Captain Jack Vincent of the Avenger
Pirate and Highwayman
John Vincent is held to have been executed in Nottingham before 1730 but the circumstances of his execution render all accounts of the hanging suspect : it is well-known that the surgeon who had undertaken to acquire the body after the execution was disappointed in receiving only an informer, rendered unconscious by an unknown felon and reputedly substituted for the infamous pirate in the general panic before, during and after the hanging of Vincent on the unique charge of piracy and highway robbery. Though both collusion and conspiracy on the part of certain authorities and constables was alleged at the time, no proof of this has since been laid before any Court or Magistrate, leaving us with a tantalizing mystery as to what really happened to Vincent as he is mentioned vaguely in only one book from the period, published in 1734 (see later). Only one copy of the original manuscript is known (1). The manuscript papers re-found during building refurbishment may now throw more light on the subject of Jack Vincent as they were written by - or perhaps dictated to - Hoyle by a man who may have served as gunner on board Vincent’s ship, Avenger. Though the manuscript is incomplete with the remaining papers suffering from water damage and partly eaten by vermin, the manuscript does offer support for previous assumptions about a notorious character who held a seemingly charmed existence who even after betrayal and capture during his execution as a criminal seems to have simply vanished into thin air.
Did Jack Vincent cheat death and leave these shores to return to his old haunts? Did he resume a career as a pirate or did he put aside his sword and pistols to settle and live out his life as a respectable person, funded by the considerable plunder he reputedly amassed as a thief, in a unique precedent being the only man recorded as being condemned in court as both a pirate and a ‘highwayman’? When all we have to deal with are folk-tales, myths, legends and local traditions it is to be expected that more studious historians will cast doubt on any claim unsupported by historical evidence. It may well be that the final pages in the biography of ‘Black Jack’ Vincent are out there somewhere just waiting to be discovered ; but a valuable addition to the mystery was found in papers found in a box in an old house in Nottinghamshire in 1998. Belonging to The Reverend Thomas Hoyle, the papers concerned his record of a family member who by circumstances had been transported to The West Indies as punishment but had later escaped and turned to crime in order to subsist, he and his son both becoming members of the fraternity of pirates operating in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean Sea during what was later termed by historians as ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’.
1685 - 1703
The original William Moore appears to have been a relative of Thomas Hoyle but little is known about the parentage of either man - from records and surviving gravestones it appears they may have been half-cousins on the male side with Hoyle’s brother being the husband of Moore’s sister. The father of William Moore was said to have been one of the 1500 men arrested who survived the ‘Bloody Assize’ scaffolds of Judge George ‘Hanging’ Jeffreys’ to be transported to a plantation on Barbados and sold into slavery because of a real or alleged involvement in the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion of 1685. In 1685, Hoyle left Devon for an undisclosed reason - possibly to escape from any accusation of collusion or support in the rebellion of that year - and traveled to Nottinghamshire with the survivors of the Moore family taking up a post as parson in 1687 at Beeston, with the Moore family becoming servants and household staff.
When the Quaker doctor Henry Pitman escaped from the Barbados plantation owned by the cruel and sadistic Robert Bishop, he and his companions stole a small boat from the harbour. William Moore was one of his companions ; the boat sailed south-west, avoiding land as best they could. They were forced to land on the island of Salt Tortuga - deserted at that time - a bleak and waterless desert off the coast of South America, surviving on fish, turtle and birds eggs until picked up by a ship. The ship was crewed by English privateers, though Pitman and Moore refused to join them they did use the ship to leave Salt Tortuga and later travelled to New York, where Henry Pitman sailed for England. Henry Pitman was the inspiration for Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, several popular novels later made into a feature film in 1934 starring Errol Flynn. Pitman was pardoned after James II was deposed in 1688 and wrote a book named A Relation of the Great Sufferings of Henry Pitman. When Pitman met Daniel Defoe - who had also served as a rebel with the Duke of Monmouth but escaped capture and was also pardoned by William III - Pitman’s adventures as related to Defoe are said to have been used by Defoe in writing the first English novel The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
William Moore did not return to England and later married in New York. A son born to the pair was sent to England in 1695 to be educated (1). William Moore in March 1696 signed on as a gunner’s mate and sailed with a privateer named Adventure Galley, newly arrived from London captained by William Kidd. During the voyage - initially bound for Madagascar, and where several prizes were taken - Captain Kidd murdered William Moore during an argument - Kidd struck Moore over the head with a water-bucket, injuring him so badly that he died the next day. The incident happened on October 30th 1697 with the Adventure Galley near Calcutta, a port on the coast of India.
