Post-classical history


Your Majesty’s New Creature: Pardons and Pragmatism Under James I


The summer of 1611 was hot and dry. James I postponed his annual progress on account of the drought, and while he was stuck in Whitehall he mustered the Privy Council to advise him on a delicate problem in ethics. Word had come from Sir Arthur Chichester in Dublin that a pirate was offering to surrender himself to the authorities in return for a royal pardon. And James, punctilious and principled, was unhappy at the prospect. His conscience, he said, would not allow him to grant impunity so easily to one who had done so much harm to shipping in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

It might have been easier for the king to maintain the moral high ground—or, indeed, to grant a quiet pardon—if Peter Eston had been just any pirate. But he wasn’t. Il Corsaro Inglese, as the Venetians called him, was known all over Europe as a fearsome general-at-sea who sailed at the head of a fleet that numbered as many as twenty-five ships. Like most English pirates of the period, he divided his time between Barbary and the West of Ireland, “the former of which is beyond all rule and justice, being wholly given up to barbarism,” commented an exasperated English government official, “while the latter is inhabited either by natives who, from motives of interest or of fear, are ready to supply their necessities, or by persons of our own nation who have taken places there with the express purpose of commercing with the pirates.”1

Nothing is known for certain of Eston’s early life: he first attracted attention in 1608, when he was seen in command of a vessel anchored off Baltimore, County Cork, and then at Essaouira on the Moroccan coast. Both times he was in the company of Tibault Saxbridge, an associate of John Ward. Within a couple of years Eston had acquired such a formidable reputation inside and outside the Straits that his mere presence at the mouth of the Avon was enough to send Bristol merchants begging the Lord High Admiral for help to safeguard their ships. Unlike some English pirates, who still thought of themselves as privateers, Eston felt no compunction about attacking the ships of his own nation. He released the master of one English vessel he captured, for instance, and sent him to London with a warning. Tell the merchants on the Exchange, he said, that Eston “would be a scourge to Englishmen” and that “he esteemed English men no other than as Turks and Jews.”2

But in spite of his success and his fearsome reputation, Eston had grown tired of the pirate’s life. He wanted to come home, which was why in the late spring of 1611 he turned up off the coast of Cork with a squadron of ships and a request to parley.

Lord Deputy Chichester’s response was to offer Eston a forty-day promise of protection while he consulted with Whitehall. The pirates must report to the vice-president or deputy vice-admiral of Munster (the southernmost province of Ireland, comprising the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford) if they wanted to come ashore, and could buy only enough fresh supplies to last them a day or two at a time. (They couldn’t revictual for their next expedition, in other words.) In the meantime, king and Council wrangled over what was right and what was expedient.

The arguments in favor of pardoning a man like Eston were powerful. A pardon would take him out of circulation. It would act as an incentive to others to abandon piracy. It would reduce the numbers of pirates and make those who remained in action less capable of resistance. And if Eston and his men could be enlisted in the king’s cause, their experience of seamanship—and of piracy—could be turned to good use.

There were precedents. Gilbert Roupe had received a pardon in 1609, two years earlier, although that had been as a reward for turning in his comrade John Jennings. (It hadn’t been an unqualified success, either. Roupe was currently out on the cruise again—with Eston, as it happened.) Richard Bishop, who had sailed with Jennings and with John Ward, had turned himself in a few months before Eston made his offer to retire. Bishop hadn’t actually been pardoned, but he had been granted a protection and allowed to build himself a house and settle quietly in West Cork.

Against all this was the niggling feeling that pardoning pirates was wrong—the same moral qualms that were felt in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, when the Blair administration agonized over the morality of releasing terrorists in return for peace in Northern Ireland. For James I to promise one moment that he would wield his “royal sword of justice” against the common enemies of mankind and let them off scot-free the next was inconsistent with England’s sense of honor, conscience, and natural justice.

Eventually James’s advisers, always more pragmatic than their sovereign, prevailed. They agreed to pardon Eston, but there were conditions: he had to surrender the ships and goods in his possession, so that they might be restored to the poor men he had ruined. But he could come in. “Out of consideration for the safety of the persons and goods of his subjects, which were imperiled by so formidable and so wicked a course of piracy,” recalled the lords of the Council later, the king “consented to [forgo] the strict course of justice.”3 Messengers were dispatched to Ireland with the good news.

They soon discovered that pardoning pirates was more difficult than anyone had imagined. Eston had gone, even before the forty-day grace period was up. He wasn’t a patient man, and he was used to being in control of his own destiny. So while the king and Council discussed his fate in London, he grew bored and took his squadron down to Cornwall. A few weeks later he was back in Ireland, putting in with nine men-of-war and four prizes ships at the isolated harbor of Leamcon in West Cork.

Leamcon was a favorite haunt of pirates. Some of Eston’s men kept families there, and there were rumors of treasure being brought ashore and buried. It was a wild place, more like a frontier town than an Irish village. Captain Henry Skipwith, the deputy vice-admiral of Munster, made his way there as fast as he could and obtained an audience with Eston, acquainting him with the king’s intention to grant his request for a pardon on the condition that he return any stolen goods and ships in his possession.

