A Sin and A Secret: William Cotter: South River Pirate and Grog


Design of the Corsair Ship "Batchelors Delight," ca. 1683 Image source

Mix yourself a drink based on a colonial recipe and then curl with a completely true, completely salacious story. Enjoy a new #ASinAndASecret post on Saturday nights.

Sailors led notoriously poor lives. Food was scarce and crawling with vermin. Water was held in a large, stagnant vat and quickly became putrid. This water was carefully conserved to ensure that it lasted from port to port. If it did not, the crew would die of thirst, out at sea, surrounded by water. Sailors had to furnish this clothing for themselves, and a significant part of their initial monetary advance could go towards outfitting oneself for the voyage. The pay was pitifully meager.

The work was hard. This was by no means always the case. Sailors performed backbreaking work with little sleep. For years on end, they could be deprived of the company of their family. Trapped in a vessel, completely under the control of a captain, one could only hope that you would be treated with fairness and mercy. This was not always the case.

The danger was extreme. One ran the risk of starvation and dehydration. The cruelty of a captain or fellow crew could be fatal out at sea. Filthy living conditions and meager diet bread sickness. There was the temper of the ocean – stormy waters wrecking ships or calm and breezeless ones leaving ships foundering at sea.

There were also, of course, pirates.

Piracy has a long and fascinating history. Most consider the 1690s-1730s to be the Golden Age of Piracy. These dates correspond with the early years of London Town’s existence on the South River (today in Edgewater, Maryland).

As European governments ramped up their colonizing efforts, they began competing for control of the oceans. This control was crucial to the success of their far-flung colonies. Governments across the ocean needed to ensure safe passage of goods and materials, people and armies across the sea. European nations pilfered their colonial holdings, taking vast quantities of highly valuable raw materials (e.g., gold, tobacco, lumber, furs, iron, etc.) As lone ships transported vast amounts of highly expensive goods across thousands of miles of open ocean, they became the perfect target for thieves.

This thievery took two main forms: privateering and outright piracy. The distinction is subtle but important. Privateers were captains commissioned by their respective government to capture the goods, vessels, and sailors of opposing nations. They put themselves at great risk, but they got to keep vast amounts of the cargo they won.

Pirates, on the other hand, were under the control of no one, and therefore, were feared by all. Pirates felt no need to heed the strict code of ethics mutually agreed upon at sea. While many privateers also blurred these lines – torturing victims and impressing sailors – it is important to note that privateers were officially sanctioned, and ostensibly held accountable for their actions.

Sir Henry Morgan was a privateer operating in the 17th century. He became the governor of Jamaica. Image source.

Punishments for piracy were extremely harsh, almost always ending in death. This use of brutal punishment was meant to curb the flagrant disregard for law and order, but wasn’t always successful Many people found that operating on the margins of society had its benefits – the lawlessness of piracy gave people freedoms and riches they would never have otherwise attained. But the choice was not made lightly as capture came at a terrible cost.

Despite the risk, a small number of people made the choice to turn to a life of piracy. By the 1690s, even London Town had become home to a pirate.

William Cotter was leading a peaceful and unremarkable life as a planter. In about 1693 he married Jane Gassaway, daughter of the prominent Captain Nicholas Gassaway, and inherited the Gresham Estate on his father-in-law’s death. Renaming the plantation “Cotter’s Desire,” William planted tobacco and maintained the grounds.

Gresham Estate

In 1698, Cotter’s life was turned upside down when his past was revealed to the world. In the 1690s, the colonial governments swept through the provinces rounding up what pirates they could find.  Cotter was caught in the dragnet by his neighbor Richard Beard, High Sheriff of Anne Arundel County.

Cotter and his friend John Blackamore confessed “they went out of Jamaica under the Command of one George Rainer in a private man of war Commissioned by the Lord Inchequin, then Governor of Jamaica.”

Under Captain George Raynor, Cotter sailed the Batchelor's Delight from Jamaica to Madagascar, where he and his shipmates enjoyed the pirate haven of St. Mary’s. Renaming their vessel the Loyal Jamaica, the buccaneers sailed the Red Sea where they raided Arab merchants and took in a massive haul. Each man took home around £1100 in stolen treasure.  Cotter retired on his ill-gotten gains and settled down to the quiet life of a planter on the South River.

The council was shockingly lenient. Cotter and Blackamore paid a fine and were warned in the “meane time to be of good behavr as to any Acts of piracy.” Both were reported to authorities in England, but nothing more came of the pirates’ past lives.  

Perhaps the British government was so lenient on Cotter and Blackamore because they had, in a sense, obtained sanction from a government, though not a government of sufficient power to excuse their plundering. However, we have no way of knowing the official reasoning behind their sentences.

Cotter died peacefully in 1702.

Bottle and mug with grog along with coin pieces

Grog

Grog is any mixture of spirits and water, especially rum and water. This is a good way to make your rum stretch as long as possible.

The term comes from the nickname of 'Old Grog' for Admiral E. Vernon (1684-1757) of the Royal Navy who, in bad weather, habitually wore grogram (a coarse silk and mohair fabric). He also introduced the idea of serving diluted spirits to English sailors. Thus it invaded colonial customs and was known variously as Grog, Grogshop, Groggy, and Groggery (which was at that time also a term for low-class drinking places).

Drink information courtesy of www.gaspee.org

More grog!

William Cotter Sources:

Select Drink Recipe Sources for the Series:

  • Alderman, Clifford Lindsey, "Of Drinks & Drinkers," Early American Life, December 1975, pgs 87-88, 91 - 93

  • Bullock, Helen, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion: Being a Collection of Upwards of Five Hundred of the Most Ancient and Approv'd Recipes in Virginia Cookery, Colonial Williamsburg and Dietz Press: Richmond, VA, 1938

  • Carr, Eve, "Home-Grown Treats," Mid-Atlantic Country, December, 1986 pgs. 34 - 35, 58

  • Gaspee Days Committee, www.gaspee.org/colonialrecipes.html

  • Mackin, Jeanne, "Flowing Bowl," Americana, pgs. 39 - 41

  • Stief, Frederick Philip, Eat, Drink, & Be Merry in Maryland, Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, MD, 1932

  • Tilp, Frederick, "Tips on Tippling from Tidewater Maryland," Maryland Magazine, 1978, pgs. 14 - 17

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