Pirate Biographies: Benjamin Hornigold of Eleuthera, the Bahamas

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Historian Michael Craton called them “Adventurers.” Again, they too came from Bermuda, a charter colony of the Somers Islands Company.  According to the Articles and Orders of the Company of Eleutherian Adventurers, for a £100 investment, each member received 300 acres and membership in a republican government.  Not quite as democratic as its sister colony of Rhode Island, each member would receive a seat on the Senate in a radical departure from the English norm.  “Eleuthera” meant “freedom” in Greek and these Puritans founded perhaps the first ideologically-modern American government there.  The first president, or “governor” was to be chosen by the Crown, but all subsequent governors elected.

As with all good intentions, there were both physical and political problems. Without yet the charter in hand, William Sayles left Bermuda with seventy Puritan settlers for Eleuthera to reattempt the earlier Puritan settlement made there under the first charter by Philip Bell.  Sayles’ ship wrecked with only one fatality and he used a shallop to sail to Virginia to get relief for the lost ship and supplies.  In the meantime, King Charles I was beheaded and royalists on Bermuda began expelling other Puritans to Eleuthera.  Some came from New England as well. Later, a few returned when the political climate grew less hostile.  Still, “a hard core of settlers remained at Eleuthera, eking out a miserable existence based upon the export of brasiletto and ambergris, the gleanings from wrecks [common here] and the sporadic generosity of other colonies.” Then, Charles II was restored to the throne and he granted the Bahamas to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, private owners who ran this important strategic centurion into the ground.

Many ancestors of future pirates came with these “Adventurers” to the Bahamas more than half a century before the Golden Age. Among those that remained there were William and Mary Carey and their family, John and Richard Carey, and Mark Carey.  Another family, the Kemps, included Benjamin, Jane, Mary and children; they also had Anthony and his sons, John, Anthony and their families.  Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of pirate history were the Lows.  Gideon and Martha and their daughters were listed, as well as Matthew and Sarah, son Thomas and daughters, and John and Elizabeth Low.  Car(e)ys and Low(e)s were known families of Quakers that married into the Carolina Lord Proprietor John Archdale’s family.  Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies (March 1715) shows:

 

List of men that sailed from Ileatheria and committed piraceys upon the Spaniards, on the coast of Cuba, since the Proclamation of Peace. Danl. Stillwell, marryd to Jno. Darvill's daughter. John Kemp, Mathew Lowe, James Bourne, John Cary (all married). John Darvill sent his yong son of 17 yeares old [Zacheus], a piratting and was part owner of the vessell that committed the piraceys. Strangers that sailed from Ileatheria a piratting:—Benja. Hornigold, Thomas Terrill, Ralph Blankershire, Benja. Linn.

 

This early record from March 1715 tells of Benajamin Hornigold as a “stranger,” perhaps a new arrival to Eleuthera. The alleged association of him with Edward Thache has caused most to regard him as an elderly man. Perhaps this was true, for there is a marriage record from Saint Matthew’s Parish, Ipswich, Suffolk County, England dated January 8, 1679 for “Ben Hornigold” to “Sarah Mosse” that gives this man a birthdate of about 1655-1660 at the latest. He would be about fifty-five to sixty years old in 1715. Could this be the alleged elderly pirate Capt. Benjamin Hornigold from Eleuthera? Does he also descend from the Hornigolds of West Yorkshire, who have Benjamins in their line as early as 1620? 

There are several records, ironically, in Ipswich, Massachusetts for this same Benjamin Hornigold - only his wife’s maiden name is listed as “Morse.” The Morse family of New England is an old one, dating back to the original Puritan migration, primarily from Ipswich, a port town just northeast of London. Some of the family, however, remained in England and, being a maritime family, they moved back and forth occasionally. Family history tells that Samuel Morse was the original immigrant to New England, but that he left brothers behind in Ipswich. The family historian told that he traveled to England to compare the records because of his family’s nomadic tendency, which left only gaps and confusion – essentially, a one-sided tale. One record in Massachusetts tells that Mary, Robert, and Sarah Morse Hornigold are siblings and it gives the full name of her husband, Benjamin Hornigold, still in England (Robert also, a “Tobacconist” in London). The most informative record is the copy of a will of another sibling named Nathaniel Morse, mariner of Ipswich, county Suffolk, England. He bequeaths 20s for a ring to “loving Brother in Law Benjamin Hornigold of Ipswich aforesaid Marrinner.”