William Moore’s injury and death at the hands of Captain William Kidd was described by witnesses at the trial of Kidd in London, 1701. Kidd always claimed Moore was a mutineer (a position impossible on board a pirate ship and Kidd insisted he stayed a privateer and was not a pirate as charged). Many of Kidd’s crew deserted his ship to serve with a pirate named Culliford when they finally reached Madagascar; Kidd himself was subjected to a ‘show trial’ in London and was hanged for murder and piracy at Execution Dock at Wapping in London (2).
The wife of William Moore died on June 10th, 1699 just over three years after her husband had sailed from New York with Kidd having heard the news of her husband’s death only when Kidd and his crew returned to New York in June of that year in a ship named Antonio. She is said to have died in ‘unfortunate circumstances’ and been buried near Oyster Bay by two of her husband’s crewmates, but no record of her grave exists today.
The son of William Moore son - since 1703 under the name of William Spry - returned to New York in 1716 having ‘come of age’ at twenty-one. He was given the letter his mother had left for him which revealed his father’s past ; discovering his mother had died of neglect and starvation brought on by grief and his father was both a traitor and a pirate must have been a terrible dual-shock and from this point William Spry seems to have abandoned both his education and rejected his position in society to embark upon a life of adventure, revenge and crime.
1. The son was of an unknown age and was sent away under an assumed name, probably relating to William Moore still being listed in England as an escaped traitor despite the Royal Pardon of William III in 1689. It is also possible that William Moore did not favour his New England wife’s puritanical approach to the bringing-up of their son - aimed at him becoming a clergyman - and wanted him to have a more ‘cosmopolitan’ education. This may be another reason for William Moore going to sea in early 1696 to escape from the whispers of a suspicious past in a strait-laced New England. Pitman’s adventures at sea are detailed in the book Seeking Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin.
2. Kidd was kept in Newgate Prison awaiting a trial as both Government and Opposition wrangled with their mutual ‘smear campaign’. Kidd’s wealthy sponsors - including King William III - escaped any proven conspiracy and Kidd’s evidence that he was innocent of piracy and his conviction was based on perjury was only accidentally found recently after being mistakenly placed in library archives for almost three hundred years. Robert Culliford bore a charmed life and was one of the few pirates of the ‘Golden Age’ to escape complete with his loot and detailed in the book The Pirate Hunter by Robert Zacks.
1703 – 1720
We next hear of William Spry at New Providence, an island in the Caribbean close to the Bahamas. From the end of the war between England, France and Spain in 1713, by 1716 the harbour at Nassau had become a nest of pirates. Moving south from the Bahamas, several privateer vessels had become pirates and sought a new base for their operations. After several attacks by both French and Spanish forces upon Nassau, the colony had been abandoned by the British : the island’s position on the sea-lanes and possessing an ideal harbour made it attractive to pirates as it permitted a double-entry channel over shoal water so only shallow-water craft with a shipboard weight of less than 200 tons could enter. First used by pirate captain Henry Jennings in 1710, the natural harbour at Nassau on New Providence Island quickly grew in popularity. By 1714, 2500 pirates were using the port as a base. When not out seeking prizes, the pirates lived and worked in a shanty town of canvas lean-to’s and tents along the beaches - no law existed save fist, pistol and cutlass. The idyllic life-style of drink and women led one ex-pirate to write in 1714 that ‘when a pirate slept, he did not dream he had died and gone to Heaven but rather that he had died and gone to New Providence’.
War broke out between England and France in 1714 ; William Spry probably sailed from New York before mid-1715 on one of the many ‘ex-privateer’ vessels turned pirate leaving there seeking plunder along the east coast of North America and in the Caribbean. By July 1717 he was a member of a pirate crew operating in the Caribbean Sea under a captain named Charles Vane.
