The Confessions of the Pirate Charles Gibbs
One of the United States’ last and most notorious pirates was a man who called himself Charles Gibbs. In piracy lore, Gibbs occupies two areas of renown: one for his prolific acts of violent piracy in 1830; the other for his extravagant ‘confessions’.
Gone were the days of the Golden Age when pirates’ lives were recorded by others. The advent of cheaply printed newspapers meant pirates could tell their stories directly to an enraptured audience.
You may think this would make verifying their history easier today. But, with a man like Charles Gibbs, unpacking what was truth and what was fiction is all the more intriguing.
So let’s have a go.
Who was Charles Gibbs?
Charles Gibbs was the most common of the aliases of Newport, Rhode Island-born James Jeffers. As Gibbs he claimed he was born in 1794. As Jeffers he was more likely born on 5 November 1798 to ship captain and former Revolutionary War privateer Samuel Jeffers and his wife Elizabeth Drew. James was the fifth of their eight children and their third son.
After his arrest, Gibbs gave an account that his father obtained a situation for him in the US sloop-of-war Hornet under Captain James Lawrence during the War of 1812 with Britain. He saw some battle but:
‘I escaped miraculously, with only a sabre wound upon my nose, the only wound I ever received in my life. The loss of the Chesapeake was 65 killed dead, and 100 wounded. We were taken into Halifax, where I remained about four months.’
Jeffers did sail on the Hornet and Chesapeake’s losses are about right. But the miraculous escape? Not so much.
After his first ill-fated adventure at sea, Gibbs decided seafaring was not for him. He next claimed he applied to friends for a loan and set up grocery shop in Ann Street, Boston. There is a record of a store co-owned by Gibbs and an Abel Barnes. This was either a remarkable coincidence or proof that his lies were drawn from real situations.
Gibbs’ ‘remarkable’ life as a privateer
There is evidence that James Jeffers returned to the sea on a privateering ship, some time around 1813.
It is important to note that it was not illegal for American privateers to sail under foreign commissions at this time. This is a significant point of difference from the British laws they sailed under before independence in 1776. Until 1776, Jeffers’ actions would have been considered piracy.
That said, this point of American maritime law was not well articulated by the Founding Fathers. It took several piracy trials of American privateers sailing with commissions from Spanish American colonies seeking independence from Spain to establish this legal position. It caused a diplomatic nightmare for several American presidents, including Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and James Monroe. Adams in particular despised privateering and tried to force the Supreme Court’s hand. (Sound familiar?!) But: it would not be moved.
According to Jeffers, he boarded a ship for New Orleans and set forth on a privateer ship to Stockholm, probably to fight in the Gunboat War (1807–14) between Denmark-Norway and the UK. At war’s end, his ship pulled into Bristol in distress. Jeffers then travelled to Liverpool and returned to the US on the ship, Amity.
He then joined a Colombian privateer called Maria and cruised for two months or so in the Bay of Mexico, hunting Spanish prizes around Cuba. Privateering operates on a ‘no prize no pay’ model. So when the Maria took several prizes and Captain Bell withheld Jeffers and the crew’s share of the prize-money, mutiny brewed.
Jeffers turn to piracy had begun.
Jeffers becomes Charles Gibbs, the pirate
Jeffers’ decision to adopt the alias Charles Gibbs could have been one of his few acts of conscience.
He said he did it to protect the good name of his family from the stain of publicity surrounding his piracy. Whether this is true or not is not known. But he was not the only pirate to do so; lending some credibility to this claim. For example, the pirate Pierre La Croix took his real name with him to his grave.
In his first raids with the mutinous Maria crew, Gibbs met with little success. They found no specie nor any cargoes easily convertible into anything of value. Then one of the crew came up with an idea. He suggested an arrangement could be made with a merchant he knew in Havana who would accept anything they acquired for a commission.
Havana was just the place for this kind of deal in the early 19th century. It was not a pirate haven like Tortuga or Port Royal was 150 years earlier but it was certainly a town where people did not ask too many questions. Nor did anyone respectable dare walk the streets at night. With this arrangement now in place, Gibbs and his crew finally had a way to convert what they stole into tangible value.
Maria went back to sea. Onboard were a mix of around 50 Spaniards and Americans. Pirates around Cuba at this time were exceptionally violent and vicious. When the penalty for both murder and piracy is death, you may as well kill all the witnesses too.
After all, dead men tell no tales.
Gibbs and his crew proved no exception.
Was Gibbs a successful pirate?
Like most pirate captains, Charles Gibbs’ skill as a navigator combined with his considerable charisma to keep his crew loyal and united. In his confessions, Gibbs went to great lengths to elaborate on his piracy successes. But just how profitable he was is difficult to ascertain. Certainly his Spanish merchant friend in Havana who received all his stolen goods was not about to confess.
The problem for historians is that when a pirate leaves no trace of a ship or its crew behind no record of what happened to it survives either. There’s no way to tell the difference between a ship lost at sea or to pirates, unless the pirates themselves are caught, confess AND are sufficiently educated to remember all the details. Then of course, the question turns to whether they are telling the truth.
