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The Brief Career of Pirate John Quelch





The distinction between pirates and privateers, as with patriots and insurgents, is often fuzzy and depends on whom is writing the history. Quelch, technically, became captain of the Charles, although how Captain Plowman actually died is unknown. Was this a mutiny? Quelch did raid enemy ships as ordered by the ship owners. 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. Quelch may not have known it at the time, but soon after his departure from Marblehead, Portugal and England became allies in the war against France and Spain.

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, and a little cash. Two African slaves were taken and sold to crewmembers of the Charles. 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, worth about $2 million today. That did not include the shares given to the crew of the Charles, who each received enough gold to live comfortably for a few years. As soon as the Charles arrived back in port, the crew quickly 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.

By the time he returned to New England, John Quelch certainly knew he had broken British law by attacking vessels belonging to Portuguese allies. Quelch and his crew devised a "cover story," telling the owners that they got the gold from Indians who discovered it in a Spanish shipwreck. But a search of the brigantine Charles turned up a number of Portuguese "souvenirs" taken by the crew. Quelch was arrested for piracy and tossed into a bleak Boston jail. Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley, in order to curry favor with the King, decided to make an example out of Quelch and his pirate crewmen. But first he had to catch them.

Fearing the worst, a band of Quelch’s men fled to Salem. From there they hopped a boat to the rugged Isles of Shoals, a harsh lawless fishing outpost at the turn of the 18th century. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials, was in hot pursuit. Sewall commandeered a fishing shallop and, without a single cannon, managed to cross a sometimes treacherous stretch of water and sneak up on the escaping seamen at Star Island. "Without striking a stroke or firing a gun" Sewell and his little militia convinced them 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? Had more of it been left on Star Island, hidden or left with someone for safekeeping?"

Things did not go well for Captain Quelch. With only half of his gold recovered, Gov. Dudley and his son Paul, the attorney general of Massachusetts Colony, instantly put the accused pirate on trial. They did not see fit to indict the five prominent members of the privateering syndicate who employed Quelch.


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