Benjamin and Henry Hornigold, as well as a “Widow Hornigold” all appear in the Hearth Tax lists for 1674, five years before Benjamin married Sarah Mosse/Morse. Henry appears in the Wapping district of London, another mariner, married to Elizabeth with a daughter Mary in 1700. There are no children listed or burial records remaining for Benjamin and Sarah Hornigold in Ipswich, England. Speculation might be that Sarah Morse Hornigold may have died after 1689, when her name appeared in her brother’s will, driving Benjamin to emigrate to Eleuthera as a “stranger” by 1714. His choice of the Bahamas may have had to do with the nominal Puritan presence there already, especially since the Anglican Church’s reassertion of authority after 1703. There is no evidence for children, which is not surprising at this early date. The only christenings found are for the children of James and Ann Hornigold. They have three children, born from 1709-1714. James Hornigold apparently was also a mariner, master of the brigantine Wintringham, “a prime Sailor, Pink Stern, Ipswich built,” of 80 tons, “built for the Coasting Trade.”

Colin Woodard in Republic of Pirates explored detailed records in the National Archives of London for previously unknown facts about Hornigold and the early Bahamas pirates. He describes one Jonathan Darvell, “an old salt who as a young sailor had joined a mutiny, seized a slave ship, and sold her living cargo to Dutch merchants on Curaçoa.” Darvell owned the sloop Happy Return, sailed by Hornigold and manned with some Jamaicans, his son-in-law Daniel Stillwell, and his own 17-year-old son Zacheus. They raided the Spanish shores of Florida and Cuba in summer 1714, bringing home plunder worth £11,500. Note that Darvells and Stillwells also settled the early colony of Massachusetts Bay.

Thomas Walker, former Admiralty Judge of the Bahamas, attempted to have Daniel Stillwell arrested and sent to Jamaica for trial. Jonathan Chace, as captain of the sloop Portsmouth, was charged with delivering Stillwell to Gov. Archibald Hamilton at Jamaica. He left in January 1715, but Benjamin Hornigold managed to intercept the Portsmouth, saving Stillwell. He then turned back to the Bahamas and determined to take care of Walker.

Woodard writes “All the colony’s inhabitants knew that if Walker were out of the way, the Bahamas would belong to the pirates and to the pirates alone.” Hornigold left Harbor Island for the larger New Providence Island and the capital of Nassau. He then declared that all pirates were under his protection. This birthed the “Flying Gang” and the beginning of the Bahamas as the quintessential pirate nest.

Eleven Spanish treasure galleons wrecked in a hurricane on July 30, 1715. Maritime opportunists from all around the Atlantic came to the Bahamas to fish those wrecks. Wealthy Jamaican privateer Henry Jennings of Bermuda and Jamaica sparred with Benjamin Hornigold over rights to French and Spanish prizes taken during the treasure lust that infested the Florida coast.

By December 1716, the Henry Timberlake deposition tells of Hornigold and Thache working in consort, with equal ships of 8 guns and 90 crew each.

Thache had finally joined with Hornigold and others in the Bahamas in July 1717. Still, the king’s proclamation of September 5, 1717, granting pardons to pirates, threatened to end the Republic of Pirates, as Woodard calls it. Capt. Vincent Pearse in HMS Phoenix arrives the next February and accepts the surrenders of multiple pirates, including John Cochram, Charles Vane, and John Augur, a wealthy land owner of Jamaica. Vane and Augur would again go out “on the account” and hang for that indiscretion.

Woodes Rogers, a former privateer himself, is appointed governor of the Bahamas, which becomes a royal colony for the very first time and is no longer subject to private misrule. Capt. Benjamin Hornigold then became a successful pirate hunter!

“That Day came Advice that three Vessels, supposed to be Vane and his Prizes were at Green Turtlekey near Albacoa [Abaco], whereupon the Governour caused a Sloop to be fitted out under the Command of Captain Hornigold  to go and view them, and bring them an Account what they were: In about three Weeks Captain Hornigold returned, having lain most of that Time concealed and viewing Vane the Pyrate, with design to surprize him or some of his Men, who they expected would pass near them in their Boats; but tho' he failed in this, he brought in with him a Sloop of this Place which had got Leave of the Governour to go out a Turtling, but had been trading with Vane, who had then with him two Ships and a Brigantine, his Sloop that he escaped in from hence being run away by some of his Fellow-Pyrates.”  ~ The London Gazette, December 27, 1718.

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