Aaron Smith – Pirate? [Part Three: Questions]

July 30, 2010

We have this picture of Aaron Smith from his narrative The Atrocities of the Pirates.  Smith was the poor victim of pirates, the wimpy man who was bullied into committing various atrocities (including killing other men, albeit pirates), the just man who was unfairly put on trial by his peers.

Then we have the opposing image of Smith as painted by the Times of London articles.  Aaron Smith is an eloquent and influential public speaker – an ability which requires a fair measure of intelligence and confidence.  Aaron Smith is burly (albeit honest looking!), so he’s hardly the small, wimpy character from the narrative.

Even more revealing are his tendencies of:

  • violent outbursts – on two different occasions he viciously assaulted men.
  • disrespect for authority – no fear in court, whether on trial for life or assault.  He received additional fines for his behaviour in/out of the courtroom.
  • being involved in ‘shifty’ business schemes – comparative to ‘loan-sharking’.  Also a potential smuggler.

We have these two diametrically opposed views of Aaron Smith, somewhere in between lies the real Aaron Smith.  I don’t know if he set out to be a pirate.  I don’t know if he took advantage of the opportunity to make some money when he was in the company of the pirates.  I don’t know if he was the victim he claimed to be.

All I have are these various voices speaking out from 140-170 odd years ago.

Who was Aaron Smith?

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Aaron Smith – Pirate? [Part Two: The Trials]

July 30, 2010

Now begins an investigation into the life and nature of Aaron Smith.  Below are actual contemporary newspaper articles pertaining to Aaron Smith.  These articles go well beyond Aaron’s experiences on the pirate ship Zephyr.  As you will see, there is a definite pattern of violent behaviour.

The Trials of Aaron Smith:

December 21, 1823 – Piracy & murder – acquitted.  This was the first trial which resulted from the events contained in The Atrocities of the Pirates (Industry & Vittoria).

July 15 1829 – 2nd piracy trial – acquitted  This was the second trial which resulted from the events in The Atrocities of the Pirates.  Smith was recognized by a victim of the 3rd shipped he assisted in sacking (Dutch – Prevoyante).

July 22 1842 – Smith linked to a fraud trial – referred to as “an atrocious swindler.”

???? 1848 – Smith brought up on warrant for assaulting Richard Owen.  Read this article.

April 5 1850 – civil trial – Smith sues man (Heath) for recovery of 300 pounds on Bill of Exchange.  The defendant claimed that Smith altered the acceptance of the original bill without his consent.  Additionally, the altered bill was never presented to Heath.  It seems that Smith has taken up the profession of a ‘bill discounter’ (basically equates to modern-day pay-day-loan services).

December 10 1850 – Smith v. Cooke – libel suit launched by Smith as a result of a series of letters which appeared in the Times of London between June & July 1850.  Cooke accused Smith of being a ‘pirate’ (essentially stating that Smith ‘got away with murder’.”  Smith ultimately wins the suit – using the duress defense which was successful at two previous piracy trials.

July 30 1852 – Smith brought up on another warrant for assaulting an omnibus driver.  Read this article.

And then this little snippet from the July 30 1852 Times of London:

February 17 1855 – Smith v. Chubb & others.  Smith (as bill discounter) brings civil action to “recover damages for negligence in not investigating the title of one Edward Hughes to certain property, which he mortgaged to the plaintiff (Smith) as a security for certain loans of money.”  It didn’t work out for Smith in this case.  Read the comments of the judge and jury.

August 1 1859 – Smith v. Bird.  Smith brings action against Bird to recover funds against a bill of exchange.  Bird claims Smith isn’t the bona fide holder of the bill.  There’s a long story as to how the bill landed in Smith’s hands.  In the end, the jury found in favour of Smith.  However, here’s a little clip of the article, which contains some discourse between Smith and the defense attorney.

Then there’s a couple of articles from March 8 & 23 1861:

Please continue onto Aaron Smith (Part Three).


Aaron Smith – Pirate? [Part One: The Atrocities of Pirates]

July 30, 2010

There are many notorious characters poking their nefarious heads out of our history books; from Saddam Hussein to Blue Beard and beyond.  But none have attracted so little attention as a brutish British sailor from the early 19th century.

I’d never heard of him before someone brought him to my attention.  How about you?  Have you ever heard of (Capt.) Aaron Smith before?

No?  Not surprised.

Well, Aaron Smith was accused of being a pirate and murderer.  His first trial took place at the Admiralty Sessions of the Old Baileys on (or around) December 21, 1823.

It’s a long and complicated story (which I will be getting into), but he used duress or compulsion as his defense.  Essentially, he stated he was forced to commit piratical crimes (including murder).

