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Mar 1, 2016

“Their Voyage to Hell:” Piracy, Thick and Thin

The slaver William Snelgrave is captured by pirates, barely escaping death. His account of the ordeal describes the ideology and internal politics of the pirates.

Book III of William Snelgrave’s account of slave-trading life of the coast of West Africa is undoubtedly the most enjoyable section of his book to read. For this is the section in which our human-trafficking narrator is captured and abused by pirates.  Though they spare his life, it is only upon the word of his former sailors who attested to his having treated them well. 

A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade  (1734)

By William Snelgrave

BOOK III.  Containing an Account of the Author’s being taken by Pirates, on the North part of the Coast of Guinea, in the Bird Galley of London, belonging to the late Humphrey Morrice Esq; who was sole Owner of the said Ship.  Interspersed with several Instances of the Author’s many Deliverances, and narrow Escapes from Death, during the time he was detain’d Prisoner by the Pirates.

[Off the West African Coast.]

As it was dark, I could not yet see the Boat, but heard the noise of the rowing very plain:  Whereupon I ordered the second Mate to hail the Boat, to which the People in it answered, “They belonged to the Two Friends, Captain Eliot of Barbadoes.”  At this, one of the Officers who stood by me, said, “He knew the Captain very well, and that he commanded a Vessel of that name.”  I replied, “It might be so; but I would not trust any Boat in such a place;” and ordered him to hasten the first Mate, with the People and Arms upon Deck, as I had just before ordered.  By this time our Lanthorns and Candles were brought up, and I ordered the Boat to be hailed again:  To which the People in it answered, “They were from America:”  And at the same time fired a volley of small Shot at the Ship, tho’ they were then above Pistol shot from us; which showed the Boldness of these Villains:  For there was in the Boat only twelve of them, as I understood afterwards, who knew nothing of the Strength of our Ship; which was indeed considerable, we having 16 Guns, and 45 Men on board.  But as they told me after we were taken, “They judged we were a small Vessel of little force.  Moreover, they depended on the same good fortune as in the other Ships they had taken; having met with no resistance:  For the People were generally glad of an opportunity of entering with them:”  Which last was but too true.

When they first began to fire, I called aloud to the first Mate, to fire at the Boat out of the Steerage Port-holes; which not being done, and the people I had ordered upon Deck with small Arms not appearing, I was extremely surprised; and the more, when an Officer came and told me, “The People would not take Arms.”  I went thereupon down into the Steerage, where I saw a great many of them looking at one another.  Little thinking that my first Mate had prevented them from taking Arms, I asked them with some Roughness, “Why they had not obeyed my Orders?”  Calling upon some brisk Fellows by name, that had gone a former Voyage with me, to defend the Ship; saying, “It would be the greatest Reproach in the World to us all, if we should be taken by a Boat.”  Some of them replied, “They would have taken Arms, but the Chest they were kept in could not be found.”  The reason of which will be related hereafter.

By this time the Boat was along the Ship’s Side, and there being no body to oppose them, the Pirates immediately boarded us; and coming on the Quarter-deck, fired their Pieces several times down into the Steerage, and shot a Sailor in the Reins, of which Wound he died afterwards.  They likewise threw several Granado-shells, which burst amongst us, so that ‘tis a great wonder several of us were not killed by them, or by their Shot.

At last some of our People bethought themselves to call out for Quarter; which the Pirates granting, the Quarter-master came down into the Steerage, enquiring, “Where the Captain was?”  I told him, “I had been so till now.”  Upon that he asked me, “How I durst order my People to fire at their Boat out of the Steerage? Saying, that they had heard me repeat it several times.”  I answered “I thought it my Duty to defend the Ship, if my People would have fought.”  Upon that he presented a Pistol to my Breast, which I had but just time to parry before it went off; so that the Bullet past between my Side and Arm.  The Rogue finding he had not shot me, gave me such a Blow on the Head as stunned me; so that I fell upon my Knees; but immediately recovering my self, I forthwith jumped out of the Steerage upon the Quarter-deck, where the Pirate Boatswain was.

