At the Wight centre of piracy

By John Medland

Published on Friday, February 08, 2013 - 11:17


At the Wight centre of piracy

A map of the Island in Elizabethan times.

WIGHT LIVING If Queen Victoria’s bathing machine at Osborne had been a time machine, and she had opened her doors onto the bay in the late 16th century, she could have witnessed a gathering of up to 30 pirate ships, under flags of convenience, busily trading in stolen goods.

In the reign of Victoria’s predecessor Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the Island was a centre of international piracy.

The anchorage of Meade Hole was a fathom’s depth off Osborne Bay. It was a natural resting point for 16th century ships sailing up and down Rhe Channel.

As they carried different goods, they naturally traded with one another. From the mid-1500s it was also a haunt of pirates trading their stolen goods into the Island economy. By 1570, Meade Hole was an emporium of trade in illegal goods.

Piracy was a natural attraction for the avaricious and violently inclined in our waters, ever since the first rich cargoes sailed past poor communities of fishermen back in the Bronze Age.

From the Middle Ages onwards, we have legal records of merchants complaining to the Crown that their wrecked cargoes were being robbed by organised bands of local salvors.

Sometimes their ships were not wrecked but simply seeking shelter in The Solent. The names recorded in arrest warrants indicate a sophisticated cross-Solent criminal maritime network. It was a short step from aggravated salvage to outright piracy.

From 1324, The Solent pirate industry enjoyed government backing for the 150 years of intermittent warfare with France, known nationally as the Hundred Years War.

Piracy was officially encouraged as 'privateering’, attacking England’s enemies at sea. Feigned ignorance of truces was used to seize legal cargoes. The pirate ship owners could shift their flag and jurisdiction to take advantage of other privateer maritime powers at war while England was at peace.

After 1500, the influx of gold and silver pillaged from Mexico and South America by Spain increased trade with the Spanish Empire’s manufacturing Spanish Netherlands.

The value of Channel trade grew and so did the potential profits from piracy.

Piracy was a business of the seriously rich. They formed early capitalist companies of shareholders to acquire and supply the warships, captains and crews. They required mercantile distribution networks for the stolen goods. The local authorities were bribed to turn a blind eye.

From 1565 to 1583, the Governor of the Island was Sir Edward Horsey. As Captain of the Wight, he was uniquely insulated from legal demands for the recovery of stolen ships and cargoes.

Normally aggrieved owners could seek legal redress through the Admiralty to the local vice-admiral or through the Privy Council to the County Lord Lieutenant. As Horsey combined both functions, he could hold up legal investigations indefinitely.

One of Horsey’s associates was John Vaughan. In 1568, he was tried by the bailiffs of Newport for stabbing another sailor with a dagger and was jailed in 1574.

Three years later, Vaughan accompanied Governor Horsey on a diplomatic trip to the Netherlands. By 1581, 'the pirate Vaughan’, as the Spanish envoy described him, was operating four pirate ships from the Island.

Newport’s merchants were drawn in. In 1576, Henry Jolliffe, who traded with Normandy, lost one of his ships to pirates and it was never recovered.

By 1589, his pirate ships were seizing merchandise on the high seas. Another Newport merchant who switched to piracy was Thomas Page. In 1579, he petitioned against the threat of pirates but by 1590 commanded his own privateer, Commander.

Elizabeth’s government was aware of the scale of what must now be considered an industry.

One report to her on a fleet of 14 privateers which sailed to the Island in 1577, flying the colours of the King of Navarre, stated 'the only part of the fleet that was not English was in effect the flag’.

Her government benefited but had to draw a fine line to be seen to be working within international law.

In 1566, the Spanish Netherlands rebelled against the Spanish Empire and England was inevitably drawn into the Protestant war of liberation against the Spanish world superpower.

The Channel became a war zone with Dutch privateers providing easy cover for English pirates to seize Spanish ships.

In 1570, an agent to King Phillip II of Spain reported from Meade Hole "a great fair of spices, wines, wool, saffron, oil, soap, woad, and a great number of other goods stolen from your Majesty’s subjects. If ships continue to come freely in this way, trade will simply be to enrich the heretics."

In 1581, the year a Spanish ship was seized under the guns of Cowes Castle, Elizabeth’s spymaster, the Earl of Walsingham, sent John Johnson to investigate. He was entertained to a fine dinner in Newport by Joliffe and officers of the captaincy. They vehemently declared they would have absolutely nothing to do with pirate trade.

The next day, disguised as a buyer, Johnson encountered the same company and "several Island gentlemen" busily trading on the deck of a pirate ship. Island tradesmen working this welcome offshore market included goldsmiths, bakers, brewers, shoemakers and butchers.

In 1584, the Ambassador of Navarre complained from Southampton that: "I could not pick a worse place for embarking than this, for the majority of the pirates of this country are between the Isle of Wight and Poole." From 1583 to 1603, the Governor of the Island was Elizabeth’s cousin, Sir George Carey. Once England was officially at war with Spain from 1585, he was not only able to organise local piracy, he was able to flaunt it.

He personally retained an illegally stolen vessel in the Medina. He also began to organise pirate expeditions across the Atlantic to attack Caribbean shipping on the 'Spanish Main’.

In 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, the Island warship, Rat, flying the flag of Navarre, captured an English ship and sold its cargo of wine on the Island, presumably with the Governor’s compliance.

In 1603, the accession of King James I brought peace with Spain and redundancy for the local and trans-Atlantic pirate industry.

Three years later the first expedition to establish a successful English colony on mainland north America was launched from Cowes roads. The route the ships took, presumably sailed by experienced mariners, followed the old pirate route to the Caribbean before switching north to Virginia.

In 1619, the future Isle of Wight County of Virginia was established as a 'plantation’. Its company board represented the same interests as the pirate enterprises, Newport merchants and landed gentry with the blessing of the Governor.

The Earl of Southampton was a leading sponsor of the Virginia expedition. Perhaps he was also looking for a legal outlet for the local pirate industry?

Piracy was now monopolised by the captaincy. Governor Robert Holmes (1664-1692) had himself been a pirate of the Caribbean and used all his powers of privateering as Vice Admiral to amass a personal fortune.

His memorial in Yarmouth Church has recently been restored.

With thanks to The Isle of Wight: An Illustrated History by Jack and Johanna Jones, 1987.

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