Louis XIV of France died in 1715 leaving great consternation and uncertainty behind him in the form of an infant grandson as his heir. A brief war between England and Spain in 1718 led to an armada from Cadiz comprising 29 ships and 5000 troops being formed for a prospective invasion of Scotland to support the Jacobite Rebellion headed by ‘The Old Pretender’ ; this armada reached Corunna (called ‘The Groyne’ at that time in English periodicals) but was dispersed by strong winds. Though the Rebellion of1715 came to nought, the threat of foreign intervention and both these events caused great concern in home affairs in England and a near-panic on the British West Indies station. Hoyle’s papers at this point are damaged but seem to be an account of how the former privateer Woodes Rogers cleared the pirates out of New Providence and how Charles Vane and his crew escaped. Having escaped, for the next three years Vane confidently cruised off Florida and along the American coast. Meeting fellow pirates off the Carolina coast the two ships anchored in Ocracoke Inlet for a week-long orgy of drink - it is probable that it was at this point that William Spry first met the infamous pirate Edward Teach, better known by the nickname Blackbeard (1). Vane’s pirate ship returned to the Caribbean in early 1719 but after being caught by the tail of a hurricane was wrecked on an uninhabited island in the Bay of Honduras. Vane and other survivors were picked up by a passing ship - but Vane was later recognised, taken captive and after a short trial, hanged at Port Royal in Jamaica (2).
In January 1718, a pirate named William Spry - interestingly listed in the associated articles now as a ‘Gunner’ - was named by Governor Eden of North Carolina with many others having surrendered under the current Act of Grace and gained a Royal Pardon ; all known pirates with Blackbeard then sailing on a ship named Queen Anne’s Revenge anchored in the Pamlico Sound just off shore. It was shortly after this ‘royal pardon’ with the Queen Anne’s Revenge repaired and refitted that Spry sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean participating in his most daring pirate cruise so far. Since leaving Nassau in late 1716, Blackbeard had captured twenty prizes in a cruise between Virginia and Honduras. Some of these captured vessels were retained and by June 1718 Blackbeard had a small fleet made up of four of these vessels along with smaller tenders and luggers manned by over 500 men with the mighty 40-gun Dutch-built French trader renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge as flagship ; William Spry served as ‘Gunner’ on one of the smaller vessels (3).
In the early spring of 1718 Blackbeard’s fleet sailing south from Pamlico Sound blockaded the town of Charleston, capturing several ships and taking hostages upon arrival and then demanding a ransom ‘save the town be burned to the ground’. Strangely enough, the pirates declined an offered ransom of money and sailed off to continue their cruise taking only ‘a chest of medicines’ valued at £500.
Blackbeard returned from Honduras in autumn 1718. William Spry must have been one of the crewmen that left Blackbeard after dropping anchor in Ocracoke Inlet after a violent disageement in which it was claimed Blackbeard had deliberately run aground and wrecked the Queen Anne’s Revenge in order to avoid paying shares from the plunder to the crew. Blackbeard had changed ship to the sloop, Adventure. Hence William Spry escaped the famous sea-fight in which Blackbeard was killed and the thirteen survivors of his crew taken prisoner by the two Royal Navy sloops to be hanged later at Williamsburg, Virginia. Forty-four other captured pirates were hanged in the space of a month in Virginia and South Carolina. It seemed that Blackbeard’s death had begun the end of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ when an ex-pirate hired by the colonial Governors in October 1720 captured a privateer sloop captured commanded by ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham off west Jamaica, and at the trial of these pirates two of them sprang a surprise in court - Mary Read and Ann Bonny ‘declared themselves to be pregnant women’. Though the girls escaped execution, the rest of the crew were hanged.
William Spry and at least three other men from Blackbeard’s crew rowed a small boat from Ocracoke Inlet west across the Sound into the Pamlico River. At Bath Town (South Carolina) Spry and one of these men boarded a carrier’s wagon for ‘The Old Dominion’ (Virginia) and for a time, disappeared (4).
1. Edward Teach - or Thatch - was said to have the real name of Edward Drummond, born in Bristol. At least seven other surnames are recorded as used by this particular pirate and two alternative origins for his birth (Jamaica or Virginia). If Spry ‘transferred’ to Blackbeard’s crew at this point isn’t clear as the account doesn’t say but such transfers from pirate crew to pirate crew were not common and only permitted if both pirate crews consented to it - but one of Blackbeard’s crew at this time was John Vincent and it is possible that he and William Spry met here for the first time.
2. Previous to that, both Spry and Vincent have been tenuously linked with another pirate captain, Benjamin Hornigold. What part William Spry took in all this is hence unclear, but William Spry wasn’t one of the men captured with Vane and hanged. Somehow in 1717 Spry left Vane and joined the crew of Blackbeard ; possibly when the two ships crews met and feasted ashore at that time and Spry’s services as Gunner or Navigator were sought out.
