Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cotton Mather and the Sea Monsters

In 1726, a slave ship en route from Jamaica to West Africa, the "Elizabeth," was overtaken by mutineers, led by one William Fly. Under the Jolly Rogers flag, and renamed the "Fames' Revenge," Fly and his men sailed north and terrorized the Eastern Seaboard of the American colonies, capturing about five ships during a two month period, before the pirates were captured by sailors on a ship they were attempting to seize. Brought to Boston, sixteen pirates were tried, twelve being released, and four were convicted of the capital crime of piracy. While they were in chains, Cotton Mather famously met with the pirates and implored them to repent before they were hanged. Three of the men did so publicly -- Samuel Cole, Henry Greenville and George Condick -- but William Fly remained impenitent to the end. Whereas the others attended a sermon by Mather and at their own hangings confessed their sins and warned others to avoid their path, Fly instead warned ship captains not to mistreat their sailors. He claimed that he had mutinied because of ill treatment that he had received from his captain, and his two month rampage was an act of revenge against cruel captains like his own. He was, according to Mather, determined to die as "a brave fellow." He even protested that the knot of his noose was prepared poorly, reproaching the hangman for his inexpertise, and finally retying the knot himself. Ultimately, while all four pirates were hanged, Fly's alone was gibbeted in Boston Harbor as a warning to other pirates. Mather told the story of this episode in The Vial Poured out upon the Sea. A Remarkable Relation of CertainPirates Brought unto a Tragical End (1726), in which he wrote:

The Ministers of Boston...[bestowed] all possible Instructions upon the Condemned Criminals; Often Pray’d with them; Often Preached to them; Often Examined them, and Exhorted them; and presented them with Books of Piety, suitable to their Condition…. [P]erhaps, there is not that Place upon the face of the Earth, where more pains are taken for the Spiritual and Eternal Good of Condemned Prisoners.

Mather referred to pirates as "Sea-Monsters who have been the Terror of them that haunt the sea." Yet, as much as he loathed their conduct, he cared deeply for their souls. Partly because the port of Boston was a major center of both piracy and the legal efforts to stop it, and partly because Mather had such a heart full of concern for those wayward "Sea-Monsters," this witness to pirates was a thread that ran through his life-long ministry, as we see in extracts from his Diary, as well as in sermons and pamphlets that he wrote from time to time.

Mather's Diary (April 1699):

After the other public Services of the Day were over, I visited the Prison. A great Number of Pyrates being there committed, besides other Malefactors, I went and pray’d with them, and preach’d to them. The Text, in which the Lord helped mee to Discourse, was Jer. 2. 26. The Thief is ashamed, when hee is found. I hope, I shall have some good Fruit of these Endeavours.

Faithful Warnings to Prevent Fearful Judgments (April 22, 1704):

There has been a Time, when some have come and Seduced and Enchanted several of our Young Men, to Piratical Courses; and there were some Unhappy Advantages, which the Sinners took to shelter themselves in the Prosecution of their Piracies. But the Government of New England will by a severe Procedure of Justice, forever make it an Unjust thing, to Reflect on the Countrey, as if such dangerous Criminals might hope ever to be lately Nested here.

An Account of the Behaviours and Last Dying Speeches of the Six Pirates (1704) tells the story of John Quelch (executed following the first admiralty trial held outside of England) in which Mather writes:

God know the Prayers, the Pains, the Tears, and the Agonies that have been Employ’d for them.

Samuel Sewall was one of the judges who participated in his trial, and like Mather, wrote about Quelch's execution in his diary.

In 1717, nine crewman of pirate Samuel Bellamy were the sole survivors (out of a crew of 149) of a nor'easter which sank Bellamy's two ships. Possibly due to Mather's intervention, two crewman were spared, while six were convicted of piracy, and one, a Miskito Indian named John Julian, was sold into slavery to John Adams, Sr. (father of President John Adams and grandfather of President John Quincy Adams). Mather's final sermon to the six convicted pirates at the gallows was published as Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead: a Brief Relation of Remarkables in the Shipwreck of above One Hundred Pirates (1717). Bellamy's ship, the Whydah Gally, was recovered in 1984, along with a massive treasure haul, and remains to this day the only fully-verified pirate shipwreck ever discovered.

Useful Remarks: An Essay upon Remarkables in the Way of Wicked Men (1724) tells the story of the crew of Ned Low, one of the most infamous pirates of all time, whose tale (along with that of Bellamy) is also recounted by the author of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (1724) [thought by some to be Daniel Defoe]. In this sermon, based on Job 22.15 ("Hast thou marked the old way which wicked men have trodden?"), Mather gave nine propositions marking the way of sinful men, as warnings to his auditors and readers, and pointing out God's justice in the judgments rendered against such.

Charles Chauncy, president of Harvard College, relates an interesting anecdote, which is retold in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (For the Year 1800, Vol. VIII of the First Series, pp. 252-253):

At a time when the famous Low and other pirates infested the American coast, they proved very troublesome to the fishermen at the Shoals, though they could obtain but little booty from them. One of these fishermen, (Charles Randall) with others, were taken by them, and having no property, these barbarous pirates whipped them with much severity; after which they said to them, "You know old Dr. Cotton Mather, do you?" -- "Yes," they replied, "we have heard of him as a very good man." "Well, then," said the pirates, "our orders are to make each of you jump up three times, and to say each time, "Curse Parson Mather," otherwise you are all to be hanged." To save their lives they all complied.

Abijah Perkins Marvin, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, pp. 429-430:

Pirates infested commerce on our coast as well as other portions of the sea in those times, and it is stated by Dr. Mather that the pirates sometimes made the captive sailors whom they forced into service show their consent by cursing Cotton Mather. To be cursed by pirates was an honor to the sin-hating minister. But these same pirates, when in prison and facing death and the judgment, made choice of this minister for their religious guide. He visited them in prison, set before them their wickedness with uncompromising fidelity to the truth and to their souls, showed them an all-mighty Saviour to the penitent, and went with them to the scaffold as a friend.

When pirate John Phillips and his crew were caught in Boston, Mather recorded in his diary (May 31, 1724) how they besought him for both prayers and sermons:

The Pyrates now strangely fallen into the Hands of Justice here, make me the first Man, whose Visits and Counsils and Prayers they beg for. Some of them under Sentence of Death, chuse to hear from me, the last Sermon they hear in the World.

Thus in Mather's ministry to the pirates of New England, we find a remarkable example of one in whom "[m]ercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other (Ps. 85.10) and in whom "mercy rejoiceth against judgment" (James 2.13). It is a lesson to all of us in how we are relate to those who may be monstrous yet whose souls are precious.

Note: Reference and grateful acknowledgment is made to the most fascinating article "Cotton Mather, Preacher to the Pirates," by Cindy Vallar.

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