I. We are taken
It was just after sunset on an August evening in 1718, and something was approaching through the twilight. The sloop the Francis had come to anchor in Delaware Bay, on the north-eastern seaboard of America. The single-masted Francis and its small crew would wait out the ebb tide before completing their journey from Antigua to Boston. The sloop’s first mate, James Killing, peered over the water. “There’s a canoe-a-coming,” he said. “I wish they be friends.” The sloop was only lightly armed, and the busy trading routes that brought goods and people to the colonies were patrolled by sea-robbers. Every trader was fearful of pirates.
Killing hailed the canoe, asking, “From whence do you come?” He could make out five or so figures within. One of them replied that they were fellow traders out of Pennsylvania. “Then you are welcome,” yelled Killing, and he ordered his crew to throw down rope rigging for the visitors to climb. It was a terrible mistake. “As soon as they came aboard, they clapped their hands to their cutlasses,” Killing later recalled, “and I said, ‘We are taken.’”
The pirates were a disparate bunch, weathered and scarred from years spent at sea and at battle. Their language was as rough as their appearance. Killing said they cursed and swore at his frightened crew. Along with their cutlasses, they carried pistols and muskets, raiding pikes, and belted knives. Out of sight in the thickening blackness was a pirate ship, with guns and grenades and scores of other men. The crew of the Francis could offer no resistance. The sloop’s captain, Peter Manwareing, was loaded into the canoe and taken away. The remaining crew were ordered to bring lights. Then the pirates began to explore the sloop’s cargo.
“The first thing they begun with was the pineapples, which they cut down with their cutlasses,” said Killing. “They asked me if I would not come along and eat with them. I told them I had but little stomach to eat. They asked me why I looked so melancholy. I told them I looked as well as I could.” Next, the pirates raided the sloop’s stocks of rum and sugar, and made bowls of punch. They began drinking and singing songs while the terrified crew awaited their fate.
“As soon as they came aboard, they clapped their hands to their cutlasses,” Killing later recalled, “and I said, ‘We are taken.’”
By the morning, the pirates’ schooner had drawn alongside the Francis. This bigger two-masted sailboat flew a “bloody flag” bearing a death’s head (a skull, without — in this case — crossbones). The schooner was a fast and agile craft, able to outrun and overpower merchant vessels and evade and escape enemy warships. It was fitted with ten guns and crewed by 70 men. More pirates came aboard the Francis and transferred its cargo of rum, molasses, sugar, and cotton to the schooner. They also took gold coins, a silver watch, and 25 shillings in Boston money.
As the pirates prepared to leave, they pressed Killing to go with them. Pirates often forced or press-ganged the crews of taken vessels into their service. They expected co-operative prisoners to join them willingly. Aside from the obvious benefits of self-survival, pirates were better-paid than merchant seamen. Pirate crews were democratic organizations, led by their captains, but with a right to vote on important issues and equal shares in stolen loot. A single raid could earn a pirate the equivalent of 20 years’ wages for a merchant seaman. A pirate’s life was governed by their ship’s Articles of Agreement, or pirate code. Recruits were required to sign the Articles. But Killing refused. “I told them I was not fit for their turn,” said Killing, “neither was my inclination that way.”
At this point, the pirates presented Killing with a stark choice. Either he would go with them and become a sea-robber of the kind he dreaded and despised, or he would be marooned on a deserted island to face a slow and lonely death. So, a weary Killing set sail in the Francis, following the schooner he now knew to be called the Revenge. When the Francis fell behind, the pirates hailed Killing from the deck of the Revenge with a speaking-trumpet and informed him that if the sloop did not keep up, it would be sunk by a volley of gunfire. “So then we proceeded on our voyage,” said Killing, “‘til we came to Cape Fear.”
