Robbed by Pirates

By Thursday, February 6, 2014 1 No tags Permalink 0

Young Benjamin Larcom [Lucy’s brother, my 1st cousin 5x removed], who had always intended to follow his fathers calling, went to sea on the brig Mexican, whose master was a relative [Captain Richard Butman b. 1794]. It was his first and last voyage; the brig was captured by pirates who robbed it, locked the crew in hold, and set fire to it.

Pirates robbing the brig “Mexican” of Salem.

Here’s how Lucy remembers the story in an excerpt from A New England Girlhood:

“My eldest brother had gone to sea with a relative who was master of a merchant vessel in the South American trade. His inclination led him that way; it seemed to open before him a prospect of profitable business, and my mother looked upon him as her future stay and support.

One day she came in among us children looking strangely excited. I heard her tell some one afterwards that she had just been to hear Father Taylor preach, the sailors minister, whose coming to our town must have been a rare occurrence. His words had touched her personally, for he had spoken to mothers whose first-born had left them to venture upon strange seas and to seek unknown lands. He had even given to the wanderer he described the name of her own absent son Benjamin. As she left the church she met a neighbor who informed her that the brig Mexican had arrived at Salem, in trouble. It was the vessel in which my brother had sailed only a short time before, expecting to be absent for months. “Pirates” was the only word we children caught, as she hastened away from the house, not knowing whether her son was alive or not. Fortunately, the news hardly reached the town before my brother himself did. She met him in the street, and brought him home with her, forgetting all her anxieties in her joy at his safety.

The Mexican had been attacked on the high seas by a piratical craft, an African slaver named Panda. They robbed the Mexican of twenty thousand dollars in specie, set fire, and abandoned to her fate, with the crew fastened down in the hold. One small skylight had accidentally been overlooked by the freebooters. The captain discovered it, and making his way through it to the deck, succeeded in putting out the fire, else vessel and sailors would have sunk together, and their fate would never have been known.

Breathlessly, we listened whenever my brother would relate the story, which he did not at all enjoy doing, for a cutlass had been swung over his head, and his life threatened by the pirate’s boatswain, demanding more money, after all had been taken. A Genoese messmate, Iachimo, shortened to plain “Jack” by the Mexican’s crew, came to see my brother one day, and at the dinner table he went through the whole adventure in pantomime, which we children watched with wide-eyed terror and amusement. For there was some comedy mixed with what had been so nearly a tragedy, and Jack made us see the very whites of the black cook’s eyes, who, favored by his color, had hidden himself–all except that dilated whiteness–between two great casks in the bold. Jack himself had fallen through a trap-door, was badly hurt, and could not extricate himself.

It was very ludicrous. Jack crept under the table to show us how he and the cook made eyes at each other down there in the darkness, not daring to speak. The pantomime was necessary, for the Genoese had very little English at his command.

When the pirate crew were brought into Salem for trial, my brother had the questionable satisfaction of identifying in the court-room the ruffian of a boatswain who had threatened his life. This boatswain and several others of the crew were executed in Boston. The boy found his brief sailor-experience quite enough for him, and afterward settled down quietly to the trade of a carpenter.”

An excerpt from A Pirates Own Book – – Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers by Charles Ellms:

“This vessel [the Panda] was fashioned, at the will of avarice, for the aid of cruelty and injustice; it was an African slaver— the schooner Panda. She was commanded by Don Pedro Gilbert, a native of Catalonia, in Spain, and son of a grandee; a man thirty-six years of age, and exceeding handsome, having a round face, pearly teeth, round forehead, and full black eyes, with beautiful raven hair, and a great favorite with the ladies. He united great energy, coolness and decision, with superior knowledge in mercantile transactions, and the Guinea trade; having made several voyages after slaves. The mate and owner of the Panda was Don Bernardo De Soto, a native of Corunna, Spain, and son, of Isidore De Soto, manager of the royal revenue in said city; he was now twenty-five years of age, and from the time he was fourteen had cultivated the art of navigation, and at the age of twenty-two had obtained the degree of captain in the India service. After a regular examination the correspondent diploma was awarded him.

To the strictest discipline De Soto united the practical knowledge of a thorough seaman. But “the master spirit of the whole,” was Francisco Ruiz, the carpenter of the Panda. This individual was of the middle size, but muscular, with a short neck. His hair was black and abundant, and projected from his forehead, so that he appeared to look out from under it, like a bonnet. His eyes were dark chestnut, but always restless; his features were well defined; his eye-lashes, jet black. He was familiar with all the out-of-the-way places of the Havana, and entered into any of the dark abodes without ceremony. From report his had been a wild and lawless career. The crew were chiefly Spaniards, with a few Portuguese, South Americans, and half castes. The cook was a young Guinea negro, with a pleasant countenance, and good humored, with a sleek glossy skin, and tattooed on the face; and although entered in the schooner’s books as free, yet was a slave. In all there were about forty men. Her cargo was an assorted one, consisting in part of barrels of rum, and gunpowder, muskets, cloth, and numerous articles, with which to purchase slaves.

The Panda sailed from the Havana on the night of the 20th of August; and upon passing the Moro Castle, she was hailed, and asked, “where bound?” She replied, St. Thomas. The schooner now steered through the Bahama channel, on the usual route towards the coast of Guinea; a man was constantly kept at the mast head, on the lookout; they spoke a corvette, and on the morning of the 20th Sept., before light, and during the second mate’s watch, a brig was discovered heading to the southward. Capt. Gilbert was asleep at the time, but got up shortly after she was seen, and ordered the Panda to go about and stand for the brig. A consultation was held between the captain, mate and carpenter, when the latter proposed to board her, and if she had any specie to rob her, confine the men below, and burn her. This proposition was instantly acceded to, and a musket was fired to make her heave to.

