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essays

1737

From Pirate to Tyrant: John Plantain, King of Madagascar

“Plantain was resolved that he would now make himself King of Madagascar, and govern there with absolute Power and Authority.”

Editor’s Introduction:

Clement Downing served on a variety of ships in the Indian Ocean as an officer in the British Navy.  During his ship’s efforts to counter piracy throughout the ocean basin, Downing visited a small island off the coast of Madagascar, St. Mary’s, and a particularly fascinating pirate settlement on the mainland in a place called Ranter-Bay.  Landing in Ranter-Bay, Downing and his men encountered former pirates with most unusual stories and titles.  In fact, their leader, one John Plantain of Chocolate-Hole, Jamaica, styled himself “King of Ranter-Bay” and ruled as de facto monarch of all Madagascar.  From his “castle” in the bayside cliffs, Plantain and his hundreds of pirate followers drawn from the land and seas alike conquered and subjugated rival kings until the entire island paid tribute to the pirate overlords. 

Plantain was born in Jamaica near the turn of the seventeenth-century, born to parents of means enough to send him to school.  Formal education did not agree with Plantain’s constitution, and at thirteen he joined an English privateering vessel, sailed against the Spanish for some time, and eventually (and eagerly) turned pirate under the pernicious influence of Rhode Islanders.  Plantain and his fellow pirates sailing under Captain Edward England eventually worked their way to Madagascar, where they dissolved their crews, settled amongst the indigenous inhabitants, intermarried, and creolized life and politics in the southwestern Indian Ocean. With a mix of personal ambition, lustful passion for rapine and conquest, and greed to accumulate money and power in whatever ways were available to him, Plantain invested his earnings from a career of piracy (he was estimated the most wealthy of his associates) in the purchase of slaves in Madagascar.  He ordered his slaves to construct a “castle,” to which he added guns with every further conquest of ships and territory.  Plantain projected strong, well-armed, battle-tested pirate-soldiers throughout the region, forcing all rivals to bend to his will. 

In my view, the bizarre and bloody story of John Plantain, King of Ranter-Bay, illustrates that an almost limitless desire for power can possess the hearts of men great and small alike.  It challenges us to consider who among us would turn down the opportunity to play Master to a small continent, let alone petty tyrant around the office or over one’s family.  Would we respect the lives and liberties of those weaker than ourselves, or would we, too, given the right opportunities, proclaim ourselves Kings of our very own private fiefdoms?  In the end, Plantain’s violence and exploitation provoked rebellion among his serfs.  He escaped Madagascar with his life and legend intact, but was King of Ranter-Bay no more.

 

Anthony Comegna

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

 

A Compendious History of the Indian Wars; with an Account of the Rise, Progress, Strength, and Forces of Angria the Pyrate. London:  T. Cooper.  1737.

By Clement Downing

News of the Indian Seas being incumbered with Pyrates of our Nation, so far alarmed the Court of Directors, as to petition the Crown to grant a Squadron of Men of War to be sent thither to suppress them, who for near two Years continued to infest those Parts…They made the Island of Madagascar their Rendezvous, where they committed all manner of Enormities, and every one did as his own vicious Heart directed him…

The History of John Plantain, Called King of Ranter-Bay, &c.

John Plantain was born in Chocolate-Hole, on the Island of Jamaica, of English Parents, who took care to bestow on him the best Education, they themselves were possess’d of; which was to curse, swear, and blaspheme, from the time of his first learning to speak.  This is generally the chief Education bestowed on the Children of the common People in those Parts.  He was sent to School to learn to read, which he once could do tolerably well; but he quickly forgot the same, for want of practicing it.  The Account he gave of his first falling into that wicked and irregular Course of Life, was, That after he was about thirteen Years of Age, he went as Master’s Servant on board a small Sloop belonging to Spanish-Town, on the Island of Jamaica, and they went out a privateering and to cut Logwood in the Bay of Campeacy; where they generally used to maroon the Spaniards, and the Spaniards used to maroon them, as the one or t’other happened to be strongest.  He followed this Course of Life till he was near 20 Years of Age, when he came to Rhode-Island; there he fell into company with several Men who belonged to a Pyrate Sloop.  These try’d to persuade him, with several others, to go with them; shewing great Sums of Gold, and treating him and others in a profuse and expensive Manner.  His own wicked Inclinations soon led him to accept the Offer, without much Hesitation…

