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Phuket History: The first English privateers in Phuket

In 1591 the first English privateering fleet was funded to go to the East for, as its charter stated, “The anoyinge of the Spaniards and Portingalls, (nowe our enemys) as also for the vendinge of oure comodities.”

By Colin Mackay

Monday 10 June 2019, 02:00PM

English privateers on a tropical beach enjoying their booty.

English privateers on a tropical beach enjoying their booty.

The fleet of three warships left Plymouth with 198 men under the command of James Lancaster, a hero of the Armada victory. Off South Africa, one ship had to turn back, as over 50 sailors were sick from “the skurvie”. Another ship was wrecked off the Natal coast. Only the flagship, the Edward Bonaventure, with a crew of 33 mainly sick and weak men eventually managed to reach the Ma­lay Peninsula in 1592. They moored off Penang island south of Phuket as, “Our men were very sicke and many fallen … we espied a canoe which came neere to us … having in it some sixteen naked Indians, with whom nevertheless, going afterward on land, we had friendly conference and promise of victuals.”

They rested on Penang, eating vegetables, fruit, fish and oysters to recover, and refitted their dam­aged vessel. They then headed off again “determined to runne into the straits of Malacca” to attack any Portuguese ships which “must needs come from Goa or St. Thome for the Moluccas, China and Japan.” They captured three Portuguese ships carrying rice and food to Malacca. Then they were fortunate enough to: “meet with the ship of the Captain (Gov­ernor) of Malacca, of seven hundred tunnes, which came from Goa, we shot at her many shot and at last shooting her maineyard through, she came to anker and yielded.” She was a rich prize of “sixteene pieces of brass [brass cannons], [carrying] … all kinds of haberdasher ware, velvets, taffetas, Spanish wooles, silks, shoes, hats, playing cards, rice but little treas­ure,” apart from “some False and counterfeit stones which an Italian had brought from Venice to decieve the rude Indians with.”

They sailed to Aceh in Sumatra to sell and trade their captured goods. Then setting back to sea, they decided to set up their eastern privateering base on Phuket Island.

We are informed of their arrival off Phuket by the pen of Edmund Barker, the scribe on the Edward Bonaventure, who gives us what may be the first still existing European report of anyone going ashore on Phuket. He tells us that they moored in “a baie in the kingdom of Junsalaom [probably Patong Bay] which is between Malacca and Pegu … to seeke for pitch [damar] to trim our ship. Here we sent our soldier (a Portuguese) … because he had the Malayan lan­guage, to deal with the people for the pitch, which he did faithfully and procured us some two or three quintals with promise of more and certain of the people came unto us.

“We sent commodities to their king to barter for Ambergris and for the horns of abath [rhinoceros], whereof the king only has the traffic thereof in his hands. Now this abath is a beast which has one horn only in her forehead and is thought to be the female unicorn and is highly esteemed of all the Moores in those parts as a most souraigne remedie against poi­son. We had only two or three of these hornes, which are the colour of a brown grey and some reasonable quantity of ambergris.

“At last the king went about to betray our Portin­gal with our merchandise, but he, to get aboard us, told the king we had gilt armour, shirtes of maile and halberds, which things they greatly desire, for hope whereof, he let him returne aboard and so he escaped the danger.”


After waiting around Phuket for some days, these English caught sight of some distant sails belonging to “three ships, being all of a burthen sixty or seventy tonnes, one of which we made strike with our very boat.” One was a Portuguese ship, which they at­tacked, captured and plundered. The other two were (then) Burmese ships they allowed to go on their way. Then a few weeks later, “upon a Sunday, we espied a saile which was a Portugall ship … and that night we took her, being of 250 tunnes, she was laden with rice for Malacca … In this month also we tooke a great Portugall ship of some hundred tun, laden with victuals, chests of hats, pintados [fish] and other com­modities … These ships were bound for Malacca with victuals because that victuals there were very scarce.”

By 1594, after two years of pirating, mainly based off Phuket, several men had succumbed to tropical diseases. “Our captain being very sicke and more likely to die than to recover … oure men declared unanimously that they would stay no longer in this country and insisted upon directing our course for England; and as they would listen to no persuasions, the captain was under the necessity of giving way to their demand, leaving all hope of the great possibility we had of making some rich prizes.”

Only 25 sick, scorbutic and starving survivors of the original 198 who set out so ambitiously, managed to get home and without any real profit. Such was the fate of the first Englishmen to attempt to make their fortune in Phuket.

They fared, however, much better than the second English attempt. This time, in 1596, another English privateering fleet of three ships, using information gathered by Lancaster’s expedition, also sailed east to base themselves in Phuket. Benjamin Wood, a suc­cessful Caribbean privateer, led this expedition. With the exception of one French crewman, who jumped ship in uninhabited Mauritius where he lived like Robinson Crusoe for 20 months, none of these ambi­tious privateers was ever heard of again.

First, one of the three ships was wrecked off Madagascar; then, after a period of raiding along the Indian coast, the remaining two ships came to Phuket to wait for passing Portuguese vessels. Our knowl­edge from here on is gleaned only from Portuguese sources, which report two English ships in the area undertaking piracy. They may even have been doing fairly well, until they had the misfortune to encoun­ter a full Portuguese war fleet just west of Phuket. A running battle was fought for eight days until, the Portuguese reported, the two out-gunned and badly damaged English ships went into hiding on the coast of “old Keddah” for repairs. Due to the damage to the ships and the greatly diminished number of crew­men, many having been killed or severely wounded by Portuguese cannon and musket fire, “the Englishmen abandoned their smaller vessel.” They all headed out to sea again in their remaining badly damaged ship, which “shortly afterwards foundered in a storm off the island of Buting (most probably Koh Batang off Tarutao) and there ended the “miserable disastrous success” of the second attempt by the English to make their fortunes in Phuket.

Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A His­tory of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon. com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www. historyofphuket.com

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