Pirates, Privateers, and Rhode Island Smuggling –
The English Navy description of New England may have been Right!

From 1650 until 1700, it could truly be said that piracy was an important industry in Rhode Island. Pirates fitted out in Rhode Island. Pirates obtained commissions in Rhode Island as a “privateer” that allowed them to capture the ships of an enemy, bring captured ships in Rhode Island and have the captured ship and contents legally declared property of the pirates minus a percentage to the governor or government issuing the commission for someone to operate as a privateer.

A pirate bringing seized cargo ashore in Rhode Island was not paying custom taxes to England. To the English this was smuggling, avoiding payment of taxes. To the Rhode Islanders, this was simply part of everyday commerce, to pay pirates for goods at a cheaper price than otherwise available.

But cheaper goods (“smuggling and receipt of stolen goods” according to the English) was only part of a pirate’s value to Rhode Island:

  • For Rhode Island as a colony, getting a percentage “of the loot” (excuse me, the legally correct language was “of the captured goods”), was a government income without taxation of the local residents;
  • Privateering was a full employment policy for the colony: Rhode Islanders signed up as pirate crew members;
  • As a refuge and refitting base for pirates between voyages, Rhode Island was able to sell its own food, rum, lumber, goods, and shipbuilding repair services.

John Hore is particularly associated with Rhode Island establishing its own admiralty court — outside of the Royal Admiralty Courts. In 1694, under a privateer’s commission issued by English authority in Jamaica, Hore captured a fine French ship. Hore brought the prize back to Rhode Island — instead of to Jamaica. Based on the idea that Rhode Island traditionally had not collected English customs taxes, Hore logically thought that by going to Rhode Island he would be able to avoid paying the English customs taxes for goods brought into Jamaica, plus avoid paying the percentage due the British government in Jamaica.

But upon arrival in a port in Rhode Island. Hore was dismayed to find there was at that time no Admiralty Court in Rhode Island to legally declare the property was his. So Hore petitioned the governor of Rhode Island to establish an Admiralty Court. The governor publically declared he thought it his patriotic duty as an Englishman to encourage attacks against the French, so Rhode Island quickly established an Admiralty Court. The new Admiralty Court duly declared the captured French ship and her cargo legally that of Capt. Hore.

Hore settled in as a resident of Rhode Island for the winter, had the Rhode Island shipbuilders fit out his captured ship as a “privateer” and sailed off the next year to the Pacific’s East Indies to be a pirate in that area.

Another example of pirates from Rhode Island was the Pelican, a ship brought in as a prize sized from the French. It was duly condemned for sale as a seizure by a privateer, and then refitted with 16 guns, and a crew of 100. Rhode Island Governor Walter Clares issued a customs clearance to have the Pelican sail to return a number of sailors captured on the Pelican to Jamaica. Apparently many persons knew that Capt Colly and his crew intended “to cruise on the Moors, not intending to Pirate among the Europeans, but honestly and quietly to rob what Moors fell in their way”. Several of the original sailors who wanted to go back to Jamaica refused to sail with Colly because his destination was not Jamaica. The ship captain, Colly, promptly paid the Deputy Collector of Customs, Gardiner, to be Colly’s legal attorney to take care of business for him while he was gone from Rhode Island, and Gardiner promptly cleared the ship for sailing from Rhode Island to Jamaica. Capt Colly cruised off to Madagascar and is reported to have proceeded to do the “usual rob, pillage and burn” of settlements on islands near Madagascar.

The trial George Cutler illustrated how the legal system of Rhode Island was used as a refuge for pirates to obtain the equivalent of what we today call “money laundering”. In 1698, Cutler was arrested for piracy and having a large sum on money in his possession which he had in his ship Fowy. He was immediately let out on bail, awaiting a trial. The rules of the trial were that if no one physically showed up to claim he was the owner of the cash and goods, the prisoner was acquitted and the court would declare the accused to be the rightful owner of the goods. On March 28, 1699, Cutler was tried before the Court of General Tryalls at Newport on the charge of piracy. No one offered any proof against him. Questioned where he had got the money, Cutler said he got it in various places, included being willed some of it by a resident of Madagascar. The jury acquitted and Cutler took up residency in Newport, Rhode Island, with his stash of cash.

A few months later, as one of the wealthy persons of the town of Newport, Cutler joined with Thomas Pine and others in signing a petition for the assignment of an Anglican minister to Newport, thus Cutler became one of the founders of Trinity Church in Newport.

Usually, if a trial as to whether the accused was a pirate with stolen goods in his possession was not expected to clear the person accused of piracy, the prisoner took advantage of a wonderfully negligent succession of sheriffs and jailers. E.g., William Downs escaped from Jail in April 1698, it was duly reported that the Under Sheriff let Downs out of jail to “ease himself”. No sheriff or under sheriff was ever tried for any crime or negligence.

By 1695, English officials were not only criticizing Rhode Island for failing to observe the customs laws, but also for serving as a base for pirates. That year, the Earl of Bellomont financed an expedition by Captain Kidd against pirates “from New England, Rode Island, New York, and other parts in America”. (But as we know Captain Kidd seemed to find piracy an attractive proposition and turned to it himself, rather than tamp down the pirate business in Rhode Island.)

Two years later, in August of 1697, the English Board of Trade was referring to Rhode Island and Connecticut as “having become a great receptacle for pirates”. By December 1698 the Board recommended to the King the issuance of a writ of quo warranto for removal of the Rhode Island charter. The commission to investigate the situation reported 25 paragraphs of irregularities. Among these were the issuance by Deputy Governor Green of commissions to persons who thereupon committed piracy in the seas of India and the “coutenancing and harbouring of pirates”.

Naturally, the finding by the English Board of Trade so shocked the Rhode Island government sufficiently that it promised to try to reform, and thereby the King took no action.

It may not have been so much the pressure from England’s Board of Trade that caused what became a slow reformation after 1700 of the general attitude of Rhode Island. After 1700 Rhode Island was itself the base for increasing numbers of merchant ships, and Rhode Island’s merchant ships were distressingly more often captured by pirates. The Rhode Island attitude and actions gradually became one of intolerance to pirates based outside of Rhode Island (but not of Rhode Island colonists who went out of Rhode Island harbors on apparent pirate missions).

See the fine description of pirates in Rhode Island by Alexander Hawes, Off Soundings: Aspects of the Maritime History of Rhode Island (at the section “Pirates and Piracies”)