He was a bloody Villain, having a few days before killed a poor Sailor, because he did not do something so soon as he had ordered him.  This cruel Monster was asking some of my People, “Where their Captain was.”  So at my coming upon Deck, one of them, pointing to me, said, “There he is…”  Whereupon lifting up his broad Sword, he swore, “No Quarter should be given to any Captain that offered to defend his Ship,” aiming at the same time a full stroke at my Head.  To avoid it I stooped so low, that the Quarter-deck Rail received the Blow; and was cut in at least an inch deep:  Which happily saved my Head from being cleft asunder:  And the Sword breaking at the same time, with the force of the Blow on the Rail, it prevented his cutting me to pieces.

By good Fortune his Pistols, that hung at his Girdle, were all discharged; otherwise he would doubtless have shot me.  But he took one of them, and with the But-end endeavoured to beat out my Brains, which some of my People that were then on the Quarter-deck observing, cried out aloud, “For God’s sake don’t kill our Captain, for we never were with a better Man.”  This turned the Rage of him and two other Pirates on my People, and saved my Life: But they cruelly used my poor Men, cutting and beating them unmercifully.  One of them had his Chin almost cut off; and another received such a Wound on his Head, that he fell on the Deck as dead; but afterwards, by the care of our Surgeon he recovered…

Then the Quarter-master took me by the hand, and told me, “My Life was safe provided none of my People complained against me.”  I replied, “I was sure none of them could…”

Then I was ordered to go on the Quarter-deck to their Commander, who saluted me in this manner.  “I am sorry you have met with bad usage after Quarter given, but ‘tis the Fortune of War sometimes.  I expect you will answer truly to all such Questions as I shall ask you:  otherwise you shall be cut to pieces; but if you tell the Truth, and your Men make no Complaints against you, you shall be kindly used; and this shall be the best Voyage you ever made in your Life, as you shall find by what shall be given you.”  I thanked him for his good Intentions, telling him, “I was content to stand on the footing he had proposed to me…”

The most significant component of Snelgrave’s narrative for modern historians and libertarians alike is the ideology of piracy he describes.  Snelgrave wrote of events during what historian Marcus Rediker calls the “Golden Age of Piracy” (1710s-1720s), in which pirates generally considered themselves revolutionaries warring against constituted authority the world over.  Rediker has described piracy in the Golden Age as part of a “dialectic of terror,” in which mercantile and imperial powers exploited and brutalized sailors in their service and sailors responded by ‘turning pirate,’ exploiting and murdering the exploiters and murderers.  Pirates in the Golden Age rejected their socio-political status in the order of nation-states, empires, and massively-growing mercantile interests.  They revolted against the social order, remade their socio-political world at sea, and declared permanent war against their oppressors.  The empires responded by prosecuting their own ruthless wars against pirate fleets, exterminating the last significant crews in the Atlantic around the same time William Snelgrave published his New Account

As, in this whole Affair, I greatly experienced the Providence of Almighty God, in his Goodness delivering me from the hands of these Villains, and from many Dangers; so the same good Providence gave me such a presence of Mind, that when I believe I was upon the point of being killed, such Terrors did not arise, as I had formerly experienced, when in danger of Shipwrack; and tho’ I fare very hard, and endured great Fatigues during the time I was there Prisoner; yet praised be God, I enjoyed my Health:  Submitting with that Resignation to the Will of the Almighty, as a Man ought to do in such severe Misfortunes…

I come now to relate, How Mr. Simon Jones, my first Mate, and ten of my Men entred with the Pirates.  The Morning after we were taken, he came to me, and said, “His Circumstances were bad at home:  Moreover, he had a Wife whom he could not love; and for these Reasons he had entred with the Pirates, and signed their Articles.”  I was greatly surprised at this Declaration, and told him, “I was very sorry to hear it, for I believ’d he would repent when too late; and as he had taken this Resolution rashly, without communicating it to me, all I could say now would be to no Purpose; neither would it be proper for me, for the future, to have any Discourse with him in private.”  I saw this poor Man afterwards despised by his Brethren in Iniquity; and have since been informed, he died a few Months after they left the River Sieraleon.  However, I must do him the Justice to own, He never shewed any Disrespect to me; and the ten People he persuaded to enter with him, remained very civil to me, and of their own accord, always manned the side for me, whenever I went on board the Ship they belonged to.

