An American merchant crew facing down the scourge of piracy. A ship’s master making hard decisions against the odds to try and save his ship and his crew. This story is retold in the new movie called Captain Phillips, where Oscar winner Tom Hanks and an impressive cast show us the violent realities of piracy and maritime security in the 21st century. However, Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama weren’t the first American mariners to capture the imagination of the nation with a dramatic story of violence on the high seas and pirates bested on the other side of the world. Almost two centuries before, there was Captain Endicott and the harrowing tale of the American spice trader Friendship.
On 16 July 1831 the ship-rigged merchant Friendship rounded Cape Cod and approached her home at Salem, Massachusetts. An amazing story was already spreading across the ports of New England and New York. Another American merchant ship had returned from China with news of a horrific act of piracy in the Straits of Malacca. Stories of pirates, murder, and battle traveled fast across American waterfronts. The captain of Friendship was a native of Salem named Charles Endicott and decades later he recalled, “the intense interest and excitement caused by our arrival may still be remembered. It being nearly calm we were boarded several miles out by crowds of people, all anxious to learn the most minute particulars of our misfortune.”
Months earlier, at the beginning of February 1831, Friendship lay quietly at anchor in the harbor of Kuala Batoo on the coast of Sumatra. The region, known today as the Ache province of Indonesia, was a center of the spice trade in the early nineteenth century. At the start of the 1831 season, Kuala Batoo was one of the first villages to have a pepper harvest ready for sale and shipment to the spice markets in Europe or America.
Charles Endicott was from a Massachusetts seafaring family. His father had died on a voyage in Havana when Charles was ten years old, and he followed in his father’s footsteps making his first voyage in the spice trade in the years following the War of 1812. Friendship sailed from the east coast of the United States in May 1830 with a crew of seventeen, but reached the waters of East Asia too late in the season to buy a full cargo of pepper for the return trip. Instead, Endicott decided to stay in the South China Sea until the start of the 1831 season when he could fill his hold.
In the small harbor on the Indian Ocean side of the straits of Malacca, Captain Endicott negotiated a good price on the village’s first crop with the rajah. At eight o’clock in the morning on February 7th, the captain led his second officer and four of his sailors ashore, leaving the rest of the crew aboard with a dozen chests of opium and the gold and hard currency needed to pay for the pepper locked away. The party landed in Friendship’s boat and headed to meet the local merchants at the scales where they would weigh and record the pepper before moving it to the ship. They worked all morning and into the afternoon, weighing and inspecting a boat load of pepper for movement out to Friendship. By three in the afternoon they had a fully loaded boat ready to be rowed out to their ship. The boat, manned by local villagers who were expected to help load the pepper, headed into harbor.
Captain Endicott realized that something was amiss when, as he stood on the beach watching another sail move across the horizon, he noticed there were nearly twice as many men in the loading boat as had originally left the scales. He later related that his “suspicions were instantly aroused that something was wrong.” He rushed back to his men at the scales.
Charles Knight, the chief mate, stood on deck aboard Friendship to record the pepper as it arrived and oversee the movement below decks and into the hold. As the crew worked loading their cargo, some of the local boatmen came aboard the ship, despite instructions for them to stay in their boat. As the locals, who now outnumbered the crew aboard the ship, began to move around the weather deck, Knight looked up from his work and ordered them off the ship.
At that moment, the men attacked. Pulling their knives from their belts, two stabbed Knight at the same time, in the side and in the back. As the pirates killed or subdued the men on deck, Knight fought his way to the quarterdeck. He grabbed a boarding pike from a rack and struggled back toward the pirates. A group rushed him and the mate was last seen lying with his boarding pike under his body in a pool of blood. He and half the crew were killed as they defended their ship.
On shore, Captain Endicott and his men realized that they were under attack and that it wouldn’t be long before the pirates’ allies on shore came for them. They needed to escape. As armed Sumatrans from the village rushed to the beach, the Captain and his men jumped into their boat and headed into the harbor.
Three local boats gave chase and the Americans pulled hard at their oars. Local canoes with spear-armed men approached from both sides. Friendship‘s Second Officer, John Barry, stood in the bow, swinging at them with a cutlass as the men rowed and Captain Endicott helmed the boat for the open sea. After escaping the harbor, they realized their only hope was to find some fellow spice traders. There were no U.S. Navy warships in the South China Sea or anywhere in the Indian Ocean. The small American Navy simply didn’t have that kind of presence. The nearest trading village where they expected to find other Americans was Muckie, twenty five miles away.
The men cleared the harbor and headed into the open water. As the sun went down over the Indian Ocean they rowed into the darkness. The land breeze sprang up, and with it thunder rumbled from on shore and a storm pushed out to sea. Lightning flashed around them, and a downpour began as Captain Endicott steered their boat along the coast.
Just after one in the morning they arrived at Muckie exhausted. They had been at their oars for nine hours. In the harbor they found three American spice traders. The James Monroe of New York, Governor Endicott from Salem, and Palmer of Boston laid quietly at anchor having ridden out the evening storm.
Endicott and the men in the boat were not the only members of Friendship’s crew to escape. Four men also escaped the attack by leaping overboard. They swam for two miles before reaching a far shore where they scrambled into the jungle. Bare-chested from the hot work of carrying the heavy pepper bags below in the tropical heat, and without food or water, they moved through the night along the shoreline. They appropriated a canoe they found and headed for a local hamlet where they knew the chieftain was friendly.