Gibbs confessed to robbing and destroying at least 40 vessels and everyone onboard. These included French, British and American civilians. He recalled the details of around 14 of them. Of these, the most memorable for him was a Dutch ship from Curacao with 30 passengers onboard.
According to Gibbs, one passenger was a pretty young woman of around 17–18 sailing with her family. She pleaded with Gibbs to save her life and Gibbs, quite taken by her, decided to keep her alive. The pirates slaughtered the rest of the crew and passengers, including her entire family.
Against the wishes of his crew, Gibbs took the girl to a hideout at the West end of Cuba called Cape Antonio, a well-known rendezvous point for pirates in the area. He kept her there for two months. This decision caused his crew to mutiny. Gibbs shot one of his crew to protect her but it soon became clear he could be their captain, or the girl could live.
He agreed to allow her death by poison. It was, in his mind, the only death he regretted.
A brush with the law
Gibbs’ first brush with the law came when he encountered the US ship Enterprize off the western Cuban coast. This would be his first encounter with Captain Kearney, who would become something of a nemesis to him.
Gibbs and his pirate crew got into a skirmish with the Enterprize but escaped into the wilderness of western Cuba. The Enterprize destroyed their fort and took their prizes. Not given permission by Spain to land on Cuban soil, it was powerless to pursue the crew on land. Gibbs and the crew escaped.
Gibbs next surfaced in Boston in 1819 with about $30,000 in his possession. He gambled and squandered much of this before setting sail to Liverpool. This was verified at the time.
But again, Gibbs’ great weakness for women struck again.
In Liverpool he ‘fell in with a woman, who I thought was all virtue, but she deceived me, and I am sorry to say that a heart that never felt abashed at scenes of carnage and blood, was made a child of for a time by her.’ Gibbs spent the rest of his time drinking his sorrows away.
This appears to be a true story as the woman reappears later in his life.
A return to privateering
On Gibbs’ return from England, he resumed his piratical career off the western Cuban coast. Of this, not much is known as Gibbs was disinclined to talk about it. What is known is that by 1819, piracy flourished around Cuba. The demise of Spanish power in the Caribbean had created dangerous and anarchic conditions perfect for it. So it is quite feasible he went back there.
What Gibbs did like talking about was his time privateering for Buenos Ayres when war broke out between Brazil and Buenos Ayres in 1828. This is because privateering had an air of respectability about it by then and he undertook it in his real name.
He sailed to Boston with the intention of joining the fledgling Buenos Ayres Navy. This was headed up by an Irish-born American called Admiral Brown. Brown arranged for Gibbs to become a lieutenant in the new Navy. Gibbs undertook several successful raids in this capacity until he was captured by Brazilian privateers and carried into Rio Janeiro.
After eventually escaping Rio, Gibbs travelled for around a year as a privateer for hire in the Mediterranean. To return to the United States he signed on as a sailor on the ship that would be his undoing: the Vineyard.
Charles Gibbs and the Vineyard
At age 32, and following a prolific life of piracy, Charles Gibbs actually stood trial for a crime he was only peripherally involved in: mutiny, robbery and murder onboard the brig Vineyard.
Gibbs was one of eight crew. The steward, Thomas J Wansley from Delaware, told the others there was money onboard. This prompted a plan to mutiny, murder the Captain William Thornber, steal the ship and divide up the money. Despite his murderous piratical past, Gibbs claimed to be a passive observer to all of this, merely helping Wansley push Thornber’s body over the side of the ship and accepting a share of the $50,000 found onboard. They then set fire to the ship.
The men escaped in two boats: Gibbs, Wansley and two others in the long boat, the others in the jolly boat. In tumultuous weather, the jolly-boat capsized and its occupants drowned. Gibbs and the men finally made it to Barren Island (New York) and buried their share of the money. But they were caught the next day and committed to Flatbush jail. The other two men confessed and Gibbs and Wansley did little to dispute their statements.
Wansley and Gibbs were committed to trial based on the evidence of the other two men. According to the court records, rather than his ‘confessions’, Gibbs then made some insightful observations. He knew he was on trial for his past actions, rather than the Vineyard incident.
He lamented that the decision to give immunity to the two white men over Wansley — who was black — was a great prejudice that existed in respect of colour.
‘Antipathies against blacks existed in the breasts of white men, who thought them worthy of less justice,’ he told the court. He had seen the same influence in the Jurors and the District Attorney.
To his credit, Judge Samuel Betts (who did most of the piracy trials in this era) acknowledged Gibbs’ statements but cited that the evidence against Wansley was too strong to dismiss it. He sentenced the two men to death.
The confessions of Charles Gibbs
While in detention, Gibbs began recording his ‘confessions’. They proved quick sellers and highly profitable for their publishers. Before he died, he later admitted to fabricating many of his encounters to protect the good name of the Jeffers family. However he also received a visit from his old nemesis on the Enterprize, Captain Kearney. Kearney went on to confirm some of the details of many of Gibbs’ piracy tales.
What Gibbs’ confessions really revealed was piracy at the time was far greater than one man could undertake on his own.
At his death, Gibbs stood erect and firm. As the rope tightened around his neck, he did not give the slightest tremor.
Images courtesy of Charles Ellms' A Pirates Own (1837)