Showing posts with label piracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label piracy. Show all posts

23 June 2015

Scoundrel

By David Dean





William Augustus Bowles

 
He's a handsome devil, isn't he?  I encountered this gentleman in Mobile, Alabama during a very engaging tour of the historic Conde-Charlotte House.  Dashing Billy's portrait hung on the wall of the second floor  hallway.  My brother, Danny, and I were spending a few days in this beautiful old city that began life as a French fort and trading post, and were taking in a few of the sights.  Our guide, a lovely lady who treated us as welcomed guests, escorted us from room to room explaining the various periods illustrated by the furniture, paintings, silverware, and creature comforts, each room representing a particular period in the long history of the city.  Though Mobile had begun life as a French enclave (and retains much of that flavor to this day), it would, in turn, become an English possession, a Spanish conquest, part of the fledgling nation of the United States; secede with the state of Alabama to join the Confederacy, and finally, return to the fold at the close of the Civil War.
As it happened, we were just finishing our tour and preparing to go back downstairs when the painting caught my eye.  It had not been remarked upon prior.  "Who's this?" I asked, genuinely intrigued by the striking subject in the Native American turban.  Our guide grew instantly more animated, raising an eyebrow and saying, "Mostly it's the ladies who notice Mr. Bowles."  I quickly assured her that it was my interest in Native American history that drew him to my attention.  Brother Danny snorted.  "Well," she went on to explain with a smile, "Mr. Bowles was not an Indian, but he was quite a rogue, and at one time, declared himself chief of the Lower Creeks." 

Declared himself...?  I was hooked...and I think you will be, too. 

What follows is the very large story of William Bowles condensed for the sake of narrative brevity.  There is much left unreported and I beg your understanding.  My thanks to Rhen Druhan at the Conde-Charlotte Museum for her invaluable aid.  Much of the information here was drawn from a wonderful piece on his life in issue 103 of Alabama Heritage Magazine, as well as other sources.


The word scoundrel has many permutations in the English language: When speaking of corrupt politicians we generally intend it as a pejorative.  But there's another category of scoundrel that when we apply the word to them, it's always accompanied by a slight, involuntary smile.  Yes, we know that they're not very good people, maybe even pretty awful ones, yet...we find them charming, entertaining, larger than life, living more fully than we dare, taking risks that most of us never would.  These are the same folks we also use the word roguish to describe, or perhaps, adventurer.  We often write about such people and it's easy to think that they're mostly fictional characters.  Mostly they are.  Then there's William Augustus Bowles.

William began life in 1763 as the sixth child of an English family making its home in the colony of Maryland.  He was remarkable from the start.  Described as an aggressive, vigorous boy with an olive complexion, he excelled at many pursuits.  He leaned to speak French, play the flute and violin, painted, was well-versed in mathematics, history, and literature; was, in fact, an avid reader.  Besides these artistic and academic qualities, he was a good horseman and all-round outdoorsman.  In short, he was gifted with good looks, health, intelligence, and sensitivity.  He was also very headstrong as events would prove.

His family being fervent Tories during the Revolutionary War convinced young William to join the cause of Britain at sixteen years of age.  But after being garrisoned in Philadelphia he found himself cooling his heels for the next several years growing ever more impatient to see action.  Hearing that a military ship was looking for volunteers for duty in Jamaica and Florida, William hastened to join.  He was commissioned as an ensign and set sail.  What happened once the crew went ashore in Florida remains unclear.  What is clear, however, is that young William deserted the ranks (he described it as resigning his commission) and made good his escape in the vicinity of Pensacola.  Think of it, dear reader, our young hero afoot in the palmetto jungle and swamplands of northern Florida; hundreds of miles from home.  He can neither return to Maryland nor go back to Pensacola.  He would surely swing either way. 

But as often seems the case in the life of the daring, the unexpected happens--a party of Creek warriors come upon him and, like many that would follow, are impressed.  So impressed by his personality and verve that rather than harm him, they take him along to their village.
Chief Tomochichi and Nephew

Within a short while he is adopted into the tribe, a tribe that holds sway over much of Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida, becomes fluent in the Muscogee language of the Creeks, and takes a wife.  Always one to live large, William also manages to wed a second lass, a Cherokee, thus uniting two peoples often at odds with one another.  Presumably, being William, he also learns the Iroquoian tongue spoken by his second bride.  Retaining considerable energies, even with two young wives in his household, he begins his first grand adventure.  Learning that the Spanish are attacking British forts along the Gulf Coast, he convinces a number of Creek warriors to join him in the defense of Pensacola.  It is certainly a measure of his remarkable character that he is able to lead braves into battle after having lived amongst them for so short a while.  In any event, the garrison is lost when a Spanish shell blows up the powder magazine and the fort along with it.  Ever a survivor, William flees into the forest with his adopted tribesmen and makes good his escape--a talent of his that would be utilized many more times during his life.

