By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
A pirate could be no better than other Europeans when they saw an opportunity to set themselves up over a territory even when it was already inhabited. A few actually even took the title of ‘King’ because who could say otherwise? Similar in approach was a man who called himself James, or sometimes John Plantain. In 1720, Plantain sailed with Captain England and decided to settle in Rantabe, on the northeast coast of Madagascar.
Plantain was a Jamaican-born Englishman of no remarkable background. His contemporary biographer claimed that he was illiterate. Laddered or not, he’d been privateering and pirating from age 13. But in Madagascar he became the ‘King of Ranter Bay’.
Most of what we know about King Plantain comes from the narrative of a naval sailor named Clement Downing, who, after meeting Plantain and doing many other things, would eventually write A Compendious History of the Indian Wars with an Account of the Rise, Progress, Strength and Forces of Angria the Pyrate in 1737.
Clement Downing’s Account
Clement Downing’s narrative brought together a number of highly disparate characters. But what he says of Plantain should be taken with a grain of salt, since his sources, mostly Plantain himself and pirates, like other men, were often inclined to embellish the details of their own stories.
In 1721, Downing arrived at Madagascar’s Charnock point, where he claimed he could see “the remains of Captain Avery’s fortifications”, which Plantain was attempting to repair. It’s rather doubtful Avery had any such thing, but his legend was felt on Madagascar perhaps even more powerfully than back in England. Downing was annoyed by the waste and aggravation caused by the Red Sea men.
Still, the image of Plantain attempting to move into the fort of a legendary pirate captain, speaks to the power that pirate stories clearly offered to Downing and his readers alike.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Burlesque Romance
Plantain’s story has an air of burlesque romance to it. When Downing met him, Plantain was prosperous, as such things went, he was backed by a substantial body of fighters from Madagascar’s Betsimisaraka people supplemented with 20 to 30 European men bearing firearms. Plantain was a traitor of enslaved captives, as well as hospitable to the crews of passing pirate ships who wished to rest, carouse, and make repairs.
Plantain had other companions as well. Downing reported multiple wives dressed in silk and diamonds. Yet, he longed for Eleanor Brown, the Christian granddaughter of another Madagascar potentate, the king of Masselage, who himself was apparently an Englishman from a Bristol enslaving vessel. Eleanor’s grandfather, whom the pirates called Long Dick, declined the alliance, and war ensued for the lady’s hand.
After two years of complicated alliances and bloody fighting, Plantain was victorious, married Eleanor and tortured many of his enemies to death, or so he said, forcing them to run across hot coals. Others of the Masselage people were enslaved and forced to work on Plantain’s sugar plantations in Ranter Bay.
The Pirate Angria
At this point, as Downing points out, Plantain could have picked a positive role model and followed Captain Avery by fortifying his home base. Or, he could have chosen a negative one and followed Captain Kidd, who “very much annoyed the inhabitants” of Madagascar. Plantain, it seemed, was more inclined to follow the latter’s footsteps.
Plantain continued to make war, intending to expand his territory, but ultimately, he made himself more enemies than his resources could accommodate. With Eleanor, he sailed for India and pledged himself in service to the man Downing called the Pirate Angria, who impressed Plantain because he had access to all kinds of luxuries that Plantain was unable to command at Madagascar.
Pirate Angria was actually Kanhoji Angre, the admiral of the Indian subcontinent’s powerful Maratha Navy. He was another individual who’s been called a pirate king. Angria outclassed Plantain in almost every way possible. And yet, Europeans like Downing, labeled him simply as a pirate. This was merely in spite. The fact was that the Maratha privateer ended up controlling a sizable chunk of the northern subcontinent coastline, leaving the territory to his son when he died, just as a king might.
Like the Barbarossa brothers, some independent-minded seafarers were able to rise to the rank of statesmen, partly through opposition to European encroachment.
A Domineering Figure of a Sea Raider
At this point, Plantain exits Downing’s narrative and the historical record entirely. Author Benerson Little speculates that if he did his job well, he might have ended his days as a great lieutenant of one of the greatest sea roving admirals in history.
What we do know, is that Plantain is remembered at all today only because he’s described in a book that was marketed as being about Angre, by far the more domineering figure of a sea raider and one who interested the British as well as Indian public a great deal.
Common Questions about King John Plantain and the Pirate Angria
Most of what we know about King Plantain comes from the narrative of a naval sailor named Clement Downing, who wrote A Compendious History of the Indian Wars with an Account of the Rise, Progress, Strength and Forces of Angria the Pyrate in 1737.
Plantain was prosperous as such things went, he was backed by a substantial body of fighters from Madagascar’s Betsimisaraka people supplemented with 20 to 30 European men bearing firearms
The Pirate Angria was actually Kanhoji Angre, the admiral of the Indian subcontinent’s powerful Maratha Navy.