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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Tale of Piracy

By Benjamin Coleman (1673–1747)

[It is a Fearful Thing to Fall into the Hands of the Living God. 1726.]

THE MISERABLE persons to whom, and at whose desire, the foregoing sermon was preached, were Samuel Cole and Henry Greenvill. There was also present with them George Condick. The captain of the pirates William Fly, refused to come into public. I moved the others for his sake, to let me preach to them in private. But they said it was the last Sabbath they had to live, and they earnestly desired to be in an assembly of worshippers, that they might have the prayers of many together over them, and that others might take the more warning by them.

The story of these wretched men is short and tragical. They sailed from Jamaica on board a snow, John Green, Commander, bound to Guinea. They had not been long at sea before they conspired to seize the captain and mate and then go a pirating. On the 27th of May, 1726, they put in execution their wicked design, in a most cruel and barbarous manner. About one o’clock in the morning, William Fly, then boatswain of the snow “Elizabeth,” after he had been for some time forward with several of the sailors, came aft with Alexander Mitchel and others, and said to Morrice Cunden (gunner of the ship), then at helm, “D——n you, you dog, if you stir hand or foot, or speak a word, I’ll blow your brains out!”

And immediately thereupon he went into the cabin where Captain Green was in bed, and Alexander Mitchel followed him; and while they were there Morrice Cunden heard the captain cry out: “What’s the matter?” But they soon hauled him upon deck, and were about to throw him into the sea; when the poor man begged of them to spare his life, saying, “For God’s sake, Boatswain, don’t throw me overboard, for if you do I shall go to hell!” But though in the anguish and amazement of his soul he thus pleaded with them, that they would not send him down quick into hell, for that he was not fit to die; yet his plea made no impression at all upon their hardened hearts. Fly bid him say after him these words, “Lord, have mercy upon my soul!” and away they hurried the poor surprised and astonished man overboard. It is affirmed that he caught hold of a rope and held for his life, which when one of these wretches saw he cut off his hand with an ax; and so he dropped into eternity.

At the same time some others of this bloody crew surprised the mate of the ship, Thomas Jenkins. And Thomas Streaton (the carpenter of the ship) deposed that he heard Samuel Cole say to Jenkins, “Come out of your cabin, you dog!” and presently he was hauled out, and told that he should go overboard after his captain. When he was in the sea he was heard calling earnestly to the doctor to hand him a rope. But the doctor was by this time himself putting into irons.

Thus bloodily these inhuman creatures began their piracy, but vengeance followed them and suffered them not to live.

William Fly, the chief and worst (we may suppose) of these barbarous rogues, took on him the command, and named the snow the “Fame’s Revenge.” They were well stored with powder, and rum and provisions, but wanted a better vessel; and in quest of this it is likely they bent their course, first to Carolina, and from thence to New England. On the third of June they took a sloop at anchor off North Carolina, on board of which was Mr. William Atkinson, a passenger; who was afterwards the happy instrument in the hand of God for their destruction. They very much needed one so well skilled as Atkinson was both as a mariner and pilot, and Fly treated him well on that account, but kept a strict eye upon him, forbidding him to have any conversation with the forced men; and, lest he should, he had a hammock given him in the cabin.

They commanded him to carry them to Martha’s Vineyard in order to wood and water there, and in hopes to meet with some sloop fitting for their purpose. But he resolved to run the venture of carrying them past the Vineyard, and run them up into or near the bay before they were aware of it. When they perceived it they began to look upon him with an evil eye, and spake of throwing him overboard. But as Fly was uttering his rage at him the next morning on this account, and telling him what death he should die if anything ill befell them through his conduct, a schooner came in sight, which put an end to Fly’s rage, for the joy of a good prize. They found it a schooner of Marblehead, George Girdler, Master.

Mr. Atkinson had some time before this meditated the seizing on Fly and company, and found means secretly to communicate his mind to some on board, whom he thought he might trust; particularly to Samuel Walker, and Thomas Streaton; and Walker had spoken of it to James Benbrook; who all consented if a fair opportunity should offer.

