, plus the Jamaican sin city’s furious sudden demise by earthquake in 1692, allowed New York to stay in the shadows, where most smugglers and pirates prefer to be, as opposed to carousing in the open all hours of the days.

Or, to put it another way, the institutional allowance of supporting both piracy and smuggling enabled the Sweet Trade to be conducted in an orderly manner that did not come with the same flash and attention that were drawn by those pirates in Port Royal.

A good example of this was Governor Benjamin Fletcher, who during his term from 1692 to 1697 undertook a robust if unique economic development plan to allow the colony to compete with Boston and Philadelphia.  Fletcher would grant licenses to captains willing to engage in “the Red Sea trade,” which was a euphemism for fencing ill-gotten gain.  The theory was, any such goods so procured were assumed to have been seized by a commissioned privateer who harassed Barbary Coast corsairs on the Red Sea; the fact that the captain with a license may have only gotten as far east as Montauk was just not discussed in polite company…

And among Fletcher’s polite company was one Thomas Tew, one of the more infamous sea dogs to have plied the waters.  Tew’s seizure of an Ottoman treasure ship in the Indian Ocean had been done with a letter of marque issued in Jamaica, under terms that Tew was not willing to live up to; wanting to hold on to a bigger percentage of his booty, he made for New York, and when he arrived in 1694 made contact with the Governor, who not only welcomed him but had him as a dinner guest quite a few times.  Tew not only got to keep more of his treasure under Fletcher’s re-negotiated license, but even got a new partner in Fletcher, who helped finance his next venture later that year.

Fletcher was hoping to have an even bigger return on his investment; who knows, if Tew and Henry Every, a horror in his own right, had been able to take on the Fateh Muhammed without Tew being disemboweled by cannon shot, Fletcher might have done pretty well for himself.  But before his ship could come in (literally), Fletcher found himself recalled, to be replaced (when he got around to heading on over here) by Richard Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont.

Bellomont was in an interesting situation, under orders from back home to clean up the mess his predecessor left behind.  To that end, he needed to take care of some of the bigger problems Fletcher had left him, and at the top of that list was Tew.  So, needing to go after a notorious pirate with a license from New York (who unbeknownst to everyone had already been killed by Ottoman deck guns), Bellomont offered a privateering license to another captain to go after Tew.

Choosing one William Kidd for the job…

Kidd’s career is a great story of the wrong man for the job managing to make a good run of it for a while at least.  He never expected to become a feared pirate; considering what he had waiting at home for him, which was why he was en route to New York when he was seized by British authorities and placed in irons,  he could be considered one of the more tragic figures to sail as a pirate.

Of course, there are the legends of his unclaimed treasure being buried somewhere close to New York, with every small island between Cape Hatteras and Cape May having been considered at some point over the last 300 years.  Even Liberty Island was thought to be a good suspect an some point.

Perhaps the story came out of a lot of folks looking for get-rich-quick schemes; certainly the number of guesses of where Kidd left his treasure start to go down after New York adopts the lottery in 1967.  Another possible source, far more likely, comes from how Kidd earned his money before he took to the Sweet Trade himself: As a privateer (a pirate with a license) and an investor is various privateering expeditions (more licensed piracy), he was able to plow a good amount of taken treasure back here.

Including a large chunk used to found Trinity Church, at the end of Wall Street.

Which should not be a surprise, as quite a number of prominent families invested with privateers, and maybe a little bit on the side with pirates and smugglers, families whose names are on the map as a result.  Landmarks and places such as Philipsburg Manor just north of the city on the Hudson, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, and (semi-indirectly) Willets Point in Queens, all came to be because of booty seized on the seas and unloaded ashore in New York.

These of course are the ones we can state with certainty.  Some families may have wanted to keep their connection with illicit trade quiet, for the sake of pride or as not to arouse envious suspicion.

And some of those families on the edges of the Sweet Trade that had done well might have lost naming rights come 1775, if they were on the wrong side of conflict that starts then…

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