From Rhode-Island they shaped their Course for the Coast of Guinea, and in their way took three Ships…They pretended to give Liberty to those Ships Crews either to go or stay with them…Now they had got a Ship of near 300 Tuns, which mounted 30 Guns, well mann’d and well stored with Provisions.  They usually are at no certain Allowance amongst themselves, till they are in a Likelihood of being short of Provision, but every Man is allowed to eat what he pleases.  Then they put all under the care of their Quarter-master, who discharges all things with an Equality to them all, every Man and Boy faring alike; and even their Captain, or any other Officer, is allowed no more than another Man; nay, the Captain cannot keep his own Cabbin to himself, for their Bulk heads are all down, and every Man stands to his Quarters, where they lie and mess, tho’ they take the liberty of ranging all over the Ships…

Plantain and his Companions were daily increasing their Store…

They daily now increased their number, and were not for keeping so many Ships, imagining they should soon have a Squadron of Men of War after them, which they did not care to have any Correspondence with.  Now Capt. England proposed a new Voyage to them, which might be the making of them all very rich; and as they had got such good Ships under their Command, they were resolved to make the best of their present Situation…They had now six or seven Ships with them, of which account it was resolved, that England and Roberts should separate, for fear of a Civil War amongst themselves.  England was to take the Fancy, the Snow and the Ship they called the Victory, and go away for the East-Indies; and Roberts and the rest were to continue and range about those Seas, as they thought fit…

Capt. England took to the Eastern Seas, and came away for St. Augustine’s Bay, on the Island of Madagascar, and his People being very sickly, the Doctor had them sent on shore for the Recovery of their Healths; but several died…[After several more trips throughout the region for provisions,] They then made the best of their way for Madagascar, and went to St. Mary’s Island, where none of their Fraternity had been for many Years, and were very joyfully received by the King.  This Island joins to the Continent of Madagascar, and is generally a Place of Residence for Pyrates.  Here they made a sad Massacre of the poor Moors Men, they had taken in the Ship above-mentioned, and abused their Women in a very vile manner.  Some say, that Capt. England kept one or two of the Moors Women for his own Use, there being some of Distinction amongst them, whose Fathers were in high Posts under the Great Mogul…

Plantain, James Adair, and Hans Burgen, the Dane, had fortified themselves very strongly at Ranter-Bay; and taken possession of a large Tract of Country.  Plantain having the most Money of them all, called himself King of Ranter-Bay, and the Natives commonly sing Songs in praise of Plantain.  He brought great Numbers of the Inhabitants to be subject to him, and seem’d to govern them arbitrarily; tho’ he paid his Soldiers very much to their Satisfaction.  He would frequently send Parties of Men into other Dominions, and seize the Inhabitants Cattle.  He took upon him to make War, and to extort Tribute from several of the petty Kings and his Neighbours, and to increase his own Dominions.

James Adair’s Birth and Education was something superior to that of Plantain; for he was learnt to write as well as read; and had been brought up in the Town of Leith, by a sober and industrious Father and Mother.  Not behaving to the Satisfaction of his Parents, he went for London, and from thence, for the West-Indies; but was taken by the Pyrates, and after that entered voluntarily with them.  He was a young Man of a very hard Countenance, but something inclined to Good-Nature.  When we bartered with the Pyrates at Ranter-Bay for Provisions, they frequently shewed the Wickedness of their Dispositions, by quarelling and fighting with each other upon the most trifling Occasions.  It was their Custom never to go abroad, except armed with Pistols or a naked Sword in their Hand, to be in Readiness to defend themselves or to attack others.

Hans Burgen, the Dane, was born at Copenhagen, and had been brought up a Cooper; but coming to London, he entered himself with Capt. Creed for Guinea; the Ship being taken by the Pyrates, he agreed to go with them, and became a Comerade to King Plantain.  This Plantain’s House was built in as commodious a manner as the Nature of the Place would admit; and for his further State and Recreation, he took a great many Wives and Servants, whom he kept in great Subjection; and after the English manner, called them Moll, Kate, Sue or Pegg.  These Women were dressed in the richest Silks, and some of them had Diamond Necklaces.  He frequently came over from his own Territories to St. Mary’s Island, and there began to repair several Parts of Capt. Avery’s Fortifications.

