10 April 2012

A College founded on Pirate Loot? Surely not? (Tuesday Talk - Part One)

The Williamsburg, Virginia, College of 
William & Mary was founded on PIRATE LOOT – aaarrrgh!

              Buccaneers Davis, Wafer, Hingson 
& Dampier
& the Ship Bachelor's Delight

     In 1682, Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) was regarded by many at the time as the best king England ever had. For example, the charter he issued to Rhode Island in 1662 is a model of liberalism, and his Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 is a cornerstone of Western law. However, since Charles had no legitimate children, it was becoming obvious that his brother James would be the next king, and James had a good chance of becoming the worst king England ever had. Therefore, a group of about fifty men in their early twenties decided to get out while the getting was good, and seek their fortunes elsewhere. They intended to go on a “privateering” voyage (a polite word for “pirating”) to the Caribbean, even though they knew little about sailing. 
  Technically, privateering meant being licensed by the English government to attack enemy ships in wartime, whereas pirates had no such license. Our group of men had no such license, but they did not see that as an insurmountable problem.
   They bought an old ship called Revenge, which had been captured by pirates from the French in the Caribbean, and they hired its previous owner, an experienced professional captain, John Cook (or Cooke,) who had commanded a pirate fleet a short time previously. Cook declared that the most important asset for a pirate cruise would be a competent doctor. They first sailed to the Caribbean, where they picked up Dr. Lionel Wafer (also spelled DelaWafer), ship’s “chirurgeon” (surgeon) in Panama. Wafer (1640-1705) had served Cook’s fleet of pirates as surgeon in 1679, until he had been persuaded to join another group of pirates commanded by Bartholomew Sharp off Cartagena, Colombia. Sharp and his men had abandoned Wafer in the jungles of Panama when the doctor had been seriously wounded in the thigh by the accidental explosion of a keg of gunpowder. The Cuna Indians had not only saved his life but also completely healed the wound, thanks to their skill with herbal medicine, which they also taught Wafer. In fact, when Cook first arrived, he failed to recognize Wafer, since Wafer was dressed and painted exactly like the Indians! One of Wafer’s friends, John Hingson (also spelled Hinson and Hingsett), had stood by him, so he was also welcomed aboard Revenge.
   Wafer and Hingson had heard that another old colleague, William Dampier (1651-1715), was hiding out at Hampton, Virginia (note: Hampton was known as Elizabeth City until 1706, so Dampier would not have known the name Hampton), hoping to escape the notice of the authorities after some notorious pirate adventures. Also hiding with Dampier was Edward Davis. Dampier had sailed around the world in 1679, so his expertise was considered to be crucial to the success of this voyage. The would-be pirates therefore sailed from Panama to Hampton, where they arrived in April 1683. They quickly persuaded Dampier and Davis to join them, and sailed on 23 August for the Guinea Coast of Africa, where they arrived in November.

William Dampier
   Their ship being rotten, the crew members were on the look-out to seize an appropriate replacement. They spotted a small, brand-new Danish ship anchored in the Sierra Leone River, presumably waiting for a cargo of slaves. Dampier and crewman William Ambrosia Cowley engaged the Danish owners in an all-night card game with the ship as the intended stakes. They won the game, and renamed the new ship Bachelor's Delight (sometimes spelt Batchelor's Delight - as you may have noticed with personal names, spelling was not uniform in those days). The ship was described as “pretty.” Some reports describe her as a large frigate of up to 40 guns, but other sources, including two pictures of her, show her to have been a mere corvette of 14 main guns. Presumably, the Danes received the rotten Revenge as a consolation prize. One crew member later asserted with false bravado that they had seized the Danish ship by force, that she was loaded with female slaves, whom the pirates took as consorts, and that they burned the Revenge so as to leave no trace, but the surviving evidence does not support such an interpretation.
   Here it should be noted that another ship of about the same size and appearance called Bachelor’s Delight, with Benjamin Gillam/Guillaume (1662-1706) as captain and John Outlaw as mate, sailed from Boston on a “privateering” voyage to Hudson’s Bay on 21 June 1682, arriving at Nelson River on 18 August at the southwest corner of Hudson’s Bay, in what would later be called Manitoba. The crew founded a private fort that would later be called York Factory (subsequently a principal outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company), but fort, ship and men were all temporarily captured by the French adventurers Radisson and Groseillers. Ship and crew spent the winter under arrest in Hudson’s Bay and sailed to Quebec the following summer, where they were released by French authorities in October 1683. This is clearly a different ship.