Among the pirates was Edward Robinson, from Newcastle upon Tyne, in the North East of England. Witnesses said Robinson bore arms “freely and voluntarily” and was “consenting and assisting” in the taking of the Francis, as he was during other pirate raids. His captain was one of the most feared pirates on the seas — Stede Bonnet, known as “the Gentleman Pirate.” Robinson had previously sailed under the most notorious pirate captain of them all — Edward Thatch, better known as “Blackbeard.” Robinson, “the Newcastle Pirate,” was 4,000 miles from home, living a life of wild abandon that struck terror into the hearts of all he encountered. But Edward Robinson’s life of piracy was perhaps not as free and voluntary as it appeared. In any case, his life as a pirate would soon be at an end.
II. Body in the Tyne
For a brief period in the early 1700s, pirates ruled the ocean waves. And it was a brief period. According to its narrowest definition, the “Golden Age of Piracy” lasted less than a decade, from around 1713 to about 1722. But the Golden Age pirates and tales of their deeds have endured and continue to fascinate 300 years on. Benjamin Hornigold and Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham and Bartholomew Roberts, the female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, and — most pertinently — Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, sailed under black flags, plundering Spanish gold and pieces of eight by day, and splurging them on prostitutes and alcohol by night. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. At least, that’s how the story goes.
The so-called Golden Age has been romanticized and hyperbolized to the extent that fact and fiction have become frustratingly entwined. The modern image of pirates has been bent into shape by novels and movies, TV shows and video games — and even a theme park ride. From Treasure Island and Peter Pan, via Pirates of the Caribbean and Assassin’s Creed IV, through to Black Sails and Crossbones, pirates continue to fascinate and enthrall. The pirates themselves have become semi-mythical characters, even though the above-named are all verifiably real. Historical documents record many of their deeds, but mysteries continue to surround the most well-known of these salty anti-heroes.
Edward Robinson is not well-known, although he was a Golden Age contemporary of Bonnet, Blackbeard, and the others. The search for the true story of the Newcastle Pirate begins on the Newcastle Quayside, next to the lapping Brown Ale-hued River Tyne and under the hulking Tyne Bridge. Accounts from Robinson’s time, around the beginning of the 18th century, describe vast numbers of sailing ships moored bow-to-stern along the Tyne’s quays, while others negotiated busy shipping lanes on their way to and from the North Sea. Customs boats traversed the river on the look-out for smugglers and other illegal traders, and navy warships patrolled for pirates and privateers. Newspapers regularly printed reports of ships being taken by enemies in waters near to the mouth of the Tyne. It was a difficult and dangerous time to be a mariner.
Much has changed in the 300 years since Edward Robinson left Newcastle, and the River Tyne no longer represents the city’s lifeblood. There is little traffic on the river. The Old Tyne Bridge, a multi-arched stone structure that Robinson would have used to cross the river, is long gone, swept away by a tumultuous flood in 1771. Some buildings from Robinson’s time survive, most notably Bessie Surtees’ House, a timber-framed merchants’ residence with five stacked-box stories. Some of the surviving buildings contain pubs, which still have the low-beamed ceilings and stone-walled snugs and passageways that 18th-century drinkers would have encountered. According to local radio host and tour guide Steve Taylor, the pirate Edward Robinson was born in one of these pubs — and later committed a brutal act in another.
“As far as we can tell, he was born in a pub called the Beehive, which is now called the Red House,” says Taylor. “It was a den of iniquity, used for illegal gambling and as a brothel. Robinson’s mother was a prostitute who worked in the pub.” To step into the Red House today is to be transported back in time, into a rum-soaked smugglers’ den, its flagstones polished to a shine by hundreds of years’ worth of feet. Although he admits facts are scarce, Taylor claims Robinson grew up to become a murderer, killing a man in another nearby pub, the White-Hart Inn, which stood on the river’s edge. “Robinson stabbed his victim in the neck,” says Taylor, “and threw his body in the Tyne.”
The White-Hart Inn location, indicated by Taylor, is now an aparthotel, below the north tower of the Tyne Bridge. Local newspaper archives hold references from the early 1700s to an inn “known by the sign of the White-Hart and Bull,” owned by one Miss Hindmarsh. But no record can be found of the murder, which Taylor says occurred during a knife fight over stolen cotton. If Edward Robinson was a fleeing murderer, he doesn’t seem to have left any evidence behind.
“Robinson stabbed his victim in the neck,” says Taylor, “and threw his body in the Tyne.”
