Pirates and privateers influenced early American colonial history from its beginning. The original colonies depended on trade for survival. For example, in Virginia, the first large colony, trade involved the sale of tobacco in exchange for virtually all manufactured goods.
Mercantilism ruled the day. European countries attempted to monopolize their trade for the benefit of home countries. Royal authorities licensed ships and shipowners had to pay a fee for the right to operate. English trade with Virginia was financed through a system of credit against the following year’s tobacco crop. Goods in both directions came on ships.
Trade required peace and is depicted in the cover image for my first historical novel, The Wealth of Jamestown. The image is of a painting by Keith Rocco and is the property of the National Park Service.
Jamestown, 17th Century
Privateers, Pirates and Trade
Virginia prospered and grew, but for a good part of the seventeenth century England fought wars with European neighbors. Sometimes the wars resulted in the shifting of ownership of various territories. Thus, New Amsterdam became New York in 1667 as a result of an Anglo Dutch War. The Dutch won that war: they gave up a small settlement on the tip of Manhattan and received in its place the Spice Islands of Indonesia. They also won the right to sail ships up the James River to pick up tobacco, breaking the English monopoly on that trade.
European navies were small. During times of war, ships financed by the various crowns of Europe were supplemented by private vessels. Private merchant vessels received commissions and payments from the various governments. These privateers could conduct their business while acting in support of their kings and queens. The ships shown in the harbor in the painting were likely commercial ships owned by privateers. Depending on the year, they could have been owned by local Virginians.
Privateers armed their ships as law and order on the sea did not exist. Crews learned to operate cannons and could defend the ships if attacked. They did so partly because of their status. The governments and peoples of the day valued and admired the privateers, as mother countries and colonies needed trade for their survival and prosperity.
French and Indian Wars, Privateers and Pirates
In Queen Anne’s war (1702-1712), the English defeated the French and annexed large parts of eastern Canada including Hudson Bay. This was the second of three French and Indian wars.
A peace treaty ended the conflict in 1713, but Queen Anne died in 1714. She was succeeded by George I, the first Hanover King of England. Because the war ended, privateers lost their commissions and the revenue that went with them. England once again paid for a very small royal navy.
The English government required privateers to pay license fees (taxes) in order to sail and conduct business. Some paid the fees; the ones who refused to pay the fees were called pirates. With peace, trade expanded for all shippers, whether licensed or not. After 1714 pirates, who incurred lower costs than privateers, began to take over much of international trade. Privateers became pirates. They became a menace to their own mother countries.
The painting below, by Van de Welde the younger, shows the mother country’s ships (in this case Holland), fighting pirates:
War against Pirates
Blackbeard and the Return of Law and Order
In 1717 Blackbeard sailed a captured French warship known as the Concorde and renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge. With this flagship and a fleet of about forty other ships, he blockaded Charleston harbor. He became famous and his business thrived.
Authorities in London noticed . George I decided to beef up his navy. He also issued a pardon called a “Proclamation for Suppressing Pirates”. Under the King’s pardon the British Crown granted clemency to any pirate who surrendered to a governor of the colonies by September 5, 1718.
Blackbeard surrendered to the Governor of North Carolina and received an official royal pardon. As related in my book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, despite the proclamation from London, the Virginia House of Burgesses in November 1718 passed a law on “the apprehending and destroying of pirates.” With respect to Blackbeard, the House voted a reward of one hundred pounds, with ten pounds for each of his crew. The House, however, doubted their law’s legitimacy due to the king’s pardon, and refused to appropriate the reward money.
Spotswood, Blackbeard, the Courts and the Law
Spotswood disregarded the royal proclamation. At his personal expense he commissioned two sloops to find Blackbeard. He also appointed as commander of the force Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Maynard served on HMS Pearl, a royal navy ship anchored at Jamestown.
In October 1718, Spotswood learned that William Howard, Blackbeard’s former quarter master, had come to Williamsburg. The governor ordered a local justice of the peace to issue a warrant to detain Howard for trial. Soldiers arrested Howard, took fifty pounds from him, and arrested two black men who traveled with him. Fifty pounds in 1720 would be worth about $11,000 in today’s U. S. dollars. That was a lot of money in those days. Armed guards took the three men onto the Pearl.
Spotswood wanted Howard tried in an admiralty court without a jury, but the Governor’s Council disagreed. The Governor’s Council, an appointed upper house of the Virginia General Assembly, called for normal legal order. The Council declared that Howard and his two companions should be provided the normal course of law in civil court. Spotswood was determined and disregarded the advice of the Council. He insisted that Howard be indicted for crimes of piracy on the high seas. Spotswood insisted that Howard be tried by a special three-man jury Spotswood would personally appoint.