The trouble was, there were rather more stolen goods and ships in Eston’s possession than there had been a couple of weeks earlier. During his brief cruise he had captured a richly laden English merchant ship, the Concorde, killing one crew member and frightening three others so much that they leaped overboard (so he claimed). Moreover, he had in the meantime received letters of protection from Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who offered him sanctuary and citizenship in return for his expertise and his loot. Skipwith found Eston busily adapting the Concorde for fighting and arming her with ordnance. He didn’t want the English king’s pardon after all, he said. He had no intention of surrendering any goods—in fact, he was preparing to set sail for Barbary, where he would sell the Concorde’s cargo, spend one last season raiding around the Straits, and then head for Florence and retirement. “I told the merchants [on the Concorde] that if I might have any pardon, I would surrender up their ship and goods; but now in respect of the Duke of Florence’s offer and the greatness of this wealth, I am otherwise resolved.”4

Skipwith was not pleased. He told Lord Deputy Chichester that if he’d had the men and the guns with him, it would have been more to the king’s honor to have taken and killed every one of the pirates instead of offering them mercy.

But he persevered. The reformed pirate Richard Bishop was brought in to mediate and, after refusing an offer from Eston to sail away to Tuscany with his old comrades—“I will die a poor labourer in mine own country, if I may, rather than be the richest pirate in the world”5—Bishop managed to persuade Eston at least to consider giving up the Concorde, and to wait for one of the king’s agents to arrive from London with the pardon, rather than rejecting it out of hand.

The agent, Captain Roger Middleton, was dispatched from Plymouth at the beginning of August; when he reached County Cork, on the 17th, he found he had missed his man by ten days. Eston had heard a rumor that the king’s ships were preparing an assault (which wasn’t true), and another that a Dutch naval squadron was cruising off the coast of Munster with the intention of flushing pirates out of little harbors like Leamcon (which was). Unsure about whether Eston and his men would accept their pardons, and still uncomfortable at having offered them, James had duplicitously salved his conscience by giving Dutch men-of-war permission to pursue pirates into the harbors and creeks of Ireland. Eston’s men, 500 of them, had taken fright and taken flight. They bought victuals, powder, and shot, split into three squadrons of three ships each, and set sail on August 7. With the first fair wind, Middleton intended to follow them to Barbary, pardons in hand.

He didn’t find them. Instead of retiring to Tuscany, “that famous Arch-Pirate Peter Eston” went to Newfoundland, where his fleet, which now consisted of ten “well-furnished and very rich” warships,6 found easy prey among the fishing vessels out on the Newfoundland Banks, capturing their crews and taking their catches and supplies. He seems by now to have got into the habit of asking for pardons: although he announced to the world that “he would not bow to the orders of one king when he himself was, in a way, a king as well,”7 at the same time he begged a captured English sea captain, Sir Richard Whitbourne, to go to England and find some friends of his “and solicit them to become humble petitioners to your Majesty for his pardon.”8 By the time Whitbourne reached London he was told that a pardon had already been dispatched to Newfoundland, where again it failed to reach its intended recipient, who was now either in Morocco or off the coast of Munster or heading for the East Indies to lie in wait for a Spanish treasure fleet, depending on which of the increasingly wild rumors one believed.

By this stage, the English government had decided to extend a general pardon to all subjects of James I who had taken to piracy, about 3,000 men in all. The idea was supported by the king’s eldest son, Prince Henry, who wanted to see “the mariners of this kingdom augmented by those who are now buccaneering,” 9 but it was also a tacit admission that Eston and his fellow pirates were so powerful that James I’s ramshackle navy simply wasn’t capable of overcoming them by force. The Privy Council secured the agreement of merchants, clearing the way for an amnesty that allowed pirates to hold on to goods they had stolen prior to entering into negotiations for pardon, and in February 1612 the general pardon was announced. “What effect it will have is the subject of various opinions,” reported the Venetian ambassador, diplomatically.10

It was the news of this general pardon that missed Eston in Newfoundland. King James issued another pardon in Eston’s name in November 1612, still insisting rather fretfully that the Concorde be restored to its rightful owners. But by the time the reluctant penitent read it (if he ever did), he had moved on to sunnier climes. At the beginning of 1613, in an attempt to compete with the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s free port of Livorno on the northwest coast of Italy, the Duke of Savoy declared Nice and Villefranche, both then part of the Duchy of Savoy, to be free ports also. Bonded warehouses were opened where goods could be stored and sold, no questions asked; likewise, “all mariners and merchants belonging to any nation, none excepted, shall have safe conduct.”11 Weeks later Eston sailed into Villefranche with four ships, 900 men, and, according to rumor, a colossal fortune of 400,000 crowns and goods “to an amount that seems incredible.”12 Then aged about forty, he bought himself a palace and a marquisate and married a wealthy woman from Nice.