The image of Robinson and other pirates as felons absconding to sea to escape justice fits well with the popular narrative. However, the majority of pirates were regular merchant or navy seamen who turned to piracy out of necessity. In 1713, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War (fought between belligerents including Britain and the Dutch Republic against the Spanish Empire and France), Britain abandoned much of its navy, leaving up to 30,000 sailors stranded in the Americas and the Caribbean. Stuck in foreign ports without employment or the means to get home, some of them turned to piracy. After Queen Anne died in 1714, and the British throne went to the unpopular George I of the German House of Hanover, many exiled Brits rebelled.
Could Robinson have been one of those exiled Brits? There is a reference in shipping indexes to an Edward Robinson working as a mariner on a ship out of Newcastle called the Concord. Records show the Concord transported settlers from Europe to America from the 1690s. Edward Robinson is recorded as the ship’s master — effectively the captain of the ship. In 1706, there is a reference to “the privateer Concord,” suggesting it was engaged as a private warship during the conflict against Spain and France. Then in 1711, a Captain Robinson is recorded as having battled (successfully) with French privateers.
It is likely a coincidence that the most famous ship of the Golden Age of Piracy was a French vessel known as La Concorde, which was thought to have been taken from the British by French privateers and refitted as a slave ship. But it is possible that La Concorde was the Concord, and that its former captain Edward Robinson remained aboard — as a prisoner or a press-ganged crew member — as the ship crossed the Atlantic, carrying a cargo of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. In November 1717, as it neared its destination, La Concorde was captured by pirates. Fourteen crew members and 85 enslaved Africans were forced into piracy. If Robinson was among the forced crew, this would have been his introduction to life under a black flag. La Concorde was renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge by its new captain, a fearsome figure the world would soon come to know as Blackbeard.
Much of what we popularly know about the Golden Age of Piracy comes from one source, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in London in 1724, while swashes were still being buckled. The book’s author is named as Captain Charles Johnson, although that may be a pseudonym. Scholarly claims that Captain Johnson was really Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, have been dismissed in recent years.
Whoever Johnson was, his work delivers a solid lead in the search for the Newcastle Pirate. The book contains a list of men arraigned and tried for the crime of “Pyracy” in “Charles-Town,” now Charleston, South Carolina, in late 1718. The men are the crew of the Revenge (not to be confused with the Queen Anne’s Revenge) captained by Major Stede Bonnet. The third pirate named on the list is “Edward Robinson, late of New-Castle upon Tine.”
The references to Bonnet and Charleston lead to another document, published in 1719, entitled The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates. Listed on the nameplate among the Other Pirates is Edward Robinson. The 50-page pamphlet contains a detailed account of an extraordinary trial, conducted in Charleston during October and November of 1718. It records Robinson’s swashbuckling crimes, presents his brief personal testimony, and reveals his eventual, brutal fate.
III. The Great Devil
The first recorded sighting of the pirate Edward Robinson occurred on April 4 or 5, 1718, four months before the taking of the Francis. The witness was David Herriot, master of the sloop the Adventure, which was sailing from Jamaica to the Bay of Honduras. Around 30 miles from their destination, the crew of the Adventure spotted a large vessel approaching, accompanied by two sloops. Initially, Herriot believed the vessel to be another merchant ship. However, as it came closer, he became nervous and ordered a swift change of course. The large ship came about and fired a shot across the Adventure. Then one of the sloops came alongside, “with a black flag hoisted.” The sloop was the Revenge, belonging to Major Stede Bonnet. Herriot was taken on board the Revenge, while the pirates took the Adventure.
Herriot later listed the names of the pirates he encountered. The first named pirate was Edward Robinson, who Herriot said was the ship’s gunner. The Revenge had ten guns — heavy cannons that could fire cast iron roundshots over half-mile distances. The gunner was responsible for these guns, which were wheeled back on carriages for reloading using wooden rammerheads, and for the ammunition and gunpowder, which had to be kept dry and safe from combustion.