3. Interestingly, Spry was aboard a vessel commanded by ‘John Wyncett’ which could well be a mispronunciation of ‘John Vincent’. His position of Gunner aboard a pirate ship would have raised Spry from the ‘commons’ crew to the ‘Lords’ and entitled him to a greater share in any prize or plunder but it is possible he also served aboard this ship as a navigator (see footnote 1, Part 3). The wreck of the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge was discovered in 1998 but despite many items of note being raised, its authenticity is currently ‘officially’ denied by several historians and the local authorites.
4. Vincent isn’t mentioned by name but he could have been one of the men who along with Spry, ‘disappeared’ from Bath Town. It’s likely that Israel Spry - Blackbeard’s gunner - was another of these men as Spry had succeeded Hands as ‘gunner’ after Hands was crippled by Blackbeard firing a pistol into his knee during a terrible ‘practical joke’ aboard ship. Spry and Hands appear to have been and remained good friends ; Spry visited Israel Hands during a journey to London in 1726 - possibly accompanied by Vincent - without any appearance of being afraid of being betrayed to the authorities as a pirate.
1721 - 1727
The Piracy Act of 1721 would have reinforced William Spry’s possible convictions at this time that any ‘golden age of piracy’ was drawing to a close. In this statute, ‘those merchants, dealers or private persons who shall trade with, by truck, or barter or exchange’ any goods with a pirate were in association charged and were at trial judged guilty of piracy themselves. Corrupt colonial Governors were under increasing pressure to end their connivance with pirates ; most corrupt officials were replaced. Naval abuses permitting Royal Navy captains to legally make a profit from merchant ships suffering the threat of piracy were ended and Navy captains that had made too freely with this legal loophole were recalled and replaced.
It might be because of this statute that William Spry and a single companion sailed from Savannah around mid-1720 on a refitted slave-ship bound for Bristol with a cargo of Virginia tobacco (1). Where William Spry first met Vincent still remains uncertain : Vincent apparently sailed to New England before returning to the Caribbean in October 1720 - where he was seen by Bartholomew Roberts off the island of Dominica - so it is possible that Vincent on the way back to the Caribbean captured as a prize the ship William Spry sailed from Savannah aboard and Spry joined him on the Avenger as certainly by mid-1721, Spry is serving aboard Avenger. As Spry could both read and write he was certainly not an average pirate ; just when he learned Gunnery and to navigate remains uncertain but Spry is described as serving a gun aboard a ship in June 1718.
In May 1722 a guard-ship caught fifty-eight pirates, of whom the Governor of Jamaica hanged forty-two. In April 1723, Cassandra - one of the most elusive pirate ships - turned up and dropped anchor of Jamaica, sending a message ashore to the Governor requesting a pardon if they might surrendered. The Governor refused and sent a guard-ship to take the pirates ; the guard-ship HMS Mermaid was under-gunned and the crew outnumbered so they entered into negotiations instead, during which they received some disquieting news from William Taylor, the pirate captain. The Spanish Governors of Panama and Portobello had offered a pardon to all pirate crews who entered these ports, with the added incentive of Letters of Marque to then act as privateers of Spain, a potentially disastrous situation. The Royal Navy reported to the Governor : “The Spaniards are mad to get the pirates into their ports, and the Governor of Panama is coming down for that purpose. The pirates having been told that they will not receive a pardon from Jamaica and that men-of-war are coming to attack them have accepted a pardon from the Spaniards upon condition that they might retain their liberty.” William Taylor and his crew paid the Governor of Panama a twenty per cent commission on the plunder in the hold of the Cassandra in return for stores and a privateer commission to attack the British logwood-cutters in the Bay of Honduras. The Governor of Jamaica reported that it was ‘surprisingly odd’ that at the very time the Cassandra sailed to take up this privateer commission, HMS Mermaid had altered her off-shore station permitting the Cassandra to escape. However, the reported situation of Spanish encouragement to pirates decreed the British colonial policy of the destruction of all known pirates. Guard-ships and Royal Navy vessels were now ordered to pursue and destroy pirates (2).
