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The 5 Important Keys to Piracy in the 18th Century
Ahoy! It’s great to be sailing into Embracing Romance. Thank you so much for hosting me today! Huzzah and Hoorah!!! (I adore exclamation points! Pirate!)
Today, I pose the question what drove 18th Century men and women to risk piracy? What was so off-putting about their lives? What were they running to or from? Was freedom worth the ultimate cost — capture and/or dancin’ the hempin’ jig? As a pirate romance author, I’m intrigued by these questions, enthralled with the romantic elements of piracy and character-driven stories of men/women who joined the brethren court.
When it came time to write my own pirate books — The Nelson’s Tea Series — I didn’t want my stories set in the Caribbean where piracy had seen its heyday. Instead, I turned my attention to the English Channel where smuggling was rampant in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. While my stories are set in the early 1800s, in keeping with historical events in Admiral Horatio Nelson’s life, the piracy featured in my books had been thriving in this area long before Queen Elizabeth I tried to snuff it out.
The Poldark series on the BBC is a perfect example of what 18th Century Georgian people endured along the Cornish coast. Mining prospered or busted. War against the Colonies and with Spain and France brought about a perfect storm when Napoleon attempted to cut off England from the rest of the world.
Key #1: Know what people need!
Besides the beautiful Georgian fashions and attitudes of the 18th Century, there was an underbelly of society that longed to survive. Greed was rampant. What fuels greed? Need. Taxable goods became treasured smuggled items. The southern counties of England, according to Smuggling in the British Isles, A History by Richard Platt, chronicled volumes of contraband arriving in epic proportions in a mushrooming free-trade that siphoned money abroad.
Key #2: Take advantage of chance!
Imagine an intricate networking system that sorted and delivered over 3,000 gallons of spirits (brandy, claret, and gin) in one successful haul. Cornish smugglers ran anything profitable like these highly-prized luxury goods: playing cards, tobacco, fine French wine, fine cloth (silk), soap, writing paper, twine, candles, currents, prunes, figs, raisins, sweet liquorice, molasses, coarse oil, aniseed, salt, pepper, chocolate, coffee, and tea.
Admiral Nelson loved his tea. In my series, tea is code for mercenaries Nelson actively employs. In reality, nearly four-fifths of England’s tea source arrived illegally to meet the nation’s demands because, by the mid-18th Century, taxes on tea increased to over 70% of its original price.
Key #3: Work well with others!
Smugglers and entire communities battled blockademen, revenue officers, and the government, oftentimes spending everything they had on contraband in order to make a living. Items were hidden in coves, caves, resident’s homes, sunk to the seabed, and hauled up cliff-faces. In desperation, attacks were made to reclaim cargo from revenuemen.
Key #4: Keep what you want!
One of the key reasons people turned to piracy in the 18th Century involved taxation. (Picture Colonials throwing tea bundles into the drink.) War brings strife. When bellies are empty and supplies are limited then taxed, with the majority going to the crown, emotions ignite.
Sea smugglers and land smugglers’ numbers grew at this time. Smaller vessels met larger ones, a few miles off-shore. One of the most successful smugglers along the Cornish Coast was Zephaniah Job. A mastermind, his successful thirty year legacy in and around Polperro was unsurpassed. Job’s industrious family is the inspiration for the pirates in my Nelson’s Tea Series — the Seatons — Garrick, William, Rigby, Max, James, Keane, and Adele. Their mother, Lady Emma, is the fictional daughter of Zephaniah Job.
Key #5: IMPORTANT: Don’t get caught!
*The Hawkhurt Gang plied their trade in the 1740s, dominating Sussex, until leaders Arthur Gray and Thomas Kingsmill danced the hempin’ jig in 1748 and 1749.
*The Groombridge Gang smuggled in the 1730s around Lydd, Fairlight, Bulverhythe, and Pevensey until they were rounded up and brought to trial in 1740.
*The Mayfield Gang smuggled through East Sussex in the early 18th Century led by Gabriel Tomkins until he swung from the gallows in 1750.
*The Hadleigh Gang pilfered in Leiston, Sizewell, and Seymor in the early 18th Century. Seventeen were caught, two hanged, but their leader John Harvey only spent time in Newgate and seven years elsewhere. Today, the George Inn and Pond Hall, places associated with this gang, still exist.
