Virgin Islands history and culture

A True Account of Piracy and Buried Treasure in the Virgin Islands

As recounted by William Blackstock aboard the HMS Christian at sea, November 26, 1750

David W. Knight Sr.


“Freshly provisioned and loaded, only days out of Havana bound for Spain, the Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe had been separated from her convoy by a mighty gale …”

Vice-Governor of the Danish West Indies Christian Suhm reached impulsively for his snuffbox and took a liberal pinch of the fine Virginia cut that was his preference. Having thus regained his composure, Suhm leaned forward in his chair to bring the page before him into better focus. Despite its flattering salutation, the letter, which only moments before had been delivered to his office by one Captain Fraser of the British Sloop Otter, induced an immediate sensation of prickly anxiety. Any and all dealings with the English called for utmost diplomacy, not only in light of the long-standing distrust between the Danish colony of St. Thomas and its British Virgin Islands neighbors to the northeast, but also the barrier of language, which  effectively distanced the two colonies to a far greater degree than the three leagues of azure waters that lay between them. Adding to the delicacy of the situation was Captain Fraser’s insistence that the Honorable Gilbert Fleming, Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of all His Majesties Leeward Caribbean Islands in America, expected nothing less than a prompt and favorable response to his request for cooperation in this matter.      

From the stiff-handed cursive of Fleming’s message, Suhm could surmise that at issue was an act of piracy, allegedly committed by a North American sloop under the command of an Englishman, Owen Lloyd. Raising an eyebrow, the Vice-Governor reflected that he indeed knew the vessel in question quite well, for some weeks now it had lain at anchor in St. Thomas harbor within easy musket shot of his chambers at Christiansfort. As to any particulars regarding the vessel, he would now be obligated to conduct an official investigation – a touchy situation in the port of Charlotte Amalie, where queries regarding the disposition of cargoes or the whereabouts of strangers seldom yielded a favorable response.

            Duty bound to further acquaint himself with the details of the case, Suhm set aside Fleming’s letter and carefully untied a silk ribbon securing a bundle of documents that accompanied the correspondence. Atop the first page of the packet a bold heading proclaimed:

The Examination of William Blackstock taken before the Hon’ble Gilbert Fleming Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of all His Majesty’s Leeward Caribbee Islands in America etc; this 26th of Novemb: 1750. On Board the Sloop Christian at sea.

            Thereafter, the harrowing tale of greed, piracy, and hidden treasure revealed in Blackstock’s testimony commanded the Vice-Governor’s rapt attention well into lamplight.

            As with many-a-good tale of piracy, William Blackstock’s narrative commenced with a tempest. Freshly provisioned and loaded, only days out of Havana bound for Spain, the Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe had been separated from her convoy by a mighty gale that left the ship dismasted and floundering, wholly at the mercy of the seas. Seemingly by providence, an English merchantman happened upon the stricken frigate and, upon inducements from her Spanish captain, agreed to tow the helpless vessel to safe anchorage behind the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was there, straining to her rode in the steep chop of the Pamlico Sound, that William Blackstock first laid eyes upon the vessel that would prove to be his undoing.

            William Blackstock, who also went by the name William Davidson, was born in Dumfries, Scotland. A mariner by trade, he had sailed out of Rhode Island at the end of September 1750, and put in at the Ocracoke Inlet in North Carolina on-or-about the 1st day of October. Needless to say, the appearance of a dismasted Spanish vessel in the Pamlico Sound garnered much attention along the islands of Cape Hatteras. All eyes, it would seem, were on the storm-damaged ship, and throughout the waterfront taverns and smoky beachhead encampments of the inlet pilots there was much drunken speculation as to the nature of her cargo. Fueling this chatter were the actions of the Spanish captain, who immediately upon arrival hired two stout sloops — one out of New York, the other from Boston — and brought them alongside his frigate. Under secrecy so tight that even the masters of the sloops were told nothing of their cargoes, the Spaniards unloaded the contents of their ship and packed it securely in the holds of the hired vessels.

            Manned by members of the Spanish crew, the hired sloops were preparing to make way when their progress was abruptly thwarted by a detachment of British troops under the command of a smartly uniformed major. In no uncertain terms the British officer ordered the Spanish captain to accompany him to the town of New Bern some fifty leagues distant, where the Spaniard was to explain his intentions to the colony’s governor and give good reason why his ship had broken bulk without proper authority. Reluctantly the Spanish captain complied, leaving his crew confined under guard on the Guadelupe, and the two heavily laden New England sloops unattended. For the dark-hearted sons of Neptune who frequented the farthest reaches of the Pamlico Sound, so tasty a pair of prizes could hardly have been imagined.

            When Owen Lloyd first approached William Blackstock with a proposition to steal away with the two loaded sloops Blackstock made light of the proposal and passed Lloyd off as an idle schemer. But, with the departure of the Spanish captain for New Bern, it became apparent that Lloyd and his associates were intent on carrying out their plan. Upon further consideration, Blackstock yielded to Lloyd’s solicitations and agreed to join in on the plot.

            Lloyd’s co-conspirators were a hastily assembled collection of salt-encrusted seadogs from up and down the Atlantic seaboard. There was Trevet, a thickset Carolinian with a slow, back-county drawl, who Lloyd appointed as mate; James Moorehouse of Connecticut, a headstrong young Yankee; William Dames, a sharp-eyed Virginian; Owen Lloyd’s brother John, a burly ol’-hand who wore a crudely fashioned wooden peg on the stump of one knee; and, Charles, a shoeless old vagrant known for his taste for strong drink.

            The plan Lloyd proposed was a simple one. The group was to split up into two crews. One commanded by Owen Lloyd himself, the other by his brother John. At a given signal the men were to take control of the sloops and make a fast break for open water. The masters of the sloops, who were likewise in on the scheme, would remain below deck until the vessels were out of sight from land so as not to be implicated in the plot. Once out to sea the crews would steer for the West Indies, where Lloyd assured them they could easily dispose of the vessels and cargo. After that, it was every man for himself.

            And so it came to pass, that on a hazy mid-October afternoon William Blackstock found himself at the helm of a swift New England sloop under the command of Owen Lloyd making a desperate downwind dash for the mouth of the Ocracoke Inlet, a nimble Spanish launch in eager pursuit. Breasting the opening to the sound the sloop’s crew hove in on the sails and settled into a hard-driving reach that rapidly distanced them from their pursuers. Glancing back the men could make out the oddly sloping mast of the second sloop piloted by John Lloyd, soundly grounded only a short distance from where she had lay at anchor.

            Spurred onward by a strong autumn breeze that soon yielded to crisp easterly trade winds, less than a week passed before a solitary peak came into view on the horizon. The waters below the sloop grew increasingly pale, and coral heads became visible beneath her keel. Standing off to seek deeper water the men next observed a rugged headland jutting out into the waves like the prow of a giant ship. Owen Lloyd, who had sailed these waters before, now gained his bearings.

            “Santa Cruz,”[1] Lloyd confidently declared to the crew, “and yonder, Spanishtown.”[2]

            Leaning hard into the bulwark to steady himself Lloyd stared intently, studying the maze of hills and hummocks that gradually began to take form.

            “And that there,” he bellowed, an arm outstretched as if in introduction, “that be Norman’s Island,[3] as proper a place to share-up a booty as any in the West Indies!”

            The sun was settling into the sea as the sloop slipped silently into a sheltered cove on the lee of Norman’s Island. Weary as the crew may have been, no sooner had the sails been struck and the anchor set, than all hands eagerly went about the task of inspecting their mysterious cargo. The first items to emerge from below the mid-ship hatch were sixty bundles of moldy tobacco, which the crew disgustedly piled in a heap on deck. Their spirits soon rose, however, when seventeen bags of indigo were lifted from the hold, followed by one hundred and twenty bales of cochineal,[4] each weighing some two hundred and thirty pounds, all dry and in good order.

            With the bulk of the vessel’s cargo removed, a tight-packed layer of heavy wooden boxes were all that remained at the bottom of the hold. As the men crouched expectantly around their booty, Trevet, the mate, leaned forcefully on an iron bar and peeled back the lid of one of the crates. Inside, the box was divided into three compartments, and within each compartment sat a coarsely woven sack secured by a pressed-lead seal.

            His heart pounding, William Blackstock pulled a knife from his boot and drew its blade across the top of one of the sacks. For an instant the men fell as silent as death. Then someone was heard to utter, “silver … bloody pieces-of-eight!”[5]

            In all, the men discovered fifty-two chests of Spanish silver in the sloop’s hold. Fifty of the crates were identical to the first, each holding three bags, with every bag containing one thousand freshly struck silver, eight-real coins. Two larger crates, measuring three feet by two feet, by one and a half feet deep, held “church plate” and other items of wrought silver. Wealthy men all, the crew set about dividing the prize.

            Five chests of coins were allotted to Owen Lloyd as pilot, five went to Captain Wade as master of the sloop, and four went to each of the hands. The remainder of the cargo was divvied into equal shares, except for the rotting tobacco, which was free for anyone who cared to claim it. All but one of the crew took their coins and silver ashore on Norman Island to bury them, while Lloyd and Captain Wade each kept one chest of coins on board and buried the rest. Feeling ill used by Lloyd, Blackstock and William Dames had already resolved to leave the sloop at their first opportunity, so they were the only ones to remove all of their booty to shore, including their indigo and cochineal.

            It was late afternoon by the time Blackstock, Dames, and old Charles, finished concealing their loot and headed back to the bay. Upon reaching the beach the men were surprised to see a local fisherman in a small boat pulled up alongside the sloop. Ducking behind some bushes, they watched as the stranger pushed off his cobble[6] and began to row away towards a point of land at the far end of the cove. Immediately upon the fisherman’s departure, Lloyd and the others raised the sloop’s sails and departed the scene, leaving Blackstock, Dames, and Charles marooned on the island. Without water or provisions the three had little choice but to hail the fisherman and appeal for his help. His name was Thomas Walts, and so leathery a specimen Blackstock had never laid eyes upon — a cordial enough fellow though, and educated in numbers. After a brief negotiation Blackstock and Dames were headed over to the larger island of Tortola in Walts leaky craft, leaving Charles behind at the bay to keep a lookout.

            Once at Tortola Blackstock inquired as to where he might find the local commander and was promptly directed to the residence of Abraham Chalwell, president of the island council. With a mind to legitimize himself and lay formal claim to his share of the loot, Blackstock reported to President Chalwell that he had been put ashore by a southbound vessel at Norman’s Island where he had landed twenty bales of cochineal, two bags of indigo, and a quantity of tobacco, which was good for nothing. The merchandise, Blackstock said, had been salvaged from a wreck off North Carolina. Upon hearing Blackstock’s story, Chalwell proposed that on the following morning he would accompany Blackstock and Dames to Norman Island in order to inspect the goods, and make certain that the tobacco was of no worth as claimed.

            It was nearly noon before President Chalwell’s launch arrived at Norman Island. To their deep dismay Blackstock and Dames observed that the formerly quiet bay had taken on a far different character than it had possessed on the previous day. A score or more sailing vessels lay at anchor close to the shore, and half-again as many small boats were hauled up along the shore. As they made their approach Blackstock caught sight of Charles, his arms flailing like a madman, dashing down the beach in their direction.

            “Betrayed,” the old man yelled, “we been betrayed! Look now, dey seizin’ the chests!”

            Taking the situation immediately in hand, Blackstock urged President Chalwell to quickly follow him to inspect the cochineal, while Dames moved to head off Charles and silence his fool tongue. After finding the cochineal undisturbed and in exactly the condition described, Blackstock and Chalwell proceeded to the north end of the bay where Charles and William Dames sat crouched in the shade of a sea grape tree next to the heap of rotting tobacco. Charles, whose sunburned face had become badly blistered, looked dejectedly up at Chalwell just as the President’s gold-capped cane thumped him squarely on his forehead.    

            “Listen you old rascal,” Chalwell barked, “if there is any money here bring it out. If you do, I will take care of it for you. Otherwise, I will leave you here and let these people take your life for it.”

            Taking President Chalwell to be a man of his word, Charles hastily produced six bags of silver coins from a rock crevasse not far from the tobacco pile.

            On the following morning a shallop[7] belonging to one Captain Purser of St. Christopher arrived at Norman Island and President Chalwell made quick use of it to bring the heavy load of cochineal over to Tortola. Along with the dyestuff, the ship also carried back three additional bags of coins that Charles claimed to have “met” while loading the bales.

            True to his promise, Abraham Chalwell handed all of the recovered goods over to Blackstock, retaining only two bales of cochineal as a “present.” Blackstock then gave one bale of cochineal to the tax collector of the port, another to the fisherman Thomas Walts for the service of his cobble, and another to Captain Purser for freight on his shallop. The remaining fifteen bales of cochineal, along with nine bags of coins and a handkerchief containing about four or five hundred loose coins, were divided equally between Blackstock, Dames and Charles. Additionally, Blackstock and Dames each kept their one-bag share of indigo, as Charles had left his aboard the sloop. Later, Charles and Dames sold their cochineal to John Pickering, Esquire, for one-thousand pounds currency per bale, while the tax collector purchased Dames’ indigo.

            A few days hence, Blackstock and Thomas Walts slipped back over to Norman Island with the intention of retrieving Blackstock’s share of silver plate, but upon reaching the place where it had been stashed they found that it had already been carried away. Back on Tortola, Blackstock heard tell that President Chalwell’s son was in possession of at least twenty bags of Spanish coins, and that Mr. Haynes, the “marshal,” had thirty bags. Further, it was rumored that a Mr. Jess was holding a large quantity of silver plate.

            Concluding that there was nothing more that could be recovered, Blackstock and Dames bought Captain Purser’s shallop for one-thousand Spanish dollars and prepared to leave Tortola. However, upon petitioning President Chalwell for clearance to sail, the men found their request flatly denied. The issuance of a sea-pass, Chalwell explained, went beyond his authority, a meeting of the full island council was necessary to consider whether Blackstock and Dames should be allowed to quit the port.

            Nearly a week passed before the council handed down their decision. When they did, it was their determination that the shallop would only be allowed to proceed under ballast,[8] a mandate that effectively forced Blackstock to liquidate the remainder of his indigo and cochineal before he could leave the island.

            On the 14th of November, Blackstock and Dames set out from Tortola aboard their empty shallop with Captain Purser and a Mr. Young as passengers, and an old Tortola Free-man as crew. Although the ship’s papers stated their destination as North Carolina, Blackstock and Dames headed first for the Dutch island of St. Eustatius,[9] where Purser and Young disembarked. While lying off the road at the town of Oranjestad,[10] Blackstock got word that Owen Lloyd had been apprehended and, at that very moment, was being held prisoner in the fort a short distance from where they were anchored. From what little straight talk they could muster, Blackstock and Dames pieced together that after leaving Norman Island Lloyd and the crew had sailed directly to the Danish island of St. Thomas, where the men sold off their loot and abandoned the sloop, making a pact to never associate with one another again. Soon after, Lloyd purchased another sloop and set out for the Leeward Islands, but word of his misdeeds preceded him and he had been immediately arrested upon setting foot ashore on St. Eustatius.

            The story of Owen Lloyd’s capture, as told to Blackstock and Dames by a loose-lipped Mulatto with one blue eye, was made even more troubling by the informant’s repeated reference to Lloyd as “a villainous pirate.” It was then that the two decided to go their separate ways. Dames, who longed for cooler waters, had a mind to take the first available berth on a northbound schooner and leave the West Indies in his wake. Blackstock, on the other hand, felt reasonably sure that his legal title to the shallop, and a proper sea-pass from President Chalwell of Tortola, were enough to insure him a fair chance of steering clear of any trouble. That was, of course, as long as Owen Lloyd hadn’t given any names. With this resolve, Blackstock handed over to Dames four hundred and fifty pieces-of-eight for his one-half share in the shallop, and directed his crewman to put the homesick Virginian ashore.

            By evening Blackstock’s shallop was driving downwind under a full press of sail with the island of St. Martin off her starboard bow. His shoulder braced against the wheel, Blackstock peered thoughtfully into the setting sun.

            “Nowhere on Gods good earth,” he mused only to himself, “do Satins flames struggle so intently to consume the day.”

            Before another night had passed, William Blackstock languished in chains, the unwilling guest of the Honorable Governor Gumbs on the island of Anguilla. As to the whereabouts of Dames or any other members of their piratical crew, according to Blackstock’s sworn testimony, he really couldn’t say.

Postscript

            It was estimated by the British Court that investigated this case that the total value of the cargo stolen from the Nuestra Señora de Guadeloupe exceeded 250,000 Spanish dollars. Of the 150,000 pieces-of-eight said to have been buried on Norman Island by Owen Lloyd and his crew, some 57,000 have never been accounted for.

Primary Sources:

West India and Guinea Company, Letters and Documents, 1751, Correspondence: Fleming to Suhm, November 31, 1750 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).

West India and Guinea Company, Letters and Documents, 1751, Correspondence: The Examination of William Blackstock, November 26, 1750 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).

West India and Guinea Company, Letters and Documents, 1751, Correspondence: Suhm to Flemming, December 15, 1750 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).

West India and Guinea Company, Letters and Documents, 1751, Correspondence: Macdonald to Suhm, December 24, 1750 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).

References:

Isaac Dookhan, A History of the British Virgin Islands (Essex, Caribbean University Press, 1975).

Daniel & Frank Sedwick, The Practical Book of Cobs [third edition] (Florida, D & R Sedwick, 1995).

George Suckling, An Historical Account of the Virgin Islands in the West Indies (London, Benjamin White, 1780).

The New Spelling Dictionary, Teaching to Write and Spell The English Tongue With Ease And Propriety (London, circa 1790).


[1] Santa Cruz: also called St. Croix, an island in the Danish West Indies (now a part of the Virgin Islands of the United States).

[2] Spanish Town: also called Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands.

[3] Norman Island (or, Norman’s Island): a small uninhabited island in the British Virgin Islands group.

[4] Cochineal: a valuable red dyestuff made from the pulverized bodies of a female insect found in Mexico.

[5] Pieces-of-eight: Large Spanish silver coins with a value of eight reales. Also called Pieces, Spanish dollars, or Pasoes.

[6] Cobble: Scottish term for a small fishing boat that can be rowed or sailed.

[7] Shallop: any two masted sailing boat other than a schooner.

[8] Under ballast: to sail without cargo.

[9] St. Eustatius: also known as Statia, a Dutch island in the Leeward group, known for its active trade.

[10] Oranjestad: Primary port town on the island of St. Eustatius.

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2 thoughts on “A True Account of Piracy and Buried Treasure in the Virgin Islands

  1. Edward Gibney says:

    A great story! Thanks.
    Two minor nit-picks:
    – Gaudelupe is the Spanish spelling. No ‘o’.
    – Bail is what you pay to get out of jail. Bale is a large bundle.

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