King was even younger than the fictional character of Jim
Hawkin pictured here in an edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's
In what is left of a wrecked pirate ship on the
bottom of the sea near the dangerous shoals of Cape Cod, scientists
have found the remains of John King, the youngest pirate ever
Thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure
Island, and James Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, countless
boys have dreamed of running away from their homes to join a band
of merry pirates with their adventures on the high seas. As unbelievable
as it sounds today back in the 18th century such a thing was actually
possible, as shown by the story of one young man named John King.
The tale starts in late 1716 with a pirate named
Captain "Black Sam" Bellamy. According to records, Bellamy used
his sloop, the Marianne, to attack a passenger ship, the
Bonetta, bound from Antigua to Jamaica. According to an
Antiguan court deposition made by the Bonetta's Captain,
Abijah Savage, the pirates plundered the ship for 15 days, removing
all cargo of any value. During this period some of the Bonetta's
crew decided that becoming a pirate looked very inviting and joined
Bellamy. One was a goldsmith named Paul Williams, and another
gunner's mate William Osbourne. Two other men, whose names were
never recorded, also decided to try their luck with the pirates.
On that same ship traveling as passengers were a
boy named John King and his mother. It is difficult to say how
old John was, but probably no older than eleven and possibly as
young as eight. Why he and his mother were traveling is not included
in the record. What is clearly documented, however, is that John
wanted to be a pirate. John demanded to be allowed to join the
crew of the Marianne. In fact, he he wasn't allowed to,
he threatened to hurt himself according to a deposition made from
the captain of the Bonetta:
He further saith, that one John King who was
coming as a passenger with him from the said Island of Jamaica
to the Island of Antigua deserted his sloop, and went with the
Pirates and was so far from being forced or compelled thereto
by them as the deponent could perceive or learn that he declared
he would Kill himself if he was Restrained, and even threatned
his Mother who was then on Board as a Passenger with the Deponent.
Life Aboard A Pirate Ship
leg bone, sock, and shoe recovered from the Whydah.
(photo courtsey Expedition Whydah Sea
Lab & Learning Center)
For the members of the Bonetta's crew that
decided to join Bellamy, it may have been a logical choice. On
a regular ship in those days, discipline at sea would have been
harsh. This, combined with bad food and poor pay, left many sailors
discontent. Almost all pirate ships, in contrast, were run as
small democracies with the crews drawing up a set of rules for
themselves to live by and sharing the booty they could take. They
often even elected their own captains. While most pirates never
got rich and many died young, many sailors still found it a better
choice than life under a cruel navy or merchant captain.
It isn't clear why young John was so keen to become
a buccaneer. As a passenger he wouldn't have been affected by
discipline practices on the Bonetta. We can only speculate
that perhaps he was traveling to a place he didn't want to go.
Perhaps he was in the company of a harsh parent or stepparent.
In any case, we do know that Bellamy did eventually let him join
his crew. Teenage pirates were common, and the British Navy also
employed young boys as "powder monkeys" to move gunpowder from
the ship's magazine to the cannons, but nowhere else in the historical
record was there a child so young allowed to join a ban of buccaneers.
Why did Bellamy permit it? Ken Kinkor, a historian
at the Expedition Whydah Sea-Lab and Learning Center, speculates
"I tend to think that from what we know of Bellamy he was kind
of a charismatic individual. I think Bellamy may have admired
the kid's spirit. This kid, I can almost see him begging Bellamy
to let him join and Bellamy not having the heart to refuse."
King did join Bellamy's crew and was apparently
with them as they raided a number of ships in the Caribbean over
the next few months. In February of 1717, between the islands
of Cuba and Haiti, the Marianne ran into the Whydah, a
heavily armed 100-foot long slave galley. Bellamy captured it
and decided to make it his new flag ship.
The Wreck of the Whydah
The fate of John King after he joined Bellamy's
crew might never have been known had it not been for the tenacious
efforts of treasure hunter Barry Clifford. As a boy, Clifford
had heard local legends around Cape Cod about a pirate ship that
had sunk off the coast in the 18th century. Clifford carefully
researched possible locations of the ship and, aided by a 1717
map, set out to use electronic devices to look for the remains.
His search commenced in late 1982 but it wasn't until 1984 that
he found cannon, silver "pieces-of-eight" and other artifacts.
The ship Clifford found was Bellamy's Whydah which had
sunk during a fierce storm on April 26, 1717. Today, with Blackbeard's
ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, it remains the only confirmed
wreck of a pirate ship that has been excavated.
Whydah went down in a heavy storm off the coast of
Cape Cod killing 146 pirates. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2006)
Although the Whydah did not carry the amounts
of treasure Clifford might have hoped for, it did provide almost
200,000 artifacts that helped tell the story of life aboard an
18th century pirate ship. The mass of artifacts collected over
the next several decades included a lump (or as scientists like
to call it a "concretion") of material brought up from
the bottom in 1989 which contained the remains of a human fibula
(leg bone), a stocking and a small shoe. At the time, assuming
the objects belonged to a tiny adult, Clifford thought "My God,
these people were small back thenů" and put the items in storage
where they stayed for a number of years.
Only in 2006 did Kinkor persuade Clifford to have
the bone examined by researchers at The Center for Historical
Archaeology in Florida and the Smithsonian Institute.
Their results indicated that the bone belonged to a child between
eight and eleven years of age. Immediately the historians connected
the find with the story of John King, revealing his fate. King
apparently went with Bellamy when he transferred his command to
the Whydah. They took the 18-gun ship up the coast of the
United States, raiding vessels along the way. According to legend,
Bellamy was on his way to visit a sweetheart when the ship was
caught in a heavy storm. The ship sank and only two out of the
crew of 146 survived to tell the tale.
The remains of the littlest pirate, bone, sock and
shoe, now are part of the collection at the Whydah Center
in Provincetown, Massachusetts. There they sit as a reminder of
the days when even little boys could become fierce pirates.
Krystek 2006. All Rights Reserved.