Although the Revenge was owned by Stede Bonnet, it was not really under his command. Bonnet had been injured in an ill-advised attack on a Spanish man-of-war that left him confined to his cabin. By the time the Revenge encountered David Herriot’s Adventure, Bonnet’s ship had been incorporated into a pirate flotilla, and his authority had been superseded by the captain of the flotilla’s largest ship. Herriot must have realized who that captain was before the crew named him. Mariners in the area referred to the large pirate ship as “the Great Devil.” The ship’s given name was the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and its captain was Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard.
Although Blackbeard is an infamous historical figure, his origins are as uncertain as those of Edward Robinson. Contemporary sources, including testimony from his crew, give Blackbeard’s name as Thatch, although Captain Johnson and several other subsequent writers call him “Teach.” Johnson says he was from Bristol, England, and was a Royal Navy sailor who fought with “uncommon boldness and personal courage” in Queen Anne’s War before turning to piracy. Thatch sailed initially under the pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold before the opportunity arose to take his own command during an encounter with the incapacitated Stede Bonnet.
Thatch was based at Nassau on the Bahamian island of New Providence, a pirate-controlled ramshackle haven of dirty deals and debauchery. Although the Bahamas were officially British, New Providence had been virtually abandoned due to French and Spanish attacks during the war. Nassau’s secluded harbor, near to the American trade routes, made it an ideal base for a colony of around a thousand real Pirates of the Caribbean. When Stede Bonnet limped into Nassau aboard the stricken Revenge after the beating from the man-of-war in September 1717, Thatch took control of the injured captain’s sloop and crew. Sailing out of Nassau and into the Caribbean trading routes, Captain Thatch began the reign of terror for which he would be remembered for centuries to come.
One of the first prizes taken by Thatch was La Concorde in an audacious raid off the island of Martinique. Thatch renamed his new flagship the Queen Anne’s Revenge and fitted it with 40 guns. With such firepower at his disposal, Thatch began to attack bigger and well-armed merchant ships. One was the Great Allen, which was plundered and then set on fire. When Thatch encountered a British warship, the Scarborough, the pirate captain’s superior firepower drove the Royal Navy into retreat. After the merchant ship the Margaret was raided in December 1717, its British captain Henry Bostock described Thatch as “a tall, spare man with a very black beard, which he wore very long.” Newspapers circulated that description, and a legend was born.
“So our hero assumed the cognomen of Blackbeard, from that large quantity of hair, which, like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face, and frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there a long time,” wrote Captain Johnson. “He wore a sling over his shoulder, with three brace of pistols, hanging in holsters like bandoliers, and stuck lighted matches under his hat, which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to loom more frightful.”
Intimidation was a pirate’s most useful weapon, and many ships were taken without a cutlass being drawn or a flintlock being fired. Fear alone was often enough to compel a crew to surrender. Blackbeard generated such a level of fear that he rarely needed to use violence. He terrified his prey and also scared his crew, compelling them to stay loyal. “In the commonwealth of pirates,” explained Johnson, “he who goes to the greatest lengths of wickedness is looked upon with a kind of envy amongst them.”
“Our hero assumed the cognomen of Blackbeard, from that large quantity of hair, which, like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face, and frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there a long time.”
David Herriot and his crew were forced to join Blackbeard, and the Adventure became a pirate ship under the command of Blackbeard’s quartermaster Israel Hands. Sailing north, the pirates encountered a flotilla of ships, the largest of which was the Protestant Caesar. According to Herriot, Blackbeard fired a gun and raised his black flag, causing the crew of the Protestant Caesar to abandon ship and flee to land. The pirates plundered the ship, and then set it alight, the latter action intended as a message to the ship’s home port of Boston, a town that was known to hang pirates.
Blackbeard continued north — with Edward Robinson on board — taking more ships, before arriving in May 1718 at Charleston. In an audacious move, Blackbeard blockaded the town’s harbor, seizing several ships, including the London-bound Crowley, and taking scores of prisoners. Five pirates were sent ashore with a ransom demand for a chest of medicines — most likely because the pirates were suffering from venereal disease. According to Captain Johnson, the pirates “very insolently made their demands, threatening that if they did not send immediately the chest of medicines… they would murder all their prisoners, send up their heads to the governor, and set the ships they had taken on fire.”
