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Piracy in Cornwall.

"From lightning and tempest, from plague, pestilence and famines, from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us".


From a very early period the whole coast of the British Isles was disturbed by the activities of pirates, and the pest was not effectively destroyed until the end of the 19th century. The first pirates on the English coast were themselves English, and preyed as a rule on foreign shipping. Englishmen who were originally naval seaman, privateers in Queen Elizabeth’s navy fighting the Spanish. However, when King James 1st came to the throne he and the Spanish King became friends, ceased battling and decreased the size of the English Navy. This left thousands of naval personnel without a job and near to starving. Piracy was an option and many took to it.

Piracy of this nature had become popular also because of the law of 1224, which placed Geoffrey de Lucy a nominated keeper of the whole coast from Pevensey to Bristol. Realising this was far too much for a single person to handle, this district was divided only a month later, a keeper of Cornwall and Devon being appointed, whose principal duties were the suppression of piracy, the repulsion of raiders, and the maintenance of security for the coasting trade.

The Cornish coast, owing to its distance from London and its comparative barrenness, has not held out much temptation to foreign invasion, but has offered many advantages to piratical incursions. It was far removed from state interference, it is near the mouth of the Channel, and it has many useful havens, often unfortified. Of these havens Helford was a favourite among pirates

In the 16th Century complaints from foreigners that they had been plundered by the English in English waters were often brought before the Privy Council. The powerful Hanseatic League (Union of towns, chiefly in N.Europe, for trading purposes) for instance, complained of piracy against one of their vessels near Falmouth in 1546, and a similar charge by the French against the men of the "West Contrie" appears under the date of 1550.

An official enquiry into piracy in Devon and Cornwall appears to have been made late in 1563.

We read of French pirates almost as early as the English, especially pirates of Dunkirk who preyed on the English coasts. Netherlanders also soon appeared on the scene.

Efforts were continually made by the government to suppress piracy, but for some time they were not effectual, owing to the imperfect state of the navy.  It must be remembered that the merchant service was drawn on for naval purposes and men-of-war pure and simple were only permanently introduced by Henry VIII, and then only to supplement the levies of merchant vessels. Commissioners in various parts of the country, and small squadrons, did what they could until the Elizabethan period. Then under the Queen's keen grasp of affairs and the masterly and thorough administration of Lord Burghley, piracy like most other matters, received systematic treatment.

Burghley's strong attitudes towards piracy are sufficiently expressed in his description of the three branches of maritime enterprise. "The one is to cary or recary merchandizes, the other is to take fish; for the thyrd, which is the exercise of pyrecy, is detestable and cannot last”. He laid the foundations of naval power, In the 1630’s piracy was at its worst (it was at this time that the worst piratical attack on St. Keverne took place) and that in his great work of perfecting the navy Cromwell provided the means for the final crushing of piracy. There was not much piracy after the Restoration. Thus the "Brest pirates" during the Cromwellian period were privateers on the Stuart side, sometimes sailing in a fleet under the command of Prince Rupert. During the quarrel of the Protector with Spain, we hear of "Spanish pirates". It is this privateering element which accounts for the fact that piracy always assumed a more alarming aspect during and immediately after a war.

250 years ago all this Coast suffered to a degree which seems to us incredible from the ravages of what were then called Turkish pirates but which were in reality Algiers and Gallic rovers. The justices of Cornwall complained to the Lord Lieutenant that in one year the Turks had taken no less than a thousand Cornish Mariners, while Looe alone, in the ten days before the letter was written, had lost 80 men.

In 1651, a search was being made for a pirate in the Helford River, about the same time as losses in Falmouth were being reported. The "Turkish" peril by that time became severe. A small fleet, under Sir John Pennington, and comprising a number of ships called the Lion's Whelps, cruised the Channel for several years to suppress these Barbary pirates, who are described as "the scourges of all Christian navigations". Later Sir John Pennington was cruising between Mount's Bay and the Lizard when he saw the sails of five Turkish men of war standing in the Channel. They turned and fled when they saw Pennington's fleet.

It appears that a number of boats fishing off the Manacles, were taken by the "Turks" and their crews carried away as captives. The number of boats is given as seven in every account, but the number, of men is given variously as 42 to 50.

A letter dated July 10th 1656 and quoted in the State Papers says that ’seven boats and two and forty fishermen were taken by the Turks off the Manacles between Falmouth and the Lizard last Wednesday was three weeks.’

