The Secret Pirate

December 3, 2018

 In 1791, Able Seaman William Davidson of the frigate Niger was in trouble again. A gloomy, brooding Scot, he had a history of violence against his shipmates which had resulted in frequent punishment. On this latest occasion he had struck an officer. He was put in irons while he awaited trial, and his possessions were searched. In his sea chest a small, neatly written notebook was discovered, entitled “Journal kept by Wm. Davidson on board a Russian Pirate.” What he had recorded there is not for the faint hearted.

 

The journal is brief – only 27 pages of closely spaced writing. It starts three years earlier in 1788, when Davidson enlisted on board a Russian privateer called the Saint Dinnan. Russia was at war with Turkey at this time, and the ship was licensed to attack her ships. But soon after the privateer left harbour, the captain announced that he wanted “every Man in the ship to make his fortune in a few Months, and the readiest way of Doing it would be to make no Distinction, but to burn, sink or Destroy all that came in our way.” More chilling still, he went on to say that they should “give no Quarter, for the Dead could tell no tales.” The response of the crew, according to Davidson, was to give three cheers.

 

He describes the ship as a former merchantman which had been converted to carry a few 12 pdr cannon. It had a substantial crew, “all of different nations,” made up largely from “murderers...thieves and pirates.” The vessel itself was equipped for boarding opponents, using her crew of cut-throats to overwhelm their victims. To this end the ship took aboard large quantities of muskets, pistols, cutlasses and blunderbusses. The Saint Dinnan then left the coast of Italy, heading east on what was to be a campaign of terror.

 

Davidson served onboard for a little under a year, in which time the ship cruised the Eastern Mediterranean. She took a large number of ships, stripping them of their most valuable cargo, murdering the crews and burning the vessels, each incident recorded with care by Davidson in his journal. A typical account is that for the 5th April. "In the night armed all the Boats and boarded the Turkish Vessels, cutting the people's Throats as they lay. When, having plundered them we weighed and stood for Milo, having first grappled the ships together and set fire to them. Shared Money in gold and silver to the amount of 2,000 crowns a Man." No nation’s shipping was safe. On another occasion they attacked "...a Liverpool vessel from Cyprus bound to Samos with wine [and] sunk her, people and all...The English in our ship were at first vexed about it, but it soon wore off." The privateer also attacked and plundered some of the smaller Greek islands, on occasion bombarding towns until a ransom was paid by the terrified residents.

 

One of the most chilling features of Davidson’s journal is the matter-of-fact way he describes truly horrible crimes. One such incident followed a protracted battle with another pirate ship, which lasted for most of a day. When their opponent finally yielded, the survivors were “put to the cruellest death that ever could be invented. Next morning we got whips [ropes run through a block for lifting] to the mainstay, and made one leg fast to the whip, and the other fast to a ringbolt in the deck, and so quartered them and hove them overboard.”

 

Perhaps the most notorious passage relates to a time off the coast of the Levant, when a prisoner attacked the captain of the Saint Dinnan. His vengeance was terrible. The captain ordered “...his eyes tore out, his fingers chopped off, and the bones of his Arms and legs broken. He was then set adrift on a grating, in order that he might expire in the extremist tortures." This incident came close to the end of his time aboard the pirate ship. In late July 1789, things were heating up for the former Russia privateer. They had narrowly avoided a Royal Navy frigate that was searching for pirates, and shortly afterwards their ship was badly damaged in a protracted encounter with another large pirate vessel. In August the crew were paid off in Zante. What became of the Saint Dinnan is not recorded, but Davidson made his way back overland to Leghorn, from where the voyage had begun a year earlier, and the journal ends at this point.

 

After it was discovered, several copies were made of the “Bloody Journal”, as it came to be known. One was seen by Sir Walter Scott, who thought it might make a good basis for a poem. Having read it, he decided it was “too horrible for versification”. Among naval historians, a debate continues to this day about whether the account is authentic. The tone is chillingly without any real attempt at boasting or justification. The journal does have a number of factual errors, but it could be argued that this roughness makes it feel more like the work of someone from the lower deck. If the account was a complete forgery, might it not be expected to be slicker? Also, if Davidson made the whole thing up, why did he keep it secret? The author himself left us no further clues about the journal. Davidson was never prosecuted as a pirate. He deserted from the Niger, and was subsequently pressed back into the service as a quartermaster aboard the Royal George. It was while he was onboard this ship that he was drowned in 1795, taking the truth behind his journal with him.

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