How Not to Try a Pirate
Well known around Williamsburg, Howard had powerful friends. On their advice, he responded by hiring a lawyer, James Holloway. Holloway quickly caused the arrest of the justice of the peace who signed the warrant for Howard’s arrest. Subsequently, the civil court, following demands made by Holloway, issued warrants for the arrest of Captain George Gordon and Lieutenant Robert Maynard who’d detained Howard on the Pearl. Holloway, on behalf of Howard, sued Gordon and Maynard for five hundred pounds in damages.
Spotswood wanted to demonstrate he still exercised the powers of government. In a trial conducted by jurors appointed by Spotswood, Howard was found guilty and ordered hanged. However, on the day before the hanging, Spotswood received a number of notices from London. One was a commission ordering him to pardon all surrendering pirates for all acts of piracy committed before July 23, 1718.
Spotswood released Howard and his two companions, and returned Howard’s fifty pounds. In response, Howard promptly asked his lawyer to pursue his case for damages against the naval officers in civil court.
To sum up, the English Crown, Virginia’s legislative representatives, and the courts replaced the pirates and privateers and the governor as arbiters of justice.
Does all this sound familiar? Here, a legislature passed laws without funding them, while an executive disregarded current laws to enforce abrogated laws. Irate citizens (the pirates and privateers) sought justice and compensation in the courts. Three branches of government checking each other, almost a hundred years before the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
My granddaughter, a high school junior, plans to take a course in which she’ll be learning about American history this summer. Likely it will be a virtual course delivered by zoom over the computer.
I wonder what constitutes history to today’s teenagers. Personally I can remember the end of World War II and its aftermath. Parades marched down the main streets and veterans returned home with missing limbs. I hid under my school desk in drills to protect me from a Russian nuclear attack. The Cuban missile crisis felt like the beginning of World War III and I remember the assassination of President Kennedy.
My own children have no living memory of any major war: World War II, Korea or Vietnam. They and their children know nothing about the gas shortages of the 1980s and Jimmy Carter’s inflation that destroyed our small community banks. They do know about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the destruction of the twin towers in 2001. My grandchildren don’t even remember that.
What do they teach in American history courses in today’s high schools? I hope they do a better job than they did when I went to school. But I know they won’t be teaching early history. I was told this by quite a number of history teachers when I served as a docent at Jamestown Settlement, a historical museum that commemorates the first landing of three English ships in North America in 1607.
Peter Minuit Buying Manhattan: Learning Early New York City History
What I Learned about Early American History
Growing up in New York City, I began learning about American history in kindergarten and the first grade. For instance, I remember learning about three ships arriving at Jamestown and the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. There, at Plymouth Rock, they apparently celebrated the first Thanksgiving. I know we were shown a painting of Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island from the Indians with twenty-four dollars in trinkets and a bottle of rum.
Look at the painting closely. We can see that all of the Indians are covered head to toe in deerskins. Several wear elaborate feathered headdresses. An Indian woman wears a cotton print dress under her deerskin. We know that Western Indians in the nineteenth century dressed like that, but Manhattan Indians in the seventeenth century likely looked quite different.
No matter to the kindergartener. We made deerskins to wear and feathered headdresses—all out of brown paper, colored and pasted together any way we liked. I remember we also made pilgrim hats, but they were black and out of card board. In comparison, it was much more fun to be an Indian; they got to prance around and make loud noises.
Whatever people learned in school, to most people the founding fathers fell out of the sky in powdered wigs and silk stockings. Therefore, the hundred and fifty years between Pocahontas and George Washington remain a blank.
American History and Genealogy
At Jamestown Settlement I met many genealogists, anxious to see if they had an ancestor on one of the first ships. Though they were interested in learning about American history, I had to tell them that those people were probably not people they’d want to meet. My teachers never taught this in school, but the settlers came to fight and make fortunes. They fought with each other and the native tribes nearby, and most of them died early gruesome deaths from starvation, disease, warfare, and simply fighting with each other. These early sailors weren’t ancestors of anybody.
Descendants of Pocahontas (there are many) are generally not the genealogists; they know their family lines very clearly and don’t have to prove anything. While their “history” goes back to 10,000 B.C., they come to the museum to see history as relevant to today. They come to see the building of the country, from sailing up the rivers, establishing plantations, trading crops for credit, and developing a way for different people to live together.
