Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davis, Edward (fl.1683-1702)

DAVIS, EDWARD (fl. 1683–1702), buccaneer and pirate, was one of the party with Cook who in 1683 seized on the ship of Tristian, a French buccaneer, at Petit Goave, went thence to Virginia, and sailing from there took forcible possession of a Danish ship at Sierra Leone, and went into the Pacific [see Dampier, William]. When Cook died off Cape Blanco in July 1684 Davis, who was then the quartermaster, was elected as his successor, and joining company with other pirates—Eaton, Swan, Harris, Townley, Knight, and some others—he ranged along the coast of Peru and Central America, capturing ships, sacking towns, plundering, ransoming, and burning. On 3 Nov. they landed at Paita. They learned that a detachment of soldiers had been sent in only the day before to oppose them; but these, as the pirates advanced to the attack, ran away, leaving the town undefended. They found it, however, ‘emptied both of money and goods; there was not so much as a meal of victuals left for them.’ They stayed three days, hoping to get a ransom for the town, but getting nothing, set the place on fire and re-embarked. A few weeks later they made an adventurous attempt on Guayaquil, but losing their way by night in the woods their hearts failed them, and they retired without firing a shot. Shortly after this they met with a Frenchman, François Gronet, who had led a party of two hundred and eighty men, French and English, across the isthmus, and who now, after the interchange of civilities, offered Davis and Swan commissions from the governor of Petit Goave. ‘It has been usual,’ says Dampier, ‘for many years past for the governor of Petit Goave to send blank commissions to sea by many of his captains, with orders to dispose of them to whom they saw convenient. … The tenor of these commissions is to give a liberty to fish, fowl, and hunt in Hispaniola, but the French make them a pretence for a general ravage in any part of America by sea or land. Davis accepted one of these commissions, having before only an old one which fell to him by inheritance at the decease of Captain Cook, who took it from Captain Tristian together with his bark.’ In May 1685 the pirates to the number of ten sail, of which, however, two only—those commanded by Davis and Swan—carried guns, had assembled in Panama Bay, waiting for the Spanish Plate fleet from Lima. It came in sight on the 28th, but in unexpected force and well prepared to fight, consisting of six large and heavily armed ships and eight smaller vessels, besides a number of row-boats, carrying in all about three thousand men. ‘We had in all,’ Dampier says, ‘960 men … yet we were not discouraged, but resolved to fight them.’ Night, however, came on before the two squadrons had got well within range of each other; and the next day, the Spaniards having the weather-gage became the assailants, on which the pirates ran for it, the Spaniards pursuing. ‘Thus ended this day's work,’ is Dampier's summary, ‘and with it all that we had been projecting for five or six months; when, instead of making ourselves masters of the Spanish fleet and treasure, we were glad to escape them, and owed that too in a great measure to their want of courage to pursue their advantage.’ Gronet, to whom they had given one of their prizes, was considered to have behaved badly, and so was sent out of the fleet. They then refitted, and on 10 Aug. landed, five hundred strong, at Rialejo, whence they marched to Leon, and not obtaining the three hundred thousand pieces of eight which they demanded as ransom, they set it on fire, and returned to Rialejo, which also they burned before going off to their ships. The repeated disappointments probably contributed to break up the formidable fleet. On the 27th Davis and Swan parted company, Davis, with three other vessels, intending to go south at once. They were presently, however, obliged by their sickly state to put into the Gulf of Ampalla, where they lay for several weeks, with the men on shore in huts while the spotted fever raged among them, and many of them died. After this, two of the ships left Davis, one only, commanded by Knight, remaining with him; but these two men continued for the year cruising on the coast of Peru. Wafer, the surgeon of Davis's ship, says: ‘We had engagements at Guvra (Huaura), Guacha (Huacho), and Pisca (Pisco), and the two last very sharp ones, yet we took the towns. 'Twas July 1686 when we were at Pisca, and Captain Knight and we kept company almost all that year.’ In December they were at Juan Fernandez, where Knight left them to go round Cape Horn to the West Indies; but Davis returning to the mainland took and sacked Arica; visited Vermejo (Guarmey) and Santa, of which Wafer gives a curious account; felt and recorded, in lat. 12° 30߱ S. and a hundred and fifty leagues from the land, the shock of the earthquake which overthrew Lima, and towards the end of 1687 was again at Juan Fernandez. Thence he determined to return to the West Indies; but three or four of his men, having gambled away all their money, made up their minds to stay behind, waiting for some other vessel. They were made as comfortable as circumstances permitted, and lived there for a year or two till taken on board a passing ‘privateer.’ Davis meantime doubled Cape Horn, and, touching on the river Plata, went on to the West Indies. Thence, accepting the pardon which had been proclaimed by James II, he went to Virginia, where he settled, apparently near Point Comfort.

For the next fourteen years, which cover the French war of William III, we have no knowledge of Davis. In 1702, when, on the outbreak of the war with France and Spain, several privateers were commissioned by the governor of Jamaica, Davis shipped on board one, the Blessing, Captain Brown, of 10 guns and seventy-nine men, which, with three consorts, put to sea on 24 July. They at once ran over to the main, and on the 31st, in an attack on Tolu, Brown was shot through the head. They took, plundered, and burnt the town, after which they retired to their ships and elected one Christian as Brown's successor. This Christian, Davis tells us, ‘was an old experienced soldier and privateer, very brave and just in all his actions.’ He was also well acquainted with the manners of the Indians, having ‘lived among them some years when he was out a “roving on the account,” as the Jamaica men call it, but it is downright pirating, they making their own commissions on the capstan.’ They went then to Samballoes (Islands of San Blas), where they struck upon an alliance with the Indians, who proposed to supply three hundred men and lead them through the woods to the Spanish gold mines, vaguely and incorrectly said to be about sixteen leagues south-west of Caledonia. The story of the journey is equally vague and extremely curious. Going in canoes from their ships at the Samballoes, the party ascended a broad, deep river—possibly the Atrato—for three days, and landed on 19 Aug. The road over which they then marched was remarkable. They forded a swollen torrent waist deep thirty-three times in ten miles; they found their ‘path so narrow that but one man could march, and almost perpendicular, so that we were forced’ (it is Davis who tells this) ‘to haul ourselves up by twigs of trees; it was above a mile and a half high.’ Another mountain was ‘not less than six miles high,’ and yet another ‘not less than seven or eight miles high.’ After a few more difficulties of a similar kind, they arrived on the 31st at the Spanish settlement, drove the Spaniards out without much trouble, and took possession of the diggings; but though they tortured some of the prisoners, even to death, they could not learn of any store of gold. Probably there was none, the treasure being sent to Panama at frequent short intervals. And so, with little booty, and after hardships aptly described as ‘incredible,’ they arrived back at their ships on 21 Sept. They then went to cruise off Porto Bello, where they had but poor fortune; and with this the extract of the journal abruptly terminates.

Nothing more is known of Davis after the expedition of 1702. It may, however, be noted to his credit that he commanded his gang of ruffians in the Pacific for nearly four years, without exciting mutiny or occasioning any serious discontent, and apparently without exercising any unusual cruelty or severity.

[Dampier's New Voyage round the World; Lionel Wafer's New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America (1699), the 2nd edit. of which (1704) has as a supplement ‘Davis, his Expedition to the Gold Mines.’]

J. K. L.