Edward Robinson asked Blackbeard if he could be one of those sent ashore with the ransom demand. Blackbeard refused, and the aggrieved Robinson was left with the prisoners. The pirates who did go ashore made sure to enjoy themselves. Although the chest of medicines was provided quickly, the pirates were too busy drinking in Charleston’s taverns to take it back to their captain. After five days, during which no ships were allowed in or out of Charleston, Blackbeard moved his flotilla into the harbor, and the people of the town “abandoned themselves to despair.”
Finally, the drunken pirates resurfaced and returned to the Queen Anne’s Revenge with the ransom chest. Blackbeard released the prisoners and ended the blockade, but not before he had taken £1,500 of gold and silver (worth around £130,000 or $200,000 today) from the captured ships. It was to be Blackbeard’s last great act of piracy.
After leaving Charleston, Blackbeard’s flotilla headed north for around 150 miles until it reached Topsail Inlet, now known as Beaufort Inlet, near the town of Beaufort, North Carolina. On entering the inlet, the Queen Anne’s Revenge struck a bar and suffered catastrophic damage. The mainsail mast was broken, and its timber hull was smashed. As the ship floundered and began to take on water, the crew hurried to rescue small arms, money, and other items of value. Then the 300-ton, 40-gun pirate ship sank to the ocean floor. “The Great Devil” was lost.
IV. Burn and destroy
Edward Robinson had not eaten or taken water for two days. He and 16 other men were stranded on a deserted sandbank, more than three miles from the North Carolina coast. The men had no provisions or materials, no shade from the sun, and no means of getting off the sandbank. The men, Captain Johnson wrote, expected “nothing less but a lingering death.”
Robinson and the others had been deliberately marooned by Blackbeard shortly after the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground in Topsail Inlet. What initially looked like an unusual navigational error was determined to be a ploy on Blackbeard’s behalf to break up the large pirate crew (thought to be numbering around 300), and secure a more substantial proportion of his treasure for himself and his closest companions.
Blackbeard’s further intention might have been to avoid detection while he sought a Royal pardon. The blockade of Charleston had prompted the British government to send a new fleet of warships across the Atlantic to extinguish once and for all the pirate threat. The Queen Anne’s Revenge was a large and conspicuous ship that would have been easy for the Royal Navy to identify. Blackbeard was aware that pardons were being offered to repentant pirates by Governor Charles Eden in the nearby town of Bath. Pardoned pirates were offered commissions to sail as privateers under license from the British government. In effect, Blackbeard could become a state-sponsored pirate.
So Blackbeard loaded up a small Spanish sloop with his treasure and a trusted crew. Stede Bonnet had already gone ahead to Bath, so Blackbeard did not need to be concerned about interference from his fellow pirate captain. A large number of men were left on board the Revenge. And Edward Robinson — who had quarreled with Blackbeard in Charleston — and 16 others, presumably those who could have disrupted Blackbeard’s plan, were marooned.
After two days of waiting to die, Robinson and his fellow castaways spotted a ship in the distance. On board was Stede Bonnet, who had returned from Bath with his pardon, only to find that Blackbeard had disappeared with the company’s loot. Bonnet showed the castaways his pardon, or “Act of Grace,” and told them he was sailing to the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas to receive a privateering commission. They were welcome to go with him, he said, and in their desperate situation, they had little choice. Regaining command of the Revenge, Bonnet sailed out to sea. But his true intentions were not to receive a commission. “I knew nothing but that we were going to Saint Thomas,” mariner John William Smith later recalled, “but after we were out, they hoisted the bloody flag.”
Bonnet’s first impulse was to find Blackbeard and claim revenge for his treachery. It seems unlikely that Robinson would have argued, having been left by Blackbeard to die. Bonnet didn’t find Blackbeard, but he did come across several merchant ships. Claiming to need provisions, he stole pork and bread from a small cargo ship, and then rum and molasses from a 60-ton sloop — nullifying his short-lived pardon. The Revenge then chased down two ships from Glasgow and took tobacco and other provisions. A merchant ship from Bristol, the Fortune, was also taken, and its captain, Thomas Read, taken prisoner. Then, at Delaware Bay in August 1718, Bonnet, Robinson, and the other pirates took the sloop the Francis.
