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:
- 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).
- The Zephyr was raided by pirates who were based on the north-east corner of Cuba.
- Smith was ‘abducted’ by the pirates. The pirate captain needed a competent navigator.
- Smith lived under constant threat of death at the hand of the maniacal pirate captain.
- 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.
- He admits to participating (orchestrating) the murder of 8 pirates, but it was in self-defense.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Smith admits to being armed and assaulting a man with a cutlass (sword) while on board the pirate ship.
- 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!).