His accusers testified otherwise.  However, Smith’s testimony resonated with the jury and he won the day (and his life!).

It wasn’t enough for Smith to walk away a free man.  A year later, he published the account of his experiences in the novel The Atrocities of Pirates (1824).

In the novel, Smith makes several opportunities to insult and/or impugn his accusers.  These insults would sow the seeds of conflict between Smith and his primary accuser (Capt. William Cooke), which would climax in an 1850 civil suit (we’ll get to that).

Here is Smith’s version of events (in a nutshell) as published in Atrocities of Pirates:

  1. He was hired as Chief Mate on merchant ship Zephyr (which would be sailing from Jamaica to England during the summer of 1822.  The Zephyr Captain was a man named Lumsden (or Lumsdale, as seen in Times of London articles).
  2. The Zephyr was raided by pirates who were based on the north-east corner of Cuba.
  3. Smith was ‘abducted’ by the pirates.  The pirate captain needed a competent navigator.
  4. Smith lived under constant threat of death at the hand of the maniacal pirate captain.
  5. He witnessed other pirates being tortured & murdered.  He claimed to have been tortured on numerous occasions.  The most serious torture involved having gun powder detonated around his legs, causing extensive burns.
  6. He admits to participating (orchestrating) the murder of 8 pirates, but it was in self-defense.
  7. He admits to assisting (being the lead raider) in the seizure of three ships & crews.  The British INDUSTRY (Capt. Cooke’s vessel), the British Vittoria & the Dutch PREYOVANTE.
  8. Smith claims to have saved Cooke’s life from the pirate captain.  He then slams Cooke for being a liar and coward.  Challenges Cooke to produce any real evidence that he (Smith) was a pirate.  Cooke would not respond publicly to this accusation/challenge until 1850.
  9. Smith escaped his captivity only to be apprehended by Spanish (Cuban) authorities and handed over to the British for trial.

A few observations I had after reading Atrocities of Pirates:

  1. My mental image of Smith was of a small, somewhat defenseless man who was very easily bullied.  This image was corroborated by three other independent sources who also read the book.
  2. Smith could do anything (mend sails, navigate, ship doctor including surgeries, speak several languages, etc.).  He appears to be like a master of all trades.
  3. Smith admits to being armed and assaulting a man with a cutlass (sword) while on board the pirate ship.
  4. The story was too perfect in a dramatic sense – the love interest, the mutiny on the pirate ship, the plots to escape (failed and successful).  It fits too cleanly in the dramatic paradigm to be wholly truthful.

From subsequent reading – I came across several things which dashed my initial impression of Aaron Smith.

First, and probably most important – Aaron Smith was a large, burly man – considered intimidating.  Smith was more than capable of defending himself than he would have you believe.  In fact, it seems that Smith’s motto in life was the ‘best self-defense is a good offense”, as he was subject to violent outbursts.

The more I read about the actual Aaron Smith – what he had to say, what people had to say about him, what he did, etc., the less I believed his account of events.

Was Smith a victim of pirates or was he, himself, a pirate?  No one knows for certain – and this is what makes Smith such a compelling character in history..

I think he was a pirate and a master craftsman of lies.  However, there is fertile ground upon which to build an argument to the contrary.

Check out Part Two of Aaron Smith for contemporary newspaper articles pertaining to Aaron Smith.  Pretty cool (if you were to ask me!).


Good Books (Red Leaf)

May 5, 2007

“Shake Hands With The Devil” – LGen Romeo Dallaire w/ Major Brent Beardsley.  On the UN Mission before and during the genocide in Rwanda.  The mission was commanded by Canadian LGen. Romeo Dallaire.

“The Invasion of Canada” & “Flames Across the Border” – Pierre Berton.  Two-book series on The War of 1812, in which the people from the land which would become Canada came together and taught their arrogant neighbors to the south a lesson on humility.  US War Hawks figured conquering the north would be ‘a mere matter of marching’.  Nope.

“Vimy” – Pierre Berton.  On Canada’s participation in the First World War, specifically the decisive victory at Vimy Ridge.

“Paris 1919” – Margaret MacMillan.  Fantastic book about the Paris Peace Conference, at which the Allies met to discuss the terms they would present to the vanquished Germans at Versailles.  Great insight into the politics and intrigue during the conclusion of the First World War.  I was fortunate enough to have Margaret MacMillan as a teacher.  Her passion for history inspired mine.

“In the Skin of a Lion” – Michael Ondaatje.  Wonderful story.  Some fiction lives with me.  Beautiful recreation of earlier times in York (Toronto) + great narrative.