A Mainsail Haul/Captain John Jennings

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CAPTAIN JOHN JENNINGS[1]

It is not known where John Jennings was born; but it was almost certainly near the sea; and perhaps we should not be far wrong in saying that his parents were fisher folk, living on the South Coast. He was born, certainly, of poor parents; for his nameless biographer tell us that "his education was so meane and low, he could neither write nor read." The date of his birth does not appear, but possibly 1570, or a few years earlier, would be near the truth. He grew up "wholly addicted to martial courses, and especially in the manly resolution of sea-faring men." When he was a boy he shipped himself to sea, to scrub the cans in the galley, to say his compass to the boatswain, and to be whipped at the capstan every Monday morning, so that his ship might have a fair wind. When he grew older, he took his share in the work aloft, and learned how to point and parcel, how to hold his own in a forecastle, and how to load and fire a great gun. "I grew," he says, "to beare the name of a skilful marriner.... I grew ambitious straight, to have a whole command, and held it baseness to live under checke." He "likt well," he says, "to see a captain give an order, and be obeyed on the instant." He also "likt well" to riot ashore, with good Plymouth ale, and other carnal matters, not obtainable by the foremast hand, when at sea.

As he saw no chance of rising to a command in the navy or in the merchant service, he resolved to command independently. In some seaport he gathered a "retchless crue" of rioters together; led them to the cutting out of a ship in the harbour, and ran away with her to sea. This was in the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, at a time when the King of Spain was at war with Holland. Jennings' first move was to make for himself "a safe refuge and retirement" in Dunkirk; probably by a money payment to the governor; and then having obtained a base, where he could revictual and careen, he began to play the pirate and to scour the Channel. He did not attack the English; but like John Ward, his great contemporary, he found his account in

The jovial Dutchman
As he met on the main.

It is possible that at this time he was a Roman Catholic, and that he omitted to attack the French and Spanish ships on religious grounds. However, there could have been few Spanish ships either safe to attack or worth attacking so far to the north; and no doubt the "Dutch fly-boats, pinks, and passengers" brought his gang enough good spoils; both of "ready chinkes" and provender. He soon became notorious. The Dutch complained to the English government; and ships were sent to cruise for him. His own ship, like most pirate ships, was chosen from many prizes for her speed. By his ship's speed and his own vigilance he escaped the cruisers for a long time; but at last, through too much aqua-vitæ, or an unlucky shot, he was caught, and carried to England, where he was lodged in the Marshalsea in irons, to wait for the next gaol delivery. His ship was either restored to her owners or sold to cover expenses. The terror of the Channel was now a plucked crow in a cage, with nothing to expect but a hempen cord, and present death at Wapping Stairs.

His sister heard of his arrest, and at once began to petition the merchants he had robbed, that they should not press their suits. Her brother, she told them, was a man who might be of the greatest service to them; he was a reformed character, who had pledged his honour to live virtuously in the future; he was a man of whom any country might be proud; and much more to the same tune. Was this a man to send to the gallows, with your common Jesuit and your pickpurse? Why? It was "proudly spoken" of Captain Jennings, "that not a man in Christendom could stop a leak under water better than he"; if "without boasting" (as he himself says), "so wel" as he. It was true that he had been a little fresh or so; but then the sea air, and youth, were great provocatives; and it was, after all, by men like Jennings that our imperial destiny was maintained. By blarney of this kind, and by suggesting that the courage and energy of their prisoner might really do them good service, the girl persuaded the merchants to petition the Queen for the life of him who had robbed them. Jennings was pardoned for his two worst offences; his prison charges were paid; and one of the Holland merchants (who perhaps feared a relapse) gave him the command of a fine fly-boat, and sent him to sea to carry wool and wine.