   Cook, Dampier, Davis, and Wafer told the rest of the crew that the Caribbean was not a fruitful place to be a pirate because it was infested with Spanish military patrols. The chief pirate bases at Tortuga and Petit-Goave (Haiti) were being suppressed, leaving only Port Royal, near Kingston, Jamaica, which had not yet been destroyed by the earthquake of 1692. A far better place would be along the Pacific coast of Latin America. No roads could be built along that coast, because it was mostly vertical all the way up to the peaks of the Andes. Thus, all the Spanish silver, gold and jewels from the mines of the interior had to move along that coast in mostly unarmed merchant ships in order to get them to Panama. The Spanish knew that it was almost impossible to sail around Cape Horn, so they felt quite safe in not fortifying their cities on the West Coast and in not paying for warships to police the seas there, and not even arming most of their merchant ships.

Cape Horn
   Accordingly, the English adventurers in their well-built ship sailed around Cape Horn, and for the next several years they plundered from Chile to California, with a string of exciting adventures of avoiding and defeating Spanish military opposition. They were easily able to hide in the numerous islands along the coast, including the Galapagos off the coast of Ecuador and Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile. They were the first Englishmen ever to see the Galapagos, and the charts they made from their measurements were the standard charts of the Galapagos well into the nineteenth century. Dampier made extensive notes and observations of the wildlife there that Darwin found of great interest 150 years later. Along with Cowley, Dampier made the first charts of the Galapagos, and gave the islands their present-day English names. The crew members of the Bachelors Delight were also the first Europeans to see Easter Island far off the coast of Chile, although they gave it a different name, and they did not stop to explore it; it was not rediscovered until Easter Day 1772.

    Cook died off Costa Rica in 1684 of an illness picked up in Chile, and the crew voted to replace him with the experienced Edward Davis, Dampier’s friend.

   By this time, several English and French “privateer” ships (formerly Spanish merchant ships, captured and armed by disorganized English and French pirates, who had crossed the Isthmus of Panama on foot) were operating along the west coast of Latin America, and some of them formed an alliance to attack a Spanish treasure convoy. Three French captains, Francois Grognier, Pierre le Picard, and the Sieur Raveneau de Lussan, failed to support Bachelors Delight, which suffered heavy damage and several deaths during the attack as a result. The English decided to avoid the unreliable French corsairs in the future.

   After this incident, a fleet of hastily-armed Spanish government ships (doubtless merchant-ships seized without payment) gave chase, so the English aboard Bachelors Delight sailed due west from Chile with the Spanish in hot pursuit for a few days. The Spanish gave up the chase, but the English were unaware of that, so they kept sailing for a few weeks until the lookout called out, “Land-ho!” They spotted the long, high coast of an unknown land, which they called Davisland after their captain. They must have been the first westerners ever to see the east coast of New Zealand, which is what it turned out to be. The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman had visited the west coast in 1642, but without stopping. When French explorer Marion du Fresne and the British navigator James Cook came to New Zealand in the 1770s, many of their men were eaten by the Maoris (the Maoris did not write, so it was not recorded whether the French sailors, with their garlic, tasted better than the British), so it was probably lucky that Davis, just as he did later at Easter Island, prudently gave strict orders that no member of the crew should go ashore.
   However, if they had gone ashore, perhaps they would have seen giant Moas, a mostly nocturnal, wingless, flightless bird, whose females sometimes stood over 16 feet tall and weighed 600 pounds – essentially emus the size of a giraffe! They were considerably taller than the 1000-pound elephant bird of Madagascar. Preying on the moas were Haast Eagles, whose wings spanned up to 14 feet – more than two feet greater than any bird living today. Both species of giant birds became extinct by 1830. Actually, Dampier and Wafer, the two literary members of the crew, never mentioned the birds in their journals, but it is possible that the men on lookout duty may have seen the birds – and thought merely that they had drunk too much rum! The adventurers then returned to South America as fast as they could sail, taking a more southerly route to catch the strong westerly winds in that latitude.

Part Two next Tuesday!

John F Miller runs a superb B & B Newport House in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia - worth a visit!

John and wife, Cathy
John is also connected with the building of a couple of replica ships - Rose, now known as HMS Surprise (yes, the one in the Master & Commander movie) and the Lady Washington - known to Jack Sparrow fans as Interceptor... 

Rose / Surprise
Lady Washington


  1. Awesome....thank you. I just recently found out that I am a descendant of James Davis...the brother of Edward Davis. How exciting to read your article tonight!!

    1. Exciting indeed! Contact John Millar, who wrote the article, he might have more information. (Better still, if ever you get a chance to take a holiday in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, spend a few days at John's B & B - I am sure you could have some wonderful conversations!

    2. I'm also a descendant of James Davis. I'd love to exchange data.

    3. You'll probably be best to contact John Millar -details here Newport House

  2. I am John Henry Hingson III, a descendant of John Hingson. I am a criminal defense lawyer in Oregon. A judge in my hometown called me after reading a piece in the William and Mary Alumni magazine and informed me he had learned how it came to pass that I charged such high fees. (Due to my relative's exploits on the high seas!)

    1. I think a suitable answer to that judge would have been 'alas, the fees go to the high cost of boat maintenance and paying my crew - the cost of gold earrings and replacement parrots is enormous. I see not a cent of any of it.'


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