And as far as history knows, he lived happily ever after.

Eston wasn’t the only pirate to reject James I’s advances. Within weeks of the general pardon being announced in 1612, an English naval officer caught up with a fleet of thirty pirates who were wreaking havoc in the Straits and told them the good news. But they turned down his offer of a pardon out of hand, replying that “in the present state of peace they could not maintain themselves in England.”13 There was little legitimate employment at home for sailors, and what there was was so poorly paid that they preferred life on the cruise with all its dangers and uncertainties but greater prospects for profit.

As the years passed, however, James’s pragmatic approach did prove effective. As times changed and it became more difficult to make a living as a pirate, one captain after another came in and claimed amnesty. Various reasons have been proposed to explain this change of heart: Spanish attacks against traditional pirate bases on the coast of Morocco; the outbreak in 1618 of the Thirty Years’ War, which provided rich pickings for mercenaries; the development of new trade routes to English possessions in the Americas. Taken by themselves, none of these reasons is particularly compelling, but each perhaps contributed something to the indisputable fact that by the end of James I’s reign, in 1625, the threat posed by the English pirates who drifted between Barbary, Ireland, and the Newfoundland Banks was, if not exactly eradicated, at least eclipsed by the highly organized state-sanctioned Islamic corsairs of North Africa.

The giving and receiving of pardons took place in a dark and treacherous world, as the case of John Nutt demonstrates. Nutt was a bad man and a good representative of the less romantic side of seventeenth-century piracy. In the early 1620s he haunted the seas off the southwest coast of England in a small but heavily armed vessel of 120 tons, preying on the merchant ships that sailed between the western ports and Ireland and selling the goods he stole in Holland.

“A merciless villain [with] a crew of wicked villains,” Nutt kept a wife and three children at Topsham, near Exeter in the southwest of England, and in May of 1623 he decided he should spend more time with his family.14 After a terrifying spree off the Irish coast—in which he and his crew kidnapped a man out of Youghal harbor, ransacked four ships, took rings, jewelry, and ready money from sixty or seventy passengers, and raped fourteen women—one of whom, a saddler’s wife from Cork, he kept locked in his cabin for several weeks—he dispatched a man to England to inquire about a pardon. He had already obtained one from the Dutch; but he had heard that the English government had issued another in his name. What he did not know was that it was time-limited and had, in fact, already lapsed.

A fortnight later Nutt sailed into Dartmouth harbor, looking for news of his pardon. The young, eager, newly appointed vice-admiral for Devon, Sir John Eliot, was determined not to lose such a prize. After negotiating with the pirate for days on end, and waiting for detailed guidance from London, he went aboard Nutt’s ship at some personal risk, where he waved the expired pardon under the pirate’s nose and induced him and his crew to come ashore. Then he had them all arrested. Nutt was sent to London for trial and his men were packed off to Exeter jail.

A victory for truth and justice? Not even close. Before the summer was out Nutt was free and complaining of his ill-treatment to anyone who would listen, while Eliot was in the Marshalsea prison, awaiting trial at the Admiralty Court.

The explanation of how this happened depends on whose lies one believes. Nutt claimed that he offered £500 for a pardon that would allow him to keep his stolen goods, and that when he came in and told Eliot he didn’t have it, the vice-admiral told him to go and find it in money or goods, whereupon he took an English merchant ship with a cargo of sugar worth £4,000. The master of that ship claimed that Eliot had come aboard and taken away fourteen chests of sugar while Nutt looked on.

Eliot admitted taking £500 for the pardon, saying it was for the Lord Admiral’s use. He also admitted that his deputies had accepted on his behalf six packs of calfskins and four pieces of baize—clearly stolen goods—which were also laid aside for the Lord Admiral’s use. He flatly denied encouraging Nutt to commit any further acts of piracy and taking the sugar from the merchant ship, and said he had urged the pirate to restore the vessel to her master, at which “the said Nutt presently fell into a passion and vowed not to accept the pardon but upon condition to enjoy what he had.”15

Eliot made two mistakes in his dealings with Nutt. He spent several hours alone with the pirate in his cabin with no witnesses present, which was stupid, because it raised the suspicion that some underhand dealings were taking place. And he didn’t realize until it was too late that Nutt had a powerful patron at court. A year or so earlier the pirate had helped to defend the young English colony in Newfoundland against an attack by the French. The chief promoter of the colony was Sir George Calvert, James I’s secretary of state, and it was Calvert who had procured Nutt a pardon in the first place, and Calvert who now secured Nutt’s release from prison. “The poor man is able to do the king service if he were employed,” he told Sir Edward Conway, his fellow secretary of state, “and I do assure myself he doth so detest his former course of life as he will never enter into it again. I have been at charge already of one pardon, and am contented to be at as much more for this, if his majesty will be graciously pleased to grant it.”16

Without even knowing it, Eliot had managed to irritate Sir George Calvert, “who may suppose himself therein crossed by me,” as he plaintively wrote to Conway. To teach him a lesson, Calvert ensured Eliot was kept in prison over the summer, leaving the indignant vice-admiral to rant against the unfairness of a system in which “the words of a malicious assassin now standing for his life, shall have reputation equal to the credit of a gentleman.”17 Nutt was released immediately and went home to a quiet retirement in Devon.