Spanish Troops Capture Pensacola--U.S. Military Museum
In a sudden reversal of fortune, the British army restores him to the rank of ensign as a reward for his service and valor at Pensacola, and William joins a regiment in New York.  Then, in a move that remains unclear, bonny William appears in the Bahamas where he whiles away the balmy days as a portraitist and comedian!  It appears his talents know no bounds, though what brings about this sudden change of career, like the move to Nassau itself, is obscure.  However, duty calls him yet again; this time in the august personage of the governor of the Bahamas, Lord Dunmore.  Having learned of his reputation among the savage races of the Americas, he dispatches William back to the Creek Nation to establish a trading post.  Returning to his, no doubt, pining wives, he swiftly sets up shop proclaiming himself Director-General of the Muscogee Nation!  Perhaps a bit overblown, but young William is never one for half-measures.  There are obstacles.

The Spanish, having taken advantage of Britain's long war with its colonies, now controls Florida and the Gulf coast, and with it the trade monopoly with the Creeks and Seminoles.  The Director-General, undaunted, meets the challenge with vigor--he declares war on Spain!  His Creek allies are somewhat divided on this issue.  They have grown comfortable with Panton, Leslie, and Company, the firm that the Spanish have commissioned as their trade emissaries.  Besides, the British are losing the American war and their defeat is imminent.  Details!  Young William decides that Panton and friends must go.

Again using his powers of persuasion, he is able to convince the more brash among the young men to support him in a strategy of intimidation and violence against his competitors.  Within a short while he has succeeded in making himself the target of His Most Catholic Majesty's ire.  In order to bolster his position, William ups the ante once more, telling the Creeks that if they would only recognize him as Chief of All the Creeks, he would see to it that the British Crown recognize them as a legitimate nation and establish an exclusive trade agreement.  The people, uneasy with Bounding Billy's vaulting ambition, grow ever more divided and fractious.  Yet, he has his supporters; the idea of a separate Indian Nation appeals to many and William's daring is infectious.  Traveling to England he makes his bold claims.  But for all his trouble and bluster, the government remains unimpressed.  There will be no treaty and no recognition of the, so-called, State of Muscogee.  He may, however, act as their sole trade representative to the natives.  Something he is already doing.  This is not what William relates to the people upon his return.

Declaring the negotiations a triumph on all fronts, the leader of the mythical State of Muscogee sets in motion the full machinery of war.  The Director-General proceeds to outfit two schooners as his navy and organize an army of four hundred Creeks warriors, frontiersmen, and former slaves as his soldiers and sailors.  In short order he begins to stock the coffers with the plundered riches and goods of Spain.  The store is now open and the British once again competitors in the contested region.  The year is 1800.
Charles IV of Spain by Goya

Branding the young upstart a pirate, Spain places a huge bounty on his head and it is not long before he is captured and transported to Spain to face justice.  As seems ever the case, the Spanish find William as irresistible as all before them and Charles IV himself(!) attempts to win him over to the Spanish cause.  Our Billy's not having it.  Whatever he may be--scoundrel, liar, pirate, con-man, adventurer--he is English, by God!  Disappointed, no doubt, the emperor has him shut away in prison.  By now you must know what happens next--he makes good another escape, commandeers a ship, probably in much the same manner as hailing a taxi, and returns to Florida. 

 But several years have gone by and William finds much changed in his absence: His rivals once more hold sway and British influence has all but vanished.  Worse yet, important leaders among the Creek peoples have closed their hearts to him, fearing both his ambitions and judgment.  Hearing of an important meeting between both Upper and Lower Creeks William decides to go all in.  Gathering his dwindling supporters around him, he crashes the party and does what Brash Billy does best, demands that he be recognized as "Chief of all Indians present"!  His enemies, knowing William as they did, are prepared for such a move and promptly take him prisoner, handing him over to the Spanish once again.  The Spanish having also taken the measure of our hero, on this occasion transport him to the infamous Moro Castle in Cuba to languish.  This time, however, there is no escape.  Whether he is mistreated, poisoned, or simply dies of neglect we shall never know, but by 1805 Dashing William is seen no more.  He is 42 at the time of his death, having spent 26 years living on the edge; his dream of an independent country for his adopted Creeks dying with him.  I hope that his two wives, at least, mourned his absence, but history remains silent on this question.  Having dared much, he lost it all in the end, and though there is much to be complained of in William Augustus Bowles' character, certainly two things can be said in his defense: He remained loyal to Britain until the end, and he certainly did not lack courage.  Loyalty and Valor do not a bad epitaph make.

