The Success
The Success by John Lodge, 1788

The Success

John Clipperton, a British pirate who was made captain of one of the Spanish ships taken by William Dampier in 1704, came to the Marianas on his second voyage. He led a mutiny against Dampier on his first voyage and was later taken captive by the Spanish nobleman Marquis de Villa Roche in Panama for four years.

In 1718 Clipperton became captain of the Success and another pirate, Captain Goerge Shelvocke of the Speedwell, was under his command. Clipperton, was by now an able captain. A group of London merchants, called the “Gentleman Venturers” financed a privateering expedition to cruise against the Spanish in the “South Seas.”

The Success and the Speedwell made the voyage from the coast of Mexico to the Ladrones (now Marianas) in 53 days, arriving in sight of the island of Saipan in 10 May 1721. They had lost six of their men and the rest were very weak. They decided to go ashore on Guam rather than Saipan as Guam was better known to Europeans as a place where they could most likely procure provisions.

Seeking trade and ransom

On arriving at Humåtak, Guam, they were informed that the people could not trade with them without permission from the governor. Word was sent to the governor and a few days later a message came saying the ship should be given provisions if they behaved civilly and paid honestly.

A small boat arrived soon after, bringing on board some cattle, bread, sugar, brandy, fruit, and vegetables. A few days later the governor sent a handsome present of palm-wine, sugar, and brandy, with a large quantity of chocolate. Before long, though, things got out of hand. Clipperton had kidnapped his old Spanish enemy, the Marquis de Ville Roche earlier on the journey and offered him to the governor of Guam for ransom.

Shelvocke noted in his journal:

Having agreed with the governor of Guam for the ransom of the Marquis de Villa Roche, that nobleman went ashore on the 18th May, accompanied by the agent, the first lieutenant, and the doctor; and the Success gave him a salute of five guns at parting.

For six days after, the launch was continually employed in bringing wood, water, and provisions on board, during which time the governor requested to be supplied with some arms and ammunition in exchange, and accordingly Captain Clipperton sent him twelve fuzees, three jars of gunpowder, sixty rounds of shot, four pair of pistols, and several cutlasses, swords, and daggers. A letter was sent on board, demanding the jewels belonging to the marquis, some consecrated plate, and two negroes, who were Christians; as also requiring to have a certificate signed by the captain and officers of the Success, that peace had been proclaimed between Britain and Spain; besides which, this letter intimated that Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Pritty were detained till all these demands were complied with.

In reply, Captain Clipperton sent a letter, containing a certificate, that he had been informed by the Solidad, the last prize taken on the coast of Chili, that peace had been concluded between Britain and Spain; but threatning, if the agreed ransom for the marquis, and the two gentlemen now detained, were not sent off in twenty-four hours, that he would demolish all the houses on shore, burn the ship in the harbour, and do all the mischief he could at the Philippine Islands.

Soon after, a letter was received from the governor, saying that he would pay for the consecrated plate, and desiring to have more powder and shot; to which Clipperton made answer that he could not spare any more. The yawl went ashore on the 28th for more provisions; but the people were told that no more could be had, unless they sent more powder and shot.

Upon this Clipperton weighed anchor, headed closer to shore and fire was exchanged. The Success came in too close though, and got stuck in some rocks, becoming an easy target for the Spanish firing from the shore through the night. The Success’ first lieutenant was killed and three others injured. Clipperton, by now quite overcome with liquor, was unable to command. Another officer took over and after three days of false starts got the ship afloat after all the while under attack from the Spanish on shore.

The masts and yards were all sore wounded; and the carpenters had to work during the whole night, stopping-the shot-holes in the hull. They stowed away most of their guns in the hold, barred up the ports, hoisted in the launch and pinnace, and at noon steered away west under an easy sail, hoping to save their passage before the western monsoon set in; the carpenters being fully occupied in fishing the masts and yards, and the rest of the crew in mending the rigging.

At six in the evening of the 31st May 1721, the body of the island of Guam bore E. seven leagues distant, and they then took their departure; being in 15 deg. 20’ N. designing now for China.

Shelvocke wrote that Captain Clipperton’s conduct at Guam was erroneous. He should not have allowed the marquis to go on shore until he had received the money for his ransom, Shelvocke said, and all of the provisions of which they sorely needed.

The marquis had before behaved very ill to him, and had no title to any favour; and if he had kept the marquis, the governor of Guam would not have had any opportunity of putting his schemes in execution.

Shelvocke spoke harshly of Clipperton’s decision to attack Humåtak but forgave and pitied him as well.

Clipperton committed also an egregious error in pretending to attack the town, and the ship in the harbour. Though drunkenness is rather an aggravation than an excuse for misconduct, yet it is to be considered that Clipperton was a mere sailor, who had not the benefit of a liberal education, and that he fell into this sad vice from disappointment and despair. On all occasions he had shewn a human and even generous disposition, with the most inflexible honesty, and a constant regard to the interest of his owners. He is therefore much to be pitied, for having fled to the bottle under a load of misfortunes too heavy for him to bear.

By Shannon J. Murphy

For further reading

Shelvocke, George. A Voyage round the World by the way of the great South Sea, performed in the years 1719-1722. London: J. Senex, 1726.

Skaggs, Jimmy M. Clipperton: A History of the Island the World Forgot. New York: Walker & Company, 1989.