The same Turkish vessels had just previously taken 5 boats off Looe, which were engaged in deep sea fishing between England and Ireland. Graphic details are given of boats seen drifting unmanned and without sails, of weeping women, of constant fear of the raiding and destruction of the village, and of the men that put to sea and were never seen again. A contingent of Moors met their match when they invaded Mounts Bay with a fleet of thirty ships and took the congregation of the church who were at prayers as hostages. The local taverns emptied and the Pirates of Penzance joined with the men of Newlyn in fierce hand-to-hand fighting with cutlasses on the beach. The invaders were repelled with great loss of life.

The captain of a barque of Plymouth, reported that he sailed from Plymouth for St. Keverne and "arrived there on Thursday morning last, where he heard it credibly reported, with sorrowful complaint and lamentable tears of women and children, that on the 15th instant three fisher boats belonging to St. Keverne, three others of Helford, and one more of Mollan (Mullion) and about 50 men in them, being on the coast fishing near Black Head, between Falmouth and the Lizard, not three leagues off the shore, were taken by the Turks who carried both men and boats away. During the time of his abode at St. Keverne, which was from Thursday till Sabbath-day then following, there was no news heard of either men or boats, so that it goes for an absolute truth thereabouts that they were all surprised by the Turks and carried away".

The Earl of Northumberland, in command of the fleet at Plymouth, sent two vessels in chase of these pirates, who were suspected to have gone into the Severn estuary, a place they frequented, but they were not caught.

At about the same time as the loss of the St. Keverne fisher-boats, there occurred an exciting skirmish in the Helford River. On the llth of May 1636, two Dunkirk frigates brought four French ships, taken by them as prizes, into Falmouth. On the 14th they set sail with their prizes, but were met outside the harbour by a Dutch pirate, the "Black Bull" of Amsterdam, which attacked them. The Dutchman chased one of the frigates under Pendennis fort, which opened fire on him. He therefore abandoned the pursuit, and chased the other frigate into the Helford, following her a mile up the river, till both vessels grounded. The Dutchman fired on her with his ordnance, landing thirty musketeers on the south side of the river, which shot into the frigate from the land, killing one of her men. The frigate surrendered, the Dutchman remaining in charge of her in defiance of His Majesty's Officers, who commanded him to deliver her to them. Eventually the Dutch captain was taken and sent to Portsmouth in custody, his prize being sent with him. The enquiry into the matter led to an amusing complication, for the Dunkirk frigate herself was found to contain stolen English goods, so that the Dunkirk's captain was also arrested. The complicated legal position was not argued out, however, since most of the officers of the Admiralty had fled from Portsmouth to avoid the plague, and the last record of the matter in the Calendar of State Papers, which is dated August l3th, 1656, states that the "Black Bull" and the Dunkirk frigate were then still in Portsmouth harbour.

By 1649 piracy again loomed very large indeed in the Domestic State Papers - Dunkirkers, Ostenders, and Barbary pirates, are all infesting the coasts of England. Cases are considered by the Council of State at almost every meeting. The Council drew the attention of the Generals at sea to the "growing strength of pirates at sea" and "The great danger the fishermen are in to be deprived of the fruit of their labour", and dictated a general policy of suppression.

The Brest pirates or Stuart privateers then came into prominence. The terror with which the inhabitants of Western Cornwall regarded the Barbary pirates did not, however, extend to those of Brest. A naval captain reported in 1655 that he discovered a Brest man-of-war at the Lizard and "at anchor amongst the fishermen, with whom he seemed to hold correspondence". The Englishman gave chase, and the Frenchman, seeing he could not escape, left his vessel and landed in a fisher boat, the vessel herself being run ashore and all the men except five or six escaping up the country. The Englishman landed men who took thirteen of the fugitives prisoners "one being an Englishman, and their gunner" but he could not take the Captain as the "country was treacherous".

And of course we cannot leave out Fowey.  In the 1400s Fowey was the most flourishing centre of piracy in Europe. In Edward III’s time, the pirate nest at Fowey were called the Fowey gallants and they frequently raided the Normandy coastline. In 1442 Hankyn Seelander, a Dutchman or German, moved there to patrol the area for the Crown. However, he seized a ship off Brittany, selling the cargo in Fowey. Then he took a Dartmouth ship and then a Spanish ship with an enormous quantity of cloth. For the next thirty years the situation got really bad and the whole community was involved in piracy. In 1449 two Fowey ships owned by John Trevelyan, Thomas Tregarthen, Nicholas Carminow and Sir Hugh Courtenay seized a big Spanish vessel. All were influential merchants and land-owners. Courtenay continued to rob several ships.


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