By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
The story of Captain George Cusack, whose 1675 biography was memorably titled The Grand Pirate, underscores the complicated ways pirates engaged with their own freedoms and those of other men. In this story of Cusack’s, there are multiple interesting nexus of mutiny and piracy.
Captain George Cusack
George Cusack, an Irish man, was supposedly intended by his parents for the priesthood, but they seemed to have badly misread their child. Unable to tolerate discipline on land, he took private steering, but aboard privateers, he still displayed a personality one of his captain’s called very mutinous.
So, Cusack, who could not bear any check to his personal freedom, found a job whose purpose was to kidnap men and force them to go to sea on warships in the name of the country’s good during war time. Still, he did so rebelliously.
At one point, he impressed a man who had already been arrested and was condemned to die, which along with his penchant for mutiny, got Cusack thrown in prison. When he gained his liberty, he turned pirate almost immediately, leading a mutiny aboard the first ship that employed him as a gunner. Cusack had been repeatedly mutinous, yet seems to have found a home of sorts in piracy.
Pirates like Cusack could know what it was to lose their freedom in every possible way and still be capable of taking it from others. The freedom a pirate valued most was his own.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Mutiny and Piracy
There was such a strong connection between mutiny and piracy, mutiny so often being the first step to a piratical voyage, that in 1700, English law actually coded mutiny or attempted mutiny as piracy.
It is also true that there were ways besides mutiny to rebel on board a ship. Marcus Rediker notes that the term strike itself comes from a 1768 labor stoppage when London sailors struck or hauled down the high set and highly visible top gallant sails of the merchant ships they served.
However, the vast majority of mistreated sailors never mutinied or became pirates. It is important to remember that the decision to turn pirate was not motivated by a desire for better labor conditions alone, and the pirate with perfect democratic ideals was to be found only in fiction. Indeed, pirates tended to be fractious. The General History is filled with tales of pirate groups splitting up, cruise demanding new captains, and forced men attempting to flee. Mutineers had to be perpetually on guard against further mutiny.
Mutiny against the Mutineer
On the Elizabeth, which was a guinea trader that sailed from Jamaica towards West Africa, pirate William Fly was the Boston or the officer responsible for the ship’s main equipment in the work of the deck crew. A guinea trader was a ship involved, probably illegally, in enslaving people.
Finding himself ill-treated, Fly organized a mutiny against the captain, during which the captain and the first mate were murdered. The crew turned its focus from enslaving to piracy, renamed the ship, and sailed off in search of prizes. They had some moderate success until Fly impressed too many men into the pirate crew and they, in turn, led a successful mutiny against him.
Pirates were prone to forcing skilled men to remain on board their ships even in the face of pronounced opposition. Fly had held captive William Atkinson, a merchant to serve as his pilot, and Atkinson served Fly as Fly had once served another officer, but less bloodily.
Atkinson’s mutiny, as he later related it to court, was rather anticlimactic. While Fly had dragged his captain out of bed and thrown him overboard despite his pleas, Atkinson simply made use of the old ‘look over there’ trick. Noticing some fishing vessels ahead, he pointed them out to Fly, and when Fly turned and opened his telescope to get a better view, Atkinson grabbed his arms from behind until a pair of accomplices could clap him in irons.
The pirate mutineers, led by Atkinson, were taken into custody when they sailed into Boston Harbour. They were tried for piracy, but most of them were quickly acquitted. Fly, in contrast, was executed in 1726 for the mutiny that he had led. However, unlike many men led to the scaffold, he never expressed remorse, or hinted at a Christian conversion.
William Fly’s Grievances
Although Puritan minister Cotton Mather himself attempted to bring Fly to a sense of his guilt, which to Mather was an obvious offense to God and men alike, Fly protested to the end that he was innocent of crime. If he had done anything, he maintained, he had done it in the interest of the common sailors who were subjected to terrible abuse aboard their ship.
“I can’t charge myself,” he said. “I shan’t own myself guilty of any murder. Our captain, and his mate used us barbarous. We poor men can’t have justice done us. There is nothing said to our commanders, let them never so much abuse us and use us like dogs.”
William Fly’s original grievances may have been legitimate, but the means he chose to rebel required that he do unto others what he didn’t want done unto him.
Common Questions about a History of Mutiny and Piracy
The book The Grand Pirate is the biography of Captain George Cusack. It underscores the complicated ways pirates engaged with their own freedoms and those of other men.
According to the historian Marcus Rediker, the term strike comes from a 1768 labor stoppage when London sailors struck or hauled down the high set and highly visible top gallant sails of the merchant ships they served.
A guinea trader was a ship involved, probably illegally, in enslaving people.