Stede Bonnet may not be as well-known as Blackbeard, but he is one of the most interesting pirates profiled in Captain Johnson’s General History. A wealthy and well-educated young man from a plantation-owning family in Barbados, Bonnet was described by Captain Johnson as “ill-qualified for the business” and “not understanding maritime affairs.” He took the unusual step of leaving his plantation to go pirating due to, according to Johnson, “a disorder of the mind” caused by an unhappy marriage. Bonnet used his own funds to buy a sloop, fit it out with ten guns, and crew it with 70 men. Naming his ship the Revenge, he sailed in the spring of 1717 for the coast of America.
Bonnet wrote a letter intended for Governor Johnson, threatening to “burn and destroy all ships or vessels going in or coming out of Carolina.”
Initially, it seems, Bonnet’s entry into piracy was very successful. The Revenge plundered the coastal waters from Virginia to New York, stealing money, ammunition, and other bounties from ships on the busy trade routes. But Bonnet’s lack of seafaring knowledge saw him increasingly sidelined by his more experienced crew. He became unpopular among his crew not only for his lack of knowledge but also for his cruelty.
Christopher Byrd Downey is a Charleston historian, and the author of Stede Bonnet: Charleston’s Gentleman Pirate. “I think he was a complex, very emotional person, certainly with some inner demons,” says Downey. “He could certainly be brutal and aggressive, particularly with his own crew. But I think he knew that he had no business being a pirate captain, and he tried to overcompensate for his shortcomings by being a brute.”
After taking the Francis, the Revenge sailed to Cape Fear, where the crew set about careening and refitting the sloop. Careening involved beaching the ship at high tide to repair its hull. It was a dangerous and laborious activity that required the pirates to remain in situ for some time. Eventually, news of the sloop’s location reached a still-fearful Charleston. To prevent another assault, Governor Robert Johnson authorized a commission against the pirates, sending Colonel William Rhett with two armed sloops, the Henry and the Sea-Nymph.
Rhett arrived at Cape Fear on September 26, 1718, and soon spotted the Revenge, which had been refitted, and was anchored alongside Bonnet’s two prizes, the Fortune and the Francis. However, as Rhett made his approach, both the Henry and the Sea-Nymph ran aground. Bonnet made plans to evade the stricken sloops, emptying the prizes and moving all of his men to the Revenge. Bonnet also wrote a letter intended for Governor Johnson, threatening to “burn and destroy all ships or vessels going in or coming out of Carolina.”
At first light, the Revenge sailed toward Colonel Rhett’s sloops, “designing only a running fight.” But the Henry and the Sea-Nymph, freed by the rising tide, cut off the escape route and began “warmly engaging” the pirates with two sets of eight guns. The pirates responded via Edward Robinson’s guns, which were fired and reloaded repeatedly, smashing roundshots into Rhett’s vessels, splintering their hulls, and injuring their crews.
Rhett’s intention was to get close enough to board the Revenge, but, as the pirate ship edged away towards the shore, it ran aground. The Henry, as it moved within pistol-shot range, also ran aground. A little further behind, and out of gunshot range, the Sea-Nymph also became stranded on the shallow sea bed. All three ships were stuck, and what followed was an awkward six-hour fight during which Rhett’s Henry and Bonnet’s Revenge exchanged brisk gunfire and insults.
The pirates held a slight advantage because their ship was positioned at an angle that provided them with some cover, enabling them to pop flintlock and musket shots over the bow, and shelter from retaliatory fire. They raised their bloody flag and flippantly beckoned with their hats for Rhett’s men to come closer. Rhett’s men “responded with cheerful Huzzas, and told them it would soon be their turn.”
