Howell Davis (alternate spellings include Howel and Davies) was a Welsh pirate who raided shipping in the Caribbean and the western coast of Africa in 1718-1719. He was a charismatic captain and treated his victims relatively humanely. Davis was a very clever pirate who preferred ruses and deception to outright force. He is probably best remembered for launching the pirating career of Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts, the most successful pirate of his age. Davis was killed in a shootout with Portuguese soldiers in June of 1719.
The Capture of the Cadogan
Nothing is known of Davis before 1718 or so, except that he was from the town of Milford in Monmouthshire in Wales. He was serving as First Mate on the trader Cadogan from Bristol under the command of a Captain named Skinner when they were attacked off the coast of Sierra Leone by pirates under the ruthless Edward England. Although the Cadogan surrendered to the pirates, Skinner was murdered by some of England's men: it turns out he had sailed with some of them before and dismissed them without pay after a disagreement of some sort.
Davis Goes Pirate
The remaining men on the Cadogan were given the option to turn pirate and sign England's articles. Davis refused, saying he would rather be shot. England was impressed by the plucky young man and made him captain of the Cadogan. When the pirates were gone, Davis made the suggestion that they take the goods in the hold to Brazil and sell them, but surprisingly, most of the men did not want to. When they arrived in Barbados, the men turned him in and he spent three months in jail. He had done nothing wrong, however, and he was released, although it was impossible for him to find honest work after that. He decided to head to New Providence, which had the reputation of being a pirate haven.
A Declaration of War Against the Whole World
Davis was disappointed: Governor Woodes Rodgers had just arrived, and had offered a pardon to all pirates. Two merchant sloops were being readied to set sail: the Mumvil Trader and the Buck. Davis found work on one of them, and when the two ships were anchored at Martinique, le led an uprising which resulted in both ships being captured. The Buck was the better ship, and Davis transferred anything of value from the Mumvil Trader to it before letting all of the sailors who did not want to turn pirate sail away. Davis was named captain and articles were written up for the pirates to sign. Then "He made a short speech, the sum of which was a Declaration of War against the whole World." (Defoe, 168)
Davis Cleverly Takes a Prize
Davis was a far more intelligent pirate than most. He preferred ruses, tricks and bravery to brute force whenever possible. Off the coast of Hispaniola, they boarded and captured a large but slow French ship of ten guns. No sooner had they secured this ship than they spotted a second French vessel: this one a well-armed sloop of 24 guns with a complement of 60 men. Davis desperately wanted this ship: it would make a fine pirate vessel. But he did not have enough men and weapons to take it by force.
He ran a black flag up the mast of the ship he had just captured, and sailed the Buck to within hailing distance of the French ship, who fired at him. He called over that if they continued to fight, his "master" on the other ship (which could be seen approaching) would be most angry and would kill everyone on board. The French captain decided not to risk it and surrendered. Davis had just taken a huge prize by deceit and trickery…and he was just getting started.
Attack on Gambia Castle
After acquiring a larger ship (a 26 gun vessel they renamed the King James) and an ill-advised attack on the Portuguese settlement of St. Jago in the Cape Verde Islands, they decided to attack the English slave trade outpost of Gambia Castle, on an island in the River Gambia. There, slaves were held who had been captured in the interior of Africa to await ocean faring vessels to take them to the New World and elsewhere. The castle was fortified, but there would be gold there if the pirates could get at it.
Davis came up with a ruse. He dressed a few of his men and himself in fine clothes and posed as a merchant. He made up an elaborate story for the local Governor, claiming he was a merchant from Liverpool heading to buy ivory in Senegal who had been attacked by pirates. They had fled the pirates, barely escaping, and now wished to trade for slaves because they did not want to go back to Senegal. The Governor bought the lie, and showed Davis and his men around as honored guests. Davis took the opportunity to scout out the castle defenses. The Governor invited them for dinner and Davis returned to his ship for the time being.
Davis soon devised a plan. There was another merchant sloop in the harbor: he sent some of his men to capture it so they could not raise the alarm. He had 20 of his men get ready but wait on the ship. He and his well-dressed companions returned to the castle. When he had the chance, Davis pulled a pistol on the Governor and told him to surrender, which the shocked man did. Davis fired a second pistol through the window. This was the signal for his companions to pull out their hidden weapons and capture the guards. His men, who had conveniently positioned themselves between the guards and their weapons, were able to capture the entire castle garrison and lock them in a room. They then took down the flag, which was the sign for the other 20 heavily armed pirates to come ashore and help hold the castle.
Davis' plan went off without a hitch, and he captured Gambia Castle without a drop of bloodshed. The men spent a day partying at the castle, drinking everything they could find and shooting the castle's cannons. Davis even convinced some of the soldiers to join them. The eventually looted some 2,000 pounds worth of silver from the castle…not a bad haul.