*William Blyth was an oysterman turned smuggler in Essex, mid-to late 18th Century, who earned the nickname King of the Smugglers or Hard Apple. Colorful and notorious, locals said he’d down a few drinks then eat the glass. Filled with wit and verve, he was captured by revenue officers then drank them under the table and escaped with his cargo.
*The Carters of Prussia Cove were known throughout Cornwall in the late 18th to early 19th Century. Porthleah became known as the King of Prussia’s cove, John Carter’s nickname, then Prussia Cove or King’s Cove. John was respected for his honesty, “he is an upright man, and has taken away nothing which was not his own.”
*Cruel Coppinger, notorious Cornwall smuggler in the late 18th Century, extorted money from his mother-in-law, whipped the vicar, tormented a tailor, and amassed a great fortune until he ran out of luck and was shipwrecked and killed in 1792.
*Myles Crow is one of the best-known Manx smugglers in the late 18th Century with one slight problem — “not being good at it”. Instance #1: he packed tea in his breeches so tight they burst while he boarded a ship. Instance #2: Instead of wrapping tobacco around his underwear, he wrapped the leaves close to his skin. (Bet he was dancin’!). The irony? He was poisoned and his corpse sold for dissection.
*Isaac Gulliver was a lovable rogue who claimed he’d never killed a man. His smuggling operation began in the mid-to late 18th Century, and several tales exist. I’m fond of one, in particular. He received a pardon for saving King George III’s life by revealing an assassination plot to Admiral Nelson, which mirrors what Gillian did in my story My Lord Rogue, A Nelson’s Tea Novella #1.
*Tom Johnson was rumored to be over six feet tall with “vivid blue eyes”. In the late 18th Century, he served both England and France as a smuggler and revenue man. He could escape any prison and joined the navy to help battle the French before sailing to America to work with Robert Fulton (inventor of the submarine), testing and almost drowning in the Nautilus.
*John Key smuggled in the mid-18th Century in Suffolk and used ingenious methods of escaping capture. But that didn’t help when he was dragged from his bed in Beccles, 1745, because smugglers thought he’d ratted them out. He was tied naked to a horse and never seen again.
*Jack Rattenbury was the Rob Roy of the West. His rise to fame came more from journal writing than any misdeed. Newspaper announcements I used in The Pirate’s Duchess, part of the up and coming January 4, 2016 anthology of bestselling authors Once Upon a True Love’s Kiss, were inspired by Rattenbury’s personal accounts of piracy and revenue officers.
*Roger Ridout smuggled brandy in Dorset near Blandford Forum and rode a horse named Ridout’s Ratted Tail. His ability to escape revenue men was legendary. Proportedly known to be one of Isaac Gulliver’s men, he famously asked his horse, “What’d ’ee do fer thy king?”
*Saucy Jack, aka John Skinner, aka Colchester Jack, squandered money on booze and women. The notorious Colchester smuggler couldn’t utter a gallows confession because he’d attempted to kill himself and botched the job badly with a knife, making him too weak to speak. Newspaper reporters grew increasingly annoyed. They’d advertised the hanging! (Some things don’t change!)
*Joss Snelling excelled at escaping capture but lost fifteen men of the Callis Court gang at the Battle of Botany Bay (nine to their wounds, six to the hempin’ jig.) in the late 18th Century. Snelling was presented to Queen Victoria as “the famous Broadstairs smuggler” and lived another sixty-eight years.
Aye, there were plenty of pirates to go ’round in England during the 18th Century! I hope you enjoyed their antics as much as I do.
Again, I’d like to thank Embracing Romance for having me on board today. And I’d like to let everyone know I’m offering a Goodreads Giveaway for My Lord Rogue, A Nelson’s Tea Novella #1 until September 30th. It’s the book that starts my Nelson’s Tea Series off, luvs. Epic adventure, packed with a lot of punch!
I’d love to giveaway one of my ebooks to a lucky commenter (winner’s choice). All you have to do is tell me: What is it about 18th Century piracy that fascinates you!
Bestselling Historical Romance Author Katherine Bone has been passionate about history since she had the opportunity to travel to various Army bases, castles, battlegrounds, and cathedrals as an Army brat turned Officer’s Wife. Now she lives in the south where she writes about Rogues, Rebels and Rakes, aka Pirates, Lords, Captains, Duty, Honor, and Country and the happily ever afters every alpha male and damsel deserve.
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