(James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch by Jan van Wyck, by Jan Wyck (1644–1702), [Public Doman] via Creative Commons)
A doctor who was a rebel, a forced laborer, and an acquaintance of pirates
The Catholic King James II of England ascended to power in 1685 after the death of his brother, King Charles II. In June of that same year, however, the late King Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, arrived on the coast of Dorset with a rebel army. Monmouth planned his rebellion to coincide with another revolt in Scotland, and he hoped to draw the majority of his manpower from the English Protestants who did not want to be ruled by a Catholic king.
For the rest of June, and into early July, Monmouth marched around the English countryside, recruiting a mass of unorganized, untrained and angry Englishmen. Around this time a doctor named Henry Pitman returned to see his family in Somersetshire after having been away in Italy. Pitman came from a relatively astute Quaker family that could be classified as belonging to the lower tier of the English gentry. The doctor heard of Monmouth’s Rebellion while he was visiting his family, and he began to feel that risky emotion that can bring either great reward or tremendous danger—curiosity.
Pitman ventured into the heart of the rebellion, where Monmouth was amassing troops. While King James II’s royalists were stalking nearby, waiting for a time to strike, Henry Pitman joined up with the rebels around the city of Taunton in mid-June and served as a doctor for Monmouth’s forces.
By late June, the Monmouth Rebellion’s flimsy chances of success grew even worse with the news that the revolt in Scotland was crushed. From late June to early July, the royalist forces pressured Monmouth to retreat back toward Somerset, where the rebellion could be quarantined to the southwest of England. The rebels and the royalists met in a final battle on July 6, 1685, at Sedgmoor, which led to Monmouth’s capture and the end of the rebellion.
Once the rebellion was crushed, the punishment began. Monmouth was executed in a gruesome spectacle—some accounts claim the executioner failed to decapitate the rebel after five swings of his axe, and had to finally saw off the man’s head with a knife. Along with Monmouth, hundreds of other rebel leaders were executed. The captured rebels that were not condemned to death (more than 800) were rounded up and shipped off to Barbados to work as slave laborers on the island’s deadly plantations. Henry Pitman was one of these prisoners.
Though he was imprisoned on a Caribbean island, working in the harsh conditions of a cash-crop plantation, Henry Pitman was not a broken man. The rebel doctor quickly began to plan a great escape.
While he labored on the plantation, Pitman secretly set about gathering a crew to escape Barbados. He first recruited the aid of a woodworker named John Nuthall. The woodworker was not a prisoner, but he was in desperate need to flee Barbados because of debts. Pitman also found another debtor named Thomas Waker who was willing to join the plot to escape the island. Next, the doctor convinced six fellow Monmouth rebels to join the plot. Their names were John Whicker (a wood joiner), Thomas Austin, John Cooke, William Woodcock (a clothier), Jeremiah Atkins and Peter Bagwell (both farmers).
Together, the conspirators gathered provisions and obtained a boat. They sunk the craft in shallow water, where it would not be noticed, but could easily be made buoyant again when needed. After obtaining provisions and scavenging the supplies necessary for navigation, camping and repairing their boat, Pitman and his colleagues just had to wait for an opportunity to escape.
The opportunity that Pitman sought arrived when a local governor visited Barbados. The vigilant militias, and the owners of the plantations, were all distracted by the presence of a government official. While the authorities of Barbados hosted the governor, Pitman and his crew snuck out with their supplies to the submerged boat, brought it back to the surface, and paddled as fast as they silently could until they were able to put up their sails and be free from Barbados.
Outlaws in the Caribbean
Using a faulty compass, Henry Pitman shakily navigated the escapees from island to island in the southeast Caribbean. From Barbados, the crew sailed to Grenada. Next they sailed further southeast to the small islands of Los Testigos. Then, they navigated their way westward to Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela. From there, they tried to make their way to Tortuga, but a storm blew them back to Margarita.
As Henry Pitman’s crew sailed up to the coast of Margarita, they saw an odd sight. A large group of men were canoeing toward them from the island. The canoeing men soon arrived at the boat and boarded the vessel. Henry Pitman recorded that there were twenty-six men in total, Englishmen all, and they were heavily armed.
One of Pitman’s crewmembers, hoping to gain favor with the new arrivals, let slip the fact that most of the escapees from Barbados were former Monmouth rebels. The Englishmen who had arrived in the canoes criticized the loose-tongued man for snitching, but they applauded Pitman’s crew for their resistance to the government. They were pirates, the armed Englishmen revealed, and therefore had their own disagreements with the crown. Knowing that Henry Pitman and his crew were outlaws, the pirates invited the men to come and enjoy the camp that they had set up on Margarita.
Once the food and drink was flowing, the pirates opened up to Pitman’s crew. They told the escapees that the canoes had been commandeered from local natives in a raid, and that they had been separated from the rest of their crew. Next, the pirates brought up their intention to harass the Spanish territory of the Caribbean. Naturally, the pirates invited Pitman and the other men from Barbados to join in their marauding expedition. While the offer seemed agreeable to some of the escapees, Henry Pitman refused. He may have been a rebel, but he was no pirate.
The pirates did not take the refusal well—they burned Pitman’s boat, hoping that the escapees would have no other choice but to join in their raid. Pitman, however, stalwartly maintained his refusal. Baffled, the pirates took to their canoes and left the escapees marooned on Margarita. The only aid the pirates left behind was a local native that had been captured, whom they exchanged for Henry Pitman’s money.
Camps, Settlements and Home
Henry Pitman, the Barbados escapees and the captured native made the most of their time stranded on Margarita. They built themselves simple structures for shelter, creating a miniature village of huts. For food, they scavenged the island for anything edible and hunted—Pitman found turtle especially delightful. The native man whom the pirates left with the escapees also turned out to be a skilled fisherman. Henry Pitman adeptly used his medicinal knowledge to locate plants that could be used as medicines and foods. He even found plant life that could be fermented into an alcoholic beverage.
For around four months, Henry Pitman and his comrades were marooned on Margarita. Their deliverance finally came at the hands of more pirates. Two pirate ships anchored off the coast of Margarita and a scene similar to what had happened earlier with the canoeing men occurred. The captain of the pirate ships respected the marooned men for being former rebels. It also helped that Henry Pitman was a doctor, which was an undeniably useful asset in any situation. Pitman reasserted that he just wanted transport, and would not become a pirate. The captain let his crew vote on whether the doctor should be allowed to tag along, and they consented—but only to Pitman, the other marooned men were left behind with only some fresh provisions as a consolation.
Pitman’s time with the pirates was lively. As they sailed by Puerto Rico, the pirates captured another ship. After that, the pirates navigated their way to the Bahamas, where they anchored at a pirate ‘republic’ or ‘commonwealth.’ From there, Henry Pitman boarded a ship to the British Carolinas. Next, he hopped on a ship to New York, where he bought passage back to Europe. He made landfall in the Netherlands at Amsterdam. From there, he cautiously landed off the coast of England, at the Isle of Wight, then crossed to the mainland and returned home to his family in Somerset.
Henry Pitman was wary about his legal and criminal standing, for obvious reasons, but he soon realized that he had nothing to worry about. King James II, who Pitman had rebelled against, had been deposed in a bloodless Glorious Revolution in 1688. Now, William III (Dutch Prince of Orange) and Mary II were king and queen of England, and Henry Pitman was no longer considered an outlaw.
- Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail. By Marcus Rediker. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.