The Friday Fillip

It is now one day short of a month till International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and in the Slaw tradition of preparing you well for upcoming challenges, today’s fillip takes us back to the days of piracy some two hundred years ago and more. Thanks to a recent online release of old books of piracy trials in the nineteenth century by the Law Library of Congress, we can brush up on what it meant to be a pirate back then.

And it’s not a pretty picture.

Take, for example, Joseph Baker, a Canadian pirate hanged in Philadelphia in 1800. Evidently, he was part of a failed mutiny aboard the schooner Eliza on her voyage from Philadelphia to St. Thomas, during which the captain, William Wheland, was killed. His published “confession,” though difficult to read in the image PDF, is worth dipping into.

One evening I went to a tavern in company with Lacroase; and, in conversation, he asked me where my lodgings were, and the next day he (in company with Beruse, now under the same sentence also) called upon me; they told me I was a fool to stay in such a country as this was, when if I would go the West-Indies and work at my trade, I could get five dollars per day. . . .

There were seven Italians and Frenchmen on board this vessel, who proposed to me to enter into a secret conspiracy for suprizing the captain and crew on her voyage to the West-Indies, and make ourselves masters of the ship and cargo; But I would not agree to their proposal, and, therefore, quitted the ship . . .

The 4th September following, being at sea, Beruse asked me if I would assist him in taking the vessel. I told him I would not. . . . but he continually harrassed me for three days to consent to his wicked proposal; Lacrose then told him that if he would take the vessel, he (Lacrose) would take her into port. He then asked me to take some poison out of the medicine-chest, and put some in the soup, for the purpose of destroying the captain . . .

Fascinatingly, the “arraignment, tryal, and condemnation of Captain William Kidd, for murther and piracy” is here also. Capatain Kidd, the notorious Scottish pirate (or privateer—take your pick), was brought before a grand jury of seventeen at the Admiralty Sessions at the Old Baily on the 8th and 9th of May in 1701. And right away the transcript grips you — well, if you’re a lawyer, it does. Kidd asks for legal counsel at the outset. The court questions his need:

    Will. Kidd– May it please your Lordship, I desire you to permit me to have Counsel
    Mr. Recorder– What would you have Counsel for?
    Will. Kidd– My Lord, I have some matter of Law relating to the Indictment, and I desire I may have Counsel to speak to it.
    Dr. Oxendon– What matter of Law can you have?
    Clerk of Arraignment– How does he know what he is charged with? I have not told him.
    Mr. Recorder– You must let the Court know what these Matters of Law are, before you can have Counsel assigned to you.
    Will. Kidd– They be Matters of Law, my Lord.
    Mr. Recorder– Mr. Kidd, Do you know what you mean by Matters of Law?
    Will. Kidd– I know what I mean, I desire to put off my Tryal as long as I can, that I can get my Evidence ready.

Plus ça change . . .

[hat tip: @montserratlj


  1. The latest issue of Canadian History (formerly known as The Beaver) is about Canadian pirates (although it does not include a reference to The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, the wonderful song by the Arrogant Worms). Regrettable.

  2. Montserrat Biedermann

    Thanks for the HT! Love the stories! Wendy – is Canadian History online?