Plymouth and Piracy

Dr Elaine Murphy, Associate Professor of Maritime History, University of Plymouth

University of Plymouth Drake Circus | Plymouth | Devon | PL4 8AA Facebook Twitter


Plymouth has a long and fascinating maritime history stretching back for many centuries. The city’s maritime history is commemorated in many of the memorials in the Barbican and on the Hoe ranging from early expeditions to the New World under Sir Humphrey Gilbert to the Mayflower in 1620 and the Plymouth Naval Memorial to the sailors who were lost in the World Wars. 

Plymouth also has strong connections to piracy and privateering stretching back to Tudor times. The city’s geographic position in the southwest of England with its easy access to Europe and the Atlantic made it an ideal base for pirate and privateering operations in the early modern period. Many well-known pirates and privateers also had strong Plymouth connections. Some of these men such as Sir Francis Drake and Henry Avery, are still remembered today but many more have slipped into historical obscurity. In this blog, I will explore some of Plymouth’s links with piracy in the past.

Francis Drake statue on the hoe.

The Streets Glister with Gold 

Plymouth’s strong association with piracy and privateering really developed in the Tudor period. In the 1540s, several Plymouth merchants and ship-owners received commissions to set out private men-of-war against the French. In September 1544, for example, William Hawkins received letters of marque to deploy up to eight ships to attack the French. 

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I Plymouths rose to prominence as a port associated with piracy and privateering. In Thomas Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West, a play partially set in Plymouth in the 1590s one character describes ‘How Plymouth swells with gallants; how the streets Glister with gold!’. Tensions with Spain over access to the riches and trade of the New World stretched back for many years. Religious animosities between Catholic Spain and Protestant England also enflamed relations. Plymouth merchants, such as John Hawkins, defied the Spanish government to trade with their colonies in the Caribbean. In the 1560s Hawkins made large profits on his first two slave voyages when he sailed from Plymouth to the coast of Africa and then to Spanish territories in the Caribbean. The Spanish and English sometimes came to blows over English attempts to trade in the region. In 1568 at the Battle of San Juan d’Uloa the Spanish viceroy of Mexico defeated Hawkin’s forces on his third slaving voyage. 

Even though war was not formally declared between England and Spain during the 1570s and early 1580s numerous English men attacked Spanish shipping and settlements in the New World. Many of these men, including Francis Drake, were Plymouth based. In 1575, the Spanish complained that 

In the port of Cartagena, an English man, a resident of Plymouth, named Francis Drake, pilot, who was with John Haquins [Hawkins] when he was at S. Juan de Lua, entered the port by night and sacked a ship of Bartolomeo Farina of 180 tons, and having taken everything of value, burnt the ship and took the said Farina captive to England.

According to the Spanish on another occasion while attacking Nombre de Dios, Drake killed eighteen Spaniards and ‘proclaimed war on behalf of the Queen of England’. In 1577 Drake sailed from Plymouth with a small fleet on his voyage around the world. In reality the Circumnavigation was a three year pirate raid on Spanish shipping and territories in the Pacific. When Drake and his surviving crew arrived back in Plymouth in September 1580 they brought a vast treasure. No proper accounting was kept of this illicit treasure to avoid having to pay compensation to the Spanish. Queen Elizabeth received a large portion and knighted Drake on his ship. With his share of the booty, Drake purchased Buckland Abbey. 

Was Drake a pirate or a privateer? The term privateer was not generally used until the mid-seventeenth century. But it is generally used by historians for a private individual who held a commission, known as a letter or marque or reprisal from the state to capture enemy merchant shipping. Drake claimed in his raids on the Spanish and on his Circumnavigation that he acted for the queen and she invested in and profited from his voyages. War with Spain did not formally break out until 1585 and to the Spanish Drake was clearly a pirate. Miles Ogborn in Global Lives perhaps best sums up the conundrum when we writes that ‘Piracy is to a great extent in the eye of the beholder’

With the formal outbreak of war with Spain in 1585 large numbers of Plymouth men continued to be involved in privateering. From 1585 to 1591 Kenneth Andrews identified twenty-three Plymouth based ships sailing with letters of marque. In 1591 the Fancy of Plymouth and Unity of Plymouth captured two prizes. The sixteen ton Fly of Plymouth was promoted by Richard Hawkins and captained by John Sled. In 1585 John Hawkins and other Plymouth men gave a recognizance of £1000 for the good behaviour of their private man-of-war, the Elizabeth of Plymouth, eighty tons, in order to receive a letter of reprisal to seize any of ‘the shippes, goodes, and merchaundizes, belonging to the subjectes of the kinge of Spayne’ that they should meet.

All such Pyrates and Rovers upon the Seas to be out of his Protection

Everything changed for Plymouth based seafarers with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England and Ireland and in 1604 made peace with Spain by the Treaty of London. All letters of marque issued during the war with Spain were rescinded and in a series of proclamations issued in 1605 the new king ordered his English subjects to cease privateering and to not aid privateers or pirates. James I abhorred piracy and he regarded those who committed such acts as outlaws. His 1605 proclamation stated that ‘All such Pyrates and Rovers upon the Seas to be out of his Protection’. 

