In 1618, an Englishman named Henry Mainwaring took shelter on the northwest coast of Ireland.
Mainwaring was a pirate, and a successful one. He had been active in the Atlantic and Mediterranean for over 20 years. He had not yet become “Sir” Henry Mainwaring. That was his next project.
While Mainwaring hid out on the far coast of Ireland, he sent a few trusted emissaries to King James I in London. Mainwaring’s friends made the King an offer:
Mainwaring would tell the King everything he knew about pirates, including specific advice on how to prevent piracy and strengthen English imperial power. In return, the King would grant Mainwaring a pardon for his crimes.
King James I accepted the offer.
Henry Mainwaring delivered to King James I a manuscript titled OF THE BEGINNINGS, PRACTICES, AND SUPPRESSION OF PIRATES, which immediately became an important document in British Naval policy.
On March 20, 1618, Henry Mainwaring was knighted, and officially became “Sir” Henry Mainwaring.
Mainwaring’s manuscript reveals pirates’ “tricks of the trade” – the common devices they used to outwit both their targets and the authorities. He recommends specific tactics and policies to discourage or antagonize pirates. He also spends a lot of time flattering the King. By all indications, King James I ate it up.
The soon-to-be “Sir” Henry Mainwaring is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. He has everything to gain, or lose, from his story.
So how do we know when he’s telling the truth?
My sense is that when he says something that might displease his audience (King James I) or be unflattering to himself, “Sir” Henry is probably telling the truth.
For example: throughout his manuscript, Mainwaring takes every opportunity to disparage Muslims. King James I was known to hate Muslims intensely. And yet Mainwaring writes:
“…for instance in Tunis…In 5 months together when I was coming and going I never heard of Murder, Robbery, or private Quarrel. Nay a Christian, which is more than he can warrant himself in any part of Christendom, may on my knowledge travel 150 miles into the country, though he carry good store of money, and himself alone, and none will molest him.”
There is no reason for Mainwaring to make this claim unless it’s true.
Mainwaring spent 20 years in the English navy and eventually became an admiral. He remained loyal to the king during the English Civil War; as a result, he was exiled to France and died in poverty.
He’s a slippery character, but ultimately he’s a great primary source. Some of the pirate tricks he describes are genius.
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