He did not succeed as a sea-captain. Aboard that Holland fly-boat there was "barratry of the master and mate," if nothing worse, so that she did not pay for her tar and tallow. The pay of a sea-captain was small, and the proud heart of Jennings did not like the reproofs of his employers. The fly-boat was strongly built, and no doubt carried half-a-dozen quick-firing guns. Jennings waited for a good opportunity, corrupted the hearts of his sailors, and then ran away with ship, crew, and furniture, to try the fortune of the sea once more, "on the bonny coasts of Barbary." As he steered south, he sighted a Spanish caravel. He fired his little guns into her, laid her aboard, and made her his prize. Then he sailed on again, till he reached the Barbary coast.

As soon as he arrived at Safi he was seized by the Dey and flung into prison; where he found other English pirates, waiting for the bowstring or the galleys, to tell him the reason for this harsh reception. The pirates had agreed with the Dey, it seems, on the half-share system. The Dey supplied hands, stores, a fortified base, and good careenage; the pirates gave in return one-half of all their spoils, either slaves or goods, at the end of each cruise. The pirates had broken their contracts, and the Dey had therefore imprisoned them; sending Jennings with the rest to deter him from a similar lapse in time to come. He stayed in prison till he had paid to the Dey a large share of his Spanish prize. Then he was released, with permission to fit his fly-boat for the sea.

We cannot date his coming to Safi; but it must have been a few years after the accession of James I. England was then at peace with the world. There was no "flourishing employment" for seamen. Those "haughty hearts" who had been with Drake at Cartagena, with Newport at Truxillo, or with Essex at Fayal, picking up "a few crowns, a few reasonable booties" had now "to picke up crums at a lowe ebb"; and to vail their sea-bonnets to "such as pearkt up their heads to authority in this time of quiet." There was nothing stirring against Spain. The ships which had humbled Sidonia lay rotting at their moorings, with grass growing on their decks. Such men-of-war as were commissioned, were manned by vagrants and thieves, who deserted when they could. In these circumstances, any sailor who had seen the "daies of bickering," and had a passion for glory in him, was strongly tempted to turn pirate. A very great number of them did so. During the first years of the reign of James I the seamen who had made Elizabeth's navy what it was, brought their skill and craft to the making of a pirate navy, which can only be compared to the buccaneer fleets of Morgan, Mansvelt, Sawkins, and Edward Davis, some seventy years later. In the Mediterranean, they made themselves bases among the Turks and Moors. They settled in hordes at Algiers, at Safi, and at Tunis. They taught the Moors the use of square sails, and filled the gaps in their crews with Mussulmans and renegades to whom piracy was a second nature and an honourable calling. From the crook of the Algerine mole, and from the sharp gut of the Goletta, these English seamen sailed out against the merchants of Spain and Italy. They were a ruinous hindrance to all Mediterranean traders. Their spoils were enormous; and they were able to live in luxury and riot, "more like princes than pirates," after paying the Dey his share.

In the Channel, they made their bases among the creeks and bays of South-Western Ireland, notably in Dingle Bay and Bantry Bay, where there are sheltering islands, to hide them from any wandering cruiser. They had little to fear from the King's ships; for almost the only cruiser on the coast was a small, ill-manned ship of 200 tons, which could only keep the seas during the summer months. The pirate ships were generally better found than the King's ships; and, as they were kept clean by frequent careening, they had the heels of them if it came to a chase. "The English are good sailors," said one who knew, "but they are better pirates." Before Jennings fell, an organized fleet of pirates kept the south coast of Ireland in a state of siege, for weeks at a time. They were disciplined like a fleet of King's ships, and so powerful that they could land 300 men at any point, at short notice. The business which Jennings followed was at least carried on in some style.

While he lay at Safi, some allies of John Ward, two Tunisian pirates, named Bishop and Roope, put in there for wood and water. Jennings made a compact with them, and accompanied them on a roving cruise, in which they took a huge booty, to spend in riot ashore. Bishop quarrelled with his partners during their stay ashore: so that Roope and Jennings sailed without him, when they next put to sea. Roope's ship sprang a leak during the cruise, so he and his seamen came aboard Captain Jennings'. They took a Spanish fly-boat, and sent her north, in the care of some pirates, for sale in Dunkirk, but she was captured by an English man-of-war.

