In 1623 the ship called Little James arrived in New Plimoth carrying a number of passengers for the colony and a letter of Mark. The men on the ship seemed to be in some dispute with their captain about whether or not they should have taken a French fishing ship that they had encountered on the way. William Bradford told these men that they were fishermen but they knew they were Pirates. A ” Letter of Mark” ( spellings vary) was essentially a license for taking other peoples ships, people and stuff because they were enemies or competitors with your King and Country. As long as you stayed within the conditions of your letter of mark you would be considered as if you were working for the Royal Navy and had captured an enemy vessel. Of course to their victims, regardless of their legal status they would still be pirates. Therefore for purposes of this post I will be referring to all “takers” ( Bradford uses this in his letter from March, 1623) as pirates.
Pirates and Pinnaces and Pilgrims, Oh my!
You may be wondering what pirates pilgrims and pinnaces have to do with one another or how they relate to the history of Plimoth Colony. Firstly, the Little James was a pinnace of about 44 tuns burden. A pinnace in the 17th C. was a small ship. Interestingly enough the Little James was both a pirate and was the victim of ‘Turkish’ pirates off of England in 1625. The loss of the Little James and the Fortune four years earlier had serious economic consequences for Plimoth Colony. As can be seen with recent headlines regarding the piracy of an oil tanker off of Somalia, piracy is still a serious and contemporary problem. Also, the rich body of both printed and audio-visual literature regarding pirates from Long John Silver to Captain Jack Sparrow provides a wealth of mythology, interesting tales, and really interesting contrasts and comparisons between the pirates of myth and literature versus the rather gritty reality of European pirates of the North Atlantic. It is my intention to incorporate further research toward the goal of an eventual dock-side exhibit about 17th C. piracy. Combining myth and reality that would both educate and entertain our guests, particularly the younger ones, we can continue to compare and contrast the lives of people in both the 17th and 21st Centuries.
As the printed word is such a one way means of communication please let me invite you to continue to discuss pirates and piracy with a man personally concerned about the subject. I have once again been cast in the role of Christopher Jones, Ship’s Master on Mayflower II and you might find his take on this subject interesting.
Program Interpreter/Museum Teacher