The King of Massaleage had with him a very beautiful Grand-daughter, said to be the Daughter of an English Man, who commanded a Bristol Ship, that came there on the Slaving Trade.  This Lady was called Eleonora Brown, so named by her Father; she had been taught to speak a little English; but this is common on the Island of Madagascar…Plantain being desirous of having a Lady of English Extraction, sent to the King of Massaleage (whom the Pyrates called Long Dick, or King Dick) to demand his Grand-daughter for a Wife.  Capt. England, with 60 or 70 Men had dispersed themselves about the Island, and inhabited amongst the Negroes:  but Capt. England being very poor, was obliged to be beholden to several of the white Men for his Subsistence.  Several of these People had join’d King Dick at Massaleage; and persuaded him to refuse Plantain’s Demand, to put himself in a Posture of Defence, and to prohibit all Correspondence between any of his Subjects and those of Plantain.  The chief Weapon used by the Natives is the Lance, which they are very dexterous in throwing.  But Plantain had got some hundreds of Firelocks, which he distributed among his Subjects, and had learned them to exercise in a pretty regular manner.  He also had great Store of Powder and Ball, and a good Magazine provided with all manner of Necessaries.  He was a Man of undaunted Courage…

He sent to tell him, that if he did not comply directly he would bring such an arm’d Force against him, that should drive him out of his Dominions; and if he happened to fall into his Hands, he would certainly send him to Prince William of St. Augustine’s Bay, who would sell him to the first English Ship which put in there…He still refused his Demands, and boldly sent word, that he would not give him the Trouble to come quite to his Home, but that he would certainly meet him half way.  This Answer so much inrag’d Plantain, that he called his chief Officers together to consult what he should do; tho’, let their Advice be what it would, he always followed his own Inclination…

[Plantain attacks and defeats King Dick.]

After this Success, he resolved to be revenged on King Kelly, who had deserted him, and had been join’d by Part of King Dick’s scattered Forces.  To this end, he put himself on his March with his Forces, and came up with Kelly; on which ensued a smart Encounter which lasted a whole Day, each Party being supported by the English, some of whom were on one side, some on the other…but early in the Morning Plantain’s Men attack’d them with fresh Vigour, put them to the Rout, and took many of them Prisoners…Capt. England was now in great Distress, and could well tell how to live; but coming to Prince William of St. Augustine’s Bay, he there met with seven or eight of his old Ship-mates, who supported him for some time, and Prince William resolving to come down to Plaintain’s Assistance, they agreed to accompany him.

Plantain, to make the most he could of his Victory, pursued the Enemy over to the Town of Masseleage; but found a stronger Resistance there, than he imagin’d; for he could not force the Town, the Enemy firing from Houses, &c. which obliged him to retreat.  This so enraged Plantain, that he resolved to cut the two Kings of Masseleage and Mannagore to pieces, or put them to the most cruel Deaths whenever he had them in his Power.

The Europeans who were dispersed about the Island, came soon to hear of these Disturbances; and some of them propos’d to attempt the taking of Plantain’s Castle; but the Place being guarded by Cannon, and a River very near the Place, the Design was laid aside…

[At St. Mary’s Island, a man named Thomas Lloyd] said he was left with six more of their Men on the Island, and had suffered very much by a petty Prince called King Caleb; that had it not been for Prince William, they should have been murder’d…That these Pyrates live in a most wicked profligate manner, and would often ramble from Place to Place, and sometimes have the Misfortune of meeting some of the Natives, who would put them to lingering Deaths, by tying their Arms to a Tree, and putting lighted Matches between their Fingers; that they served two of his Ship-Mates in the like manner, and would stand and laugh at them during the time of their Agonies.  This I think was a just Retaliation to the Pyrates for the inhuman Barbarities they are guilty of…

The Wars between Plantain and these petty Princes were carried on for near two Years; when Plantain having got the better of them, put several of his Enemies to Death in a most barbarous manner…

King Dick, and all that belong’d to him, were taken by Plantain; however the Lady on whose account these Wars were begun, prov’d to be with Child by one of the Englishmen which Plantain had murder’d.  This so much inrag’d him, that he ordered King Dick to be put to the same cruel Death as the English and Dutchmen had suffered…

