Sunday, September 19, 2010

Aaarrrrggh! Here There be Pirates!

Avast! Today is International Talk like a Pirate Day!

A Ladrone Pirate Attack
Thus, it seems like an appropriate occasion to recount the story of Granddaughter and Grandson’s 5th great-grandfather and his encounter with guys who talked liked pirates all the time – because they were.  The kind of “piratish” they spoke was a dialect of Chinese, as spoken on the islands in the China Sea that the Portuguese called the Ladrones.

Here’s the story:

Turn the clock back about 201 years and imagine 27 year old Captain William Sturgis, a China trader born on Cape Cod, now in command of the ship Atahualpa out of Boston.  Although relatively young, Sturgis had been plying the Pacific for some time, sailing from Boston around the Horn, then up the Pacific coast to a site near present day Vancouver where he would trade with the Pacific Coast Indians for otter skins.

These otter skins – thousands of pounds of them – were then loaded on board the Atahualpa for the trip to Canton in China, where they were greatly prized by the Mandarins.  Sturgis and his factors traded the skins, gold coins and other merchandise for tea, silks, porcelain and other wonders of the Orient and then headed back to Boston, where these treasures of the East would fetch high prices.

Triangular trips of this kind took more than a year to complete.  Aside from the usual dangers that might befall a small wooden ship on the rough seas, there were human dangers as well, especially when the ship reached the China coast.

Pirates ruled the waters and pirates knew the New England ships carried gold coins.

On 26 September 1809, while the Atahualpa was docked in the port city of Canton taking on Chinese export goods, Sturgis took some time off to catch up on correspondence.  His letter to an unnamed Boston colleague was given to the captain of a ship departing for Boston for transport and delivery. The letter reached New England early in 1810, several weeks before Sturgis himself returned.

A portion of the letter described an encounter with pirates in which Sturgis and his crew were greatly outnumbered.  Alerted to the letter’s contents by the recipient, the Boston newspapers printed the “Sturgis and the Pirates” story in late January. Shortly, the story was reprinted in dozens of newspapers around the country.

Here’s what Sturgis wrote about the pirate attack:

Your favor of May 1st was handed to me, the 2nd inst. at Macao, where I was waiting for convoy, and repairing the damage sustained in an engagement with a fleet of pirates.
Chinese Pirate Junks
In the evening of the 22d of August, I anchored in Macao roads, and early on the 23d sent a boat with my first officer and four seamen on shore, for a pilot, as is customary.  During their absence, we were attacked by twenty one vessels, called, by the Chinese, Junks, manned with two thousand men, and carrying from four to twenty eight guns, each.  They first attempted to board us, which we prevented, by cutting our cable, and setting some sails. They next endeavored to set fire to the ship, and were again disappointed.  A constant firing was kept up, on both sides, for 75 minutes.  The great number of men on board their vessels induced a belief, that many must have been killed.  We have ascertained, that one Junk lost thirty men in the contest.  Our preservation was indeed miraculous.
Hundreds of spectators were on the neighboring hills, and, for 45 minutes, not one of them thought it even possible for us to escape.  I had but 10 persons on board the ship, at the time, and fortunately,  not one of them was wounded, though many shot, struck, in almost every part of the hull, and our sails and rigging were much cut to pieces.
A few of those Pirates (here called Ladrones) have infested this coast for some time past; within the last two years, they have become very formidable, and are now supposed to amount, at least, to fifty thousand men, having 600 vessels, some of them very large. The government of this country is so extremely supine in regard to its enemies, and so arbitrary and oppressive to its subjects, that is what now styled only a rebellion, will probably, in a short time, become a revolution.   Indeed the leaders have become so venal and corrupt, that some change appears inevitable.

Shortly after his return from this trip, Sturgis got married, settled down and started a family.  He and his friend John Bryant began a trading partnership and by 1845 the Boston firm of Bryant and Sturgis controlled a significant portion of all the China trade from ports in California and Hawai’i, making both John Bryant and William Sturgis very wealthy men.

Before he died, Sturgis purchased his boyhood home in Barnstable and in his will, donated it (along with a cash endowment and a significant portion of his personal book collection) to be used as a library by the people of Barnstable. Today, the Sturgis Library is a gem, with a great archives and genealogical collection, a super website and helpful and attentive staff.

So, if you live near Boston, today might be a good day the visit the Fairmont Hotel at Battery Wharf and take a peek at the meeting room named in his honor.  But here's a word of advice:  please don’t talk like a pirate in the Captain William Sturgis room.

Remember - Captain Sturgis did not like people who talked like pirates. So, who knows what might happen!

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