An Account by a Pirate Captive
In the early part of June I sailed from Philadelphia in the schooner Mary, on a voyage to New Orleans. My principal object in going round by sea was the restoration of my health, which had been for many months declining. Having some friends in New Orleans, whose commercial enterprises were conducted on an extensive scale, I was charged with the care of several sums of money in gold and silver, amounting altogether to nearly $18,000. This I communicated to the captain and we concluded to secure it in the best manner our circumstances would admit. A plank was accordingly taken off the ribs of the schooner in my own cabin, and the money being deposited in the vacancy, the plank was nailed down in its original place and the seams filled and tarred over. Being thus relieved from any apprehension that the money would be found upon us in case of an attack from pirates, my mind was somewhat easier. What other articles of value I could conveniently carry about with me, I did so.
I had also brought a quantity of banknotes to the amount of $15,000. Part of these I caused to be carefully sewed in the left lapel of my coat, supposing that in case of my being lost at sea, my coat, should my body be found, would still contain the most valuable of my effects. The balance was carefully quilted into my black silk cravat. Our crew consisted of the captain and four men with a supply of live stock for the voyage and a Newfoundland dog, valuable for his fidelity and sagacity. He had once saved his master from a watery grave when he had been stunned and knocked overboard by a sudden shifting of the boom. I was the only passenger on board. Our voyage at first was prosperous and time went rapidly. I felt my strength increase the longer I was at sea, and when we arrived off the southern coast of Florida my feelings were like those of another man.
It was towards the evening of the fourteenth day, two hours before sunset, that we espied a sail astern of us. As twilight came, it neared us with astonishing rapidity. Night closed and all around was impenetrable darkness. Now and then a gentle wave would break against our bow and sparkle for a moment, and at a distance behind us we could see the uneven glow of light, occasioned by the foaming of the strange vessel. The breeze that filled our canvas was gentle, though it was fresh.
We coursed our way steadily through the night, though once or twice the roaring of the waves increased so suddenly as to make us believe we had passed a breaker.
At the time it was unaccountable to me, but I now believe it to be occasioned by the schooner behind us coming rather near in the darkness of the night. At midnight I went on deck. Nothing but an occasional sparkle was to be seen and the ocean was undisturbed. Still it was a fearful and appalling darkness, and in spite of my endeavors, I could not compose myself. At the windlass on the forecastle, three of the sailors, like myself unable to sleep, had collected for conversation. On joining them I found our fears were mutual. They all kept their eyes steadily fixed upon the unknown vessel as if anticipating some dreadful event. They informed me that they had put their arms in order and were determined to stand or die.
At this moment a flash of light, perhaps a musket burning priming, proceeded from the vessel in pursuit and we saw distinctly that her deck was covered with men. My heart almost failed me. I had never been in battle and knew not what it was. Day at length dawned, and setting all her canvas, our pursuer gained alarmingly upon us. It was evident that she had followed us the whole night, being unwilling to attack us in the dark. In a few minutes she fired a gun and came alongside. She was a pirate. Her boat was lowered and about a dozen hideous-looking objects jumped in, with a commander at their head. The boat pushed off and was fast nearing us, as we arranged ourselves for giving her a broadside. Our whole stock of arms consisted of six muskets and an old swivel, used as a signal gun, belonging to the Mary, and a pair of pistols of my own, which I carried in my belt. The pirate boat's crew were armed with muskets, pistols, swords, cutlasses, and knives; and when she came within her own length of us, we fired five of our muskets and the swivel into her.
Her fire was scarcely half given when she filled and went down, with all her crew. At this success we were inclined to rejoice, but looking over the pirate schooner we observed her deck still swarming with the same description of horrid-looking wretches. A second boat's crew pushed off with their muskets pointed directly at us the whole time. When they came within the same distance as the other, we fired, but with little, if any, effect. The pirate immediately returned the fire and with horrid cries jumped aboard us. Two of our brave crew were lying dead upon the deck and the rest of us expected nothing better. French, Spanish and English were spoken indiscriminately and all at once. The most horrid imprecations were uttered against us and threats that fancy cannot imagine.
A wretch whose black, shaggy whiskers covered nearly his whole face, whose eyes were only seen at intervals from beneath his bushy eyebrows, and whose whole appearance was more that of a hell-hound than of a human being, approached me with a drawn cutlass in his hand. I drew one of my pistols and snapped it in his face, but it flashed in the pan, and before I could draw the other, the pirate with a brutality that would have disgraced a cannibal, struck me over the face with his cutlass and knocked me down. I was too much wounded to resist, and the blood ran in torrents from my forehead. In this situation the wretch seized me by the scalp and thrusting his cutlass in my cravat, cut[ting] it through completely. I felt the cold iron glide along my throat, and even now the very thought makes me shudder.