As the tide changed, Rhett’s Henry was the first sloop to refloat. Its rigging was damaged in the battle, but it was able to maneuver around the Revenge and “give the finishing stroke.” The pirates had little option but to raise a flag of truce and surrender. The battle was over. Seven pirates were killed and two more were mortally wounded. Twelve of Rhett’s men were dead and 18 were wounded. Rhett placed Bonnet, Robinson, and the remaining pirates in irons. After refitting and taking fresh water, he sailed back to Charleston, arriving with his prisoners on October 3, 1718, “to the great joy of the whole province of Carolina.”
V. Cry for vengeance
In 1718, when Edward Robinson arrived in chains, Charleston (then “Charles-Town” or “Charles Towne”) was a small but prosperous walled port, butted between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, the latter of which flows into the Atlantic. As the southernmost settlement of the British colony, Charleston was an important trading post, surrounded by a curtain wall with six projecting bastions and a drawbridge gate. For decades, Charleston had fought off land raids from Native Americans and sea raids from the French and Spanish. Now they had to contend with pirates.
Inside Charleston’s walls were houses, churches, and inns, but no prison. Instead, Stede Bonnet was held at the residence of Town Marshal Nathaniel Partridge. Edward Robinson and the rest of the pirates were held outside of the town walls at the Watch House, at White Point, so-called for the white oyster shells that washed up on its shore. After a few days, Adventure master David Herriot and Revenge boatswain Ignatius Pell, who had both agreed to testify against the pirates, were removed to the Marshal’s house with Bonnet.
On October 24, 1718, after three weeks in captivity, Bonnet and Herriot escaped. Pell refused to go with them. Bonnet and Herriot obtained a canoe and aimed to head north. However, bad weather meant they only got as far as Sullivan’s Island, across the bay from Charleston harbor. When news of the escape reached Governor Johnson, he sent Colonel Rhett on a commission, offering a reward of £700 for Bonnet’s return. Marshal Partridge was relieved of his duties.
Despite Bonnet’s absence, the piracy trial began on October 28, presided over by Nicholas Trott, Judge of the Vice-Admiralty and Chief Justice of South Carolina. Trott, the brother-in-law of Colonel Rhett, was a fascinating character, notorious for the political and religious proclamations that peppered his judgments. The trial began with a lengthy speech, colored with Latin and Biblical references, which seemed to condemn the prisoners before they took the stand.
“Piracy is a robbery committed upon the sea, and a pirate is a sea-thief,” Trott explained. “As to the heinousness or wickedness of the offense, it needs no aggravation, it being evident to the reason of all men… The inhabitants of this province have of late, to their great cost and damages, felt the evil of piracy.” He also invoked the memory of Rhett’s men who were killed in the battle at Cape Fear, saying, “The blood of those murdered persons will cry for vengeance against the offenders.”
The pirates were tried in groups. Edward Robinson and his group were indicted with “feloniously and piratically” taking the sloops the Francis and the Fortune (although it was stated that that were all “old offenders” who had taken at least 28 vessels in the company of Blackbeard and Bonnet). All in Robinson’s group pleaded not guilty. Ignatius Pell gave evidence against his former crewmates, as did Captain Manwareing and James Killing of the Francis and Captain Read of the Fortune.
The pirates were given no legal counsel but were invited to make their own cases. Several of them claimed they had joined with Bonnet out of desperation after being marooned by Blackbeard, and believed that Bonnet was sailing to receive a pardon. “When Captain Thatch left us, it was on a maroon island,” Edward Robinson told the court, “and Major Bonnet came and told me he was going to Saint Thomas, and we might go with him.”
During the evidence of Captain Read, Robinson claimed he had never set foot on the Francis. “Captain Read, when did you see me aboard your sloop?” he asked.
“I cannot say I saw you on board,” replied Read, “but you were with them when they shared [the loot].”
Judge Trott then interjected, telling Robinson, “If you was not on board the sloop, you was one of the crew, and they that stand ready to assist are as much pirates as the other.”
As the trial approached its end, now November 1, 1718, Judge Trott addressed the 12-man jury. “Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoners at the bar stand indicted for felony and piracy,” he said. “All the evidences fully prove the fact upon them, that they were all equally guilty, and all shared in the goods and plunder… They all pretend they were under force and constraint, but it is a suggestion of their own, without the least proof.”