Several of these unhappy People soon after repented, and desired me to intercede for them, that they might be cleared again; for they durst not themselves mention it to the Quarter-master, it being death by their Articles:  But it was too nice a matter for me to deal in; and therefore I refused them.

Some days after this, one of these poor Men…discovered things to me, of which I only had a suspicion before.  After cursing Mr. Jones for persuading him to enter with the Pirates, he said to me, “That several times in the Night-watch, before we came to Sieraleon, he had heard him say, That he hoped we should meet with Pirates when we came to that River…”  Then I asked them the Reason why the Chest of Arms was put out of the place where it usually stood at the Steerage; and where it was hid in the time we were taken?  They answered…”That when I called to the People in the Steerage to fire on the Pirate-boat, supposing Mr. Jones had delivered them Arms according to my Order, many of the Men would have broken the Chest open, but he prevented them, by declaring, This was an opportunity he had wished for; and that if they fired a Musquet, they would be all cut to pieces.  And they further assured me, that to induce them to enter with the Pirates, he had declared to them, That I had promised him to enter my self.  Putting all this together, with what several of the Pirates told me afterwards, namely, That he had been the chief occasion of their keeping my Ship, it was a wonder that I escaped so well, having such a base Wretch for my principal Officer…

[The pirate captain invites Snelgrave to accompany him on a tour of the conquered ship.]

Soon after we were on board, we all went into the great Cabin, where we found nothing but Destruction…Two large Chests that had Books in them were empty; and I was afterwards informed, they had been all thrown overboard; for one of the Pirates, upon opening them, swore, “There was Jaw-work enough (as he called it) to serve a Nation, and proposed they might be cast into the Sea; for he feared, there might be some Books amongst them, that might breed Mischief enough; and prevent some of their Comrades from going on in their Voyage to Hell, whither they were all bound.”  Upon which the Books were all flung out of the Cabin-windows into the River…

They…made such Waste and Destruction, that I am sure a numerous set of such Villains would in a short time, have ruined a great City.  They hoisted upon Deck a great many half Hogsheads of Claret, and French Brandy; knock’d their Heads out, and dipp’d Canns and Bowls into them to drink out of:  And in their Wantonness threw full Buckets of each sort upon one another…As to bottled Liquor of many sorts, they made such havock of it, that in a few days they had not one Bottle left…

As to Eatables, such as Cheese, Butter, Sugar, and many other things, they were as soon gone.  For the Pirates being all in a drunken Fit, which held as long as the Liquor lasted, no care was taken by any one to prevent this Destruction:  Which they repented of when too late…

[A pirate attempts to steal Snelgrave’s spare clothes, to which he objects.]

I had hardly done speaking, when he lifted up his broad Sword, and gave me a Blow on the Shoulder with the flat side of it; whispering at the same time these Words in my Ear, “I give you this Caution, never to dispute the Will of a Pirate:  For, suppose I had cleft your Scull asunder for your Impudence…assure your self my Friends would have brought me off on such an Occasion.”  I gave him thanks for his Admonition, and soon after he put on the Clothes, which in less than half an hour after, I saw him take off and throw overboard.  For some of the Pirates seeing him dress’d in that manner, had thrown several Buckets of Claret upon him…

The next day, which was the third since my being taken, Le Bouse’s Crew were permitted to come on board the Prize:  Where they finished what was left of Liquors and Necessaries; acting in the same destructive manner as their vile Brethren in Iniquity had done before…

The Quarter-master [a few days later fell] into a Delirium, [and] died before morning in terrible Agonies; cursing his Maker in so shocking a manner, that it made a great Impression on several new entered Men:  and they afterwards came privately to me, begging, “that I would advise them how to get off from so vile a Course of Life, which led them into Destruction both of Body and Soul…I declined it; Exhorting them in general, Not to be guilty of Murder, or any other Cruelty to those they should take.  For if ever they should, by a general consent, resolve to embrace the King’s Pardon [which rewarded those who assisted in capturing or killing pirates], it would be a great Advantage to them, to have the unfortunate People they had taken give them a good Character in that respect…”

From thence I took occasion to observe to them, “That if they thought fit to embrace his Majesty’s most gracious Pardon, there was not only time enough for them to return to the West Indies, (there being still three Months to come of the time limited in the Proclamation) but now that War was declared against Spain, they would have an opportunity of inriching themselves in a legal way, by going a privateering, which many of them had privately done.”  This seemed to be relished by many:  but several old Buccaneers, who had been guilty of Murder and other barbarous Crimes, being no ways inclined to it, they used the King’s Proclamation with great contempt, and tore it in pieces…

[One day during his period of capture, pirates stole Snelgrave’s embroidered coat.]

