HANSON — He teaches one of the more hedonistic entries in boston.com’s list of “10 College Courses You Wish You Registered For.”
Suffolk University Senior History Lecturer Stephen O’Neill’s “The History of Piracy” made that list — along with a study of Surfing and American Culture at Boston University and the Culture of Burlesque at Emerson and others from anime to board game strategies in business. the Pembroke native has taught the course for 11 years and has researched the topic for 20 years.
On Thursday, Aug. 4, O’Neill brought his knowledge of the pirate life to the Hanson Historical Society for a program titled “New England Pirates.” He is also the new executive director of the Hanover Historical Society.
New England pirates?
“Everyone is fascinated with pirates,” O’Neill said, noting that the Johnny Depp “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie made more than $600 million to date. “But pirate stories have been around since pirates were sailing the seas.”
Among notable authors to write on pirate themes have been John Steinbeck, Emily Dickenson, Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving, O’Neill said.
“There were pirates in ancient Rome, ancient Greece … in all parts of the world,” he said. “Piracy is basically the theft of portable wealth at sea. … We’re talking a global economy in the 1690s.”
Turns out, New England was more than just a place where pirates went to die on the scaffold — after enduring a lengthy sermon on the sins of their trade from Puritan minister Cotton Mather.
More on that later.
As early as 1646, three pirate ships visited Plymouth and their crews’ resulting bender probably salvaged the settlement’s fledgling economy, according to O’Neill. The pirates were under commission to prey on Spanish shipping by the Earl of Warwick, who also had arranged the patents and charter for the Plymouth colony.
“These crewman under Capt. Thomas Cromwell really spent so much money drinking that they literally bailed out Plymouth, which was bankrupt,” O’Neill said. “[Puritans] had actually voted in early 1646 to abandon Plymouth and move the capital of the colony out to Eastham.”
Cromwell’s commission also protected him from a murder charge, for which he was acquitted, while ashore in Plymouth.
O’Neill also related the origin of the term buccaneer — with its root in the Caribbean Arawak word buccan, for the wooden frame on which meat was smoked. They used to go ashore on Hispañola to hunt feral pigs and cattle from an earlier, abandoned settlement and smoked the meats to preserve them for sale on Tortuga to supplement their piracy.
“If you watch any pirate movie, Tortuga and Port Royal are always mentioned,” O’Neill said. “Those are the great pirate havens of the 17th Century.” An earthquake eventually sank most of Port Royal under the waves.
New England did not miss out on the action in the heyday of piracy, however.
Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who sat on Capt. Cromwell’s jury, left Plymouth Colony in 1647 for Port Royal, Jamaica and ended up on a fleet also underwritten by the Earl of Warwick to take Hispañola from Spain. He never returned, having died at sea.
Sir William Phips, the first royal governor of Massachusetts, was also a salvager of shipwrecks, who used buccaneer tactics in his failed attempt to capture Quebec in 1690.
Some of the true buccaneers also headed this way after they were driven out of the Caribbean, O’Neill related.
Capt. Thomas Paine, (not to be confused with the later “Common Sense” pamphleteer) who had attacked St. Augustine as a buccaneer, retired to Jamestown, R.I., in the 1670s. He had married the governor’s daughter and founded Trinity Church — before being called on to protect the colony from French pirates in the 1690s.
Not all New England pirates had such a successful retirement.
The infamous Capt. Kidd was arrested in Boston for trial in London where he was hanged and gibbeted — coated in tar after death and suspended in an iron cage — as a warning to other would-be pirates.
The only gibbeted pirate in New England was the body of Capt. William Fly on “Nixes Island” in 1726. Now only a concrete marker remains, as legend has it, a pirate’s curse led to the island being washed away.
On June 30, 1704, Capt. John Quelch and five crewmen were executed in Boston after the first trial for piracy by the British Admiralty Court held outside of England.
“Gallows were erected halfway between the high and low watermarks, symbolic of the jurisdiction of the admiralty court,” O’Neill said. “Rev. Cotton Mather made a specialty out of pirate execution sermons.”
The condemned men were forced to stand before Mather’s pulpit while he orated against their sins for “two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon,” O’Neill said.
One of Quelch’s condemned crewmen, John Lambert, hailed from Salem.
Capt. Edward Lowe kidnapped Marblehead sailor Phlip Ashton who famously refused to join the pirate crew, eventually jumping ship on Rowatan Island. It took Ashton three years to make his way back to Marblehead.
“I don’t know why some of these stories haven’t been made into really great movies,” O’Neill said.
After his talk, O’Neill answered some of the audience’s questions.