About a third of the sailors on the three original ships “married” Indian women. The Indians helped to build James Fort, and Indian wives did most of the cooking. Indian-made cooking utensils have been found on the site of the original fort, and in the earliest days only the Indians would have known what was edible. The earliest surviving settlers learned a great deal from the Indians. If you date your family to seventeenth century Virginia, Pocahontas is probably your relative.
Some Perspective on Learning about Early History
Early history isn’t taught because little is known about it, and what’s written is partisan, controversial and probably incorrect. We don’t learn about early American history in school, but where else can we learn about it?. Were the English barbarians, out to kill and rampage? Were the Indians savages, out to starve out the new arrivals? Didn’t they trade and learn from each other? How did they really build towns and colonies?
Let me end with a cartoon by James Stevenson (1966) from The New Yorker:
Learning about American History: Indians and Settlers: Friends or Foes?
Cartoons don’t settle anything. They just keep the arguments going.
On Saturday. May 30, my grandson received his bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University (CSU) in a virtual graduation ceremony. For him it was a great achievement and represented long hours of preparation and work. His degree is in computer science with a minor in mathematics.
May 30, many of us will remember, was the date on which Memorial Day used to be celebrated. I remember some of my parents’ generation called it Decoration Day. That day families went to the cemetery to decorate the graves of the war dead.
For my parent’s generation, the war dead were near and numerous, not theoretical. World Wars I and II in some way touched every family and Memorial Day was somber, not the beginning of summer as it is now.
Graduations used to come in June, and took place before large happy crowds of people. This virtual graduation event was certainly the first of its kind for the university.
A Virtual Graduation
My husband and I sat in front of the zoom screen on my computer and listened to remarks by the president of the university, the mayor, the lieutenant governor of Ohio, and several previous CSU graduates. I was able to locate my grandson’s major department on the computer screen.
The names of all computer science graduates marched across the screen individually, with appropriate graduation day background music. When my grandson’s name arrived, we saw a video of him, in cap and gown, looking very happy. He smiled and thanked his parents and grandparents for help and support.
We have attended many graduations, and this was the first one where we heard every speaker and actually saw the face of the graduate. It reminded me of my daughter’s graduation from a small college outside Richmond, VA. Then we sat in folding chairs on a field on a very hot day, quite far from an outdoor stage. Nearby, a level railroad crossing bisected the town.
Amtrak kept its schedule that day. Fairly frequently, a train came through the town at a slow speed, blowing its whistle all the way. We barely heard any of the speeches, but we did see our daughter at a distance.
My grandson is now a graduate and I’m grateful for the computer and zoom. We were able to join the family electronically that evening to congratulate him.
Another Graduation Day: Me and Lymphoma
My grandson is not the only member of our family to face some final test results this early summer. On Thursday, I am scheduled for a mammogram. Two years ago a mammogram led to a diagnosis of an aggressive type of lymphoma for which I was treated over six months and for which I have undergone numerous lab tests and PET scans.
While I’m of the age that I may have avoided a mammogram two years ago, for some reason I didn’t. My radiologist found something funky on the picture and that led to biopsies, CAT scans and further lab tests and scans. After three months the doctors came up with the lymphoma diagnosis.
I can’t say I’m looking forward to the mammogram, nor am I looking forward to a PET scan now scheduled for July. The PET scan is sort of a graduation day for me. If they find nothing, I will be considered cured with no further tests or medical procedures.
For me, none of this will be virtual. The tests will be done according to normal procedures and the results will either be good or bad.
Graduation, Old People and Old Jokes
As the grandmother of a college graduate, I am an old person. Here is a story about old people:
“Six retired Floridians were playing poker in the condo clubhouse when Meyerwitz loses $500 on a single hand and drops dead at the table. Showing respect for their fallen partner, the other five continue playing standing up. Finkelstein looks around and asks, “So, who’s gonna tell his wife?”
They draw straws. Goldberg picks the short one. They tell him to be discreet, be gentle, don’t make a bad situation worse.
“Discreet? I’m the most discreet person you’ll ever meet. Discretion is my middle name. Leave it to me.”
Goldberg proceeds to the Meyerwitz apartment and knocks on the door. The wife answers and asks what he wants.
Goldberg declares, “Your husband just lost $500 and is afraid to come home.”
“Tell him to drop dead,” says the wife!
“I’ll go tell him,” says Goldberg.
Mother’s Day in a lock-down requiring social distancing was bound to be different than the norm, but for me it actually wasn’t. As in most years, I received phone calls and promises of future calls and maybe a future zoom meeting.
My children and grandchildren are busy people. I know they are stuck in their houses and they continue with school and music lessons. In time for Mother’s Day, I received a video of two granddaughters playing piano. The video showed them individually and I could see their hands hit the keys. They were socially distanced from everyone when the video was made. Nobody heard me, but I applauded loudly for each of them, just like a grandmother should.
