Robbers of the Sea: Piracy in Proclamations and Pamphlets, 1558–1675

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)

Hayley Cotter, University of Massachusetts Amherst

‘When wee see a Ship alter her course’, colonial governor John Smith advised young mariners in 1627, ‘and useth all the meanes she can to fetch you up, you are the chase, and hee the chaser. In giving chase or chasing, or to escape being chased, there is required an infinite judgement and experience, for there is no rule for it; but the shortest way to fetch up your chase is the best’ (1970, 72–73). Smith’s instructions reflect a reality of life at sea for an early Stuart sailor: their vessels remained vulnerable not only to tempest and shipwreck but also to attacks from pirates and privateers, attacks that often led to international rancor and financial disaster. And yet in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, far more people encountered piracy on the printed page or the London stage than on the high seas.Piracy sells. The maritime crime apparently fascinated the early modern English public. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which contains a nautical ensemble of mariners, fishermen, and pirates, proved one of the most popular plays performed during his lifetime.

Other plays of the period, such as Heywood and Rowley’s Fortune by Land and Sea (Heywood and Rowley 1655) and Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turned Turk: Or The Tragical Lives and Deaths of the Two Famous Pirates, Ward and Dansiker (1612), capitalized on the allure of the robbers of the sea: these works dramatized the lives and deaths of real English pirates. The exploits of sea marauders were also captured in popular media such as pamphlets and ballads. The court proceedings of at least one pirate and his accomplices were even printed for wider distribution in An Exact Narrative of the Tryals of the Pyrates (Anonymous 1675?). While the fictional pirates of the London stage were not constrained by historical truth, these popular accounts purported to convey accurate narratives of piratical exploits.

These various accounts position sea robbers, alternately, as fearless rebels, abhorrent traitors, insatiable thieves, and repentant sinners. But another printed medium concerning piracy permeated early modern England: the royal proclamation. Between 1519 and 1610, the government issued twenty-seven royal proclamations concerning piracy. These royal communiqués represent a major conduit of information about piracy, one that should not be divorced from discussions of the popular accounts.This article considers these two main types of messaging which informed the public of piracy. Previous scholarship on royal proclamations addressing piracy focuses mainly on their content; it does not engage proclamation as a specific genre, nor the implications of a reading public that obtained knowledge about the maritime offense through an official royal medium.

As a result, the physical manifestation of the proclamation constitutes a major component of this analysis, and at the center of my argument lies a fundamental premise: how early modern readers acquired information about piracy shaped conceptions of the crime to a comparable degree as did what information they encountered. Additionally, I look at how seventeenth-century accounts of sea marauding that targeted a popular audience were informed by printed royal proclamations. My article contends that these proclamations represent both the earliest and the most ubiquitous printed accounts of piracy in early modern England, and thus provide a useful lens through which to theorize about the popular accounts. I begin with a brief exposition of Tudor and early Stuart piracy, using Henry Mainwaring as my anchor: Mainwaring’s biography and writings construct a valuable alembic in which to distill the early modern crime.

I then turn to the genres of the printed royal proclamation and the popular account and consider, broadly, how these variant instruments conveyed information about piracy to the early modern reading public. In the final section, I conduct two case studies that examine the intersection of the royal proclamation and the popular account. In the first, I inspect the case of English pirate John Ward, whom James targeted by name in a royal proclamation in early 1609, and who became the subject of three printed pamphlets later that year. In the second, I explore the 1639 account of Elizabethan pirates Clinton and Atkinson, A True Relation, of the Lives and Deaths of two most Famous English Pyrats (Heywood 1639). The royal proclamation, depicted in both print and image, plays a key role in the pamphlet. These case studies demonstrate the fecundity of staging a dialogue between the popular account and the royal proclamation.


Read Full Text:



The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
University of Florence

The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy