Rough dust gold in a purple bagg: Pirate treasure in colonial America

28 August 2015

Cultural Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris's fanciful depiction Captain Kidd in New York Harbor (c. 1920). Published in the United States before 1923 and so in the public domain.


Over the past couple of months I’ve been spending most of my time indexing documents for our forthcoming Colonial America resource, which consists of British Colonial Office files from The National Archives, Kew. This material covers all aspects of life in the Thirteen Colonies and beyond, from the everyday administrative grind of council meetings and petitions about land rights to the more evocative subjects (from the comfortable vantage point of twenty-first-century Britain) of battles with the French, parlays with Indians, and pirates – or ‘pyrates’, as most writers of the time rather pleasingly spelled it. News of the capture of pirates and letters to London from governors expostulating against their derring-do had been occurring in my files for quite some time, but it was only this week that I was able to use the indexing keyword I’d been afraid I was never going to get a chance to unleash – treasure!

'Inventory of pirates goods and treasure, delivered to Reer Adm.l Benbow to be transported to England', from CO 5/861. Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


Dated at Boston, 31st May 1700, I found an inventory of the contents of two chests of ‘pirate goods and treasure’ delivered by order of the Earl of Bellomont, the governor of Massachusetts, to John Benbow, rear admiral of the Blue and future Treasure Island pub eponym. To my disappointment, the list starts with ’32 ps. of course [sic] muslins’, though a note then informs us intriguingly that ‘some whereof were damnified’. After a further detour into holland and worsted ribbon, we get to the meat of the haul: 59¼ ounces of coin bar and wrought gold, ‘cornelions’ – carnelian is a reddish-brown semi-precious stone, Wikipedia tells me – a touchstone (used for assaying precious metals), 15¼ ounces of Spanish money (pieces of eight!), rubies, 11 ounces of ‘Christian gold’, 20¾ ounces of ‘rough dust gold in a purple bagg’ and more coins and wrought gold ‘in a bladder’ (whether purple or otherwise goes unrecorded). We then move on to the second chest: three shirts, more muslins, a neckcloth, and so on. Well, pirates had to dress to decently buckle any kind of swash, after all.


Sir Godfrey Kneller's Portrait of Admiral John Benbow (1701), in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.


Frustratingly, nowhere on the inventory does it say from whom the treasure was captured. Two pirates and their crews recur in the volume in which the list is bundled: James Guillam (or Gillam, or Gilliam, or, for whatever reason, Kelly), who, despite entitling his memoirs A Full and True Discovery of All the Robberies, Pyracies, and Other Notorious Actions, of That Famous English Pyrate, Capt. James Kelly I think it fair to say has not entered the popular imagination, and William Kidd, who very much has. Both men were captured in Boston in 1699, so either is a good candidate. I personally prefer the idea that this is Guillam’s booty. Captain Kidd in fact spent most of his time at sea hunting pirates as a privateer (essentially, a pirate with a piracy licence) and is generally regarded by historians as having been rather hard done by, and although perhaps the possession of assorted textiles does not truly qualify as a Notorious Action, nevertheless it is nice to think that the historical record could be open to that interpretation.

About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.