I received delivered gifts: a box of candy and a bottle of dessert wine from my daughter and her family; a box of candy and flowers from my son and his family. I did not have direct contact with the delivery man, just as in previous years, but this time I practiced social distancing.
Since Mother’s Day was still “locked down”, the florist called to say he’d be delayed. The good flowers weren’t yet available. Since I wasn’t going anywhere, I thanked him for the call and the information. The flowers arrived two days later and were worth the wait. Here is a picture (including the box of candy):
Mother’s Day Roses and Lilies
The roses opened to about six inches in diameter, and a week later, the lilies were still open and wonderful to look at. But they didn’t compare to my outdoor Russian iris:
Russian Iris: No Social Distancing
Social Distancing: the New Normal?
We’ve had a warm and wet May and the birds and flowers are loving it. They have no thoughts of masks and barriers and social distancing. Whenever I go out on the porch there is a jumble of tweets and loud sounds from a mass of small birds. I’m sure many of them are a lot closer to me than six feet.
We have been advised by the local authorities and some local businesses that we should get ready to go back to work, shop and live in the world again. This will be different from before, if everyone takes these rules seriously. For a haircut, there will be no shampoo; I will have to arrive with my hair already shampooed. There will be no children or pets allowed in the place. I will have to wash my hands before being issued into wherever the hairdresser will be located.
Social Distancing and Health Care
The Cleveland Clinic sent me their directive on their “new normal.” They are ready to resume in person healthcare services, but they encourage patients to use “virtual” visits. The notice states that with a virtual visit the patient can see a provider right away, or schedule an appointment for routine care using the smartphone.
I’ve already had one virtual appointment with my doctor and it was hardly a medical exam. There were no tests, and because I couldn’t figure out how to turn on my camera, the doctor could only speak to me. He saw nothing. We both agreed to schedule a regular in-person visit in September. Likewise, my dentist will see me in October. Maybe over the years I’ve been overdoing it with annual doctor’s visits and semi-annual dentist visits. Routine care doesn’t have to be constant care.
As with my hairdresser, the Cleveland Clinic will not permit patients to bring anyone with them for an appointment. On the other hand, children, elderly patients, those with special needs and those having surgery requiring an overnight stay may bring a guest. That probably accounts for a large percentage of the non-routine procedures done at the clinic. The notice states that the clinic is among the safest places in healthcare.
A few years ago, after I was released from a hospital stay, I was taken by a nurse to the entrance of the hospital in a wheel chair. As I got out of the wheel chair, the nurse said to me, “Take care, and don’t come back.” We both knew that hospitals are unsafe places.
Do the masks protect everyone? People now own them and wear them, but if you can’t see someone’s face, how can you trust him or her?
Insecure? It’s Happened Before.
I remember a Woody Allen story. Feeling insecure, Woody moved to an apartment building in the city because it employed a doorman for protection. On his second night, when he returned to the building, Woody was mugged by the doorman.
Let me end this with a Henny Youngman story about doctors:
A guy says to a doctor, “I’m having trouble with my love life.”
The doctor says, “Take off twenty pounds and run ten miles a day for two weeks.” Two weeks later, the guy calls the doctor, “Doctor, I took off twenty pounds and I’ve been running ten miles a day.”
“How’s your love life now?”
“I don’t know. I’m 140 miles away!”
Washington’s Shadow was featured in a review in Chesapeake Style Magazine, April 2020 edition, written by Ann Skelton:
Barbara McLennan’s latest historical fiction, Washington’s Shadow, is set thirty years after the long winter at Valley Forge in 1778. In this story three generations of Powell children, gather to mourn the death of Leven Powel, the family patriarch and a devoted supporter of George Washington. Leven’s adult children learn details of Leven’s revolutionary war activities through documents found in a locked chest. Their sister Jane, trained as a teacher, agrees to write a biography of Leven culled from the documents. The family also learns that Washington rewarded his soldiers in the form of warrants to land in the sparsely settled state of Ohio.
The value of those deeds has given rise to a scam by an unscrupulous corporation, one that does not blanch at the use of violence to swindle warrants from unsuspecting veterans. Leven Powell had passed his warrants to his eldest son Billy who is unaware of their value and of the danger he faces from the land-grab company. Alas, brother Billy is in imminent danger.