After this capture, the allies sailed into the Channel, and snapped up some French wine ships off the Isle of Wight. Off the Land's End, they took a ship of Bristol, with a valuable general cargo, which they trans-shipped. Off the Scilly Islands they took a French ship "laden with brasse, and other rich commodities"; and then they ran short of provisions, and bore up for Baltimore. At Baltimore they sent in the purser "to deale with the Kernes for hogges to victuall withal." They had a tender with them, a small Spanish caravel, a lately taken prize, when they appeared off the town, so that the Baltimore authorities, seeing the ships in company, could have had no doubt of what they were. Jennings realized that the authorities might not care to sell their hogs to people of his way of life. In the long-boat which bore the purser, he sent "a token of familiaritie" to the governor of the town; the said token being "19 or 20 chests of sugers" and 4 chests of fine scarlet coral. For this bountiful bribe they received permission to wood, water and reprovision; and also, it seems, to sell some of their spoils to the citizens. While he lay at Baltimore, Jennings "fell in liking with an Irish woman" whom he carried with him to sea, in spite of the growlings of his men, who swore that the compass would never traverse right, nor a fair wind blow with a female living aft. It was all through her, they said, that they met the King's cruiser as they left Baltimore Road; and it was all through her that they had to cut and run for it, instead of making her a prize. A few days later, they had another stroke of bad luck, undoubtedly due to the presence of a female aboard. They attacked two Spanish ships who fought them courageously and gave them a battering. Ten good men were killed and more than twenty badly hit, Jennings himself being one of the wounded.

At the end of a watch, of a watch so severe
There was scarcely a man left was able for to steer,
There was scarcely a man left could fire off a gun,
And the blood down the deck like a river it did run.

Jennings had to sheer off in distress under such sail as he could carry and be thankful that the Spaniards did not give chase. The seamen made some repairs, and then held a fo'c's'le council about the Irish woman in the cabin. "See what comes," they said, "of carrying women to sea." They agreed in the end that their defeat was a "a just judgment of God against them"; not for any little robberies or murders which they had done, but for "suffering their captaine ... to wallow in his luxuries." Why should he have his luxury any more than the rest of the crew? Captain Roope was insistent with this question till the crew swore that they would put an end to these Babylonish practices once for all. "In a giddy manner," they broke into the captain's cabin, and "boldly began to reprove his conduct." Wounded as he was, John Jennings started from his cot, seized "a trunchion," or handy belaying pin, and banged about him till he had "beaten them all to a bay." As he got his breath, they rushed in upon him a second time, and drove him aft into the gun-room. He bolted the door against them; but they fired on him through the key-hole. Then Captain Roope quieted the mutineers, set a guard at the gun-room door, and took command of the ship.

He was "a man of more stern and obdurate nature than Jennings was." He hazed his hands with unnecessary work till they longed for the old order, with good Babylonish Jennings in command. They released their old captain; and as soon as they had taken another ship, they put Captain Roope from command, and restored Jennings to his doxy and his quarterdeck.

The taking of this new ship was a serious matter. She was a richly-laden Amsterdam ship, of 180 tons, manned by French and Dutch sailors. She fought valiantly, for several hours, costing the pirates a sore mauling and the loss of sixty men killed and wounded. Jennings had been shaken by his wound, and by the late mutiny. His ship was battered and broken. He was short of men and provisions; his decks were full of wounded; and "he desired now in heart he might make his peace ... although with the tender of all he had." His first step was to put in at Baltimore, where he hoped to submit himself to the Lord Clanricarde, and to obtain refreshments. When he came to Baltimore, he sent in his boat with another present to buy him a fair reception, but his boat's crew deserted, without making any overtures, and Jennings, fearing that his men had been arrested, put to sea at once, intending to sail to the Shannon, to try the Earl of Thomond.

