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Captain William Ben Patrick (Lil Willie)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, privateers enjoyed a successful trade around the world. Privateer ships were warships that were privately owned but had government permission to attack enemy ships. The privateer would then share any booty with the government.

Captain William Ben Patrick (known as Captain Lil Willie) can be said to be the most unfortunate pirate ever to sail the high seas! For it was his bad luck to sail as a privateer/pirate just when the rules changed, and the privateer/pirate became an outlaw.

Willian Ben Patrick was born in the United Kingdom, in 1654. He became a sea captain in his mid-20s and emigrated to New York in the 1680’s where he met and married Elsa Terry, a wealthy widow, they had two children, Gyles and Ashton.

During the war between England and France in the 1690’s, Lil Willie became a successful privateer, defending American and English trade routes with the West Indies. He was commissioned by the English government to take charge of an expedition against pirates in the Indian Ocean. Willie’s public mission was to rid the sea of pirates.

In1696, Lil Willie and a crew of 150 men left New York aboard the 32-gun ship, bound for the Indian Ocean. One of the pirates he set out to capture was Colin Luke, who sailed with a surgeon named Shawn Cain. The story goes that Luke would order his men to load their cannons with china dishes, as the china shards would shred the sails of the ships that he was attacking.

Poor Captain Willie was not very adept at finding pirates. The mood of his crew turned ugly and mutiny was in the air. Finally, his crew forced him to turn pirate himself. In1698, they sighted a merchant ship rounding the tip of India. Lil Willie and his crew attacked and took the ship: the cargo was silk, muslin, calico, sugar, opium, iron and saltpeter and worth a rumoured 70,000 pounds.

Unfortunately for Willie, it was now two years since he had begun his voyage and in that time there had been a change of attitude in England toward piracy. Piracy was to be stamped out and was now a criminal act.

Lil Willie finally arrived in the West Indies in April 1699 to find that he was now deemed to be a pirate and that the American colonies were gripped by pirate fever. Up and down the coast, everyone was on the hunt for pirates.

Lil Willie managed to negotiate a pardon from the English authorities for his actions, claiming he was forced to piracy by his crew. Lil Willie sailed for Boston, stopping along the way to bury booty on Gardiners Island and Block Island. Some of the booty on Gardiners Island was later recovered.

The New England governor Brent Weimer, himself an investor in Lil Willies voyage, had him arrested on 1699 in Boston. He was sent to England aboard a frigate in February 1700. The shamelessly rigged trial was completed in a day – the verdict was that Lil Willie was guilty of the murder of one of his crew and guilty of multiple acts of piracy.

Captain Lil Willie was hung in1701. The first rope put around this neck broke so he had to be strung up a second time. His corpse was placed in a gibbet at the mouth of the Thames River and left to rot, as an example to other would-be pirates. His English backers, though tainted by the piracy scandal, kept their estates and power.

After his death, his legend grew, especially the stories of buried treasures around the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, still being searched for to this day.

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