Pirates at the College

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November 28, 2011

10:36 PM

It is 1685, and all is quiet on the open sea. Three men stand on the deck of their ship, eyes on the ocean. The sails of the Batchelor’s Delight flap lightly against the wind, matching the sound of water slapping against the side of the vessel. Before them, the vast ocean reflects the sky. There is only one blemish on their horizon: A fleet of ships, flying the Spanish flag.

These men are Captain Edward Davis, Dr. Lionel Wafer and John Hingson, and they are pirates. Without them — without their treasure — the College of William and Mary as we know it would not exist.

“There’s no other college in the world that has this kind of historical founding in their background,” John Millar M.A. ’81 said. “The only one that comes close is Brown University, which was founded on the rum smuggling trade, which is almost as good.”

Millar is a local resident who has spent a great deal of time looking into the story of the Batchelor’s Delight, researching the crew’s travels and speaking with other historians who are familiar with these particular pirates.

“I had heard a rumor about it years ago and since I had been a graduate student at William and Mary, I followed up the rumor by going into the rare books section in Swem library,” Millar said. “There are two 17th century books there that tell this story, written by two of the pirates.”

These journals belong to Wafer and William Dampier, another member of the crew who left the group before Davis, Wafer and Hingson were arrested, had their loot confiscated, and watched as it was used to found a college. Before the pirates were captured, however, they sailed up and down the coast of South America, looting Spanish merchant ships and raiding coastal towns.

“It’s something that we don’t think about too often,” Linda Rowe, Colonial Williamsburg historian, said. “The whole idea of piracy affecting Virginia waters and the capes and the whole Eastern seaboard.”

The Delight was a mighty ship in its time. She was constructed in Denmark and boasted 36 guns and 70 men. The act of obtaining a ship was difficult for most pirates, unless they were particularly successful in their pillaging and plundering. Vessels were sometimes taken by might, sometimes stolen, and sometimes won. In the case of the Batchelor’s Delight, two members of the crew, Dampier and William Ambrosia Cowley, won her from a Danish crew in a card game when they had stopped in the Sierra Leone River.

Originally captained by John Cook, the Batchelor’s Delight sailed from Africa, around Cape Horn, and began attacking Spanish merchant ships and plundering coastal towns on the other side of the continent, making its way up the American coast, all the way from Chile to California. Spanish merchants would take the silver and gold they had from Bolivia and take it to the coast by going over the mountains in Chile.

“Since the mountains are straight up and down all the way along that coast, there was no room to build a road on the coast,” Millar said. “The best way to move things along the coast was by ship. Pirates had an open field day because they had 14 cannons and a strong will. And the Spanish were practically defenseless, because they didn’t think they would have had enemies along that coast, so why invest in cannons.”

The crew’s pillaging and plundering continued until the Spanish began to return the insult, sending out ships to find and arrest pirates. In 1684, Cook died and Davis took his place, captaining his crew as it fled from Chile, losing their pursuers around New Zealand, then rounding Cape Horn again and returning to their plundering on the other side of South America.

On this particular day, May 29, 1685, Davis, Wafer and Hingson were preparing for battle with the Spanish fleet, which they had been awaiting for months. They were told that the ships contained a great amount of treasure from Peru. Indeed, the fleet had contained Peruvian treasure, but since word of the pirates had reached them, they had left their goods safely on land and turned around to launch an attack.

The buccaneers were chased around the Panama Bay before finally shaking their attackers. But the battle caused riffs in their crew, and with other ships that accompanied the Batchelor’s Delight. By 1687, Davis, Wafer and Hingson were sitting in the Jamestown jail.

“We use this word ‘pirate’ that has been glamorized by Hollywood,” Millar said. “They really were a form of international terrorists.”

After their arrest, the pirates clung to the blurred line that existed between pirating and privateering. At that time, if they successfully proved that they were acting on behalf of the King and were looting for the good of England, they could be pardoned.

“During peacetime, or when nations weren’t at war, piracy was one thing,” Rowe said. “But privateering for the benefit of the crown was legal at the time.”

Usually the difference between privateers and pirates was based on whether or not a war was occurring at the time. But since England and Spain fought so often to begin with, even that difference was often vague.

“Pirates brought back a lot of stuff they pillaged from the Spanish, who were their perpetual enemies,” Millar said. “Even if they may not have been fighting that year, people would turn a blind eye to it.”

The pirates in the Jamestown jail tried to hide behind this difference. But the stories they attempted to tell did not hold up. So their time in jail continued, and eventually they were sent to England to be dealt with.

The men were not chained or kept captive while they sailed for home, even though they were notorious for taking over ships from the inside. Their options were limited while they sailed to England, though, as authorities had put their treasure on a separate ship. Had they rebelled, they would have lost what they had spent so much time fighting for: their booty.

“It was a mixture of raw silver, gold and jewels,” Millar said. “Coins and things made out of silver, gold and jewels — jewelry, for example. Very expensive jewelry that would have been worn by the richest Spaniards.”

It took five years for Davis, Wafer and Hingson’s situation to be sorted out. Their fate was decided by King William and Queen Mary, since the pirates had appealed to them. Because they were arrested in Virginia, the monarchs decided to compromise: give the buccaneers back most of their loot, but use some to found a college requested by the colony.

300 pounds worth of treasure was given to James Blair to found a college, which was named ‘King William’s and Queen Mary’s,’ after its promoters.

Davis, Wafer and Higson weren’t the only pirates who were caught in Virginia. Blackbeard’s crew was arrested in Virginia, held in the Williamsburg jail and hanged there.

“I think the reason you don’t hear a lot about it in the historic area is because the threat dies off,” Rowe said. “It doesn’t continue at the same level through the Revolution. And since Colonial Williamsburg is concentrating on the war years, the whole piracy thing is not really a big feature of the interpretation. The earlier period doesn’t receive as much attention.”

Millar’s research has convinced him that the College should embrace its pirate history. He has suggested renaming the Health Center Lionel Wafer Hall, or calling a social club on campus “The Batchelor’s Delight.”

“If the world knew this about William and Mary, there would be twice as many applications for admission,” Millar said. “Twice as many people would be looking at the College.”

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