Welsh pirates

Monday 22 November 2010, 09:57

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Our image or impression of pirates has, in the main, been shaped by our reading or film watching. Say "pirate" and you immediately think of Long John Silver from Treasure Island or one of Errol Flynn's dramatic film creations.

Pirate flag

Pirate flag

Reality, however, is far removed from these idealized versions of piracy. Real pirates were vicious and deadly - and a large number of them were Welsh.

Perhaps the most famous of these men was Sir Henry Morgan who was not so much a pirate as a licensed adventurer for the British government.

Born in about 1635, his origins remain unclear. What is known is that he came from the county of Monmouthshire and before he was 30 he had sailed off to the Caribbean. There he quickly made a name for himself as a bold and ruthless sailor who was as likely to be working for the good of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth as he was for himself.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Morgan simply switched his allegiance to Charles II and continued his piratical career.

Fighting against the Spaniards, he plundered the Mexican coast and the Caribbean islands on a regular basis. One of his most famous escapades involved him capturing, looting and putting to the sword the supposedly impregnable town of Camaguey on Cuba in 1667.

In 1671 he burned and sacked Panama, the richest of all Spanish colonies. Unfortunately, a treaty had recently been signed between Spain and Britain and Morgan was brought back to England in disgrace to answer for "his crimes."

Morgan was able to prove that he had no knowledge of the treaty and, instead of being punished, he was knighted and sent back to the Caribbean as Governor of Jamaica.

Old Panama City

Old Panama City

Other Welsh pirates were not so fortunate. John Evans was originally an honest enough seaman, sailing out of the Caribbean island of Nevis. In 1722, when he lost his job, he and some colleagues decided to try piracy. They started out by raiding rich houses on the north shore of Jamaica, operating out of a small dug out canoe.

After capturing several Spanish ships, Evans' career as a pirate was short but decidedly successful.

Operating out of Grand Cayman he found himself embroiled in a dispute with his bosun and was challenged to a duel. When they reached port Evans reminded the bosun about the challenge.

The bosun refused to fight, whereupon Evans beat him with a cane. He turned away just as the bosun drew his pistol and shot him in the head. In retaliation the crew promptly killed the bosun and decided to disband. To their amazement they found that they had a total of £10,000 to share between them.

John Callis operated not like so many pirates in the Caribbean but along the Welsh coast. He was hugely successful for many years, terrorising the shipping lanes around the Severn estuary and the Bristol Channel.

He used several houses and inns as his base but most notably the Point House at Angle in Pembrokeshire. When he was finally captured in 1576 he was an old man and tried to buy his freedom by informing on other pirates. It was no use. He was tried and hanged at Newport that same year.

Howell Davis came from Milford Haven and in a piratical career of just one year was hugely successful.

His end came when he attempted to seize the governor of the Portuguese island of Principe with the aim of holding him to ransom. The Portuguese had recognised Davis and his men, however, and ambushed them as they came ashore. In the skirmish Howell Davis was shot and killed.

When Howell Davis was killed his crew promptly elected the best navigator on board their ship to the position of captain - pirates were nothing if not democratic, at least among themselves.

This man was Bartholomew Roberts, Black Bart as he is known, and he was undoubtedly the greatest of all Welsh pirates - if you can use a word like "greatest" when talking about such abject villains.

Like Davis, Black Bart had a short career as a pirate.

Originally an honest sailor who had been captured by Howell Davis, he quickly turned to piracy and in his two short years of terrorising the Atlantic sea lanes he captured nearly 500 ships.

He knew what his eventual fate would be and declared that what he wanted was "a short life and a merry one." He got his wish.

A teetotaller who wore flamboyant red coats during battle and tried to stop his crew swearing, Black Bart was killed when the Royal Navy sloop Swallow ran him to ground on 10 February 1727.

He was killed by grapeshot to the throat and, before the Navy sailors could get aboard the pirate ship his crew had weighted his body, wrapped it in sail cloth and dumped it over board.

With the death of Black Bart Roberts the great age of piracy came to an end. There are still occasional outbreaks, particularly in the Far East, but these days - hopefully at least - Welsh involvement remains minimal.

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