Piracy in the British Virgin Islands

Piracy in the British Virgin Islands

Piracy in the British Virgin Islands was prevalent during the so-called golden era of piracy. Privateering was also widely practised in the jurisdiction throughout frequent colonial wars, not least by emancipated slaves who, with in preference to back breaking labour in the fields for pitiful wages, took enormous risks to capture fortunes on the seas with the sanction of the Crown. In 1808 Patrick Colquhoun, a prize agent for the Territory spoke of "the most daring outrages which are frequently committed by people of colour."

Little is formally recorded relating to the actual piratical activities that took place in the BVI, simply because of the nature of the activity. Whilst Royal Naval and merchant vessels of the period were required to write accurate accounts of their voyage known as "The Log", it was within the best interests of a vessel engaged in piracy to keep their activities as secret as possible. In the event of capture, the log of pirate vessel would almost certainly be enough to consign the crew to the gallows so consequently, no records were kept.

This does not detract however from the certain fact that pirate vessels would have used the Virgin Islands as a place to hide and recuperate after their activities at sea. The mass of islands and inlets that make up the physical terrain of the Virgin Islands would have been perfect for avoiding detection and would have given the pirates a chance to refit their ships, ready for their next voyage 'on the account.' The names of places in the British Virgin Islands indicates that this would have been the case. "Freebooters Point" on Anegada leaves little to the imagination and on an old sea chart of the Territory, marked under the former name, is written the legend 'so called by ye Freebooters from the gold and silver supposed to be buried there after the wreck of a Spanish galleon.'

Norman Island is reputed to be named after Captain Norman, a pirate who was eventually apprehended and hung by the Spanish Guarda Costas, the historical coast guard for Puerto Rico. Bellamy Cay, now more popularly known as "The Last Resort", is named after 'Black Sam Bellamy', a noted pirate who was executed for his profession. Just over the headland on Beef Island lies Hamm's Creek, named after a known associate of Captain William Kidd, who eventually renounced his former life of piracy with the famous captain and settled on Beef Island.

Along with the facts we find a certain amount of legend, the most famous of which is probably the Territory's association with the famous pirate Blackbeard. Blackbeard was known by a number of names including Edward Teach, Tatch, and Thatch. There are two "Thatch" islands in the BVI and almost directly opposite Road Harbour is the island known as 'Deadchest,' where Blackbeard allegedly marooned a number of his men giving the island its name. These men were supposed to have tried to swim to the adjacent Peter Island but drowned, hence the name 'Dead Man's Bay' on Peter Island.

The reality is that there is no documentary evidence to support any of this and academically speaking, there is no proof to show that Blackbeard ever sailed through the Virgin Islands. It is known that Blackbeard did maroon some of his pirates but this happened in the Bahamas and not the Virgin Islands. More conclusive is the fact that a map from the early 1700s shows that Deadchest Island was known by this name far earlier than when Blackbeard was operating, which was only between the years 1716-18.

The Blackbeard myth was perpetuated in the BVI when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his now famous book "Treasure Island". In the book is the famous song mentioning 'Deadchest' and some suggest that Stevenson based his Treasure Island on Norman Island. Included on his Treasure Island is a hill known as 'Spyglass Hill' which is actually the highest peak on Norman Island. The reality is though that whilst researching his book, Stevenson probably chose a group of islands that suited his story from a sea chart. He would have taken their names and adapted them for this own purpose but in fact, his diaries show that he never visited the BVI.

Acts of piracy were committed in the BVI and the documentary resource proves this. In 1685, a Spanish pirate vessel called the Longue attacked Tortola and captured an English sloop and its crew of eight, one of whom was killed. In the following year, another Spanish pirate expedition which was in fact led by an English Doctor, attacked, invaded and held Tortola for a number of days. Plantations were pillaged and the Deputy Governor's son, Thomas Bisse, was held captive and physically abused. Damage estimated at £3,977.00 was committed which was enough for the juvenile colony to collapse.

Probably the most famous true story relating to piracy in the Territory revolved around a character named Owen Lloyd. Lloyd was in fact a member of the crew on a Spanish treasure galleon named "Nuestra Senora de Guadelope" which was forced to seek shelter from a storm on the North Carolina coast. At the instigation of the mate, the crew mutinied and escaped with the galleon's valuable cargo. Part of the cargo was loaded into two billanders, one of which was commanded by Owen Lloyd. Lloyd and his associates then proceeded to St. Croix where they off loaded part of their plunder.

They then proceeded to Norman Island where the rest was stashed. Lloyd and his party then escaped to St. Eustatius where they were finally apprehended. Meanwhile on Tortola, news had broken that this treasure existed and at the instigation of the President of the Colony, Abraham Chalwill, a group of prominent planters made their way to Norman Island and recovered the treasure. They divided the booty but were unable to enjoy their success for long. On hearing about the treasure, Gilbert Flemming, then Lieutenant Governor of all of the British Leeward Islands, promptly dispatched a British warship to recover the treasure from the island's planters.

This was done and a percentage was given to the planters as compensation. The receipt showing what was taken from each planter and what was rewarded still exists in England and a copy is held on Tortola. Piracy was also practised by BVIslanders during both the Seven Years' War and the American War of Independence. During both of these conflicts, to boost the standing navy of the British Empire, Letters of Marque were issued to Caribbean planters whose vessels then became known as privateers.

A letter of Marque is basically written permission for a private vessel to arm itself and attack enemy shipping, condoned by the privateer's home government. Once captured, any enemy vessel would be subjected to what was known as a Vice Court of Admiralty, generally held on the island the privateer originated from. This was the case on Tortola, however, planters weren't necessarily just choosing enemy vessels and were sometimes attacking vessels from neutral countries. As these vessels were in fact not at war with England, the Letter of Marque became obsolete and the act committed constituted piracy.

The BVIslanders attacked enough neutral vessels to have their Letters of Marque and Vice Court of Admiralty dissolved and weren't allowed privateering status again. The last recorded episode of piracy in the BVI took place as late as 1869 and involved a vessel called the "Telegrafo". The vessel was detained at Tortola on charges of piracy but orders were issued for her release by the Governor because the legal system was unable to deal with such a case.

The 'Golden Era' of piracy for the most part took place during the first quarter of the 18th Century and has left a legacy that perpetuates the rich and mysterious history of the BVI.

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