The most distinguished product of James I’s amnesty for English pirates was Sir Henry Mainwaring, whose route to redemption was accompanied by a seemingly effortless transition from outlaw to senior naval officer. After giving up a life of piracy himself, Mainwaring went on to become an MP and a master of Trinity House, the guild that looked after the interests of the seamen and shipping of England. He became vice-admiral of the royal fleet that guarded the Narrow Seas in the late 1630s, and as a staunch Royalist in the English Civil War he was one of the captains entrusted with taking the teenage Prince of Wales to safety as the king’s cause unraveled in the autumn of 1645. When Mainwaring joined Charles I’s court at Oxford in 1643, the university made him a doctor of physic—an honor not usually granted to ex-pirates, but a credit to Mainwaring’s support of the Royalist cause.

But Mainwaring’s background was not the usual one. Born into a gentry family in Shropshire in about 1587, he graduated from Brasenose College, Oxford, at the age of sixteen and entered the Inner Temple in London as a law student two years later. Around the same time he became a student of the writing-master John Davies of Hereford, “the greatest master of the pen that England in her age beheld.”18 In 1612, when Mainwaring was preparing to escort the Persian ambassador on his return journey to the shah’s court, Davies addressed him in a farewell ode as “heroic pupil, and most honored friend.”19

This embassy would prove the cause of Mainwaring’s decision to turn to piracy. The Persian ambassador was actually a flamboyant Englishman, Robert Shirley, who had converted to Catholicism (and married the daughter of a Circassian chieftain) during an eight-year stay at the shah’s court. Shirley, who had been created a count twice—once by the pope and once by the Holy Roman Emperor—habitually wore Persian dress with a large gold crucifix attached to his turban. He was sent to Europe by Shah Abbas I to enlist support for Persia’s struggle against the Ottoman Empire, but while he was negotiating a military alliance with James I, a declaration of peace between the Persians and the Turks made his mission pointless and he decided to return to Persia.

Four English merchant ships were to accompany Shirley through the Straits and the entire length of the Mediterranean, and Henry Mainwaring, who paid over £700 for the 160-ton Resistance that summer in England, was meant to sail with this fleet, perhaps even as its commander. But Spain and Venice were both convinced that as soon as the English ships reached the eastern Mediterranean they would turn to piracy, and in 1613 pressure from the Spanish ambassador caused the English to abandon the plan and send Shirley back to Persia in a single vessel. Mainwaring was so angry that he took off for Barbary in the Resistance and proceeded to work out his frustration on Spanish shipping by becoming exactly what his critics had claimed he would.

Looking back in later years at his career as a pirate, Mainwaring portrayed himself as the scourge of the Mediterranean. He treated his listeners to incredible stories of his escapades on the Barbary Coast: how the emperor of Morocco called him “brother” and gave him a castle to protect his fleet of twenty-four galleys where they rode at anchor; how he amassed a vast fortune in gold and silver and used it to ransom English slaves in Tunis and Salé, and compelled all the pirates in Ma’amura—his base on the Atlantic coast of Morocco—to swear they wouldn’t attack any subjects of James I. How he was so feared by European nations that he received offers of pardon from Spain, Savoy, and Tuscany, while Yusuf, the dey of Tunis, swore “that if I would stay with him he would divide his estate equally with me, and never urge me to turn Turk.”20 How, with all his cannon shot depleted, he fought off an attack by a superior force by loading his guns with pieces of eight.

There may be traces of truth in some of this, although there is little corroborative evidence for most of it. But Mainwaring was a famous pirate—famous enough for the naval officer Sir William Monson to impersonate him during an operation in the west of Ireland to root out sympathizers and suppliers of pirates. His base in 1613, Ma’amura, lay at the mouth of the Sebou River, about 150 miles south of the Straits, and had enjoyed something of a vogue as a popular pirate stronghold in the early 1600s, a “place of rendezvous” for a reported forty ships and 2,000 men.21 But a Spanish force under Don Pedro de Toledo had managed to close off the harbor in 1611 by sinking eight ships in the entrance; and although the Moors soon cleared away the wrecks, crews were starting to drift away to the safer havens of Algiers and Livorno.

Not Mainwaring. For more than a year he used Ma’amura as a base from which to raid Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch shipping. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he was particularly careful not to take vessels or goods belonging to his own countrymen, later telling King James that “I have abstained from doing hurt to any of your Majesty’s subjects, where by it I might have enriched myself more than £100,000.”22 Then in the late spring of 1614 he headed north, intending to prey on the fishing fleets off the Newfoundland Banks. It was a timely decision: in August an armada of ninety-nine ships and several thousand men under the command of Don Luis Fajardo de Córdoba stormed Ma’amura’s defenses and occupied the town, declaring it to be Spanish territory.