This vessel was the American brig Mexican, Capt. Butman. She had left the pleasant harbor of Salem, Mass., on the last Wednesday of August, and was quietly pursuing her voyage towards Rio Janeiro. Nothing remarkable had happened on board, says Captain B., until half past two o’clock, in the morning of September 20th, in lat. 38, 0, N., lon. 24, 30, W. The attention of the watch on deck was forcibly arrested by the appearance of a vessel which passed across our stern about half a mile from us. At 4 A.M. saw her again passing across our bow, so near that we could perceive that it was a schooner with a fore top sail and top gallant sail. As it was somewhat dark she was soon out of sight. At daylight saw her about five miles off the weather quarter standing on the wind on the same tack we were on, the wind was light at SSW and we were standing about S.E. At 8 A.M. she was about two miles right to windward of us; could perceive a large number of men upon her deck, and one man on the fore top gallant yard looking out; was very suspicious of her, but knew not how to avoid her.

Soon after saw a brig on our weather bow steering to the N.E. By this time the schooner was about three miles from us and four points forward of the beam. Expecting that she would keep on for the brig ahead of us, we tacked to the westward, keeping a little off from the wind to make good way through the water, to get clear of her if possible. She kept on to the eastward about ten or fifteen minutes after we had tacked, then wore round, set square sail, steering directly for us, came down upon us very fast, and was soon within gun shot of us, fired a gun and hoisted patriot colors and backed main topsail. She ran along to windward of us, hailed us to know where we were from, where bound, &c. then ordered me to come on board in my boat. Seeing that she was too powerful for us to resist, I accordingly went, and soon as I got along-side of the schooner, five ruffians instantly jumped into my boat, each of them being armed with a large knife, and told me to go on board the brig again; when they got on board they insisted that we had got money, and drew their knives, threatening us with instant death and demanding to know where it was.

As soon as they found out where it was they obliged my crew to get it up out of the run upon deck, beating and threatening them at the same time because they did not do it quicker. When they had got it all upon deck, and hailed the schooner, they got out their launch and came and took it on board the schooner, viz: ten boxes containing twenty thousand dollars; then returned to the brig again, drove all the crew into the forecastle, ransacked the cabin, overhauling all the chests, trunks, &c. and rifled my pockets, taking my watch, and three doubloons which I had previously put there for safety; robbed the mate of his watch and two hundred dollars in specie, still insisting that there was more money in the hold. Being answered in the negative, they beat me severely over the back, said they knew that there was more, that they should search for it, and if they found any they would cut all our throats. They continued searching about in every part of the vessel for some time longer, but not finding any more specie, they took two coils of rigging, a side of leather, and some other articles, and went on board the schooner, probably to consult what to do with us; for, in eight or ten minutes they came back, apparently in great haste, shut us all below, fastened up the companion way, fore-scuttle and after hatchway, stove our compasses to pieces in the binnacles, cut away tiller-ropes, halliards, braces, and most of our running rigging, cut our sails to pieces badly; took a tub of tarred rope-yarn and what combustibles they could find about deck, put them in the caboose house and set them on fire; then left us, taking with them our boat and colors. When they got alongside of the schooner they scuttled our boat, took in their own, and made sail, steering to the eastward. As soon as they left us, we got up out of the cabin scuttle, which they had neglected to secure, and extinguished the fire, which if it had been left a few minutes, would have caught the mainsail and set our masts on fire. Soon after we saw a ship to leeward of us steering to the S.E. the schooner being in pursuit of her did not overtake her whilst she was in sight of us.

It was doubtless their intention to burn us up altogether, but seeing the ship, and being eager for more plunder they did not stop fully to accomplish their design. She was a low strait schooner of about one hundred and fifty tons, painted black with a narrow white streak, a large head with the horn of plenty painted white, large main topmast but no yards or sail on it. Mast raked very much, mainsail very square at the head, sails made with split cloth and all new; had two long brass twelve pounders and a large gun on a pivot amidships, and about seventy men, who appeared to be chiefly Spaniards and mulattoes.

The object of the voyage being frustrated by the loss of the specie, nothing now remained but for the Mexican to make the best of her way back to Salem, which she reached in safety. The government of the United States struck with the audacity of this piracy, dispatched a cruiser in pursuit of them. After a fruitless voyage in which every exertion was made, and many places visited on the coast of Africa, where it was supposed the rascals might be lurking, the chase was abandoned as hopeless, no clue being found to their ‘whereabouts.’ “

1 Comment
  • Herberta Gardner Millett
    September 7, 2014

    Dear Jen Larcom,
    My Ancestor is Abigail Ober, 2nd wife, I just found out from your website. I am starting to learn about my ancestors and have gone only as far as Abigail. I was intrigued with Lucy Larcom being an American Poet and bought her book “A new England Girlhood”. I just started reading it and find it hard to put down. I wanted more information on her parents since my ancestor is Abigail and her daughter is Anna Larcom, of whom I believe is the person Lucy speaks about in her book on page 10 and 3rd paragraph as having the gift of “second sight”. If it is I have a story of a vision Anna Larcom had and told to her daughter Elizabeth Larcom Downs.
    I am continuing to read your website and find it as interesting as Lucy’s book. Abigail Ober is 9 generations from me.
    What an exciting experience this is for me. If you see my message and have the time a short note would be exciting to read.
    Thank you for your website and information.
    Cordially Yours, Herberta Millett

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