The Taking of the Prosperous

In the spring of 1707 Captain Thomas Bowrey, an owner of the Prosperous, stood up before a House of Commons committee and related the story of the ship being taken by pirates at Madagascar several years earlier. The story of the Prosperous had begun in September 1701 when the two hundred and thirty ton ship armed with twenty-four guns had departed from London under the commanded of Captain John Hilliard. On board was Thomas’ cousin, Thomas Studds, one of the full complement of forty-four men.

From the start, the Prosperous was an unlucky ship. The voyage to the west coast of Madagascar was difficult but they eventually arrived during the following May at the end of the rainy season. Hilliard immediately commenced negotiations with the local king who promised to supply two hundred slaves within two months. This had always been the intention. The Prosperous included medicines for the slaves in her cargo. With good harbours, coves and beaches as well as plentiful provisions it seemed that life was improving for the crew. Glad to be on dry land again after their tedious voyage, the carpenter erected a tent on the shore within which to build the sloop, or service boat, they had brought in parts from England. A second tent was erected for storing trade goods to reduce the number of trips between ship and shore. However, the ship’s long boat continued to make such journeys to restock with water.

The presence of crew members of the Prosperous ashore had been noted by a group of pirates led by Thomas Howard visiting from other parts of the island. The pirates set about convincing a number of the crew to join them. They included the boatswain’s mate, Richard Ranton. At midnight twelve days after they had first anchored, as the turned members of the crew lay in wait on board, a group of pirates, together with Ranton, approached the ship in a boat. When the young midshipman, John Orp, on watch challenged them, Ranton answered it was the Prosperous’ longboat returning from shore with water. Orp passed them a rope and returned to what he was doing. The first pirate to board fired at Orp who, although not hit, played dead to save his life.

In a brutal attack, the pirates shot Daniel Perkins, the first mate, in the mouth at point blank range when he refused to surrender. The shot went through the middle of his chin and emerged from the side of his neck between the jawbone and his jugular vein, shattering his lower jaw. Simultaneously, the other pirates with the help of the turned crew seized the steerage where some of the crew were sleeping, firing indiscriminately as they did so. Ranton fired several shots at the second mate, Daniel Saunders, as he lay asleep in his hammock. Although injured, Saunders managed to escape to a boat tied to the stern of the ship. The pirates fired frequently at the door to the great cabin hoping to kill the captain as he emerged to see what was happening. Hilliard, however, managed to reach the quarterdeck by another route and without harm only to be shot twice in the right arm, breaking it in a number of places, and once in the left. Another crew member was shot and injured in his throat as he attempted to assist the captain and first mate.

Having demonstrated their brutality, the pirates offered the crew the opportunity to escape in the boats. The only alternative was a violent death. The crew chose to abandon the Prosperous, taking the wounded with them. Having gained control of the ship, the pirates finally showed a little compassion and sent ashore the supplies required for the carpenter to complete building the sloop, they had named Linnet, and it was on this twenty-eight of them departed from Madagascar on 3 August. Their number included the Saunders who had fully recovered from his wounds and Perkins who was still very sick. Hilliard and another man had already died of their injuries.

Howard took over the command of the Prosperous and joined up with another group of pirates on the Speedy Return led by John Bowen. The two ships attacked shipping, together and separately, until they came together again at Surat on the west coast of India where they captured two larger and better armed ships in September 1703. Having obtained more powerful vessels, the pirates no longer had use for either the Speedy Return or the Prosperous and they were burnt at Rajapore on the Malabar Coast.

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