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Hamlin’s story in St. Thomas is told through historical documents in Isidor Paiewonsky’s 1961 book The Burning of a Pirate Ship, La Trompeuse.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.”