Part II: Indian Country and Winchester. The story gains momentum in this section as the family determines to find Billy and warn him of danger. The cast of characters widens, and action accelerates as the Lenape Indian, George Morgan White Eyes, Billy’s siblings, and four of the teen-age grandchildren mobilize to find and protect Billy. Gun-toting teens along with a mule, a dog and the necessary ammunition set out on a short cut through dense Virginia woods to warn their uncle Billy of the danger he faces. The fast-paced section replete with mishaps, challenges, as well as mild quarrels among the teen aged adventurers also features an unlikely hero in the form of a huge black bear, a bear that can discern the good-guys from evildoers. Readers will not be disappointed with the drama in the woods which includes an armed battle with local militia.
Part III, Middleburg and Alexandria
This final section brings the characters back together in an effective wrap-up to the action. The main characters discuss not only the adventure that ended in success for Billy and the Powell family but the principles espoused by Washington that also motivated this revolutionary family. The characters’ lives are neatly tied up as they reconnect after all the smoke and excitement of the conflict has settled.
Though McLennan imagines gun-toting teenagers and heroic wildlife, she does not take liberties with history. We hear about the Lenape Indians; we learn that even after the Revolution is over and the English departed, not all Americans supported a strong central government. We see political turmoil surrounding Jefferson’s battle to win an electoral college victory; as well as President Jefferson’s political maneuvers against Aaron Burr and Burr’s subsequent trial and acquittal.
Through it all George Washington’s long shadow is cast on later generations even to our own. His belief in truth, justice and equality for all still casts a long shadow into this generation.
Spring has come to Virginia. The state still is closed down and we venture out only for groceries, about once a week. But spring has arrived: we have birds, flowers, warm sun and corona-virus lock-down.
We live in a marina where the docks, moorings and supporting structures have been under construction for about a year. Staying outside, for example, on my porch, is an ear-bending experience. We have views of massive cranes and hear the sounds of giant generators. But the corona-virus lock-down has made staying at home more than a construction experience.
We have become much more vigilant about the immediate surroundings, and not just the construction. This year we really saw the coming of spring, and the birds and flowers have been stunning.
This year we see and hear the birds. Not that we could have ignored them. Over eighty varieties of birds have been counted by birdwatchers in my neighborhood. I really don’t know much about them, but this year one of our bird houses has been occupied by bluebirds.
They are amazing neighbors. They sing to us almost constantly, and they seem to chirp to us personally. Every time we go out on the porch and say something, we are greeted by a loud song from some little bird. I’ve never seen the little loudmouth. The song is two notes repeated four or five times, but in a rhythm that sounds very much like conversation. We’ve gotten used to whistling back or talking to the bird. In the evening we say good night. It reminds me of having a two year old, a small living thing that talks all the time.
While I’ve never seen our talking companion, I’ve taken my camera to the water’s edge. This year brought some unusual sights. For example, for the first time I’ve gotten a shot of what I think is a young eagle, perched on a pole near my house. He’s quite young, but has those white head feathers and an imperial beak:
It’s spring, so I imagine that the birds I see are all young. They chirp loudly and seem very happy. The eagle looked lost, not sure of what to do now that he was atop a tall pole. He stayed there for quite a while. I’m sure he can fly, but maybe he has no nest to go back to. Eagles fly very high and coast like kites in the air. This one is bigger than a baby, but not fully grown. He’s like a teenager sent out into the world, not sure of what’s next.
I also took a picture of a heron. We see lots of herons near my house. They come to fish, and are striking when they dive looking for their next meal. Here is the heron:
You can see the heron is also young and thin. He has a beautiful takeoff and a graceful flight. He hovers like a helicopter over the houses before landing near the water.
In addition to birds, we’ve had to confront the spring flower situation. Since we’re stuck in the house, we have no annual flowers. I usually plant some pots of petunias and geraniums. I also normally prepare a few tomato plants in pots. Now I have to be content with the plants that carried over from last year.
We’ve had a very wet spring and seem to get rain every other day, but the weather has turned warm with temperatures mostly in the 70’s. I haven’t fed or watered anything. We still have three pots of pansies from last fall, and they are spectacular. About five mums never went away, and one seems ready to blossom (mums in May?). I also have a window box full of some light purple petunias.
We had a profusion of daffodils and crocus, and now a rainbow of irises and peonies, all from previous years. Here is a picture of some cut flowers, a peony and a few irises:
Peony and Irises
Coronavirus and Jokes
I’m sure we will survive this pandemic and remember the lock-down as a little overkill. But, like the birds and flowers returning from last year (or never leaving), old jokes are also making a comeback. Here are some I received last week:
“A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.
No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationary.
If you don’t pay your exorcist, you can get repossessed.”
I hope all are staying safe and healthy.