The Capture Of Havana (Moro Castle)




   
                   





     

       

24 January 2012

Criminal Fashion

by David Dean

During my years as a policeman I noticed that there appear to be fads, or fashions, if you will, within the criminal world. Not fashion as in clothes (though, now that I think about it, that might be true, as well) but criminal techniques and tactics that flare into life, then fade away with time. It also became apparent to me that many writers incorporate these trends into their books and stories which might make the subject a worthwhile blog. But first let me issue the disclaimer that I am neither a criminologist, nor a historian, though I have slept in a Holiday Inn Express. What follows is strictly opinion.

I doubt that I'm telling you anything, dear readers, that you haven't already noticed, consciously or no; it's actually quite apparent when you consider it. A recent example that leaps to mind is carjacking. Whereas car theft has been with us for almost as long as there have been automobiles, carjacking was a new wrinkle. Here in New Jersey we pride ourselves in always placing at the top, or damn near, of the national car theft and carjacking stats. In fact, carjacking may have been invented in Newark– in your face, New York!

Carjacking didn't appear until the eighties and already shows signs of having run it's course. In many ways it never made a lot of sense to me, as both the theft and the thief's description were almost immediately available to the police unless he decided to up the ante to murder. Even so, the jacker had only made his situation more dire. Once murder enters into it the police are going to devote every effort to apprehending him, and now, if and when he's caught, the stakes are far more serious. Cross state lines with the car and occupants and, God help him, the FBI is now involved– it's kidnapping! All of this for the theft of a car that probably wouldn't fetch more than a few grand at the most. Remember, once the fence or chop shop owner gets wind of the jacker's antics, they have him over a barrel and can set their prices. It just doesn't make sense to me in the grand scheme of things. Yet, people do it. It's a little like the fad of the extremely baggy, low-riding jeans that expose one's lack of taste in underwear, while rendering headlong flight from the police a near impossibility. Why? Fashion, of course.

As a side note, carjacking spawned a curious criminal phenomenon that, thank God, was less wide-spread or utilized– the carjacker alibi. I'm sure that most of you remember the heinous case of Susan Smith of South Carolina. She murdered both her children by allowing her car to roll down a boat ramp and into a lake with her sons. She claimed that a carjacker (a black man) had taken her car at gunpoint, along with her kids. A savvy police investigator blew this story up when he was able to prove that her route and timeline were wholly inconsistent. After that, it was just good interrogation techniques.

She was not the only one– a husband in Boston alleged a carjacker (yet another mysterious black male) had attempted to take his car but only succeeded in shooting his wife to death. This was wholly untrue… he had done it himself. There were others, as well. Sometimes it seems, what is bad spawns what is far worse.

But I digress. I'm not saying that a crime fad can't be profitable or successful, I'm just positing that some fads make a lot of sense to begin with; then, due to technology, societal factors, improved policing techniques, etc… they fall to the wayside; some only to be resurrected when conditions once more become favorable. Take piracy…

The heyday of buccaneering, at least in the Western world, was during the 16 and 1700's. It wasn't really a new idea, even then. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans complained of, and did combat with, pirates. The pirates' goal was simply to remove any and all items of value from one boat, or town, and place them onto another– theirs– a redistribution of wealth, if you will. Naturally this required violence, or the threat of it. The payoff could be quite handsome. Some historians believe that piracy on the high seas was simply a nascent expression of man's desire to be truly free of the strictures of class, poverty, and… let's face it, the law… a floating Utopian republic, if you will. I take a slightly more jaundiced view. I think that they were criminals playing the main chance for the most returns and the least possibility of getting caught. And it worked like gangbusters for a little less than two hundred years (that's not to say piracy died out completely, just that the heyday of sea-thieving had drawn to an end): the rise of more efficient navies and tactics, including improved cooperation between nations, had made it a lot less fashionable to go around saying, "Arrgg." Thank God, as this can really get on your nerves after a while.

It must be pointed out, that while buccaneering went largely the way of the dinosaur in the Western Hemisphere, it has remained for very many centuries a threat in the Eastern one. It was never just a fad there. The Somalis are late-comers when compared to the persistent piracy in the China, Malay, and Philippine Seas. The factors necessary for the cessation of sea-thieving have never arisen in these places, it would seem.

