By Mark St. John Erickson, email@example.com | 757-247-4783
May 29, 2012
Few universities can look back on a history so venerable as the College of William and Mary.
Chartered by royal decree in 1693, America's second oldest college soon became home to its first law school — and it educated so many Founding Fathers that it's been called the "Alma Mater of a Nation."
Less well known, however, is its link to pirate loot.
Sailing from Hampton and the Eastern Shore more than a decade earlier, buccaneers Lionel Wafer, John Hinson and Edward Davis spent five years pillaging and exploring the distant west coast of South America, compiling a record of plunder and adventure that few other sea rovers equaled.
And rarely did any face down the tangle of legal threats that ensnared them — then raised the specter of the noose — after they were arrested with their pirate swag in 1688 while trying to retire in Hampton Roads.
"This was a huge amount of treasure — a king's ransom — and everybody was trying to get a piece of it," says historian Donald G. Shomette, author of "Pirates on the Chesapeake."
"But it was William and Mary's founder — the Rev. James Blair — who connected with them, and who traded his help for part of the school's endowment."
This curious case of piratical philanthropy reaches back to 1682, when a band of daring Englishmen bought the ship Revenge and hired its previous captain — a veteran freebooter named John Cooke — with the intention of making their fortunes as sea raiders.
Cooke quickly sailed to Panama, where he tempered his amateur crew through the addition of Wafer — who had previously been his ship's surgeon — and the experienced Hinson. Then he set course for Virginia, where he careened his vessel for repairs on the Eastern Shore while looking up two other old shipmates in the tough seafaring town of Hampton.
William Dampier had already sailed around the world, and — like Wafer — he would later publish his memoirs, penning amazing accounts of exploration and adventure that would later influence Jonathan Swift, author of "Gulliver's Travels and Daniel Defoe, author of "Robinson Crusoe, as well as naturalist Charles Darwin.
Davis would eventually be hanged for consorting with the notorious Capt. William Kidd — but not before taking Cooke's place and leading pioneering voyages to Easter Island, the Galapagos, New Zealand and possibly Antarctica.
"This was like the Wild West," Shomette says.
"Everybody was out for adventure."
Plunder was a driving factor, too, and — after winning a formidable new ship named the Bachelor's Delight in a West African card game — the crew sailed across the South Atlantic and rounded Cape Horn.
There they launched a 5-year campaign of piracy in which they seized ships, ransomed captives and sacked towns, leaving a trail of terror that stretched from Chile to Panama.
By 1687, their vessel was the flagship of a dangerous buccaneer fleet that could muster 1,000 men and strike unsuspecting targets deep inland. But with their coffers full, the crew finally turned back through the Straits of Magellan and sailed north, intent on finding places to retire.
Booking passage from the West Indies to Philadelphia, the pirate trio and Davis' slave had already made their way down the Chesapeake Bay when they were arrested near Old Point Comfort on June 22, 1688 with three chests heavily laden with pieces of eight and silver plate.
"These guys weren't stupid. They were trying to come into Hampton Roads through the back door," Shomette says.
"But they couldn't get past the guardship at the mouth of the bay."
Thrown into irons at Jamestown, the trio pretended to be traders but were fingered by the slave.
Then they tried to claim amnesty under a 1687 proclamation issued by the recently deposed King James II, only to be denied by Gov. Francis Howard, who wrote back to the new government of King William III asking for its decision.
Ultimately, the hapless captives were released and instructed to return to England for the pardon. But their treasure was ensnared in legal limbo, with everyone from the captain of the royal guardship to Sir Robert Holmes — the unscrupulous head of the crown's anti-piracy campaign — trying to fill their own pockets.
Shrewdly, the pirates stalled at Jamestown to watch over their imperiled loot — and persistently laid claim to the cache despite their increasingly impoverished condition. They also filed petition after petition in Virginia and London, where they enlisted the influence of wealthy merchant Micajah Perry.
Not until they met Rev. Blair in London, however, did piracy and piety unite in the legal loophole that freed their loot and gave the crown cover for its decision.
"I do humbly certify," Blair wrote on Feb. 18, 1691, "that the Petitioners have devoted and secured towards the carrying on the pious design of a free School and College in Virginia, the Summe of three hundred pounds, providing that the order be given for restoring to them their money."
"Blair was an opportunist. He needed the money desperately — and he may well have contacted them after arriving in London," says Wilford Kale, author of the William and Mary history "Hark Upon the Gale."
"Pirate loot may not have been part of the puzzle to begin with, but it became a very important part in the end — and he used whatever influence he had to get what he could for the college's endowment."
Still, two years passed before Blair returned to Virginia with his charter.
There he quickly found use for a sum that today would be worth — depending on the formula used — from $900,000 to $9 million.
"In those days 300 pounds was a boatload of money," Kale says.
"I can see it going right into the Wren Building."
Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press