2020 has been a rocky year but humor has definitely helped me along the way. So when I stumbled onto this print and couldn’t stop laughing, I knew that I had to share it. The print is titled “The Success wedged on a Rock, being at the same time between the fire of the Spanish Fort at Umata and a Ship in the Harbour.” Irony anyone?
With such a hilarious title I dug deeper and just laughed more. The captain of Success was John Clipperton, a British sailor who was born in 1676 and joined Captain William Dampier on Saint George for an expedition to the Pacific from 1703-1704. This voyage gave Clipperton knowledge of the Pacific islands, which he put to good use when he led a mutiny against Dampier and left in a prize ship. That didn’t end well: the Spanish captured and imprisoned him in Panama for four years under Juan Antonio Rocha Carranza, Marquis de Villa-Rocha.
Several years later, Clipperton joined Captain George Shelvocke on a second privateering trip to the Pacific. Shelvocke was to be the leader of the two ships which he and Clipperton would captain, Speedwell and Success respectively. However, the owners of the ships were not at all happy with Shelvocke’s behavior, so they demoted Shelvocke. The owners claimed that he wasted supplies (alcohol and gunpowder) and flew a foreign flag, among other offenses. He remained as captain of Speedwell, but did not have overall authority by the time the two ships departed Plymouth, England on February 13, 1719.
Setting Out for the Pacific
As you can imagine, Shelvocke wasn’t thrilled. He chose to follow a different route to their destination than that which Clipperton took, separating the two ships for roughly two years! Shelvocke later claimed that Clipperton held all of the maps for the expedition and wouldn’t share. However, Clipperton was reportedly upset because Shelvocke kept all of the alcohol for the expedition. I really want to laugh at this, imagining two captains on deck stamping their feet and shaking fists as the two ships parted ways. But maps are a necessity, and alcohol was important for the medicinal health and general morale of the crew, so I can see the frustration.
During those two years after Clipperton set out as a legal privateer against the Spanish, the war between Spain and Britain ended. This meant that Clipperton was now a pirate. There is a very fine line between privateer and pirate, and Clipperton had crossed it without a care in the world. He was well aware of the peace settlement, because the prize ships he captured informed him. But business was good and he was in the middle of the Pacific, so who was going to stop him?
That Didn’t End the Way They Imagined
By 1721, Clipperton had made his way to Guam where Spain had built a fort at what is now Umatac. On the way there Clipperton’s chief mate kept a journal, which the captain of the marines, William Betagh, later published (more on that in a bit). Taylor wrote on May 10, 1721, “Nothing worth notice has happen’d in this tedious passage, only burying six of our hands. All our people are very weak, and take the scurvy apace : so that land is now a very welcome sight.” Only burying six people? The dangers of the sea in the 1720s seriously jaded these guys.
Success reached Guam just three days later, on May 13, 1721. The plan was to resupply the ship with food and water, which required the governor to grant permission to the locals before they could trade. The governor was hesitant, but Clipperton assured him that Spain and Britain were at peace. (See, the guy knew what he was doing!)
The governor granted permission for the trade, and over the next few days Clipperton sent arms and ammunition to the shore while the Spanish sent cattle, bread, sugar, brandy, fruit, palm wine, sugar, and chocolate. But Clipperton wanted more from the Spanish so he offered a prisoner, the Marquis de Villa-Rocha, whom Clipperton had captured over a year earlier in the voyage. The ransom money would make this supply stop very lucrative!
Unfortunately for Clipperton, he doesn’t seem to have been a super savvy pirate. He sent Villa Rocha onshore with two men from the ship’s crew, Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Pritty. They were to return with the ransom money, except the governor didn’t see the point in paying when Clipperton had already released the prisoner. In turn, the Spanish governor kept Godfrey and Pritty until Clipperton sent jewels and other prisoners.
Too Much Alcohol on the Rocks
Of course, Clipperton realized his mistake too late and made several threats against the Spanish. That didn’t go over well, and William Betagh titled a section in his book, Clipperton “finds his error and takes to drinking.” Apparently the crew of Success had managed to find more alcohol after separating from Shelvocke, so the pirate captain spent the next few days passed out drunk. I suppose he thought ignorance would be bliss.
In the meantime, the crew had to choose another captain because the Spanish began firing at Success and someone had to handle the ship. And that’s when things went from bad to worse. The ship journal stated, “At six afternoon…we run aground, they having carry’d her into shoal water, so that now we sustain two fires together, one from the battery over our heads, and another from the ship [that happened to be in the harbor].”
