Howard the Buccaneer by Rowan Stevens

A Captain of Many Ships

In the days when high-sterned galleons sailed the Spanish Main, keelless and lofty, and helpless in the wind’s eye; when all the sailors wore their tarry queues and ear-rings; when “Down along the coast of the high Barbaree” there was no law but that of the Moorish buccaneer, a young man in the peaceful British hamlet of Barwich reached the age of twenty-one.

Thomas Howard was a youth of promise and capacity. He was handsome, burly, popular, and generous, and always ready for any adventure. His father, a gentleman of rank and estate, was dead, but his doting mother lavished upon him an affection as blind as it was deep, supplied him with an excess of pocket-money, and left no wish of his ungratified. The result is readily imagined. His old amiability deserted him, and he sank into a savage discontent that found expression in numerous acts of roguery and violence.

As he grew worse and worse, an old friend of his father’s persuaded him to seek employment upon the seas, and purchased him a berth as midshipman on a trading-craft bound from Liverpool to the West Indies.

A few months of sea discipline shattered young Howard’s patience, and upon his arrival at Jamaica he promptly deserted his ship.

He had still a few pounds left of his fortune, and with these he purchased admittance to the society of a gang of ruffians who frequented the beaches. One night, with some of these, he stole a canoe and went to the Grand Camanas to join a party of others of their ilk who lurked thereabouts with the design of going “on the account.”

They soon fell in with those whom they sought, and, as the party now numbered twenty, they deemed themselves strong enough to set to their work, and accordingly began their preparations. At a council held the night when this decision was reached, the question of the election of officers came up; the men seemed about evenly divided in their choice of a captain between Howard and a tall islander named James. The latter was finally elected by a vote of ten to eight, while Howard was chosen quartermaster.

Their first need was a boat; in the offing at anchor lay a turtle-sloop with two small swivels mounted fore and aft. She was the very craft for their purpose, but how were they to get her?

Close inshore on the other side of an estuary a mile wide Howard remembered seeing a large canoe moored in the light of a patrol’s camp-fire. He and two others swam over to her, cut her line with their sheath-knives, and brought her away without discovery.

The robbers then boarded her, and, with two men forward and two aft handling the paddles, the rest concealed behind the high bulwarks, stole out silently towards the turtle-vessel. The nature of their craft was not perceived until they were alongside their victim, when, with a yell, they burst from their concealment and made their capture without losing a man. They then started out for booty, but for a long time their only prizes were turtlers, which supplied them with men without increasing their wealth. After about two weeks they met an Irish brigantine with provisions and servants for the Governor of Jamaica. They laid her aboard, captured her without resistance, forced her men, and made off with her, leaving her master the old turtle-sloop and five men to bring him to port. Not long after this they surprised a sloop of six guns, and finding her larger, faster, and sounder than the brigantine, they shifted to her with their belongings. This was the third time within two months that they had changed their vessel, but still the game of “Progressive Piracy” went on. Off the coast of Virginia they fell in with a large New England brigantine laden with provisions and bound for Barbadoes. They made a prize of her, and shifting their own guns aboard of her, found themselves in a fine vessel of ten guns well equipped for a long voyage.

While on the coast of Virginia in this ship they took several English vessels, from which they got men, arms, provisions, clothes, and other necessaries. As most of these ships had on board felons for the Virginia colonies, they took from them a number of volunteers besides their forced men, and they soon acquired so large a complement that they had no hesitation in ranging up to and boarding a Virginia galley of superior size and twenty-four guns. They got a number of convict volunteers from her, transferred their stores to her, and set out to sweep the seas in earnest. They steered for the Guinea coast, that Mecca of pirates, and made many captures, which not only enriched them but increased their complement. After they had been for some months on this ground they spied a large Portuguese ship from Brazil, whose thirty-six guns did not frighten them from the attack.

 As they hoisted the black flag the Brazilian Captain became overpowered with fear, commanded the quartermaster to strike, and sought safety for himself in the hold. His mate, however, a New-Englander, refused to surrender, and kept off the pirates for the better part of the afternoon. His resistance was strong and well sustained, but the Portuguese finally fled from the deck, leaving him with only thirty men—English, French, and Dutch—and he was obliged to ask for quarter. The pirates then went down the coast in their newly acquired ship and made several prizes, some of which they burned and some of which they sank. As they now mustered nearly two hundred men, the only ones that they forced from captured crews were carpenters, calkers, and surgeons, whose services they needed greatly.