They were going on Shore amongst the Negroe-Ladies…[and as the pirate’s new] Coat was Scarlet embroidered with Silver, they believed he would have the preference of them, (whose Coats were not so showy) in the opinion of their Mistresses.  This making him easy, they all went on Shore together.

It is a Rule amongst the Pirates, not to allow Women to be on board their Ships, when in the Harbour.  And if they should take a Prize at Sea, that has any Women on board, no one dares, on pain of death, to force them against their Inclinations.  This being a good political Rule to prevent disturbances amongst them, it is strictly observed.  So now being in a Harbour, they went on Shore to the Negroe-women, who were very fond of their Company, for the sake of the great Presents they gave them.  Nay, some white Men that lived there, did not scruple to lend their black Wives to the Pirates, purely on account of the great Rewards they gave…

Snelgrave’s captors were clearly divided.  First, there were the new recruits—young men either recently terrified into joining the crew or sadly disappointed with the results of their voluntarily joining.  Second, there were the grizzled, veteran pirates—older men literally cast out of all polite society, denied all protections from “lawful” authorities.  The two distinct factions of pirates belies distinct piratical ideologies; the first based in the “thin” concerns of daily life for poor young men, the second based in “thick” declarations of war on God himself.  While the young pirates do not yet fully recognize the implications of life as outlaws in a world of powerful nation-states and empires, the veterans embraced their villainy and steered a course for Hell.

[One evening, a fire breaks out in one portion of one of the pirate ships.]

Whilst I stood musing with my self on the Quarter-deck, I heard a loud shout upon the Main-deck, with a Huzza, “For a brave blast to go to Hell with,” which was repeated several times.  This not only much surprised me, but also many of the new entered Pirates; who were struck with a Pannick Fright, believing the Ship was just blowing up…I heard these poor wretches say, in a lamentable Voice, one to another; “Oh! That we could be so foolish as to enter into this vile course of Life!  The Ship will be immediately blow up, and we shall suffer for our Villainies in Hell Fire.”  So that when the old harden’d Rogues on the Main-deck, wish’d for a blast to go to Hell with, the other poor wretches were at the same time under the greatest Consternation at the thoughts of it…

Two days after this, a small Vessel came into the River, and was taken by them:  It was called the Dispatch Captain Wilson, belonging to the Royal African Company.  Mr. Simon Jones, formerly my first Mate, who had entered with the Pirates…told them, on this occasion, “That he had once commanded a Ship, which was hired and freighted by the African Company; and that he had been very unjustly used by them; so he desired the Dispatch might be burned, that he might be revenged of them.”  This being immediately consented to, and forthwith ordered to be executed, one John Stubbs, a witty brisk fellow, stood up, and desired to be heart first; saying, “Pray, Gentlemen, hold a little, and I will prove to you, if this Ship is burnt, you will thereby greatly serve the Company’s Interest.”  This drawing every one’s attention, they bid him go on:  Then he said, “The Vessel has been out these two years on her Voyage, being old and crazy, and almost eaten to pieces by the Worms; besides, her Stores are worth little; and as to her Cargoe, it consists only of a little Redwood and Melegette-pepper; so if she should be burned, the Company will lose little; but the poor People that now belong to her, and have been so long a Voyage, will lose all their Wages, which, I am sure, is three times the Value of the Vessel, and of her trifling Cargoe; so that the Company will be highly obliged to you for destroying her.”  The rest of the Crew being convinced by these Reasons, the Vessel was spared, and delivered again to Captain Wilson and his People, who afterwards came safe to England in it…

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

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