Despite the king’s opposition to their actions many mariners from the Plymouth region continued to pirate. Unemployment and an economic downturn at the end of the war left many mariners with few other options. Local officials such as Sir Richard Hawkins, the vice admiral of Devon, also turned a blind eye to pirate activity or received pay offs for releasing pirates. John Payne paid him £40 to secure his freedom. In 1608 the French ambassador produced a long complaint about English piracies against French ships most of which centred on Plymouth. He noted that local officials pocketed stolen goods, allowed pirates to escape including a Captain Jemminer on multiple occasions and did nothing to stop the robbery of French ships in the harbour. Over time King James eventually reduced the English pirate problem he faced through a mixture of pardons and coercion. Some local officials such as Sir Richard Hawkins spent time in jail or lost their positions.

A New Pirate Threat

In March 1625 Pethericke Honicombe an Englishman held captive in Salé in Morocco wrote to his wife in Stonehouse about his captivity and that “there were thirty sail of shippes at Sally now preparing to come for the coasts of England in the begynnyng of the summer, & if there bee not speedy course taken to prevent it, they would do much mischeef”.

From the 1620s on the south west region faced a new pirate threat from pirates from North Africa often called ‘Barbary pirates’. Estimates vary, but over the course of the seventeenth century large numbers of British ships and people were captured by North African pirates. Between 1610 and 1630, the Devon and Cornwall region lost roughly twenty percent of its shipping to their depredations. William Court of Plymouth described being taken prisoner by a ‘pirate of Sally’ as he sailed from Plymouth bound for Amsterdam in April 1625. The pirates captured so many ships that they only kept the ‘choicest men’ and released Court and six other ‘worst men’. The threat posed by North African pirates continued throughout the century but their capability to raid shipping so easily in the region gradually declined. 

1643 Seige map of Plymouth

The Civil Wars

During the Civil War of the 1640s, Plymouth supported parliament and endured a long and arduous siege by royalist forces. The parliamentarian navy played a key role in aiding the garrison to hold out by keeping the supply lines open. Privateers with commissions from the admiralty in London, such as the Discovery of London and Constant Warwick, used the port as a base for their operations against the royalists and Irish confederates. John Peterson commanded the John of Plymouth, which seized a number of prizes such as the Fortune of Dunkirk in 1643. Ad admiralty court based in Plymouth during the war examined hundreds of captured mariners and disposed of prize goods brought into the town. 

1681 List of captives from North African pirates

The Famous, or Rather Infamous Captain Every

One of the most notorious pirates associated with the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ was Henry Avery [Every]. Born around 1659 he was baptised at Newton Ferrers near Plymouth. Avery started his seafaring career in legitimate service before turning to piracy when he led the crew of the Charles to mutiny and seize the ship in 1694. He reputedly told his captain who he turned out that “I am Captain of this Ship now… I am bound to Madagascar, with a Design of making my own Fortune, and that of all the brave Fellows joined with me”.

Avery and his men struck it rich when they captured the Ganj-i-Sawai, a treasure ship that belonged to the Mughal Emperor of India. Avery and his men split the loot and went their separate ways – Avery was never captured, six of his men stood trial at the Old Bailey in 1696. Charles Johnson in his General History of the Pyrates first printed in 1724 tells an elaborate but unsubstantiated story that Avery returned to Devon and went to Bideford. There some Bristol merchants cheated him of his ill-gotten jewels and died there soon after ‘not being worth as much as would buy him a Coffin’

Cannons on the Hoe

A Tradition Continues

Privateering continued to be an important part of British warfare at sea into the eighteenth century. Plymouth’s development as a naval port and dockyard from the late seventeenth-century meant that the town lost some of its earlier privateering character. Nevertheless, some privateers still operated from the region and many local sailors signed onto ships for these voyages. In 1803 the Vigilant sailed from Plymouth with twenty-five men on board as a private man-of-war. In 1780 an advertisement in the Exeter Flying Post sought to recruit men ‘who delight in the Music of Great-Guns and distressing the Enemies of Great-Britain’ for the Mars privateer based in Teignmouth. Privateering was finally abolished in 1856 by the Declaration of Paris, which ended the Crimean War.

Here in Plymouth our memory of the town as a base for piracy and privateering is both remembered and forgotten at the same time. A statue of Sir Francis Drake takes pride of place on the Hoe and many places around the city bear his name and that of Sir John Hawkins. Each May the Barbican comes alive with a popular annual pirate festival. As a lecturer at the University of Plymouth, I teach a module on piracy and privateering each year. Other aspects of Plymouth’s pirate history are now barely remembered such as the heyday of piracy under James I or the losses the region suffered during the North African pirate attacks of the 1620s. Regardless of how we think about piracy and privateering it remains a fascinating part of Plymouth’s rich maritime history.

Gilbert memorial plaque on the Barbican

One thought on “Plymouth and Piracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: