Wednesday, July 25, 2007

For I am a Pirate King !

Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry; Fill, O Fill the Pirate Glass !

Aye! We sea-goin’, rum-lovin’, rope towin’, treasure seekin’, riot causin’ Mainers needn’t look far a’t’all for our own pirate past! There’s a story right here, and it brings this Portland Pirates fan away from the ice rink and up from the West End, out to where the real-life pirates roamed the Maine coast: Pemaquid Point. We wind the clock back to the early 1630s, when even more than a hundred years before the most feverish battles took place in this part of the world between France and England, the land known as Acadia had already become a stage for this rivalry for resources. Exemplifying Maine’s own place in the scurvy annals of sea piracy is the unusual personage of Dixie Bull. The dread swashbuckling Dixie Bull was New England’s very first pirate.

Avast! -and to what do we owe this acquaintance? The occasion in the form of The Age of Pirates, sponsored by the Colonial Pemaquid Museum, featured Maine author and performing historian Jim Nelson, leading the charge in full pirate regalia. The swaggeringly jovial Nelson played the role of the gravelly sinister Dixie Bull, giving the large audience an introduction to the English merchant turned pirate whose unknown fate is as conspicuous as his audacious nature.

With all hands and hooks on deck, we’ll look first at Dixie Bull’s era. Many of our smart and savvy Strange Maine readers will recall that 1620 was the year of the Pilgrims’ landing at fabled Plymouth Rock. The establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony followed later. This year, here in Maine, the year 1607 is being invoked in recognition of 400 years since the beginning of the Popham Colony in today’s Phippsburg (near Bath, Maine). A ship called The Virginia of Sagadahock was the first sailing ship built in North America. The nearby town of Castine was the location of the trading post called Penobscot, which was operated by the Plymouth colony. Such settlements and events were connected to the value of the Atlantic cod fisheries, coveted by the sea-going European powers. Just downeast of Castine and Phippsburg is Pemaquid, at that time known as Jamestown, a major trading center for New England which was fortified. Fort William Henry stands guard at Pemaquid Harbor, and Pemaquid Light is the lighthouse you’ll see on the Maine quarter (ya dassn’t spend lest ye don’t get another!).

(Below: The original foundations
from the 17th century fortification
at Pemaquid)

Edging a few knots nearer to Dixie Bull’s years, we come to 1631, the year Sir Ferdinand Gorges, a old pal of Sir Walter Raleigh, obtained his patent to set up a plantation in the Agamenticus region of what is now York County. Among the recipients of land grants from Gorges was a Londoner named Capt. Dixie Bull. That same year, Dixie Bull arrived in Boston, and sailed the coast of Maine, trading with the native people- English knives and beads for valuable fur pelts. Briefly put, our adventurous Dixie Bull plied the coast dealing for furs until a year later, in 1632, his ship was robbed of all its valuable merchandise while docked in Penobscot Bay. Such wares had been sought by the English and French alike. Nay! Even the vessel itself was seized, leaving Dixie Bull and his crew destitute. Filled with vengeful rage, Dixie Bull returned to Boston, and raised a mob of accomplices, referred to by the prim Puritans as "disreputable types," to join him in recouping his losses by piracy.

Our snarlingly merry Mr. Nelson, bedecked as Dixie Bull gestured to himself, "am I a pirate, or am I just a gentleman adventurer?" Indeed, the crowd hollered "Pirate!" back to the man, who had a large Jolly Roger snapping in the wind, aloft above his head. We were then reminded of the notably crude and brutal life of the common sailing deckhand. Hearing the details of their foul conditions and the timeless lure of revolt brought to mind the words of Jasper Petulengro, the gypsy, in George Borrow’s The Romany Rye, who observed "necessity has no law." Evidently, poverty and desperation would drive many to the life of a pirate. "A pirate’s life is a short life," Nelson unashamedly rumbled, "but a merry one, indeed!" Quite so, as Dixie Bull’s piracy, all along the Maine coast may have lasted but another two years. His defining feat was to audaciously attack and loot the fortified Jamestown (Pemaquid), in 1632, taking all its treasure and burning the place to the ground. Between swigs from his flask, our Dixie Bull described how pirates usually attacked and emptied other ships: "firing a cannon into a broadside is like eating peanuts," he growled, "once ye start, ye can’t stop." Along with one of his pirate cohorts, he demonstrated how firearms had to be reloaded for each shot, and how Dixie Bull sword-fought during the sacking of Pemaquid.

Consequently, Dixie Bull’s marauding ways drew the attention of England and the Colonial government. Without precedent, the first armed naval expedition ever mounted by a British colony came in the form of the fleet that was sent to pursue Dixie Bull. Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was alerted that "Dixie Bull and fifteen more of the English, who kept about the east, were turned pirates." The pirate band eluded the hunting expedition and sailed south, via Cushing Island (off the coast of Portland) and Richmond Island (near Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough), headed for the Virginia colony then known as "that nest of rogues, whores, dissolute and rooking persons." Before the pirate hunters retreated to Strawbery Banke (present-day Portsmouth, New Hampshire), they caught three deserters from Dixie Bull’s crew on Richmond Island. And the mysterious stuff of stories and ballads (see "The Minstrelsy of Maine" book) really begins here. Where did the "Dread Pirate Dixie Bull" go? To London? To the gallows on the Tyburn docks? To the Caribbean, where Buccaneers terrorized the waters? To Machias, the town that was later to be the nest of Sam "Black" Bellamy? Nelson leaned in and suggested, "how about Freeport?" And Dixie Bull’s buried treasure- Cushing Island? Richmond Island? Damariscove Island? In my own curiosity, I asked our "Dixie Bull," who had taught the crowd how to sing "Haul Away, Joe," of his fate. After a swill from his jug, he said, "I can’t recall; It was a long time ago."

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