Howell Davies The Prince of Pembrokeshire Pirates

By Terry John Calendar

Most people have never heard of Howell Davis, yet he was one of the most feared pirates of the early 18th century - and he came from Pembrokeshire.

The place and time of Howell Davis’ birth are uncertain, but he is traditionally said to have been born about 1690 somewhere along the Milford Haven waterway. His career as a seaman began quite early. There are no details of exactly when he first went to sea, or of the ships on which he first served, but by July 1718, he was the mate of the slave ship Cadogan, under the command of Captain Skinner. As it made its way along the coast of Africa, en route from the Bahamas to Madagascar, the Cadogan was captured  by the pirate Edward England. It’s said that Captain Skinner’s reputation as a brutal master was so well known that the pirates pelted him with bottles before shooting him.

Davis must have had a certain easy-going charm about him because, in spite of refusing to sign up as one of England’s crew, the pirate captain placed him in command of the Cadogan, instructing him to set sail for a certain latitude before opening a sealed letter which England gave to him. The letter contained a deed of gift of the ship and its cargo to Davis and his crew, with the instruction that they should sail to Brazil, where the cargo could be sold and the profits shared equally amongst the men.

Unfortunately, the crew mutinied and took the Cadogan to Barbados, where Davis was promptly thrown in prison for piracy. After three months he was released for lack of evidence but ship-owners were so wary of his new-found reputation as a shady character that they refused to employ him. He decided to make his way across the Bahamas to the port of New Providence, a former pirate stronghold now being pacified by Governor Woodes Rogers, who offered him a place on board the Buck, a sloop carrying a cargo for trade with Spanish and French possessions in the West Indies.

The Buck sailed in convoy with two other ships, the Mumvil Trader and the Samuel. The crews of these vessels included a number of pirates pardoned by Governor Woods, but none of them were interested in a peaceful life. As the ships lay at anchor one night off Martinique, Davis and others overpowered  their crewmates as they slept and transferred the cargo of the Mumvil Trader to the Buck, before sailing off in the darkness.

Davis was elected captain and set up a base in a bay known as Coxon’s Hole on the east coast of Cuba. He and his crew of thirty-five men then set about raiding and capturing any ship they came across. In general, they were merciful to the crews of the vessels they looted, releasing them once they had plundered the cargoes. On at least one occasion however, they were far from gentle; on one of the prizes was a Welshman named Richard Jones, who refused to join the pirates, He was slashed across the leg with a sword then dipped into the shark infested waters at the end of a rope until he capitulated.

Advised by his most trusted Lieutenants, who were known as ‘The House of Lords’, Davis decided to try his luck on the other side of the Atlantic and took his ship across to the Cape Verde Islands.  He entered the port of Sao Nicolau in the guise of an English privateer with a letter of marque allowing him to fight the Spanish. He was welcomed by the Portuguese garrison, which allowed him to remain for five weeks, during which time he enjoyed a cordial a relationship with his hosts. So pleasant was the experience that when Davis finally set sail once more, five of his crew decided to remain on the island.

Over the next few months Davis and his crew captured seven ships, all loaded with gold dust, ivory and slaves. The most important vessel taken was a two-masted brigantine which Davis named the Royal James and which he equipped with 26 cannon. The next target was the fort being built on the banks of the Gambia River at Gallassee, which they set on fire after seizing a haul of gold and ivory.

As they celebrated their victory in the smoking ruins of the fort, another ship appeared. This was commanded by a Frenchman, Olivier Lavasseur, known as ‘La Buse’, or La Bouche, the Buzzard. Davis and La Buse agreed to sail in company and headed for Sierra Leone, where they encountered yet another pirate, Captain Thomas Cocklyn. The three men joined forces in an attack on the Royal African Company’s stronghold on Bence Island, later to be known as Freetown. After a prolonged bombardment, the fort was taken and emptied of all its valuables.

A few days later a ship named the Bird fell victim to the pirates. Its captain, William Snelgrave, attempted to defend his command and would have been killed by Cocklyn had not the crew of the Bird pleaded for his life. The pirates were delighted to find that the cargo included claret and brandy and soon emptied most of the bottles down their own throats. What was left was drunkenly splashed around and they ended up swabbing the decks with alcohol. The situation now descended into pure farce, albeit one that might have ended in disaster.

A great party was held aboard the Royal James, during which almost everyone became completely incapacitated. No one realised that a lantern had been dropped close to  the rum store and that a fire was spreading. There were 18 tons of gunpowder stashed nearby and if that had ignited the party would have come to a spectacular conclusion. Fortunately William Snelgrave was reasonably sober and organised a chain gang to douse the flames with buckets of water. As a reward, Davis gave him la Buse’s old ship to sail home.

The three pirate captains might have developed a successful long-term partnership had they not disagreed over their next destination. They sailed off in different directions and Davis soon encountered a Dutch ship, the Marquis del Campo, which he captured after a fierce battle in which a large number of men were killed and injured. The Marquis was renamed  Royal Rover, which Davis equipped with 32 cannon and 27 swivel guns.

Another prize taken by Davis was an English ship, the Princess of London. The third mate of this new acquisition hailed, like Davis, from Pembrokeshire. His name was John Roberts and he had been born in the village of Little Newcastle in the shadow of the Preseli Hills. He soon joined Davis’ crew and was to become the most successful and renowned of all the pirates and was known as Black Barty Roberts, or Barti Ddu.

Davis was now forced to abandon the King James, the hull of which was rotting. The Royal Rover sailed on to the island of Principe, a Portuguese territory off the west coast of Africa. The island’s governor gave Davis and his crew an official welcome, believing their claim that they had been sent by the British government to put a stop to piracy in the area. The pirates were not particularly well-behaved and the governor became suspicious. To calm his fears, Davis invited him to dine on board the Royal Rover.

It is possible that during the meal Davis planned to take his guest a prisoner and demand a ransom for his return. If so, the plan was revealed to the governor by a one of the crew, a Portuguese man who swam ashore to warn him. The governor concocted a little plan of his own and invited Davis to Government House for a drink before the meal.

Davis arrived at Government House with nine of his officers, having left John Roberts in charge of the Royal Rover. The building appeared to be empty, so Davis set off back to the ship. On the way he and his companions were ambushed by a platoon of musketeers. Seven of the pirates were killed, including Howell Davis. According to reports of the event, he was hit by five bullets and was finished off only when his throat was cut. He was said to have fired both his pistols before the end, dying ‘like a game cock, giving a dying blow, that he might not fall avenged.’

Davis was killed on 19 June 1719. His career as a pirate had lasted only eleven months, yet he had amassed a fortune thought to be worth at least £2,000,000 in modern terms. In the days that followed his death, John Roberts was elected to succeed him as captain. He took his revenge for the murder of Davis by attacking Principe not long after and went on to become one of the most feared buccaneers of the day. As for Captain Snelgrave, he seems to have been favourably impressed by Davis, describing him as someone ‘who, allowing for the Course of Life he had been unhappily engaged in, was a most generous humane Person’.


Categories:Blog, History


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