Tag Archives: hostis humanis generis

Pirate Executions in Early Modern London

In the East London neighborhood of Wapping behind the Town of Ramsgate Pub lies a replica of a noose and hanging scaffold. This commemorates Execution Dock, most famous as the spot where pirates were hung for their crimes in early modern London.  Execution Dock was a place of execution for over four hundred years: the last execution to take place there was 1830.  Execution Dock served as the site for all fatally condemned maritime criminals, but the cruelest treatment was reserved for those to be hung for piracy.

‘A Perspective View of the River Thames’, 1780 (Photo courtesy of National Maritime Museum, PAD1370)

During the early modern period, the vast majority of criminals who awaited a fatal punishment were jailed in Newgate (now the location of the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court) and carted to Tyburn for a public hanging (now the location of Marble Arch).  Pirates and other maritime criminals, however, were instead often housed at Marshalsea Prison and carted southeast to Wapping for a public execution at Execution Dock.  Traditionally in English history, people were often executed at the place in which their crime occurred.  This was especially true with highwaymen, but over time the majority of criminal executions happened locally at Tyburn after incarceration in Newgate.  Pirates and other maritime criminals, however, still received traditional execution treatment by being carted down to the banks of the Thames. The Admiralty used Execution Dock as the symbolic location of the sea in which pirates committed their crimes.   

The High Court of Admiralty carried out the processes of pirates’ executions.  Initially established in the fourteenth century for early maritime legalities such as trade and funding overseas expeditions, the Admiralty Court had complete jurisdiction over maritime crimes by the mid-seventeenth centuries.  Once a pirate was captured, he was taken prisoner and shipped back to London to await trial and condemnation. Known as hostis humanis generis (enemies of all mankind), a pirate was immediately considered to be guilty before facing his trial.

The process of pirates’ executions had similarities to those hung at Tyburn, but there were key differences that set them apart from other criminals. As pirates were carted through the streets of London, they were led by a silver oar to symbolize the strength and authority of the Admiralty so all of London could see where the condemned were headed.  Once at the scaffold, the condemned pirate was expected to give the traditional ‘last dying speech,’ in which he would confess and atone for his crimes and warn others away from falling into his wicked way of life.  Pirates, notorious for their rebellious behaviour, sometimes used their speech as an opportunity to admonish cruel superiors.  

When this ritual was completed, the pirate would be hung by the neck until dead. However, his punishment was not a quick death. Nooses reserved for pirates were shorter than usual, causing a shorter drop and thus death by strangulation rather than a broken neck. This ritual became known as the ‘Marshal’s Dance’ because of the way the body would thrash around due to asphyxiation.  Generally, after a person’s execution, they were cut down from the scaffold immediately, but this was not so for pirates. The bodies of condemned pirates continued to hang at Execution Dock for a total of three tides to serve as a warning.  The most extreme case of this was of Captain William Kidd, executed for murder and piracy on the high seas, whose body remained strung up in the gibbets for three years to serve as a warning to other pirates.

‘A Pirate Hanged at Execution Dock’, c. 1795 (Photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, PAJ 0887)

Pirates were unperturbed by these gruesome warnings.  By the turn of the eighteenth century, pirates had grown so numerous that it became nearly impossible to transport captured pirates back to London because of the lack of an organized navy and the economic drain of transportation. After the British secured their Caribbean colonies from the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, which stipulated that the British would rid the seas of piracy, they decided to establish Admiralty Courts in Port Royal, Jamaica and colonial North America (Boston, Providence and Charleston). This allowed British legal jurisdiction to grab a firm foothold in their overseas colonies whilst regaining maritime order. It is no coincidence that Admiralty Courts were established in Jamaica right after the 1692 earthquake that nearly leveled the island. The complete rebuilding of Jamaica transformed the island from pirate haven to a ‘civil’ society.

The establishment of Admiralty Courts in North America had a large impact because for decades, local governors enjoyed amicable relationships with pirates until 1698. The Navigation Acts of 1660, which required all goods traded with British colonies in the Caribbean and North America to sail through England whilst barring North America from trading with other nations, encouraged smuggling and acts of piracy. Pirates would plunder ships, sell goods along the eastern seaboard and thus enjoy a bit of autonomy.  These happy privileges would end in 1698 when the Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy was passed.  This Act created official legal definitions of piracy and allowed for them to be lawfully ‘examined, inquired of, tried, heard and determined, and adjudged in any place at sea, or upon the land, in any of his Majesty’s islands, plantations, colonies, dominions, forts, or factories.’  This law expanded the Admiralty’s jurisdiction to the Caribbean and North American colonies.  These new laws along with the establishment of overseas Admiralty Courts caused a rapid decline of piracy until it was virtually eradicated from the Atlantic World by 1730.

Rebecca Simon, PhD Researcher, King’s College London, Department of History

Rebecca is based at King’s College London, researching the link between pirate executions and British sovereignty in the early modern Atlantic world. Prior to coming to Kings she earned an MA at California State University Northridge where she researched perceptions of piracy through the novel Treasure Island.

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