Off the Cape of Good Hope they took two Spanish brigantines, in whose company they proceeded, until they ran the Alexander ashore on a small island north of Madagascar, where she stuck fast.

The Captain being sick in bed, the men went ashore on the island and carried off provisions and water to lighten the ship, on board of which none but the Captain, the quartermaster (Howard), and all others were left.

This was too good a chance for the exercise of Howard’s love of treachery. He brought the faster of the two brigantines alongside, tumbled all the treasure into her, scuttled the other, and made off with twenty men and two hundred thousand pounds, leaving the rest of his shipmates to shake their impotent fists and roar maledictions after his diminishing sail.

After rounding the Cape, Howard and his fellows went into a fine harbor on the east side of Madagascar hardly known to European vessels. Here they buried most of the treasure, and for a short time enjoyed the luxury of shore life. Wood and water were abundant, game plentiful, and the waters swarmed with edible fish.

It was pleasant to the pirate, after his long trick afloat, to lie on the yellow sands under the shade of palm and mango and tamarind trees and see the slow surf breaking gently on the beach. In his nostrils was the odor of orange and spice; golden sunbirds and crimson cockatoos nested above him, gaudy butterflies floated about him, and in the shallow waters of the still lagoons were long-legged curlew, busy kingfishers, and wild duck with tenderly shaded plumes. Behind him the tropical jungles blazed gloriously with trees of blooming scarlet and flaring yellow, about which twined gorgeous creepers of dark purple, and from whose leafy depths came the chattering of monkeys and the twittering of innumerable birds. Far off he could hear the smothered thunder of lofty falls, near at hand the plashing of rivulets, and seaward the deep voice of the Indian Ocean. The Malagasy women brought him cooling fruits from the mountains, the hunters came back laden with the flesh of wild cattle and pigs and great, feathery bunches of waterfowl, and the native king sent down to him rice and bananas, maize and manioc, from the rich store of his harvest.

After but a month of this happy shore life they set sail, and running down the coast of Africa met the English ship Prosperous, which they captured by a night attack. The Prosperous was a large, well-found ship of sixteen guns, and well suited to Howard’s purpose, so he transferred his crew and stores to her and sailed to Maritan. They found there a number of shipwrecked pirates, who, with some of the Prosperous’s crew, took on with them, and increased their complement to seventy men.

They next steered for St. Mary’s, where they wooded, watered, and shipped more hands. Here they had an invitation from one Ort van Tyle, a sturdy Dutch trader of social ambition, to attend the christening of two of his children. He received them with hospitality and civility, but they had no sooner entered his house than they began to plunder it, and Van Tyle protesting, they took him prisoner, and designed to hang him, but one of the pirates aided him to escape and he took to the woods. Here he met some of his black; he armed them, and formed an ambush on a scrubby island where the river channel was narrow. The pirates came down in their canoe and Howard’s pinnace, laughing and shouting, bringing with them the booty of the looted house and some captives, whom they set at the paddles. The canoe was overturned in the rapids just as they came abreast of the ambush, and the captives swam ashore and escaped, while the pirates clung to the sides of Howard’s boat. As they drifted by, Van Tyle let drive at them, and in a shower of musket-balls, arrows, and assagais the helpless pirates were swept back to their ships, dismally howling with rage and mortification. In this affair two of Howard’s men were killed, while he was shot through the arm, and two others were seriously wounded.


He then sailed to Mathelage, where he designed to victual for a West-Indian cruise, but he found there a large Dutch merchantman of forty guns, whose captain curtly told Howard to get out or he’d fall foul of him. Howard’s recent experience with Dutchmen had been unpleasant, so, as his vessel was not strong enough to cope with the Amsterdamer, he made sail for Mayotta, and passed down the bay amid a volley of gibes, jeers, and ingenious Dutch profanity. On his way to Mayotta he fell in with Captain Bowen, of the pirate ship Speedy Return, of thirty guns, and communicated to him the contumely to which a “Gentleman of the Seas” had been subjected. Bowen promised to avenge the insult to their honorable craft, and accordingly anchored in the dusk of the next evening within hail of the irascible burgher. The Speedy Return was a small ship for her armament and crew, and this, with her suspicious appearance, determined the Dutchman once more to exhibit the bold front that he could assume when there seemed to be no danger in it. Accordingly he went to the rail and bawled over the quiet waters, “Vot sheep is dot, and vy for you don’d git oud to onced?”