Mainwaring arrived in Newfoundland “with divers other captains” on June 4, 1614. His fleet of six ships was quickly augmented by two prizes, “one whereof they took at the bank, another upon the main,” according to a list of piratical depredations drawn up by the Newfoundland Company.23He spent three and a half months cruising off Carbonear on the south-east coast of Newfoundland, helping himself to victuals and munitions he found on French and Portuguese ships. He helped himself to men, too, by all accounts: when he left for warmer waters on September 14, he took with him about 400 sailors and ships’ carpenters, “many volunteers, many compelled.”24

The borderline between volunteers and “perforced-men” was often blurred, and the records of the Admiralty Court are full of stories of men who claimed to have been abducted by pirates against their will, or captured at sea and forced to serve aboard pirate ships. A Richard Hayman swore he had only gone aboard Tibault Saxbridge’s ship as it rode at anchor in Cawsand Bay in Devon to see a friend, “but despite his entreaties Saxbridge would not then set him on land again.” Simon Ashdon’s ship had sprung a leak; he had joined Richard Bishop’s company in Tunis because it was the only way he could get back to England. John Baker explained to the court that he had had a dangerous fall from a cliff at Baltimore and “was forced to go aboard Saxbridge’s ship to have the help of his surgeon”; then Saxbridge set sail, taking him to sea against his will. Mainwaring later explained to King James how such things worked:

Having fetched up and commanded a ship, some of the merchants-men would come to me, or to some of my captains and officers, to tell me they were desirous to serve me, but they durst not seem willing, 1est they should lose their wages, which they had contracted for with their merchants; as also that if by any occasion they should come home to their country, or be taken by any other princes, it would be a benefit to them, and no hurt to me, to have them esteemed perforced-men. In which respect I being desirous to have men serve me willingly and cheerfully, would give them a note under my hand to that purpose, and send men aboard to seem to take them away perforce. . . . The inconvenience and mischief whereof is this: that such men knowing themselves to be privileged are more violent, head-strong, and mutinous, than any of the old crew, either to commit any outrage upon their own countrymen, or exercise cruelty upon other, as also the most unwilling men to be reduced home, till they have struck up a hand [i.e., obtained their share of the prizes], and then they apprehend the first occasion they can to get ashore in any [of ] your Majesty’s dominions, where concealing their wealth they offer themselves to the next officers or justices, complaining of the injury they have received in being so long detained by force, and so they are commonly not molested but relieved.25

Unable to return to Ma’amura because of Don Luis Fajardo de Córdoba’s occupation of the city, Mainwaring, like Peter Eston, moved his base of operations to Villefranche. Information about his movements over the next couple of years is sketchy. He spent five months at Tunis, recalling later that Yusuf Dey was “a very just man of his word,” whose firm but fair rule had produced a notably stable and safe society.26 And he was said to have engaged with a squadron of four Spanish men-of-war off the coast of Portugal on Midsummer Day 1615 and to have got the better of them; soon afterward, by his own account, Spain offered him a pension of 20,000 ducats a year if he would serve in their navy.

By then, however, he seems to have resolved to take the king’s pardon, and he arrived off the Donegal coast at the beginning of November to begin negotiations. They were uneventful but protracted, and it wasn’t until June 9, 1616, that “Captain Mainwaring, the sea captain, was pardoned under the great seal of England.”27

Mainwaring’s importance for the history of piracy has less to do with his exploits, real or imagined, than with his writings. His Discourse of the Beginnings, Practices, and Suppression of Pirates, which was begun shortly after his pardon and presented to James I in 1618 “as some oblation for my offences,” is an elegant forty-eight-page manuscript, strewn with learned Latin phrases and illuminated in gold. It earned a knighthood for the born-again Mainwaring, who described himself in the dedicatory preface as “your Majesty’s new creature.” Also known as the Treatise of Piracy, it was transcribed and circulated (at least nine copies still survive) and became a standard text for those in government trying to understand the threat posed to the economy by the pirates “who now so much infest the seas.”28

The Discourse’s five chapters displayed an impressive combination of intelligent thought, inside knowledge, and sound common sense. Mainwaring began by describing how so many of the king’s subjects turned to piracy and how they managed to keep themselves supplied. Far too many shipowners neglected to mount a watch while they were in harbor, he said, and they left their sails aboard, making it easy for a dozen discontented sailors to steal a small bark. Once in possession of a vessel of their own, they could recruit more crewmen at almost any small fishing village, “by reason that the common sort of seamen are so generally necessitous and discontented.”29 With a strong crew they could overpower one of the coastal vessels which plied their trade off the French coast. With that they could run down and take any small, lightly armed ship. “And so by little and little [they] reinforce themselves, to be able to encounter with a good ship.”30 (This was just the career path that John Ward had taken a decade earlier.) And once they had amassed a little capital in the form of stolen goods or hard cash, Ireland was a popular stopping-off point for supplies and munitions. Irish country people wouldn’t openly sell to the captain of a pirate ship for fear of the consequences, but they would let him know where he might find anything he needed. He was expected to “steal” the goods with a show of force, and then leave goods or money worth considerably more than the items’ market value in a mutually agreed spot.

