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Pirates and Plague at Launceston


Within a very short period, after Sir John Eliot practically commenced his political career by becoming member for Newport in 1624, the inhabitants of the West of England were distracted from the proceedings of Parliament and even from those attendant upon the change of monarch by two enemies of the public peace dead as far as the England of to-day is concerned—Pirates and the Plague. It is impossible to study the general history of the time without feeling how largely in parts it is coloured by both these influences, and their effect is almost as marked upon our local chronicles. During the reign of James the First Cornwall and Devon had suffered grievously from the ravages of the Sallee rovers—a body remembered by most of us merely because of a chance reference in Robinson Crusoe —and at the accession of Charles the evil had not abated. Frequent petitions to the Council from ports in the West told the dismal tale of rapine, and bore out the truth of the story of ” the distressed wives of almost two thousand poor mariners remaining most miserable captives in Sallee in Barbary,” who implored the Duke of Buckingham that as their husbands had for a long time continued in most miserable estate, suffering such unspeakable misery and torture that they were almost forced ” to convert from their Christian religion,” and as the King had not answered a single one of their many petitions for relief, his grace would “in his wonted goodness and gracious pity towards poor women and miserable captives intercede with Charles on their behalf. In the beginning of 1625, Sir John Eliot presided at an Admiralty Sessions at Plymouth for the trial of twenty-three ” Turks and renegadoes” for piracy, and twenty of these were hanged. But this sweeping execution did not save the south-western coast from further attacks. In the April the Mayor of Plymouth informed the Council that “certain Turks, Moors, and Dutchmen of Sallee, in Barbary, lie on our coasts, spoiling such as they are able to master ” and on the same day Sir James Bagg, an admiralty servant, wrote from that town to Buckingham that “a Turkish pirate, who lies upon our coast, has this week taken a Dartmouth ship and three Cornish fisher-boats, even in the mouth of the harbour,” and to repel the attacks of the rovers “the press” had been dispatched to raise two hundred and fifty men in Devon and two hundred in Cornwall, Bagg adding, with a touch of the malice often subsequently displayed, ” Sir John Eliot is displeased that he was not solely employed.”! Sir John’s constituents soon had an opportunity for judging what the Sallee rovers were like. The town lay too far from the coast to have any fear of the nocturnal incursions which harried those nearer the sea, but its prison afforded a means for becoming acquainted with the foe. As long before as 1611 we find pirates in the gaol, but these appear to have been English, “Roger Polkinhorn, gentleman,” being paid £72 ” for his costs and charges in setting out a ship of his own to sea, for apprehending of one Griffin, a pirate, and his company, and having laid them prisoners at Launceston.” But fifteen years
later a much larger haul was taken.

Writing to Nicholas, the Secretary of the Council, on May 24, 1626, Francis Bassett, Admiral of the North Parts of Cornwall, reported that a ” Sallee ship has been brought into St. Ives by Wm, Harrys, of Looe, and other Englishmen, who, having been taken by the Turks and kept as slaves, revolted, slew those on deck, and kept thirty-two under hatches until they brought them to St. Ives,” and he requested ” a Commission of Oyer and Terminer for the trial of these villains, and that as soon as possible, he being at near ten shillings a day expense upon them.” Three weeks later Bassett wrote for further instructions, pointing out that, although he had received a commission to try his prisoners, “various official persons” had directed him not to put them to death, and he added the natural consequence that “they are a great charge for their diet and a guard.”* Nicholas evidently listened to the appeal, for when in the August Bassett wrote to him once more no further request was made regarding the captives, while in the same month Buckingham moved at the Council that the forty-one Turks at St. Ives (the number having grown since the first estimate) should be transferred to the prison at Launceston. This was agreed to, but the basis of dissatisfaction was merely changed, not done away with, and, in the following month, one Charles Barrett (who seems to have been a prominent agent in the emancipation of enslaved Englishmen) joined with other inhabitants of Cornwall to petition both Buckingham and the Council to deliver to him the Turkish captives, “to be by him exchanged for English subjects now prisoners in Barbary,” the petitioners being “grievously burdened with their detention and relief. “This request was not granted, perhaps because of a letter from a Captain John Harrison to the King, accusing Barrett of intending to sell into slavery the Turks he proposed to exchange; and in the November John Sorrell, keeper of the gaol at Launceston complained to Barrett that Bassett had sent him fifty Turkish prisoners —the number is constantly growing—without money or clothes, although the Admiral had taken their ship, worth five hundred pounds, and the prisoners had had to be maintained by the writer
and ” the country,” as the county was then often called. At this point all trace of the Turks disappears; and whether they were hanged to save expense, or were transferred to Barrett to be exchanged for English captives, or were indefinitely detained at Launceston to be a continued source of tribulation to Mr.John Sorrell and the ratepayers the State Papers which have told the story thus far afford no clue. Very much the same mystery attaches to some other captives taken at sea and confined in Launceston Gaol four years later.

On this occasion Captain Sidrack Gibbon (who appears to have done a great deal in the direction of capture) writing to Nicholas from ”aboard the Tenth Whelp in Plymouth Sound” tells him of his
having taken a Biscayan ship and landed the crew at St. Michael’s Mount with a certificate to travel to London; he had heard, however, that some country justices (for whom Captain Sidrack may be
imagined to have had a hearty contempt) had sent them to Launceston* —a name which the gallant navigator spelt “Lanson,” thus adopting a barbarous usage which has extended even to this day, and which cannot be too strongly reprehended. What was to become of the Biscayans Captain Gibbon did not seem much to care; all ho was anxious about was that ” the Biscayner,” as he called their vessel, should be given to him; and the fate of the men is unrecorded.

The Pirates had of necessity to be content with devouring the substance of those near the coast, but the Plague devastated the whole country. In 1625 the visitation was so severe that Parliament had to be prorogued because of it, and an entry in the archives of the Corporation of Plymouth shows how it affected the south-western district.


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