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The Pirate of the Braganza: Cornelius Willhems (1790 – 1839)

It’s always a thrill to encounter a pirate without a Wikipedia page or a Google entry. It’s even more exciting when someone in 1839 has written an entire biography of him and published it in a newspaper that survived long enough to become digitised in the 21st century. While we can never be entirely sure how much of what was written then was true, these articles do provide a place to start.

I came across Cornelius Willhems this week while researching Presidential pardons for pirates in the early decades of the independent United States. Thousands were granted in the early years of the Republic but information on why or who is difficult to come by. I’ve found that on at least three occasions convicted pirates were granted a pardon. The most famous was Jean Lafitte and his followers for their assistance rendered to General Andrew Jackson during the battle for New Orleans in 1814. Far lesser known was young Hans Knudsen, who sailed with Cornelius Willhems and the pirates of the barque Braganza.

Cornelius Willhems was born on 25 June 1790 in Aalborg, a town in Northern Denmark bordering Limfjord.[1]

Back then, Aalborg’s occupants made a miserable living as fishers and beggars, awaiting the trade of vessels transiting to Copenhagen and St Petersburg, among other more thriving locales. By the age of 15, Cornelius had developed a passion for a beautiful local girl called Doretta. His morose disposition did little to attract her and she was instead keen on another young man from the village. So Cornelius plotted to dispose of his rival by inducing the couple out for a sail on his boat and throwing the young man overboard. His boat broke apart in a storm and he and Doretta were then marooned on a small uninhabited island for three days. During this time, Cornelius’ attempts to persuade her to transfer her affections over to him failed, so he raped her.

Fortunately for Doretta, she was rescued from his clutches and quickly acquainted the villagers with what Cornelius had done. He was quickly arrested but managed to escape in a stolen boat. After selling the boat, Cornelius embarked on board a Danish Indiaman bound to St Thomas, in the West Indies.

Here he quickly joined pirates and rose to the position of First Mate. His piratical vessel cruised off the coasts of Africa and South America for nearly a year. During this time, he established a reputation as a brutal murderer and rapist. He and the Captain often fought over the succession of young women they enslaved; abusing them to such an extent that suicide was often a preferable option than the depredations they endured. In one particularly violent dispute, Cornelius injured the captain so badly that he died during the night. The terrified crew voted Cornelius the new captain.

According to the Morning Herald, Cornelius Willhems was a prolific pirate, active for at least 15 years. Around the age of 30, he settled in Havana, a popular spot for people of dubious reputation at the time. Here he made the mistake of seducing the daughter of an English merchant. This ill-conceived dalliance saw him make a quick escape, eventually returning to his home town. If he had thought memories of him had faded, he was very much mistaken. When he learnt of his return, Doretta’s brother determined to avenge Cornelius’ terrible treatment of her. Cornelius disappeared from the town the day the brother was found dead. He fled to Hamburg and shipped out on an American vessel to New York, eventually settling in New Orleans.

He apparently lived in New Orleans for many years, running a sailor’s tavern of considerable notoriety and disrepute. This lucrative enterprise allowed him to invest in a fast schooner that he fitted out as a pirate vessel. Relishing life back on the seas, he quickly fell back into his murderous and raping ways. Eventually the schooner was wrecked near the mouth of Lafourche in the Gulf of Mexico with Cornelius Willhems the sole survivor. Making his way to Philadelphia, he joined the crew of the American brig, Braganza with the intention of taking control of the ship.

Cornelius Willhems’ downfall began on the night of Friday, 5 August 1838 about a month after the Braganza left Philadelphia on its way to Genoa. According to the court report and witness accounts, a scuffle broke out on the ship’s deck between four of the seamen and the senior members of the crew.[2]In collaboration with Joseph Ver Bruggen, Willhems had orchestrated a mutiny, coercing two other young seamen, Hans and Harry to join him. A brutal battle for survival then ensued. The mutineers seriously injured the first and second mates and killed Captain Armel Turley, throwing his body overboard. The survivors, including Mrs Turley, the first and second mates, and the passengers Mr Diehl and his wife were then confined in the cabin companion-way. The pirates then demanded the navigational instruments and all the money, jewellery and clothing the survivors possessed. As inducement, they filled the cabin with smoke.

Mr Diehl, who also owned the Braganza, confirmed that at some point in the next few days the pirates changed course, heading for the English Channel. Around 350 miles off the Portuguese coast (to his estimation), after much heated discussion, the pirates decided to force him, Mrs Diehl, Mrs Turley, and Robert Moir, the second mate into the longboat. This had been fitted out with a mast, sail, water, and some food for the pirates’ own use. The survivors could not beseech the pirates to let the first mate come too. Fortunately, after 48 hours onboard, the group were rescued by the kindly Captain William Fowler on the British brig Hebdenand taken to Greenock.[3]

Only scant detail remains of what happened on the Braganza after the longboat left. The intention seemed to be to maroon the ship further north and sell the wreck. A published letter to Lloyds reported that the Braganza continued to steer towards the North Sea until it was driven on shore near the isle of Juist on the Lower Saxony coast of the Wadden Sea.[4]

The vessel was quickly unloaded by coasters and some of its cargo made it to authorities while the rest mysteriously disappeared. When the crew were caught lying about the ship’s name and destination, they were quickly arrested. They justified their actions as self-defence: the captain and the chief mate had treated them very poorly throughout the voyage and they had only been trying to escape. Their protestations fell on deaf ears and they were then extradited to New York for trial onboard the Shepherdess.

On 17 May 1839, Cornelius Willhem was sentenced to death for piracy. Hans Knudsen, who by all accounts had been coerced into piracy by Cornelius, was also convicted but recommended for mercy. He eventually secured an unconditional pardon from President Andrew Jackson.

No such luxury was afforded Cornelius Willhelm. While he was only prosecuted for the Braganza murders, the true extent of his piratical crimes had come to light. A month later, he was taken to Ellis Island, where a great crowd of around 6,000 people gathered to watch him die. He was apparently quite impatient to have it over with so was led to the scaffold a full half an hour before the scheduled execution time. There he protested his innocence, declared himself a ‘murdered man’ but died without a struggle.[5]

He was the second last person executed for piracy in New York.

  1. [1] "The Extraordinary Life of the Braganza Pirate," Morning Herald, New York, 22 June 1839. [2] "US Circuit Court," Morning Herald, 2 May 1839. [3] "Mutiny and Murder at Sea," The Times, London, 31 August 1838. [4] "Mutiny on Board the Braganza - Capture of Four of the Mutineers," The Morning Post, 7 September 1838. [5] "Execution," Daily Herald and Gazette, Ohio, 26 June 1839.

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