It was very necessary to his design to ingratiate himself, as far as he honestly and with a good conscience could, with Fly and his pirates. Yet in doing this he ran a risk both of his innocence and his life; of his innocence, for “with a furious man thou shalt not go, lest thou learn his ways and get a snare to thy soul;” and of his life, for as some of the pirates, the captain especially, began to think friendly of him and to hearken to his advice (they all depending on him to navigate the ship), so if a ship of war had taken them it is to be feared that he had in vain pleaded his innocence and good intentions. But the good God who preserved, has also pleaded his innocence. And we ought to praise his virtue, conduct and courage, and give God the glory of it.

Fly had no sooner taken the schooner of Marblehead, but they discovered another at a distance from them. Whereupon he put three men on board the schooner, and purposed to bear down on the new sail with both his vessels. But Mr. Atkinson with a ready thought advised him to put six men into the schooner, and send her down on the fishing vessels, being herself one of their company but a day before, and so there would be no likelihood of their flying from her: “but,” said he, “if the snow and the schooner now bear down together, they’ll take you for what you are, and make away from you.” Fly came into his advice and put three men more into the schooner, and parted with her, standing a course wide from her.

Now Atkinson’s thoughts were hard at work how to draw Fly away from his arms on the quarter-deck. For there he kept alone, nor would suffer Atkinson to step up, so much as to set down the bowl of punch after he had drank to him. And probably a message which he received from a chief pirate on board the schooner, by the boat, “To have a special care of his friend,” did increase his jealousy; though he seemed only to laugh at it.

Within a little while Atkinson spied a sail ahead to the leeward, and informed Fly of it. And presently after he pretended to discover two or three more sail, and told him he would have a fleet of prizes. But Fly with his glass could see but one. “Why,” said Atkinson, “If you were but here, sir, with your glass, ahead, you would easily see them all.” On a sudden Fly forgot his caution, and comes off the quarter-deck, where his arms lay, and sits him down ahead to spy the sails spoken of. Then Atkinson gave the sign to his friends, and Walker followed by Benbrook came up, pretending at first to direct the captain to look a point or two on such a side, while Atkinson (a spare and slender man) passed aft toward the arms, and in the instant that Walker laid hold of Fly he took the fire-arms, and returned pointing the gun to the pirate’s breast, and telling him “He was a dead man if he did not immediately submit himself his prisoner.” The wicked Fly earnestly begged for his life, and now found that mercy which he had so barbarously denied to his innocent captain.

In the midst of this struggle the pirate Greenvill put up his head from between decks: for there as Providence ordered it he and Condick were at this instant; and as for the pirate Cole he had been in irons for two days before, by Fly’s order, for some mutiny he had made. This it was that rendered the subduing them so easy to Atkinson and his three companions; for now Streaton had fallen in, and guarded one place, while Atkinson did the other, keeping the pirates down. The action was so surprising to the other forced men, that for a time they stood astonished and like men amazed, not capable of acting for their own deliverance; although vehemently called upon and threatened by Atkinson. But in a little time they came to themselves and joyfully fell in with their deliverers.

When Fly found himself chained down and effectually secured, he fell at times into the most desperate ragings, cursing himself and her that bare him, and the day wherein he was born; cursing the very heavens and in effect the God that judged him; cursing all rovers that should ever give quarter again to an Englishman; and wishing all the devils of hell would come and fly away with the ship; the same blasphemer now in his furious despair, or worse than he ever was before in his jollity and pride; when he would sometimes even dare to ridicule the noise of God’s thunder, as it rattled over him, saying, “That they were playing bowls in the air,” etc., and as the lightnings sometimes flashed upon them, he would say—“Who fires now? Stand by,” etc.—So he dared the dreadful vengeance, which pursued him swift as the lightnings and suddenly struck him.

But Capt. Atkinson and his brave mates are much to be praised, that they dealt so mercifully with these bloody men; and neither “blew their brains out” (their own phrase) nor threw them overboard.

Blessed be God that kept them that day from shedding blood, and from avenging themselves with their own hands. It was much better to reserve the murderers to the judgment of the law, in the proper course of it. Hereby the guilty Miserables had a space granted them for repentance, and were brought under the happy means of it; means happy, we hope, to two of them, namely Greenvill and Cole.

Capt. Atkinson and company now made the best of their way for the Port of Boston.