By June 1723 the Governor of The Leeward Islands was able to write : “ I do not hear of any more pirates in these seas except the brigantine Good Fortune. It is to the indefatigable care of the Royal Navy in pursuing these pirates wherever they hear of them that the trade is so well secured from that press, for which they cannot be too well commended.” In that month, two pirate ships were attacked off New York by the guard-ship, resulting in the capture of one and the crippling of the other. The Governor of New York wrote : “This blow with what they previously received will I hope clear the seas of these accomplished villains.” In October 1723, the notorious pirate Lowther whilst careening his ship Happy Delivery had been surprised on an island near Tortuga off Hispaniola by a privateer sloop commissioned by the Governor of those islands and twenty-four of his pirate crew captured, Lowther reputedly shooting himself to avoid being taken. The same Governor was able to report in March 1724 : “ I do not hear of any more pirates except a ship (Good Fortune) commanded by one Low with about fifty pirates in his crew.” Edward Low and his pirate crew had a terrible reputation for cruelty and torture, and sailed in a ship with the unusual name of Merry Christmas. The ship and crew disappeared late in 1724 leaving reports that the ship had gone down in a hurricane after Low had been deposed and cast adrift in a small open boat with three irate members of his crew for committing some horrible crime aboard ; whatever happened, ‘Ned’ Low was never seen again.
Despite the above disasters and deterrents, for some unknown reason William Spry by 1724 had abandoned any thought of a peaceful occupation and become a pirate again, sailing as Gunner on the Avenger with ‘Captain’ John Vincent (known to his crew as ‘Jack Vincent’ or ‘Black Jack Vincent’ and even ‘Fancy Jack ). It appears at this point William Spry had joined the crew of the Avenger but exactly where and when is still uncertain ; whether Spry knew and recognized Vincent is speculated, but obviously unconfirmed. It is held that Spry - as a previous crew member with both Vane and Blackbeard - had previously met Vincent ; both Spry and Vincent are said to have had an obvious dislike for both of these pirate captains. William Spry would sail with Vincent aboard Avenger for over five years during a remarkable term of piracy against heavy odds.
What is known about Vincent at this time? Jack Vincent had reputedly sailed with the pirate captain Edward England but at some point before 1720 had ‘gone off on his own account’ after England was marooned by his crew for showing ‘excessive leniency’ towards a captured merchant captain who had put up a fight. Vincent certainly knew before 1721 that piracy was becoming a risky business but he also knew that the opinions of many honest seamen were in his favour. In an age where ships’ captains aboard ship were regarded as God and no man dare raise an objection against them, captains ruled their crews with an iron hand, always severe but often savage and brutal. Vincent wisely recognized the advantages of his crew being named by a colonial magistrate as ‘nothing more than Robbin (sic) Hoods Men’ in 1727 ; and a deposition in reply to this currently in The British Museum held to have been written or dictated by Vincent in 1727 runs “to the reason to going a-pirating were to revenge ourselves on base Merchants and Cruel commanders of ships, to return with a large sum of money to London and with it bid the Merchants defiance.”
Vincent’s policy of sparing both prize and crew if they surrendered to him on sight led to the design of his own particular pirate flag or ‘Jolly Roger’, though this strategy was adopted by several other pirate ships. Apart from Vincent hanging a particularly notorious merchant captain for the cruelty he had shown to his crew on that and past voyages, no instance of gratuitous cruelty or torture ever attached itself to him or his ship. Vincent would use this same policy in recreating his role as ‘The Gentle Highwayman’ to enjoy a romantically favourable and popular response from the general public during a time when cruelty, violence and robbery were thought to be inseparable - and as such a veritable gift to a London novelist looking for ‘inspiration’ named Daniel Defoe.
1. It is hinted in the papers that Spry sailed as Masters’ Mate on this voyage but how he gained this qualification is uncertain ; he seems an intelligent man and to add to his London education would have picked up lots of maritime experience and advice between the years 1715 and 1718 but no paperwork or certificate confirming any appointment can be traced. Spry’s companion in this instance was probably Israel Hands ; what happened to Spry’s other two mates from the crew of Blackbeard isn’t recorded but having the experience of being short-changed by Blackbeard may have led them to mutually disperse. Israel Hands did reach England and eventually became a publican in London, gaining notoriety many years after his death as Robert Louis Stevenson used his name for one of the pirate characters in his world-famous novel, Treasure Island.
2. Many pirates still remained elusive - one of the members of the crew who escaped aboard Cassandra in 1723 was John Silver. Cassandra was a former East Indiaman that had been captured by pirates after a stiff fight in 1721 in the Indian Ocean; Silver is described as having already lost a leg in Captain Macrae’s account of the capture of Cassandra published some years later after Macrae’s escape.
Captain Jack Vincent - 1715 – 1728
Continued in Chapter Two