Friday, January 15, 2016

The Dread Pirate Van Rensselaer?

Found in a file at Crailo State Historic Site:   MEMORANDUM – April 3, 1989, To: Donnarae Gordon.  From: Paul Huey.  Subject:  John van Rensselaer, 1699.   “I recently noticed this item about John van Rensselaer, ‘who died in a Bombay prison’. He was supercargo on the ship Margaret and former pirate in search of amnesty under the King’s proclamation, according to this record.  It sounds like an interesting story.  I haven’t had a chance yet to try to figure out who he was.”

            Stapled to the memorandum were a few photocopied pages from a book with the words “English Adventurers” written on the top of each page. On page 91, “John Ransalaer” is mentioned three times – once being described as the “supercargo” of the ship the Margaret. The supercargo was the person on board responsible for the purchase and sale of goods on the ship.  The second mentioning is in the following sentence – “Samuel Burges is executor of the will of John Ransalaer who died in a Bombay prison.” The third time is – “On 18 December 1699 while the ship was on her homeward voyage to New York and anchored under the Dutch fort at the Cape of Good Hope, Captain Matthew Lowth seized her . . . John Ransalaer who had money aboard the Margaret entrusted it to Joseph Estill, one  of the ship’s company, who was drowned.”

            Page 92 includes the information that “They were former privateers who all designed to come home encouraged by the King’s Proclamation, and included . . . John  Ransalaer her supercargo.”  Was John Van Rensselaer the above mentioned “John Ransalaer” – pirate/privateer?

            Frederick Philipse, the wealthiest merchant in New York, was the owner of the Margaret. A large portion of Philipse’s fortune was attained by his “trading” vessels in the Indo-Atlantic world.  “In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, more than a thousand pirates poured from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean . . . they helped launch an informal trade network that spanned the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds, connecting the North American colonies with the rich markets of the East Indies . . . colonial merchants in New York entered into an alliance with Euro-American pirates based in Madagascar. (“Frederick Philipse (was) . . . the  reported ringleader of the Indo-Atlantic trade.”

            The Margaret’s  “. . . captain was Samuel Burgess,  a suspected murderer and a former ‘pirate king’”.  (  )  Ships, such as the Margaret , “ . . .were fitted out, nominally for the slave  trade, though it was no secret that they were intended for piracy in the Eastern seas . . . (and) with few exceptions, the pirates came from the American colonies.” 

            At the Cape of Good Hope, on December 18, 1699, the ship, Loyal Merchant,  captained by Matthew Lowth, of the East India Company “. . . saw a small vessel enter the harbour under English colours,  Lowth’s suspicions being awakened, he sent for the captain and some of the crew, who ‘confessed the whole matter and were promptly put in irons . . . (Lowth) made sail for Bombay. . . taking with him the Margaret and 18 prisoners.” 

            So where does “John Ransalaer” fit into this story?  Apparently, he was taken to Bombay, with most of the Margarets’s crew and died in prison before he could get to England for trial and, possibly, a pardon.  “Captain Burgesss was taken to London in 1701 and accused of piracy (and) was convicted. Eventually he received a pardon.”  

            Was “John Ransalaer” a member of the rich and powerful Van Rensselaer family – the patroons of Rensselaerswyck?  If the Philipses and the Van Cortlandts were involved in this piracy, why not one of their Van Rensselaer cousins? To be continued, pending further research.

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