An Ancestral Pirate

By Redmond, Robert S. | Contemporary Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

An Ancestral Pirate

Redmond, Robert S., Contemporary Review

It came as a shock to learn that my great, great grandfather, Aaron Smith, was tried twice at the Old Bailey on the capital charge of piracy. I made the discovery by accident when I was browsing in my local library and came across Pirates of the Western Seas by Captain A. G. Course, published by Frederick Muller in 1969. This told part of the story and drove me to further research. I hasten to say that Aaron was acquitted at both trials. If he had not, I would not be here to write about his dreadful experiences.

Aaron Smith was the mate of the brig Zephyr bound from Jamaica to England when she was attacked by pirates off Cuba on 29th June 1822 and he was forced to join them. This was common practice by a pirate captain short of some particular skill among the crew. He would 'conscript' or press gang a man from an honest vessel.

The majority of pirates in those days were refugees from the gaols of the world or, perhaps, deserters from harsh naval discipline. A few were natural leaders who could command men and who chose a life of crime by instinct, but, whatever their origins, it was usually the case that past crimes would take them to the gallows. Nothing could make things worse. Piracy thus became an attractive proposition. It was, however, rare for them to have special skills as navigators, carpenters or, especially, as surgeons.

Aaron was, therefore, an attractive candidate for conscription. He was a skilled navigator, spoke Spanish fluently and, above all, was highly regarded as what was then acceptable as a ship's surgeon. He was 28 years of age and was returning home for the last time after many voyages to the West Indies. He had left his fiancee, Sophia Knight at her home in Sheerness in 1820 while he made a final visit to Jamaica. He had intended to work there for about two years establishing contacts and agreements enabling him to start a trading house in the City of London.

All seemed to be going to plan. Early in 1822, he wrote to Sophia saying he would soon be on his way home and telling her to start making preparations for the wedding. Little could he know that this letter would be instrumental in saving his life.

He secured an appointment as mate to the brig Zephyr under the command of a man named Lumsden, but it was another six months before she had a full cargo and a complement of eleven passengers. She set sail on 22nd June 1822. From what Aaron tells us in his book published in 1824, Lumsden was an indecisive character always asking his mate for advice. Among other things, he wanted to know which route to take into the Atlantic. There was a choice. The windward passage between Cuba and Haiti would entail a hard beat and slow, rough going. The alternative was to sail westward of Cuba, round Cape San Antonio and up into Florida Strait. Aaron was fed up with the way the captain seemed to want him to take all responsibility. Thinking that if anything went wrong, he would be held accountable, he refused an opinion. He merely set out the arguments, pointing out that the calmer route entailed a serious risk of meeting pirates. Lumsden belittled the danger and decided it was better to get home quickly with less discomfort for the passengers. In any case, he insisted that no pirate would dare to attack a ship wearing the English flag.

All was well until Zephyr rounded Cape San Antonio and was sailing northward. A suspicious looking schooner came out from the coast. Her decks were crowded with men - a sure sign of a pirate. A gun was fired across Zephyr's bows with an order to heave to. There was no escape. The schooner was fast, drawing little water and it was impossible for a laden brig like Zephyr to get away. Within minutes a boarding party arrived and ordered Lumsden and Aaron to cross to meet the pirate captain. This man was described by Aaron as evil looking and resembling an Indian. He was later discovered to be the son of a Spanish father and a Yucatan Indian squaw. …

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