With a touching lack of irony, Mainwaring chided the king for his policy of offering pardons, which meant that now every English pirate was confident of being able to come in and negotiate terms as and when it suited them. And the ordinary sort of pirate didn’t worry much about the consequences of being taken and brought to trial, since “none but the captain, master, and it may be some few of the principal of the company shall be put to death.”31 The rest might be condemned to “a little lazy imprisonment,” but it wouldn’t be any worse than conditions aboard ship. Rather than hanging entire crews, however, he proposed putting them to work as galley slaves, or dredging silted-up harbors, or repairing the coastal forts which were, he pointed out disapprovingly, “miserably ruined and decayed.”32

These reflections took up the first two chapters of the Discourse. In the third, the reformado offered a short account of how pirates typically went about catching their prey. A little before dawn, he wrote, a ship would take in all its sails so that it lay still in the water. As the sun came up, the watch could make out what else was in sight and the pirate ship would set sail to intercept its chosen victim. To anyone watching from the other vessel, she hadn’t altered course to chase them; it would seem as though she was just another merchantman bound on the same course as themselves. She would allay suspicion by showing the appropriate colors: if she was a Flemish flyboat, for example, she flew a Flemish flag. “In chase,” said Mainwaring, “they seldom use any ordnance, but desire as soon as they can, to come a board and board [i.e., alongside], by which course he shall more dishearten the merchant and spare his own men.”33

Rather disappointingly, he didn’t have much more to say about tactics, apart from a couple of intriguing asides. If a pirate wanted to lull a pursuer into a false sense of security, she heaved out all the sail she could make and hung out drags to slow her down, so that the other ship would think she was running scared and make haste to overhaul her. (Sir Francis Drake used the same trick against the Spanish in the Pacific.) And when pirates sailed as a fleet, all vessels kept their tops manned constantly and used a system of “signs”—flags? a precursor of semaphore?—to communicate with each other.

Eighteen of the Discourse’s forty-eight pages are taken up with a remarkable gazetteer. From Flores in the Azores, where pirates “may water, wood, and ballast, and the inhabitants will not offer to molest them,” to Tripoli, where they “shall be entertained and refreshed, and ride in command [i.e., protected by a fort]; but these are dangerous people,” Mainwaring gave terse but telling descriptions of harbors and havens where pirates could trade or shelter or resupply in safety. He confined himself to “the most important and the most used,” and he didn’t include individual bays and coves in Ireland, since pirates could find “all the commodities and conveniences that all other places do afford them” at virtually any remote coastal settlement in the country. “They have also good store of English, Scottish and Irish wenches,” he added. “And these are strong attractors.”34

Even so, he managed to produce a list of over forty places where pirates could expect to find sanctuary of sorts and where, therefore, the king’s ships could expect to find pirates if they cared to look. Some were remote islands out in the Atlantic, or quiet coves on the shores of Spain or Portugal, where it was possible to rest for a day or two, take in water, and perform running repairs to a ship. On the Desertas Islands, south-east of Madeira, for example, pirates can “water and perchance get some beeves [oxen]”; the tiny Lobos Island in the Canaries offered “goats but nothing else.”35

But at somewhere like Santa Cruz on the Atlantic coast (modern-day Agadir, in Morocco), pirates could resupply and ride safe at anchor in the shadow of the fort, “so that there they stay long and use much.”36 Tetouan, just inside the Straits, was a good place to dispose of stolen goods and to buy powder and munitions, which were brought in for trade by English and Flemish merchants. “The people are very just and trusty.”37

Pirates based at Tunis tended to hunt off Sardinia or the southern coast of Sicily, or farther east among the Greek islands. In the spring, those who operated out of Algiers or the Moroccan ports might lurk off the southwest coast of Spain, waiting just outside the Straits “for Indies men outward bound.”38 Others lay off Portugal on the lookout for Baltic merchantmen carrying copper, linen, and victuals on their way to supply the Spanish fleet; they were also well placed to meet with the ships of the annual Spanish Brazil fleet, “which commonly are going and coming all the year long.”39From May to August “the Spanish and Flemish men of war do more diligently keep the seas than in winter weather,” and to avoid their patrols, pirates moved north to raid the fishing fleets on the Newfoundland Banks, before returning to patrol the Atlantic between the Azores and Portugal at a latitude of 37½° to 38½°, “at which height the Indies men come in.”40