On his way to the Shannon, he called at various ports to get refreshments. His men rummaged through most of the towns on the coast, "and impeacht even their ordinary trade," though Lord Danvers did his best to stop them by ordering all provisions to be carried far inland. In the middle of January 1609, the two ships anchored in the Shannon, not far from Limerick, in the country of the Earl of Thomond, to whom the pirates wrote the following letter:

Right Honourable, we beseech your Lordship to suffer us so far to imboulden ourselves upon your lordship's favour, as to be our mediator unto our Lord Deputy, for ye pardoning of our offences, assuring your Lordship that we never offended any of the King's subjects. If your L will undertake the obtaining of our pardon, we will deliver over, unto my L deputy and your L the ship that we have now, with such lading and commodities, as we have hereunder written; further desiring your L in regard of the foulness of the weather, besides the eating up of my vitles that we may hear from the Lord deputy within this 14 dayes, for longer we may not stay; for ye country upon your L command will not relieve us with any victuals. Theis are the parcels and commodities.

20 peces of ordnance, saker and minion (5 pr and 4 pr M L guns).

7 murtherers (small B L guns of a mortar type, firing dice shot).

40 chests of sugars.

4 bags of pepper.

12 ? and chists of sinamond.

4 bags of Spanish woll.

1 barrell of waxe & a boykett.

4 chists of soap.

1 canne of brasse, with cabells, anchers & all necessaries fitting a ship of her burthen, being 300 tons; all wh shall be delivered if it please ye L deputie; I onlie desire a general pardon my self, and these men, whose names shall be written underneath; with a passe for all my companie to travell where it please them, for the wh we shall wish all increase of happiness to yr L from ye River of Shanon this 23 of Jan. 1608.

Your L (word servants erased in another ink) to commaunde

John Jeninges
Kidwell als Cadwallader Trevor
Gilb Roope
Peter Jacobson.

The Earl of Thomond received this letter, and weighed it carefully. By means of spies "he discerned a disposition" among some of the pirates "even to enterprise upon their fellows." He wished to enter into no composition with such a man as Jennings if other means could be found to bring him in. He therefore temporized; sent his sons aboard to see the pirate ships, and allowed them to take costly gifts from their captains. One of his spies offered to take Jennings single handed; but for this bold deed the spy demanded the whole of Jennings' booty. The Earl gave him no encouragement but told him he might try, if he wished. Meanwhile he continued to sound Captain Roope and others of the pirates, for signs of disaffection.

He did not feel himself strong enough to attack the ships; but by March 1609, he had engaged four of the pirates—Trevor, Roope, a man called Drake, and Peter Jacobson, the sailing master—to deliver ship and goods to his Majesty, when called upon. On the night of the 20th March, he went aboard her with a guard. The traitors handed over the ship, as they had promised, and though Jennings, or some faithful hand, destroyed the Earl's right arm, the struggle was soon over, and the sea-hawk was safely caged in one of the Earl's gaols.

Jennings' ship was not worth very much. Most of her men left her, and put to sea in the prize, directly her captain had been taken. The Earl overhauled her as soon as he could. He wrote how "the Comodities aboard is butt ordinairie, and a lytell sugers wh is so blacke as yt is worth but lytell in this land." She is very chargeable, he says, lying in the best road in the river. She could not be careened, as she was "to weke," and she was so much battered, she was really worthless. What became of her does not appear. Her guns, her chists of sinamond, and her solitary boykett were put ashore, and the rest of her was probably sold to the highest bidder, for firewood and building material. The Earl thought that her seamen carried off the best of the spoil in their "great breeches." His wound had kept him from watching them at the time of the capture; so the booty, setting aside Jennings, "in his light doublet and hose," was but paltry. As for Jennings, he was sent over to Chester, in July 1609; and from Chester, by easy stages, he came to London for trial, and lodged once more in the Marshalsea prison.