By nightfall the Spanish cannons had killed one man, wounded two more, and seriously damaged the ship. They must have been absolutely giddy at having such a close target. They were probably also entertained as they watched the crew of Success scurry around dumping cannons and almost every anchor into the water to lighten the ship and lift it off the rocks. Clipperton was useless, “our captain being overcome with liquor, and quite unable to command the ship…”
The crew managed to free the ship the next day, about 4 p.m. on May 29. However, the celebration lasted for only 10 minutes before the ship settled back onto the rocks. Finally, on May 30 about 48 hours after they first ran aground, Success floated free of the rocks and limped away from Guam. The crew left behind both Godfrey and Pritty to the whims of the Spanish. The casualties included two dead sailors and six wounded, plus one very large hangover.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Clipperton finally sobered at some point, and Success sailed for China. By the time the ship pulled into port it was in such bad shape that Clipperton sold it. He then paid the crew their share of the profits. Clipperton sent the money for the owners, £6,000, to England onboard a Portuguese ship, the Queen of Angels, which subsequently caught fire and burned at Rio de Janeiro.
Of course it caught fire! What else could have gone wrong with the end of this trip? Oh, John Clipperton succeeded in making it home in June 1722, but was ill and only lived a few days. Well, that ended badly.
Back to Shelvocke
Captain Shelvocke was not present for the rocky incident at Guam, as he had purposely avoided being with Clipperton. They met up a few times but never for long. Shelvocke also was no longer on Speedwell, which had wrecked on Juan Fernandez Island, and Shelvocke rebuilt the ship as Recovery, then later switched to the prize ships Jesus Maria and later Sacra Familia. He and the crew finally returned to England in August, 1722 but Shelvocke was in for a surprise.
William Betagh, the marine captain I mentioned earlier, served on Speedwell under Shelvocke until February 1721 when the Spanish took him as prisoner. Betagh made his way home to England in October 1721 (10 months prior to Shelvocke’s return), and immediately began accusing the captain of fraud. One of the accusations stated that Shelvocke had purposely wrecked Speedwell and rebuilt it, allowing him to negate the contract with the owners of the ship and call himself the owner of the new vessel. In that way, he would keep most of the profit from the privateering adventure.
A War of Words
When he arrived home, the police immediately arrested Shelvocke. He wasn’t in jail for long, then laid low for several years. In an effort to clear his name against the verbal accusations from Betagh, Shelvocke published his version of the 1719-1722 expedition in a book titled, “A Voyage Round the World By the Way of the Great South Sea,” in 1726.
In response, Betagh published his own book in 1728, also titled “A Voyage Round the World, Being an Account of a Remarkable Enterprize…” Betagh included George Taylor’s journal from his first hand experience with Clipperton on Success. In the dedication Betagh wrote, “I had the happiness of being several years a purser in the Navy, tho afterwards unfortunately ingaged [sic] under the command of captain Shelvocke in this cruising expedition. As his pretended narrative is intirely [sic] a deception, and his whole conduct an indignity to his country, I thought it my duty to give your Lordships a genuine account of the man as well as our voyage…”
These sound so much like 1720s versions of modern angry social media posts! Except they come in a book format with formal documentation and everything.
Let’s Sum This Up
So, two privateers turned pirate captains who disliked each other and jealously guarded their maps and alcohol ventured into the Pacific. While successful at capturing prize ships, neither were very good at diplomatic negotiations with foreign countries or their own crews, and Success wound up on a rock while Clipperton drowned his sorrows in liquor and the Spanish played target practice. The ship carrying the money from the entire voyage and sale of the ship back to the owners caught fire and burned, Clipperton died right after he got home, and Shelvocke wound up in a very public war of words with his shipmate. If that doesn’t say Success then I’m not sure what does!
For Further Reading:
- William Betagh, “A Voyage Round the World, Being an Account of a Remarkable Enterprize…” 1728, TMMP Library G420 .B56 Rare, The online version is here, and the tale of Success begins around page 150.
- David Henry, “An Historical Account of all the Voyages Round the World…” 1774, TMMP Library G240 .H5 Rare
- Charles Rathbone Low, “Maritime Discovery: A History of Nautical Exploration from the Earliest Times,” volume 2, 1881.
- John Hamilton Moore, “A New and Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels,” 1778.
- Pen & Sword Books, “A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World,” 2010. The book republished Shelvocke’s book, but the introduction provides a great overview of the events.
- George Shelvocke, “A Voyage Round the World By the Way of the Great South Sea,” 1726, TMMP Library F1409 .S5 1726 Rare, the online version is here.
- George Shelvocke’s journal is online here with the National Library of Australia
- A great article about William Dampier is here.