Article

Pirates in the Caribbean have been glamorized in paintings, movies, and books. The real lives of pirates were usually nasty, brutish, and short.

Painting by N.C. Wyeth, courtesy National Geographic Society

Tavern Town
Maritime historian and St. Thomas resident Charles Consolvo says the city of Charlotte Amalie used to have a different name. "The town was called at one point 'Taphus' in Danish in the very early days, because it had so many taverns," he says.

American Isles
In 1917, the United States purchased the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix from Denmark for $25 million. They are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.

By Stuart Thornton

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

From the view on top of Blackbeard’s Castle, the red-tiled roofs of the city of Charlotte Amalie ring a blue-green harbor that was once a pirate refuge in the late 1600s. Charlotte Amalie is the capital of the island of St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

There is no proof the infamous English pirate Blackbeard caroused Charlotte Amalie’s taverns—Blackbeard’s Castle is actually the name of a 10-meter (34-foot) tall Danish watchtower that has no apparent connection to its namesake. Captain William Kidd, a Scottish sailor famously executed for piracy, sailed into the harbor in 1699 to drop off five deserters and a sick man.

Yet it’s a lesser-known French pirate, Jean Hamlin, whose presence on St. Thomas is best documented. Hamlin was a successful pirate, having raided English and other European ships off the coast of Jamaica and Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. Hamlin also raided ships off the coast of Sierra Leone, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in northwestern Africa.

Hamlin’s story in St. Thomas is told through historical documents in Isidor Paiewonsky’s 1961 book The Burning of a Pirate Ship, La Trompeuse. Hamlin, who helmed the ocean vessel La Trompeuse, captured ships off Hispaniola, the name given to the large Caribbean island where the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are now located. In one incident, Hamlin captured a seaman on a shipping vessel and put the man’s thumbs in vices (thumbscrews) until he confessed what kind of cargo was aboard his ship.

Charles Consolvo, a maritime historian and a board member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust in Charlotte Amalie, explains how Hamlin came to St. Thomas, which was then governed by Denmark.

“He had been wreaking depredations on British shipping in the Caribbean,” he says. “The British were after him. He came to St. Thomas, where he was apparently well-acquainted with the easy ways of Adolph Esmit, who was then governor of St. Thomas.”

Consolvo says St. Thomas was known for harboring pirates during Esmit’s governorship in the 1680s.

“Apparently, Esmit used to participate in buying the loot the pirates brought and generally giving them assistance and aid and succor,” he says.

Battle and Getaway

Several British vessels were ordered to find La Trompeuse (French for “deception”). Captain Charles Carlile and his English warship the H.M.S. Francis finally came upon the pirate ship in the port of St. Thomas on July 30, 1683. A brief battle erupted with La Trompeuse.

Unexpectedly, Carlile wrote in his journal, nearby Danish troops joined in the firefight—aiding the pirate ship in its fight against the H.M.S. Francis.

Carlile was taken aback by the Danish military’s actions. “Sent the master ashore with a letter to the Governor, protesting against the shot fired at the ship and asking for information as to the consorts of the pirates,” he wrote in his journal.

On the evening of July 31, 1683, Carlile and 14 of his men slid across the harbor toward La Trompeuse in two small boats. A firefight ensued.

“The pirate discovered us before we reached them,” Carlile wrote in his journal. “We exchanged shots with them and then boarded and took possession. The crew escaped. Fired her in several places and lay on our own oars close by to see that none came off to put out the fire. When she blew up, she kindled a great privateer that lay by, which burned to the water’s edge.”

Although La Trompeuse burned in the harbor of Charlotte Amalie, the crew escaped—including the pirate leader, Jean Hamlin. Esmit, the crooked governor of St. Thomas, aided in his escape, according to a letter written by St. Thomas resident Andreas Brock and printed in Paiewonsky’s book. The English military searched in vain while Hamlin hid in Charlotte Amalie.

“The pirate, Hamlin, is housed here the whole time in the fort,” Brock wrote. “He has eaten and banqueted with Esmit. . . . He has brought much gold. Esmit would not deliver the said Hamyln to the English.”

The Burning of a Pirate Ship, La Trompeuse concludes that Hamlin hid out in nearby Mosquito Bay before hijacking a frigate and sailing it to the coast of Brazil.

Fallout from La Trompeuse

What finally became of Hamlin has disappeared from history. After safely escaping to Brazil, he put together another pirate crew and helmed another ship—La Nouve Trompeuse.

Governor Esmit’s troubles, however, are well-documented.

Sir William Stapleton, the governor of Nevis, a British colony at the time, wrote to Esmit after the La Trompeuse incident. “I am sorry that your late conduct has convinced me and all the world that the reports of your being a protector of pirates were true,” Stapleton wrote. “I have affidavits to that effect from some you had on shore and from the pirates themselves. It is plain from the fact that you secured John Hamlin, the arch murderer and torturer, and neither tried him nor delivered him to Captain Carlile, but allowed him to escape.”