In the Marshalsea, he behaved himself with becoming courage. "He lived a careless life," says his biographer. "One being merry drinking with him once, demanded of him," how he had lived at sea? He replied that he had ever rejoiced more to hear the cannon than the sound of the church bell, and that he fought not "as chickens fight," for meat; "but for store of gold, to maintain riot." At another time, in hot weather, as he sat drinking with friends in the prison parlour, it was observed that he sat with his face in the sun, in contempt of headache. "I shall hang in the sun, shortly," he said, "and then my neck will ache. I do but practise now." Later, in the autumn, there was a fall of snow; so that he could cheer up his heart with a game at snowballs. Then his old friend Captain Harris, whom he had known in Barbary, was committed to the Marshalsea; to comfort him with fellowship and cups of sack. It was reported that the two were "mad drunke" together; but that was calumny. They were only "orderly merry" together; and they had now but little time either for merriment or for sorrow. At the trial, Jennings did his best to save two of his crew; who, as he told the Court, had been compelled to turn pirates at the pistol muzzle. "Alas, my Lord," he cried to the Judge, "what would you have these poor men say ... if anything they have done they were compelled unto it by me; 'tis I must answer for it."

All three were condemned in spite of his pleading (Dec. 3rd, 1609); but five days later they obtained a respite; as the King hoped to obtain information from them, to help him in the extirpation of other pirates. It was not till the 22nd of December that they were led out to suffer. John Burles, the curate of St. Bennet's, attended John Jennings. The others had their own priests, and as their irons were knocked off they raised their voices in the penitential psalms. Burles was very grieved for Jennings. "A marvellous proper man," he notes sadly. He might have been a hero, under a better King.

They were rowed to Wapping in wherries, to the sound of the rogue's march beaten on a drum. They looked their last on ships and river, glad, it would seem, to be at last free of them. It was a fine sunny morning; and the sailors on the ships at anchor bade them cheer up, as they rowed past. When they came to the Stairs, Jennings made a speech (there was a great crowd), bidding his two men to follow him as fearlessly as they had followed him of old, when the shot was flying. Some pirates on these occasions used to tear up their "crimson taffety breeches," to give the rags as keepsakes to those who stood by. No breeches were torn on this occasion. The dying men spoke briefly to the crowd, regretting their sins: then prayed for a few moments with their priests, and died cheerfully, singing psalms, one after the other, "like good fellows."


  1. The authorities for the life of Captain John Jennings are: (1) A chapbook of "The Lives, Apprehensions, Arraignments and Executions of the 19 late Pyrates, namely, Capt. Harris, Jennings, Longcastle, Downes, Haulsey, and their companions, as they were severally indited on St. Margret's Hill, in Southwark, on the 22 of December last and executed the Friday following. London. Printed for John Busby the Elder (1609); 4to.; black letter; 30 pp." This document is very brightly and freshly written and generally accurate in that part of it which relates to our hero. (2) The documents in the Record Office (Cal. S. P. Dom. 1603-10; S. P. Venetian, 1607-10, and (especially) Irish Series, 1608-10). An entry in the Stationers' Register mentions a poem by Jennings. The entry runs:

    19no Marcij [1610-1]

    Richard Jones Entred for his Copyes,

    Captayne Jenninges his songe, whiche
    he made in the Marshalsey and songe a
    little before his death. Item the second
    parte of the "George Aloo" and the
    "Swiftestake" (Sweepstake) beinge both

    ballades.

    Both poems appear to have perished. The first part of the second ballad, "The George Aloe (of Looe) and the Sweepstake, too" (quoted in "Two Noble Kinsmen"), may be seen in Professor Child's "English and Scottish Popular Ballads," vol. v, p. 133, 4, 5.