After deliberating for a short while, the jury returned. One by one, the defendants were ordered to raise their hands. “How say you?” Judge Trott asked the foreman of the jury. “Is he guilty of the piracy whereof he now stands indicted, or not guilty?” For each defendant, the foreman, Timothy Bellamy, replied, “Guilty.”
Judge Trott passed sentence on November 5. He gave another lengthy speech. “You cannot but acknowledge that you have all of you had a fair and indifferent trial,” he told them. “As to the crime that you are convicted of, which is piracy, the evil and wickedness of it is evident to the reason of all men… You caused your terror to be on all that haunt the sea… Your sins were dyed in blood… You shall go from here to the place whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you shall be severally hanged by the neck ’til you are severally dead. And the God of infinite mercy be merciful to every one of your souls.”
“You caused your terror to be on all that haunt the sea… Your sins were dyed in blood.”
On Saturday, November 8, 1718, Edward Robinson and 28 others were taken from the Watch House onto the White Point. Nooses were placed around their necks and, in front of a crowd of townsfolk, they were strung from a gallows and hanged. It was a brutal and protracted means of execution. The more efficient “long drop” method of hanging, which delivered a swift broken neck, had yet to be invented. Instead, Robinson and the other pirates twisted and struggled on their ropes, slowly and painfully dying of strangulation over a period of 10 or 20 minutes. It was one of the largest mass-hangings in history.
Two days later, on November 10, Stede Bonnet was brought to the same place. He had been re-captured by Colonel Rhett and returned to Charleston to face justice. The other escapee, David Herriot, was shot dead during the capture. Herriot, who was forced into piracy following the taking of his Adventure, left behind a sworn deposition detailing the pirates’ crimes. Bonnet stood trial and was found guilty, with Judge Trott condemning the pirate captain “to the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone.” Stripped of his gentleman’s finery, and with the powdered wig removed from his bald head, Bonnet clutched a small bunch of flowers in his hands as he was hanged from the gallows until dead.
Blackbeard outlived Bonnet’s crew by only a few weeks. He received his pardon, as planned, but soon returned to piracy. He was killed during a brutal battle with the pirate hunter Robert Maynard of the HMS Pearl at Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Blackbeard was shot five times and stabbed around 20 times. He died on the blood-soaked deck, while the remaining members of his crew surrendered. Blackbeard’s head was cut off and hung from the Pearl’s bowsprit.
Today, White Point Garden is a pretty harbor-side park filled with oak trees and military monuments. At the north-east corner of the park stands a large granite marker, engraved as a memorial of sorts to the pirates: “Near this spot in the autumn of 1718, Stede Bonnet, notorious ‘Gentleman Pirate,’ and 29 of his men, captured by Colonel William Rhett, met their just deserts after a trial and charge, famous in American History, by Chief Justice Nicholas Trott.”
Edward Robinson was, by his own testimony, a reluctant pirate. He was certainly involved in piratical acts, although there is no record of him committing violence. Did he deserve his brutal punishment? That is open to debate. But, whether he was a villain or a victim of circumstance, his truncated life of high adventure deserves to be better remembered.
The White Point marker, standing in the shade of an oak, was erected in 1941 by the Charleston Historical Commission at a cost of $150 plus 25 cents per engraved word. But the original pirate marker was a wooden sign that stood in a street a couple of blocks north. That’s because, after being left to hang at White Point for several days, the pirates’ bodies were cut down and buried at low tide near the mouth of the old creek.
The creek ran along what is now Water Street, a quiet and pristine Charleston thoroughfare. The original wooden pirate marker stood at the old low-tide mark right outside what is now number 14 Water Street. There’s nothing left to suggest it was ever there. But this is where Edward Robinson lies buried, below the surface of Water Street, some 4,000 miles from his home. This is where the Golden Age of Piracy came to an abrupt and brutal end. ♦
Paul Brown is the author of Sins Dyed In Blood: The Lost Pirate of Blackbeard’s Golden Age.
“The untold true story of Edward Robinson, the Newcastle Pirate, who sailed with Blackbeard during the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 1700s.”