After Plantain had put King Dick to death, and those Dutch and English who had fought against him, he march’d to the King of Massaleage’s Dominions, and found a great deal of Treasure at King Dick’s House, and great Store of such Sort of Grain as the Island produc’d, which Plantain order’d to be pack’d up, and sent to Ranter-Bay.  As to the Inhabitants, he sent great Numbers of them down to Ranter-Bay, made Slaves of them, and caused them to form several Plantations of Sugar-Canes, and after brought the same to great Perfection.  So soon as he had cleared the Town, he caused his Men to set the same on fire, and then went to King Kelly’s chief Town, and did the same there.  He found but little Subsistance in all these Dominions…For he now tyranniz’d over the Natives all over the Island…bringing the Lady before mention’d with him, which he accounted the chief Trophy of his Victory; who tho’ she was with Child, he accepted of, and was much enamoured with her…

During the Season that Plantain was at his Castle, the time was spent in great Mirth and Entertainments amongst the English that were there under his Protection.  Several new Songs were made in token of his Victories, and at the End of almost every Verse was pronounced, Plantain King of Ranter-Bay; which he seem’d mightily pleas’d with, as well as with Dances perform’d by great Bodies of the Natives.  After he had destroy’d King Dick, and King Kelly, he established two Kings in their stead, leaving them to rebuild and make good what he had demolished.  They were also tributary to him, and sent him in every Month, a certain number of Cattle of all sorts that the Places afforded; and they were to keep the Lands in good order, and to pay him Tribute for all sorts of Grain, Sugar-Canes, &c…

But the Natives in Plantain’s Army were very much frighted at the sight of the Guns, and he was informed that some of them design’d to betray him, if possible.  Molatto Tom, or young Capt. Avery, immediately seized some of those suspected, and by torturing two or three of them severely, entirely quash’d their Design…

Plantain was resolved that he would now make himself King of Madagascar, and govern there with absolute Power and Authority.  He kept now near 1000 Slaves, which he employed constantly on the Fortifications of his Castle; and had he acted as Capt. Avery did, would certainly have made a very strong Place of his chief Residence; for Capt. Avery only took to the Island of St. Mary, and seldom or ever troubled the Inhabitants of Madagascar for any thing except Supplies of Provision…

Plantain now arrived near Port Dolphin, being resolved to make an end of the War that Summer:  In his March he destroy’d several Towns…putting Men, Women and Children to the Sword…

Having subdued Port Dolphin, he made Prince William Viceroy of that Dominion; and several other Districts he appointed to the petty Princes who had assisted him in his Wars, and who were to be tributary to him.  He was now absolute Monarch of the whole Island, and the Inhabitants brought in all manner of Refreshments to him with great Submission.  When we were there in the Salisbury, the Natives seem’d very subject to him; tho’ I think we might at that time have surprised him, and brought him away, which would have prevented the Mischiefs he has since done…

Plantain being now weary of his Kingship, resolved to quit his Territories (with the Advice and Consent of his Comrades) and to leave the Natives in quiet possession of their Properties; either urg’d to it by the Remorse of his own Conscience, or acting on the Principle of Self-Preservation (which is most likely) as he found his Associates decrease daily, and could not depend on the Fidelity of the Natives, whom he had used in so barbarous a manner.  To this End he determined to build a Sloop big enough to carry them and their chief Effects to the Coast of India; and provided they found no Refuge in any other place, they would all go to Angria, and offer him their Service for some time at least, till Opportunity should suit for their getting to Europe

When they declared on what Account they were come, they were receiv’d very joyfully, and word was sent directly to Angria…When Angria saw them, he was mightily pleas’d, judging them to be good Sailors, which he much wanted.  Some time after, six of them run away to the Portuguese, pretending they were made cast away on Angria’s Coast, and had made their Escape; and by this means they got to Bengal, where I had a large Account of all their Proceedings.

When Angria came to understand what course of Life Plantain had lived, and what a valiant fighting Man he was, he entertained him in a magnificent manner…They were entertained with such Grandeur, that Plantain was at a loss how to behave himself, having been so used to a brutish way of living at Madagascar: for tho’ Angria is an Enemy to the English Nation, he is a Sovereign in his own Dominions, which are now pretty extensive…