From the view on top of Blackbeard’s Castle, the red-tiled roofs of the city of Charlotte Amalie ring a blue-green harbor that was once a pirate refuge in the late 1600s. Charlotte Amalie is the capital of the island of St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
There is no proof the infamous English pirate Blackbeard caroused Charlotte Amalie’s taverns—Blackbeard’s Castle is actually the name of a 10-meter (34-foot) tall Danish watchtower that has no apparent connection to its namesake. Captain William Kidd, a Scottish sailor famously executed for piracy, sailed into the harbor in 1699 to drop off five deserters and a sick man.
Yet it’s a lesser-known French pirate, Jean Hamlin, whose presence on St. Thomas is best documented. Hamlin was a successful pirate, having raided English and other European ships off the coast of Jamaica and Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. Hamlin also raided ships off the coast of Sierra Leone, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in northwestern Africa.
Hamlin’s story in St. Thomas is told through historical documents in Isidor Paiewonsky’s 1961 book The Burning of a Pirate Ship, La Trompeuse. Hamlin, who helmed the ocean vessel La Trompeuse, captured ships off Hispaniola, the name given to the large Caribbean island where the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are now located. In one incident, Hamlin captured a seaman on a shipping vessel and put the man’s thumbs in vices (thumbscrews) until he confessed what kind of cargo was aboard his ship.
Charles Consolvo, a maritime historian and a board member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust in Charlotte Amalie, explains how Hamlin came to St. Thomas, which was then governed by Denmark.
“He had been wreaking depredations on British shipping in the Caribbean,” he says. “The British were after him. He came to St. Thomas, where he was apparently well-acquainted with the easy ways of Adolph Esmit, who was then governor of St. Thomas.”
Consolvo says St. Thomas was known for harboring pirates during Esmit’s governorship in the 1680s.
“Apparently, Esmit used to participate in buying the loot the pirates brought and generally giving them assistance and aid and succor,” he says.
Battle and Getaway
Several British vessels were ordered to find La Trompeuse (French for “deception”). Captain Charles Carlile and his English warship the H.M.S. Francis finally came upon the pirate ship in the port of St. Thomas on July 30, 1683. A brief battle erupted with La Trompeuse.
Unexpectedly, Carlile wrote in his journal, nearby Danish troops joined in the firefight—aiding the pirate ship in its fight against the H.M.S. Francis.
Carlile was taken aback by the Danish military’s actions. “Sent the master ashore with a letter to the Governor, protesting against the shot fired at the ship and asking for information as to the consorts of the pirates,” he wrote in his journal.
On the evening of July 31, 1683, Carlile and 14 of his men slid across the harbor toward La Trompeuse in two small boats. A firefight ensued.
“The pirate discovered us before we reached them,” Carlile wrote in his journal. “We exchanged shots with them and then boarded and took possession. The crew escaped. Fired her in several places and lay on our own oars close by to see that none came off to put out the fire. When she blew up, she kindled a great privateer that lay by, which burned to the water’s edge.”
Although La Trompeuse burned in the harbor of Charlotte Amalie, the crew escaped—including the pirate leader, Jean Hamlin. Esmit, the crooked governor of St. Thomas, aided in his escape, according to a letter written by St. Thomas resident Andreas Brock and printed in Paiewonsky’s book. The English military searched in vain while Hamlin hid in Charlotte Amalie.
“The pirate, Hamlin, is housed here the whole time in the fort,” Brock wrote. “He has eaten and banqueted with Esmit. . . . He has brought much gold. Esmit would not deliver the said Hamyln to the English.”
The Burning of a Pirate Ship, La Trompeuse concludes that Hamlin hid out in nearby Mosquito Bay before hijacking a frigate and sailing it to the coast of Brazil.
Fallout from La Trompeuse
What finally became of Hamlin has disappeared from history. After safely escaping to Brazil, he put together another pirate crew and helmed another ship—La Nouve Trompeuse.
Governor Esmit’s troubles, however, are well-documented.
