The following is a guest post by Samantha Dickson, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of the School of Information Studies and Public History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
While browsing through the Piracy Trials digital collection during my time as a remote metadata intern, I came across the double-sided story of piracy aboard the schooner Eliza in 1799. One account came from the ship’s captain, William Wheland, the only surviving crew member. The other came from one of the three accused pirates, Joseph Baker of Canada, written the day before his execution. The captain’s story portrays the three pirates as suspicious from the outset and ruthless once the violence commenced a fortnight into their voyage. Meanwhile, Baker’s confession paints the saga with more nuance as a reluctant participant. These dueling narratives give insight to the realities of piracy in the nascent United States.
The first time piracy was legally addressed by Congress came in an act by the First Congress on April 30, 1790, laying out the parameters and punishments for piracy. It was defined as “murder or robbery, or any other offence which if committed within the body of a country, would be by the laws of the United States be punishable with death,” that was committed “upon the high seas, or in any river, haven, basin or bay, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state.”
At the time of the events on the Eliza, the United States was halfway through an unofficial Quasi War with the French because of a treaty between the U.S. and the British and failed diplomatic efforts in France. The end of the eighteenth century brought new economic and international issues to the table for the United States, many of which revolved around its own new independence as well as the new revolutionary government of the French. As America’s earliest allies against the British, cemented in the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, France expected reciprocal loyalty during their own internal struggles and war Great Britain. Unfortunately for the French, the United States didn’t view the revolutionary government as the same entity with which it signed the 1778 treaty, thus releasing themselves from their debt payments. At the same time, the signing of the Jay Treaty with England sparked further conflict between the U.S. and France.
To make up for their lost debt payments and to demonstrate their anger with the United States, the French government authorized the seizing of American merchant vessels. In an effort to come to a diplomatic solution, President John Adams sent an envoy to France, though it proved to be a fruitless attempt and instead resulted in what is known as the XYZ Affair, ending the formal alliance between the two countries. In a special message to Congress in 1797, President Adams asserted the importance of establishing “a permanent system of naval defense,” while recognizing the need for a more immediate response to the threat against American merchants, restricting travel of armed vessels “to prevent collisions with the powers at war.” He also called “for Congress to prescribe such regulations as will enable our seafaring citizens to defend themselves against violations of the law of nations, and at the same time restrain them from committing acts of hostility against the powers at war.”
It was in this political and commercial environment that the Eliza set sail in 1799 from Philadelphia to the Caribbean. It was also under this policy of seizing merchant ships that one of the pirates, of French origin, decided to claim their attack as an act of war – not one of piracy.
Joseph Baker’s confession begins in his childhood, explaining his upbringing across the border from New York in Canada. He outlines his travels to New York City where he became acquainted with both Lacroix and Brous, all three of whom refused work on a ship whose crew were also planning piratical acts against their captain. Despite this refusal, it would be these three that would turn against Captain Wheland only a few months later. The beginning of Wheland’s account asserts his distrust for these three foreigners he had to take into his crew, a distrust supported by Baker’s own wariness of and attempts to avoid future contact with Brous. Wheland saw the three foreigners as a unit, separate from his well-to-do supercargo Charles Rey, and two Americans, mate Thomas Croft and Jacob Suster.
During the first two weeks of the voyage, Baker recounts several conversations regarding mutiny and piracy between Brous, Lacroix, and himself. He explains that Brous claimed to be a French military officer and threatened to turn Baker in to the first French ship they came across if he did not help them take over the Eliza. Eventually, Brous was successful in his threats and Baker joined their efforts, helping to attack and kill the other two crew members and finally the supercargo. Wheland portrays the three pirates as relatively unintelligent, not realizing until after they killed most of the crew that they didn’t know how to navigate, agreeing to leave the captain alive to guide them to land.
Another week passed with the captain avoiding land in hopes of saving his own life, until he was able to retake control of the ship, trapping two pirates, Baker and Lacroix, below deck and the other, Brous, above. Wheland’s account all but ends with the ship finally reaching port at Saint Barthélemy, offloading his prisoners, gathering a new crew and cargo, and setting sail back to the United States. Contrarily, Baker’s confession indicates that the journey back to Philadelphia (on another vessel) was a long and miserable one, ending in imprisonment and a trial and eventually execution, which he considered a “just reward due to the horrid crime in which I have been too great a participator.”
Each man’s published reason for making their account provides interesting insights into their attitudes towards the events, their outcomes, and those involved. Baker makes this clear in his opening paragraph, calling it “a duty I owe to captain Wheland, and to the community in general,” to give his confession, “so that such of my fellow-men as follow the seas, might take warning at may [sic] fate, and learn to fear God; to shun such wicked practice, and thereby avoid those disagreeable feelings which I have and am now suffering, and the ignominious and untimely end to which I must shortly be brought.” By contrast, while Wheland closes his own account by also calling it a duty, he does so with a sentiment that such written explanation will save him from further inquiries and having to retell the story over and over. He claimed no monetary compensation from its publication and offered his forgiveness to the three men executed for their crimes of piracy, leaving them to the mercy of God.
The presence of both accounts in this digital collection provides a unique insight into piracy at the end of the 18th century while also sharing a multifaceted and more complete picture of the events aboard the Eliza. Archival collections are always left with silences – voices that are missing, giving lopsided views of the past. Sometimes those silences are easier to infer than others; for example, we know we are still missing the accounts of the other two pirates as well as the three crew members who were killed on the voyage. Both Wheland and Baker had their reasons for writing their accounts and it cannot be guaranteed that either are totally true and accurate, but the presence of each enables us to see with greater certainty the complexity of the specific events on the Eliza and the difficulties of knowing what really occurred on the Eliza.
To read more about the Law Library’s pirate trials collection, click here.