The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

A Legendary Privateer

Posted on | April 4, 2021 | No Comments

When you watch the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you have to understand that this piracy emerged in the context of a struggle between the major powers of Europe — Spain, France, England, Portugal and the Netherlands — over colonies and trade in the New World:

In the Caribbean the use of privateers was especially popular for what amounted to legal and state-ordered piracy. The cost of maintaining a fleet to defend the colonies was beyond national governments of the 16th and 17th centuries. Private vessels would be commissioned into a de facto ‘navy’ with a letter of marque, paid with a substantial share of whatever they could capture from enemy ships and settlements, the rest going to the crown. . . . This substantial profit made privateering something of a regular line of business; wealthy businessmen or nobles would be quite willing to finance this legitimized piracy in return for a share. The sale of captured goods was a boost to colonial economies as well. The main imperial countries operating at this time and in the region were the French, English, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. Privateers from each country were all ordered to attack the other countries’ vessels, especially Spain which was a shared enemy among the other powers.

One major impetus to the rise of piracy was Queen Elizabeth’s commissioning of privateers in the Anglo-Spanish War that erupted in 1585 and continued for nearly 20 years. Among these privateers was a young man named Christopher Newport, the son of a shipmaster, who first went to sea at age 18. Newport was 22 when the war with Spain began, and soon found himself commanding privateer ships, successfully raiding Spanish shipping in the Caribbean, and losing an arm in a fight to capture a Spanish galleon in 1590. This grave injury did not end his career, however. “By the time the war had ended in 1604 Newport had raided the Spanish Main more times than Francis Drake had.”

When the war with Spain ended, many of the former privateers turned to piracy — basically doing the same thing they’d been doing in the Queen’s service, except without royal authorization or the need to share their spoils with the crown. Newport, however, returned to England, where his two decades of seafaring experience recommended him to a group of merchants who were organizing a new enterprise. The Virginia Company, as it was called, hired Newport to lead their fleet to settle what became the first permanent British colony in the New World.

Newport led the first April 1607 expedition aboard the 120-ton Susan Constant, accompanied by the 40-ton Godspeed and the 20-ton Discovery. He returned in January 1608 with 70 more settlers and much-needed supplies, and again in October 1608, with another 70 settlers and more supplies. On his third re-supply mission to the Virginia colony, however, Newport’s nine-ship fleet encountered a hurricane that scattered them. Seven of the ships managed to make it to Virginia, but Newport’s flagship was shipwrecked in Bermuda in July 1609. The crew managed to construct two small ships from the wreckage, augmented by native wood, and Newport finally reached Jamestown in May 1610. However, the situation when they arrived was such a disaster — hundreds of colonists had died in what became known as the “Starving Time” — that it was decided to abandon the colony and take the survivors back to England. This was prevented by the arrival of a new governor of the colony, Thomas West, Lord Delaware, who brought with him three ships and 150 men. Newport later made a fourth expedition to Virginia, arriving in May 1611 and bringing with him Thomas Dale, who had been appointed Marshall of the colony. Among the supplies Newport brought were cattle, and Dale established a strict discipline in the colony that was credited with the subsequent success of Virginia.

All of this I learned because the man who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Friday had been a football player at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Well, I wondered, who was this Christopher Newport for which the town and the university were named? Little did I expect to discover the tale of this seafaring adventurer, whose bold privateering raids on Spanish colonies and ships in the Caribbean exceeded even those of Sir Francis Drake. That this legendary privateer should have played such a pivotal role in the establishment of Virginia is remarkable. And now you know the rest of the story.