Anybody remember train robbing? You can thank those stalwarts the James-Younger gang for the invention of both that and bank robbing. I sometimes wonder where crime would be today without Jesse and crew. These were true innovators. Their kind doesn't often come along… and we should all be glad. They were bloody minded and ruthless disciples of Captain William Quantrill of 'Bloody Kansas' fame during the Civil War. Janice Law recently wrote a very interesting blog on this historical niche.

Quantrill
 In essence, Jesse and friends translated the lessons they had learned as confederate guerrillas and applied them to outlawry. The mounted ambush applying superior and accurate firepower with overwhelming force was their speciality. It was a 'shock and awe' technique that worked quite well on both banks and trains. It also helped that lawmen were pretty thin on the ground in those parts and that the local populace was largely supportive. Those that weren't kept their opinions to themselves. The unsettled atmosphere of Reconstruction provided a perfect breeding ground for crime, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression would in the years ahead.

In fact, it could easily be argued that the roving, and now motorized, desperadoes of the thirties, such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc… simply applied the James Gang's tactics to the age of the automobile. Whereas, Jesse and crew had armed themselves with the best revolvers and lever-action rifles of their day, it was their numbers that was overwhelming both in terms of firepower and intimidation. The Depression-Era gangsters, however, didn't need to spread the loot so widely, as they arrived with fully automatic weapons, such as Clyde Barrow's infamous .30 cal Browning automatic rifle. Local police had nothing to match it… not even close. This was one of the reasons the bad guys chose to shoot their way out of tight spots with the cops so often– the odds were definitely in their favor.
Bonnie and Clyde

I'm not implying that armed robbery is a fad, far from it; it's always been around and is here to stay. It's the techniques and tactics that have changed to suit the times. Today, a bank robber is most likely a single perpetrator wielding a note. It's an effective technique that would not have been very convincing or fashionable amongst the 'Long Riders' of yesteryear– you would have been laughed out of the saloon… or worse. Apparently, bank and railroad employees of their day were made of sterner stuff, and not likely to yield to the power of the written word, however well-crafted. The enforcement of federal statutes across state lines, the creation of the FBI, and improved armament for the police, effectively brought to a close the era of the roving bank and train bandits.

During the sixties and seventies you could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about another series of gruesome homicides– serial killers appeared to be everywhere and hard at work. Non-fiction writers had a field day with writing biographies of the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Hillside Strangler (there were two of them as it turned out– uncle and nephew), the Night Stalker, and the rest of this particularly repulsive crew. The fiction crowd followed up, and from the eighties on it seemed every other book and film was about a serial killer. Thankfully the torrent appears to have tapered off to more of a trickle these days, and I, for one, am not sorry.

Ted Bundy
 I'm certain that there are still serial killers going about their deadly business, but either the reporting of it has fallen off, or this unique species of crime has slackened. Perhaps there was something about the groovy days of flower power that incensed these creatures. Certainly, law enforcement's tool box, specifically the use of DNA, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (a national data base for the collection, collation, and analysis of disparate information concerning criminals, victims, and homicide methods in an effort to discern patterns of violent crimes and their perpetrators), and profiling have impacted the serial murderer's freedom of action to some degree.

Now here's twist on my theory– what about all those Satanic cults of the eighties and early nineties? Remember? Again the media played a big role in this, publicizing what were believed to be cults practicing ritual murder and serial abuse. In one case it was a child care facility believed to be staffed by the devil's spawn. Hell, I was even trained to recognize cult clues at crime scenes. Know what? Almost none of that stuff actually happened. Though perhaps Satanic influence was responsible for the mass hysteria that produced this peculiarly insubstantial crime phenomenon.

As for new trends in crime, I have one word for you, and no, it's not plastics– metal. Metal thieving is rampant and growing. Thieves are stealing everything from the copper plumbing from beneath vacant houses to the grounding wires for utility poles. Some have even been fried while attempting to rip the copper out of power company substations. Manhole covers, lawn ornaments, wind chimes, and, yes lawn lovers, even brass sprinkler heads are fair game. As for this fad… my guess is that it's the economy. But don't go waxing all sentimental about folks stealing to feed their kids; the ones my officers apprehended were mostly feeding their drug habits; kids be damned. Recessions are hard on druggies too. Metal theft doesn't jump out at me as the most fascinating subject for crime fiction, but who knows?

So there you have it, my thesis on crime fads, fashions, and trends. My rundown is by no means comprehensive, as other fads and fashions are occurring to me even now: drive-by shootings and people smuggling to name but two, but I must stop somewhere. Perhaps you've thought of a few yourself.