On the evening of April 1, 1719, an English slave ship came to anchor near the mouth of the Rokel River, off the coast of what is now Sierra Leone. In the hold were linen and woollen goods that could be traded for slaves, fava beans to feed them, and, for the officers, cheese, butter, sugar, and Westphalia ham, as well as live geese, turkeys, ducks, and a sow. The captain, a devout man named William Snelgrave, was apprehensive, because the west coast of Africa was rife with pirates, who prized slave ships, not only for their cargo but also for their size and sturdiness. At eight o’clock, a watchman heard a rowboat. Snelgrave called for lanterns and ordered twenty armed sailors on deck, and others down into the steerage, where they could fire out of the ship’s portholes. He then hailed the approaching boat, whose occupants replied that they had come from Barbados on a ship with the soothing name Two Friends. But they were invisible in the dark, and Snelgrave was mistrustful. Rightly so: soon after Snelgrave’s crew brought him light, the strangers opened fire. None of Snelgrave’s armed men were on deck yet, and when he called out for those in the steerage to shoot, they didn’t. This was the first of several mysteries that Snelgrave encountered during his experience with the pirates. He went down to the steerage and found his men standing around, claiming that the chest in which they stored their muskets and cutlasses was missing. Unopposed, the pirates rushed aboard, firing guns and tossing primitive grenades.
more from Caleb Crain at The New Yorker here.