“This is his Majesty’s cruiser Haystack,” came the unruffled response, in Bowen’s clear voice. “She has three decks and no bottom, and sails four miles to leeward and one ahead. Want to race?”

“Vot sheep is dot, and none of your tomfoolishness?” roared the Teuton, purple with rage.

“This is the Flying Dutchman, Captain Vanderdecken, and the crew’s all ghosts,” replied the pirate, in high glee. “Come aboard and cheer up our spirits.”

This was too much. The Dutchman mounted the rail and shrieked, hoarsely, “I now asks you der last time for, vot sheep you is, vere you vrom, and vot you to do goin’ about to be?”

“This is the ship Speedy Return,” sang out Bowen, “from the seas, and I’m goin’ to fire a salute.”

The pirate then gave the word, and his ship roared out a broadside that shivered the Dutchman’s rail, smashed his boats, and carried away his spanker-boom. The merchantman waited no longer, but slipped his cable and made off to sea, leaving the greater part of his cargo ashore, where it was promptly gathered in by the thrifty buccaneers.

Bowen now made sail for Mayotta, where he joined the Prosperous, and the two ships sailed together for the East Indies. After some successes there they returned by separate routes to Madagascar, for the purpose of revictualling and refitting, agreeing to meet again at St. John’s and lie in wait for the Moorish fleet. They did this, and one of the Moors fell a prize to Bowen, but Howard did not come up with them till they were anchored at the bay of Surat, where they waited to lighten.

Howard came up among them slowly, under shortened sail, and as he concealed his men and kept his ports closed, they took him for an English East-Indiaman and suffered him to approach. Howard suddenly attacked the largest vessel, and after a desperate fight, in which he lost thirty men, carried her by boarding.

On this vessel was a nobleman belonging to the court of the Great Mogul. The prize itself was immensely valuable, and the nobleman’s ransom amounted to twenty thousand pounds, so by this time Howard’s fortune was well assured. He then ran down to Malabar, where he met Bowen and his prize, a fine, stout ship of sixty guns. The two captains with their quartermasters held a consultation (on the night of their meeting) in the cabin of the Speedy Return, and their future plans were decided upon over a rich banquet provided from the stores of the prizes.

The Prosperous they sank and the Speedy Return they burned, and in Bowen’s prize they continued their depredations, the two crews being joined together. This made Howard’s ninth change of vessels since he had taken to piracy.

As they cruised down the coast of Madagascar they came in sight of Howard’s old haven, where he had buried his treasure. He became seized with a desire for shore life, and with those of his men who had lived there before with him, and with their share of the recent booty, he went back to his old stamping-ground to settle down. He was received with open arms by his old friends among the natives; he married a Malagasy woman, and for a long time lived quietly and peaceably, shooting, fishing, watching his herds, and cultivating his fields.

 A missionary who was shipwrecked on the coast about a year after Howard’s return worked on the pirate’s soft heart so successfully that before being taken home on a trading-vessel that put in for water he had brought the gallant buccaneer into the close folds of the Roman Catholic Church and to a full realization of his unusually sinful state. After the missionary’s departure Howard missed the theological discourse and dispute that had whiled away many a tropic twilight, and he knew not where to turn for an outlet of his intellectual activities. Finally the bright idea struck him that it would be both pleasing and beneficial to evangelize the natives. In a fit of religious enthusiasm he proceeded to this work with his usual prodigal hand. Unfortunately for himself, he used a club in the process, and this, coupled with his brutal treatment of his wife, made him unpopular among the Malagasy.

One night the docile aborigines fell upon him while he was asleep in his hammock, and left mementos of their presence in the shape of thirty-seven assagais stuck decoratively in various parts of his body. When found he was very dead, and thus terminated the earthly career of a treacherous and unworthy ruffian, whose only claims to our consideration were his good seamanship and Anglo-Saxon pluck.