The worst idea I had ever formed of human cruelty seemed now realized, and I could see death staring me in the face. Without stopping to examine the cravat, he put it in his pocket, and in a voice of thunder exclaimed, "Levez vous." I accordingly rose to my feet and he pinioned [i.e. bound] my hands behind my back, led me to the vessel's bulwark, and asked another of the gang in French whether he should throw me overboard. At the recollection of that scene I am still staggered. I endeavored to call the prospects of eternity before me, but could think of nothing except the cold and quiverless apathy of the tomb. His infamous companion replied, "Il est trop bien habillé, pour l'envover an diable," and led me to the foremast, where he tied me with my face to the stern of the vessel. The cords were drawn so tight around my arms and legs that my agony was excruciating. In this situation he left me.
On looking round, I found them all employed in plundering and ransacking everything we had. Over my left shoulder one of our sailors was strung up to the yardarm and apparently in the last agonies of death, while before me our gallant captain was on his knees and begging for his life. The wretches were endeavoring to extort from him the secret of our money, but for a while he was firm and dauntless. Provoked at his obstinacy, they extended his arms and cut them off at the elbows. At this human nature gave way, and the injured man confessed the spot where we had concealed our specie. In a few moments it was aboard their own vessel. To revenge themselves on our unhappy captain, when they had satisfied themselves that nothing else was hidden, they spread a bed of oakum on the deck, and after soaking it through with turpentine, tied the captain on it, filled his mouth with the same combustibles, and set the whole on fire. The cries of the unfortunate man were heart-rending, and his agonies must have been unutterable, but they were soon over. All this I was compelled to witness. Heartsick with the sight, I once shut my eyes, but a musket discharged close to my ear was a warning sufficient to keep them open.
On casting my eyes towards the schooner's stern, I discovered that our boatswain had been nailed to the deck through his feet, and the body spiked through to the tiller. He was writhing in the last agonies of crucifixion. Our fifth comrade was out of sight during all this tragedy; in a few minutes, however, he was brought upon the deck blindfolded. He was then conducted to the muzzle of the swivel and commanded to kneel. The swivel was then fired off and his head was dreadfully wounded by the discharge. In a moment after it was agonizing to behold his torments and convulsions-language is too feeble to describe them. I have seen men hung upon the gibbet, but their death is like sinking in slumber when compared with his.
Excited with the scene of human butchery, one of those wretches fired his pistol at the captain's dog. The ball struck his shoulder and disabled him. He finished him by shooting him again, and at last by cutting out his tongue! At this last hell-engendered act, my blood boiled with indignation at such savage brutality on a helpless, inoffensive dog! But I was unable to give utterance or action to my feelings.
Seeing that the crew had been every one dispatched, I began to think more of myself. My old enemy, who seemed to forget me, once more approached me, but shockingly besmeared with blood and brains. He had stood by the side of the unfortunate sailor who suffered before the swivel, and supported him with the point of his bayonet. He drew a stiletto from his side, placed its point upon my heart and gave it a heavy thrust. I felt its point touch my skin, but the quilting of my bank bills prevented its further entrance. This savage monster then ran it up my breast as if intending to divide my lungs, and in doing so the bank notes fell upon the deck. He snatched them up greedily and exclaimed, "Ah! laissez mois voir ce qui reste!" My clothes in a few moments were ripped to pieces at the peril of my life. He frequently came so near as to tear my skin and deluge me with blood, but by the mercy of Providence, I escaped from every danger. At this moment a heavy flaw struck the schooner and I heard one of the pirates say, "Voila un vaisseau!" They all retreated precipitately, and gaining their own vessel, were soon out of sight.
Helpless as I now was, I had the satisfaction of knowing that the pirates had been frightened by the appearance of a strange sail, but it was impossible for me to see it. Still tied to the foremast, I knew not what was my prospect of release. An hour or two had elapsed after they left me and it was now noon. The sun played violently upon my head, and I felt a languor and debility that indicated approaching fever. My head gradually sank upon my breast, when I was shocked by hearing the water pouring into the cabin windows. The wretches had scuttled the schooner and left me pinioned to go down with her. I commended my spirit to my Maker and gave myself up for lost. I felt myself gradually dying away, and the last thing I remembered was the foaming noise of the waves. This was occasioned by a ship passing by me. I was taken in, restored to health, and am now a poor, ruined, helpless man.