WHEN TODD STEVENS set off for a shallow shore dive off Scilly one winter’s day, he had high hopes. Previous expeditions had yielded gold coins, 17th century guns and an anchor. It was all a legacy of the Scilly Isles unique geographic position. Sitting some 20 miles off the toe of Cornwall, the archipelago controlled the western approaches to northern Europe and south
to the Mediterranean. Ships must pass the islands on their way east to the East Indies and west to the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, pirates had settled on Scilly as the perfect base from which to plunder the growing sea trade of England, France, Spain and the Dutch – indeed the disgruntled Dutch would declare war on the islands in 1651, a war which would not officially end until 1986.
Todd, a transplanted cockney who has made Scilly his home (the West Ham cap, proudly worn, is evidence of his East End roots), was in for a much bigger find though. Fighting against the powerful current, he cleared the sand to find the skeleton of a huge vessel. And in doing so, he was led to the story of one of British maritime history’s most unlikely ‘heroes’. Could this be the wreck of the John, an East Indiaman turned pirate vessel, famously lost off Scilly during the English Civil War? The story of Mucknell and Todd’s search for the truth, is told in Stevens’ fascinating new book*.
Drunk, violent and unpredictable, East India Company captain John Mucknell was disloyal to his employers and to the rule of law, stealing his own ship and turning to piracy. Yet Mucknell ended his days as Sir John, a Vice Admiral in Charles I’s own fleet of pirates, and his widow received a royal pension. Mucknell was a Stepney lad, not high-born but certainly of respectable family. The Mucknells were Catholic and worshipped at St Dunstan’s: John had been baptised in the church in the year of his birth, 1608. And he had spent his entire working life as a servant of the East India Company.
By the 1640s, Mucknell was an established and trusted captain, but he was also a loose cannon. England was in the throes of the Civil War. A loyal Royalist, John was violently at odds with the Puritanical Roundheads and would express his opinions loudly and drunkenly about the inns of Stepney. The Company received reports of his erratic and sometimes paranoid behaviour, but nonetheless in 1643 were to give their man a plum posting: charge of the new John, a state-of-the-art vessel, lighter, lower and fleeter than its predecessors, and carrying 44 guns. They had made a huge mistake.
Mucknell hatched an elaborate plan (though much of the detail seems to have got lost in a fog of rum). The ship was bound for Surat, in Gujarat, India. The East India Company planned that Mucknell would be bringing back a cargo of spices and silks, and there were agents aboard to buy and sell goods. En route, the skipper was charged with picking up a wealthy Portuguese ambassador. But John had other ideas. He had already instructed wife Elizabeth to head for the Royalist stronghold of Bristol, where he would meet her once he had stolen the ship.
Things swiftly deteriorated on the John, and Stevens convincingly argues that Mucknell engineered discord. There were drunken fights and the crew split between loyalists to the Company and those wanting to join Mucknell and rob the ship and its passengers. Mucknell attempted to cast anyone in opposition as ‘a Roundhead’ though its unclear how much his fight was ideological and how much for monetary gain. Within weeks of setting off from Wapping, Mucknell had lost the
rest of his fleet, before marooning passengers and many of the crew on the small isle of Johanna, off the coast of Mozambique. He then fled back to Bristol, picked up Elizabeth and headed to the Scillies. It was 1643, and the long and bloody English Civil War had another eight years to run.
There are reports of pirates operating out of Scilly since the 11th century. When Mucknell arrived, at the helm of an impressive new 44-gunner, he was immediately able to dominate, and form the rag-bag ‘navy’ into a fighting force. They were unpredictable; there was little honour among thieves and when Naval ships came out to challenge the pirates it was frequently every man for himself. But in the midst of Civil War, the pirate Mucknell found himself enjoying unlikely protection. King Charles was only too happy to see the Puritans get a bloody nose, and he issued letters of marque, authorising Mucknell to attack and rob ships. The pirate was now a privateer, licensed by his monarch. The dissolute merchant mariner, who had no real battle experience, now found himself elevated to Vice Admiral. And the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, knighted him.
So although he was attacking ships of the English Navy, our man was doing so as Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell, and he was about to get a powerful ally. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was the archetypal Cavalier, a dashing young man, a born soldier and overall commander of the Royalist forces by his mid-twenties. He had no maritime experience but was put in charge of the pirate fleet operating out of Scilly, and for the next years he would inflict defeat after defeat on the Navy, ransacking East India Company ships, and picking off any foreign vessels that came too close. The Scilly pirates had a vast area of control, operating as far west and south as the Azores, and so controlling the Atlantic sea routes. At his side was Sir John Mucknell.
There were reverses, and after one bloody skirmish Mucknell retreated to Wexford in Ireland to regroup. But by 1651, as the war reached its denouement, he was back, operating out of Scilly. And it was on one of those forays into the Atlantic, off the Azores isle of Terceira, that our man disappears from history. With eight years of bloody piracy behind him, the end seems to have been more mundane, as Rupert’s flagship The Constant Reformation, simply took on water and sunk, taking 300 souls with it. Documentation is scant of course, but there is no record of Mucknell taking another posting after that date.
Did John perish alongside those 300 in the sinking of The Constant Reformation? Or was he saved alongside Prince Rupert (who would go on to live into his sixties and become head of the King’s Navy after the interregnum). Certainly by 1660 he was dead. In that year, we find his wife Elizabeth petitioning the new king, Charles II “for her husband’s pension of £200 a year, for service, granted in 1645, which was five and a half years in arrears when he died”. Basic maths might suggest that Mucknell had been lost in the battle off Terceira. Elizabeth had been “driven from her habitations at Poplar and Bristol, her goods seized and she forced to fly beyond the seas.”
For centuries Mucknell and the John were lost to history. But Todd’s explorations kick the whole story off again, and this year English Heritage announced plans to dive the wreck. The story of the King’s Pirate is not done yet.
* Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John by Todd Stevens. AuthorHouse Publishing. ISBN 978-1467001588. Order details at www.piratemucknell.co.uk/
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