Of the dozen or so havens on the Barbary Coast, Mainwaring singled out Algiers and Tunis for special mention. In both, he told the king, pirates “may be fitted with all manner of provisions and . . . ride safely from the Christian forces.”41 But he distinguished unwittingly between their brand of structured, state-sanctioned warfare—which would have been called privateering if it had been conducted by a Christian state—and the haphazard, opportunistic way in which the coastal settlements of Morocco dealt with Europeans. Pirates needed to obtain passes from the Tunisian authorities, he said, before trading with Porto Farino, Sousse, or any of the other harbors along that coast; and it wasn’t a good idea to call in at Rhodes or Cyprus without letters of safe-conduct from Tunis or Algiers. At Bona and Bougie (present-day Annaba and Béjaïa), they “may be very well refreshed with victual, water, and bread, and also sell goods well, and these are good roads for pirates, but they dare not trade with any unless they bring with them the letters of Algiers.”42 He also misrepresented—or perhaps misinterpreted—the symbiotic relationship that existed at Algiers between Janissaries and Christian or renegade pirates, characterizing it as a kind of treachery on the part of the perfidious Turk. At Algiers, English pirates were liable to have their ships “betrayed from them and manned out by the Turks, after the proportion of 150 Turks to 20 English.”43

In the final section of the Discourse, Mainwaring turned his attention to the question of how to suppress piracy. Some of what he had to suggest was sound common sense: instituting regular coastal patrols in the west of Ireland; having unemployed sailors bound over to keep the peace; training up naval officers and commissioning armed merchantmen. But his big idea was less happy. “Your Highness must put on a constant immutable resolution never to grant any pardon, and for those that are or may be taken, to put them all to death, or make slaves of them . . . for questionless, as fear of punishment makes men doubtful to offend, so the hope of being pardoned makes them the apter to err.”44

The spectacle of Mainwaring trying to pull up the ladder behind him after making his own successful escape is not attractive. More to the point, he was plain wrong. After a patchy start, James I’s policy of pardoning pirates began to yield results, as crews followed Mainwaring’s example and came in. That didn’t mean that piracy per se was on the decrease, though—far from it. By the end of James I’s reign, in 1625, the nomadic community of English pirates who had spent their lives drifting between the west of England, Ireland, Barbary, and the Newfoundland Banks—the Bishops and the Estons and the Mainwarings—were being superseded by more professional sea-rovers based in Algiers or Tunis, men who regularly sailed out beyond the Straits with large companies of Janissaries in search of prizes, goods, and slaves.

Contemporaries were convinced of the reason for this. It was because Europeans had betrayed Christendom by teaching the Turks and the Moors how to navigate the oceans in sailing ships. Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame claimed that Ward and Danseker and Bishop and Eston “were the first that taught the Moors to be men of war”;45 and Londoners who went to see A Christian Turn’d Turk gasped as Robert Daborn’s stage-Ward told the stage-Turks that it was him “that hath shown you the way to conquer Europe, [who] did first impart what your forefathers knew not, the seaman’s art.”46 The English sailor Sir William Monson even thought he knew exactly when it happened. In a 1617 report on how to combat the threat from Algerian pirates, he told the Privy Council, “It is not above twelve years since the English taught them the art of navigation in ships.”47

The traditional Mediterranean galley was faster and more maneuverable than a sailing ship. With a clean bottom and a fresh crew, a heavy war-galley, with twenty-four oars to a side and three men to each oar, could cover 4,700 yards in twenty minutes, a speed of seven nautical miles per hour.48Its speed and direction didn’t depend on the prevailing wind, or lack thereof, and its shallow draft meant it could come close in to shore, allowing its crew to escape from pursuers or launch amphibious assaults, as the occasion demanded.

The galley was well suited to the kind of shock tactics in which the Mediterranean corsair excelled. Ordnance was light and mounted on the bow. It might typically consist of a heavy, centrally mounted gun firing a fifty-two-pound shot, flanked by a pair of twelve-pounders and a pair of six-pounders. Small wooden fighting platforms over the guns gave a degree of cover to the gunners and were themselves mounted with breech-loading swivel guns (that is, light guns fixed on swivels to allow them to be turned horizontally in any direction). The slender prow was reinforced with a raised iron beak. In an attack, a pirate galley would close at alarming speed on its prey, presenting a minimal target to its guns and ramming hard on impact into the planking of its hull. The prow stayed fast and acted as a boarding plank; after the Janissaries had fired at point-blank range into the rigging and raked the decks with their swivel guns, they would storm the enemy vessel, which was powerless to free itself from the unrelenting iron spur.


The Mediterranean galley, a formidable fighting machine.

But the features that made the galley so formidable were also the reasons for its decline as a fighting ship. A twelve-bank raiding galley—a galley with twelve oars on each side—required a rowing gang of seventy-two (twenty-four oars, with three men to each oar). It would also carry perhaps ten spare oarsmen. This was small compared with a typical heavy war-galley, which was powered by twenty-four banks of oars and a standard rowing gang of 164 slaves. The oarsmen needed food and water, not only as a matter of common humanity but because a healthy rowing gang was an efficient rowing gang; and there was hardly any storage on a galley, around ninety-five percent of the space being taken up by the oarsmen’s benches. It has been calculated that a voyage by a war galley with 144 oarsmen and forty soldiers and officers would require 1,800 gallons of water, limiting its cruising period to ten days at the most before it was forced to take on more water. Even a lighter galley of the kind favored by corsairs needed to take on water at fourteen-day intervals.49

Within the Straits, an undefended beach wasn’t too hard to find, and it was easy to put a small foraging party ashore, even on a hostile coast. The wilder northern waters of the Atlantic were a different matter. While the clear, nontidal waters of the Mediterranean allowed a corsair captain to moor relatively close to shore without much difficulty, the shifting tides, contrary winds, and vicious currents of the seas around the coasts of northern Spain, France, England, and the Low Countries required local knowledge and navigational skills beyond the reach of the Mediterranean galley captain.