Consolvo says Esmit had a difficult time after word spread that he had assisted Hamlin.

“He got himself in trouble with the Danish crown, and somehow his wife, who was well-connected, got him out of it, because he was reappointed governor,” Consolvo says.

Even though a treasure-hunter claimed to find the wreck of La Trompeuse in 1990, Consolvo believes the remains of the sunken vessel have not been located. If it were found, he thinks the ship would be of historical significance—though he doubts it would hold many riches.

“I suspect that there was probably not very much on the ship at the time,” he says. “It would have been offloaded and sold. . . . Nobody really knows.”

But a document written by Brock (the St. Thomas resident at the time of La Trompeuse’s burning) suggests otherwise.

“Hamlin’s frigate, that was burned by the English, was in the opinion of everyone here a beautiful ship, well loaded with provisions and other things. The treasure room was full of silver. There could be over 24,000 pounds there. Esmit could have let all this be taken from the ship but he did not want the people ashore to see what the ship had.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

Adolph Esmit

Noun

(?1660-?1690) Danish governor of the island of St. Thomas.

affidavit

Noun

legal statement, sworn to and witnessed by a legal official.

apparent

Adjective

clear or obvious.

assistance

Noun

help or aid.

banquet

noun, verb

large feast, or to eat at a large feasting party.

Blackbeard

Noun

(1680-1718, born Edward Teach) English pirate who worked in the Caribbean Sea and the southeastern coast of the United States.

capital

Noun

city where a region's government is located.

Encyclopedic Entry: capital

cargo

Noun

goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.

carouse

Verb

to drink alcohol and act wildly.

coast

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: coast

colony

Noun

people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

conduct

Verb

to transmit, transport, or carry.

consort

Noun

friend, acquaintance, or coworker.

depredation

Noun

robbery or theft.

deserter

Noun

person who abandons or leaves a duty or occupation.

evidence

Noun

data that can be measured, observed, examined, and analyzed to support a conclusion.

execute

Verb

to put to death by order of the law or in a well-planned manner.

firefight

Noun

conflict involving gunfire.

frigate

Noun

type of armed naval combat vessel.

govern

Verb

to make public-policy decisions for a group or individuals.

governor

Noun

elected or appointed leader of a state or area.

harbor

Noun

part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.

Encyclopedic Entry: harbor

helm

Verb

to lead and manage a ship and ship's crew.

hijack

Verb

to steal a transportation vessel, such as a truck or plane, or the cargo it is carrying.

Hispaniola

Noun

large island in the Caribbean Sea, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

historian

Noun

person who studies events and ideas of the past.

historical trust

Noun

organization dedicated to preserving historical knowledge, material, and sites.

infamous

Adjective

having a very bad reputation.

island

Noun

body of land surrounded by water.

Encyclopedic Entry: island

Jean Hamlin

Noun

(?1650-?1690) French pirate active in the 1680s in the Caribbean Sea.

journal

Noun

record of events, updated regularly.

kindle

Verb

to set fire to.

loot

Verb

to steal or take something illegally.

maritime

Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

master

Noun

obsolete rank or term for a naval officer responsible for the navigation of a sailing vessel. Also called a sailing master.

military

Noun

armed forces.

murder

Verb

to kill a person.

oar

Noun

long paddle used for rowing.

ocean vessel

Noun

ship, boat, submarine, or other vehicle able to travel the ocean.

offload

Verb

to unload or remove.

pirate

Noun

thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.

port

Noun

place on a body of water where ships can tie up or dock and load and unload cargo.

Encyclopedic Entry: port

privateer

Noun

private ship or person commissioned by a government during war.

provision

Noun

materials necessary to complete a task, such as food or tools.

raid

Noun

to stage a sudden, violent attack, usually for robbery.

refuge

Noun

shelter or protection from danger.

sailor

Noun

person who works aboard a ship.

seaman

Noun

sailor, or person skilled in the navigation and sailing of a ship.

shipping

Noun

transportation of goods, usually by large boat.

significance

Noun

importance.

succor

Noun

help or aid.

tavern

Noun

bar or restaurant where liquor is sold.

thumbscrew

Noun

torture tool where a vice around the victim's fingers or toes is tightened until the bones are crushed. Also called a pilliwinks.

torture

Noun

inflicting pain to force a victim to provide information.

treasure-hunting

Noun

process and hobby of searching and digging for valuable items in historical places such as shipwrecks.

vain

Adjective

unsuccessful.

vice

Noun

tool that can be adjusted for gripping something tightly and holding it in place.

warship

Noun

seagoing vessel built for armed conflict.

watchtower

Noun

tall building from which a lookout or camera can see the surrounding area.

William Kidd

Noun

(1645-1701) Scottish navigator and sailor, hanged for piracy.

wreak

Verb

to inflict or bring about something painful.

Credits

Media Credits

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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