Sir William Stapleton, the governor of Nevis, a British colony at the time, wrote to Esmit after the La Trompeuse incident. “I am sorry that your late conduct has convinced me and all the world that the reports of your being a protector of pirates were true,” Stapleton wrote. “I have affidavits to that effect from some you had on shore and from the pirates themselves. It is plain from the fact that you secured John Hamlin, the arch murderer and torturer, and neither tried him nor delivered him to Captain Carlile, but allowed him to escape.”
Consolvo says Esmit had a difficult time after word spread that he had assisted Hamlin.
“He got himself in trouble with the Danish crown, and somehow his wife, who was well-connected, got him out of it, because he was reappointed governor,” Consolvo says.
Even though a treasure-hunter claimed to find the wreck of La Trompeuse in 1990, Consolvo believes the remains of the sunken vessel have not been located. If it were found, he thinks the ship would be of historical significance—though he doubts it would hold many riches.
“I suspect that there was probably not very much on the ship at the time,” he says. “It would have been offloaded and sold. . . . Nobody really knows.”
But a document written by Brock (the St. Thomas resident at the time of La Trompeuse’s burning) suggests otherwise.
“Hamlin’s frigate, that was burned by the English, was in the opinion of everyone here a beautiful ship, well loaded with provisions and other things. The treasure room was full of silver. There could be over 24,000 pounds there. Esmit could have let all this be taken from the ship but he did not want the people ashore to see what the ship had.”
In 1917, the United States purchased the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix from Denmark for $25 million. They are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Maritime historian and St. Thomas resident Charles Consolvo says the city of Charlotte Amalie used to have a different name. "The town was called at one point 'Taphus' in Danish in the very early days, because it had so many taverns," he says.
(?1660-?1690) Danish governor of the island of St. Thomas.
legal statement, sworn to and witnessed by a legal official.
clear or obvious.
help or aid.
large feast, or to eat at a large feasting party.
(1680-1718, born Edward Teach) English pirate who worked in the Caribbean Sea and the southeastern coast of the United States.
city where a region's government is located.
goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.
to drink alcohol and act wildly.
edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.
people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.
to transmit, transport, or carry.
friend, acquaintance, or coworker.
robbery or theft.
person who abandons or leaves a duty or occupation.
data that can be measured, observed, examined, and analyzed to support a conclusion.
to put to death by order of the law or in a well-planned manner.
conflict involving gunfire.
type of armed naval combat vessel.
to make public-policy decisions for a group or individuals.
elected or appointed leader of a state or area.
part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.
to lead and manage a ship and ship's crew.
to steal a transportation vessel, such as a truck or plane, or the cargo it is carrying.
large island in the Caribbean Sea, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
person who studies events and ideas of the past.
organization dedicated to preserving historical knowledge, material, and sites.
having a very bad reputation.
body of land surrounded by water.
(?1650-?1690) French pirate active in the 1680s in the Caribbean Sea.
record of events, updated regularly.
to set fire to.
to steal or take something illegally.
having to do with the ocean.
obsolete rank or term for a naval officer responsible for the navigation of a sailing vessel. Also called a sailing master.
to kill a person.
long paddle used for rowing.
ship, boat, submarine, or other vehicle able to travel the ocean.
to unload or remove.
thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.
place on a body of water where ships can tie up or dock and load and unload cargo.
private ship or person commissioned by a government during war.
materials necessary to complete a task, such as food or tools.
to stage a sudden, violent attack, usually for robbery.
shelter or protection from danger.
person who works aboard a ship.
sailor, or person skilled in the navigation and sailing of a ship.
transportation of goods, usually by large boat.
help or aid.
bar or restaurant where liquor is sold.
torture tool where a vice around the victim's fingers or toes is tightened until the bones are crushed. Also called a pilliwinks.
inflicting pain to force a victim to provide information.
process and hobby of searching and digging for valuable items in historical places such as shipwrecks.
tool that can be adjusted for gripping something tightly and holding it in place.
seagoing vessel built for armed conflict.
tall building from which a lookout or camera can see the surrounding area.
(1645-1701) Scottish navigator and sailor, hanged for piracy.
to inflict or bring about something painful.