In the harbor at Muckie, Captain Endicott consulted with the captains of the three American ships. There hadn’t been an American warship in those waters for almost a decade, and the Americans knew it was unlikely that they would find help from the Dutch who controlled much of the trade in the region. It was decided that they would band together to retake Friendship themselves.
They bent on their sails and cleared the harbor before the sun rose. Due to light and contrary winds they didn’t close on Quallah Batoo until after dark and decided to wait for daylight. The morning of the 9th, they entered the harbor and saw the captured sloop pulled close to shore. None of the ships had their full cargoes, and the captains feared more difficulty along the coast if they fought their way into the harbor. They sent a local canoe ashore to demand the return of the ship, promising that if the locals let them have Friendship without interfering they could continue in peace. Quallah Batoo’s rajah refused and he sent a message to Captain Endicott that “we might take her…if we could.”
The three spice traders loaded their cannon and as they sailed into the harbor they opened fire on the pirates who were aboard the ship and the boats, which continued to move the valuables from Friendship ashore. The villagers returned fire from small fortresses on the beach, as well as from the captured sloop. They had attempted to run the sloop ashore but instead entangled her in the shoals.
The Americans determined that it was too hazardous to try and pull alongside Friendship to board her. They continued to exchange fire with the pirates. Governor Endicott was kedged deeper into the harbor, using anchors to pull her into position to bring its broadside to bear on the closest fortress. Pouring fire into the small enemy battery made up of some six-pound cannon and several brass field pieces, the American fire dismounted the cannon in the fortress and destroyed the carriages for the field pieces.
Aboard Friendship the pirates mistakenly set fire to an open keg of powder, which exploded and killed a number of them and silenced the ship’s guns. The survivors of the explosion scrambled for their small boats. The Americans, seeing the pirates retreating toward shore, dispatched three boats with a boarding party under the command of Captain Endicott. Armed to the teeth with cutlasses, pistols and muskets, the American party closed on the pirated Friendship. Endicott led the men up the sides and onto the deck, retaking his ship.
The men quickly bent on the sails and together the four American ships fought their way clear of Kuala Batoo. The Sumatrans had managed to move most of the cargo ashore, including the chests of money valued at $12,000, the twelve chests of opium, all the ship’s papers, spare sails and rigging, furniture, clothing, as well as the chronometers, nautical instruments, and charts. As they prepared to sail down the coast, the crewmen who had escaped by swimming ashore were paddled out to the James Monroe by friendly Malays from the hamlet that had harbored them.
The small squadron of American traders arrived at South Tallapow to resupply before the long voyage home. As the captains and officers walked the streets, they were followed by throngs of locals. Despite being from a separate village and tribe, and a village known for being friendly to western traders, the locals of South Tallapow taunted the Americans. The groups that followed the Americans through the street asked, “Who great man now?” and demanded, “How many American dead?” Captain Endicott and the other Americans did not fear another attack based on the self-interest of those in the village who wanted the continued business. However, the growing belligerence made them nervous about future voyages without a U.S. Navy presence. After loading their supplies, Friendship headed for home.
When Friendship arrived in Salem, word of the pirate attack and Captain Endicott’s retaking of his ship had even made it as far as Washington, D.C. It wasn’t just because of the sensational nature of the story, but also because one of Friendship’s owners was Massachusetts’ Senator Nathaniel Silsbee. Three days after the sloop’s return, Secretary of the Navy Levi Woodbury had the Navy in motion, making plans for “immediate redress for the outrage committed.” On July 22nd , the Secretary began making inquiries to the owners, and on the 25th he sent a formal request for any intelligence that the men could provide, stating that the Navy intended to send “a frigate of the largest class.”
Over the course of the summer, the U.S. Navy’s newest warship, the 177-foot-long USS Potomac, with 42 guns and a crew of 480 sailors and Marines, fitted out and readied for sea. At the end of August, the warship set sail for the Indian Ocean under the command of Commodore John Downes with orders to “repair at once to Sumatra” and to “vindicate our wrongs.” Six months later, when Downes landed a force of over 200 sailors and Marines on the shore at Kuala Batoo, the locals chose to fight rather than turn over the perpetrators of the attack. An hours-long battle ensued leading to two Americans killed and eleven wounded with an unknown number of casualties from the locals. In the brutal fighting, Kuala Batoo’s rajah, considered the leader of the pirate attack, was killed and the village was burned to the ground.
Captain Endicott remained a hero in the Salem merchant community, and as late as the 1850s, still gave speeches recounting the pirate attacks on his ship. From his extensive voyages on the coast of Sumatra and the Straits of Malacca, he was one of the first Americans to publish sailing directions and created the first formal chart of those waters for American captains. However, he never returned to the waters of Southeast Asia.
Captain Charles Moses Endicott and the survivors of the Friendship knew, as Captain Richard Phillips and the men of Maersk Alabama’s experience shows almost two centuries later, the sea and the world’s ungoverned spaces are still a dangerous place.
Research for this article was conducted in the Library of Congress “American State Papers” collection, the National Archives Record Group 45 (Naval Records) and from the records of the Essex Institute where Charles Endicott spoke of the voyage of the Friendship in the 1850’s.
BJ Armstrong is an active duty Naval Aviator currently serving in the Pentagon. He is the 2013 Naval History & Heritage Command Samuel Eliot Morison Scholar and a research student with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London where he is studying naval irregular warfare in the Age of Sail. His book 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era is available from the Naval Institute Press.
Photo Credit: Nicolas Raymond