The European renegades of the early 1600s may well have played their part in introducing “the seaman’s art” into Barbary, although the Moriscos of Spain who settled in North Africa after their expulsion also contributed their knowledge and experience as, no doubt, did the English and Dutch traders who made a living by supplying munitions and buying stolen goods all the way along the coast from Safi to Tunis. But while contemporaries might debate whether Ward or Danseker was responsible for empowering the Turk, no one was in doubt that Barbary had adopted European sail technology, or that it made the corsairs of Algiers and Tunis more formidable as a result.

Mariners’ accounts of attacks reflect the change. The Three Half Moons, an English merchant ship captured near the Straits in the 1560s, fell victim to “eight galleys of the Turks.”50 In 1582 the Mary Marten was attacked and sunk by two galleys off Cabo de Gata on the Spanish coast. Forty years later the George Bonaventure and the Nicholas were both overtaken and boarded off Gibraltar by Algerian pirates in five sailing ships (two of which were recently captured merchantmen). From the 1620s onward it was rare indeed to find Barbary Coast pirates using galleys in the western Mediterranean or outside the Straits.

They had a cheap and unending supply of ships, of course, in the prizes they took. “You must understand,” wrote Sir William Monson in 1636, “that all the Turkish pirate ships are vessels of Christians, taken from them by violence, which when the Turks are possessed of they use all art and industry to make better sailers than all other ships.”51 They would convert a merchant ship by stripping away as much of the superstructure as possible and removing many of the timber supports which strengthened the hull. “They never regard the strength of their ships more than for one voyage,” said Monson, “for they want not continual prizes which they take of Christians and thus use.”52 No weight was carried overhead or in the hold except for food, water, and munitions, and even heavy armament was kept to a minimum. Speed was the object—speed in escaping unwelcome attention, and speed in pursuit. And they were quick learners. Within a decade or so the English were forced to acknowledge that no European ship was equal to the modified vessels of the Turks of Barbary. That made the merchants and mariners of Europe very afraid indeed.

The Turkish pirates domineer in the Mediterranean Sea,” reported the English courtier George Carew in June 1617. “Our merchants are daily taken by them, in so much as, if the Christian princes do not endeavor their extirpation, the trade into the Levant will be utterly destroyed.”53

Carew’s sense of apprehension was shared in courts and council chambers all over Europe. In Madrid, Sir Francis Cottington complained to Philip III that Spain wasn’t doing enough to control piracy in its waters, while the Spanish were thrown into panic by the exploits of two pirate fleets that were raiding along the coast all the way from Málaga to Seville. “I have never known any thing to have wrought a greater sadness and distraction at court,” Cottington reported.54 The Dutch threatened the pashas of Algiers and Tunis that if they didn’t curb their subjects’ activities, the States General “would try another way to free themselves from the constant losses which they suffer.”55 James I’s secretary of state, Sir Ralph Winwood, echoed Carew’s concerns over the impact of piracy on the economy, warning that Barbary pirates “will shortly grow so insolent and presumptuous that they will adventure to possess our seas, and to assail in our ports.”56

As he wrote, there were reports that a band of renegades operating out of Salé, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, had been taken by poacher-turned-gamekeeper Henry Mainwaring in the Thames at Leigh-on-Sea, only thirty miles from central London. On the south coast, the citizens of Swanage demanded that their harbor be fortified, “the Turks being grown exceedingly audacious.” In Cornwall, there were objections to setting up a light on the Lizard peninsula, the most southerly point in England, since it would act as a guide for pirates.57

James I hated piracy. There is a memorable description of him at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire back in 1603, listening to a personal complaint from the Venetian ambassador about the activities of English pirates. As the tale of woe unfolded, the king began twisting his body, striking his hands together and tapping his feet. Eventually he interrupted the ambassador, standing up and shouting, “By God! I’ll hang the pirates with my own hands!”58

So when members of the Levant Company, the hardest hit of the London trading companies, came to James for help against the pirates of Barbary in the spring of 1617, the knowledge that in spite of years of hanging, haranguing, and pardoning pirates, in spite of cajoling every head of state on the Barbary Coast, in spite of sending stern messages to Istanbul, the self-styled rex pacificus had not been able to solve the problem struck hard at his sense of self-esteem. He decided it was time for direct action. Time, he declared, “to draw our sword against the enemies of God and man. That is, the pirates.”59

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