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Pirate Gold Recovered at Isles of Shoals


Quelch’s Gold

Captain_Kidd_Hanging_around_LondonThe adventure begins in August of 1703 as the 80-ton brigantine Charles slipped out of Marblehead harbor. Owned by a syndicate of five influential Bostonians, the Charles was on a mission to attack French privateers, government sanctioned pirates, that were harassing British merchant ships in the North Atlantic. The owners did not know, however, that their captain, Daniel Plowman, lay dying in his bunk. Forty hours after the Charles cleared the harbor, Plowman was dead, presumably of natural causes, and buried at sea. Or was it mutiny? John Quelch, the ship’s lieutenant, took command.

The distinction between pirates and privateers, as with patriots and insurgents, is often fuzzy and depends on who is writing the history. Quelch raided enemy ships as ordered by the owners of the Charles. But instead of going north to search for French prey, he headed to South America where his crew captured as many as nine small trading vessels flying the Portuguese flag. Unfortunately for Quelch, soon after his departure from Marblehead, Portugal and England became allies in the war against France and Spain. Did he know that?

Despite the romantic legends, pirates rarely found gold. Quelch’s first five captures off the coast of Brazil yielded the typical spoils – fish, molasses, lumber, some crockery, sometimes enslaved Africans, rarely cash. But the next capture was the jackpot. When Quelch returned to Marblehead in May of 1704, he was carrying 960 ounces of stolen gold dust and gold and silver coins, worth about $2 million today.

As soon as the Charles arrived back in port, the crew quickly took their cut and dispersed, leaving Quelch to carry the gold by horseback along the dangerous roads from Marblehead, to Beverly, Lynn, Charlestown and into the heart of Puritan Boston to settle up with his sponsors.

Quelch, by now, certainly knew he had broken the law by raiding a Portuguese ship, so he devised a "cover story". He told the owners that the gold came from Indians who discovered it in a Spanish shipwreck. But the treasure included a number of Portuguese "souvenirs" taken by the crew. The jig was up. Quelch was arrested for piracy and tossed into a bleak Boston jail. In order to curry favor with the King, Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley decided to make an example out of Quelch and his crewmen.

Fearing the worst, a band of Quelch’s men fled to Salem. Then they hopped a boat to the rugged Isles of Shoals, a lawless fishing outpost at the turn of the 18th century. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials, took off in hot pursuit. Sewall commandeered a fishing shallop and, without cannon, managed to sneak up on the pirates at Star Island.

"Without striking a stroke or firing a gun," historian Beal tells us, Sewell convinced the pirates to surrender. They confiscated 46 ounces of gold dust, but did not search the island. Author Clifford Beal cannot resist stirring up one of the most popular Shoals legends when he writes: "But had Major Sewall recovered all of the treasure the pirates carried? Had more of it been left on Star Island, hidden or left with someone for safekeeping?"


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