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When did Charles Vane die?

Recently, a reader wrote asking if I was certain that Charles Vane was executed in March 1721, as described in my book, The Republic of Pirates. Most other sources claimed 1720, the reader informed me, and Manuel Schonhorn's annotated edition of The General History of the Pyrates claimed March 1719.

I double-checked the primary documents and am happy to report that my account is correct: Vane was tried in Spanish Town, Jamaica on 21 March 1721 (Julian) and executed in 29 March 1721. Unfortunately, that means that most other accounts out there -- including, at this writing, Wikipedia and most pirate websites -- have his death and, thus, the duration of his imprisonment, wrong by at least a year.

Part of the confusion may be due to one the period's famous "dating problems."  Until 1751, England (and her American possessions) considered the "legal year" to commence on March 25th. The effect: the day after December 31st of, say, the year 1720 was written as "January 1, 1720," when, for the rest of the world, it was 1721. The effect: for most dates from January 1 to March 25, you need to add a year.

Problem is, by the early 1700s, many Englishmen already thought this was silly and confusing and went ahead and wrote the year the way we would. This means historical researchers are forced to corrobate what year is really meant whenever the date falls between January and March.

Here's where the error creeps in. In the published trial records -- part of The Trials of Captain John Rackham and Other Pirates, (Jamaica: 1721) -- it is written that Vane's trial was held in "St.Jago de la Vega [Spanish Town], Wednesday, March 22 1720. But that's really 1721 with the calendar correction! 

How can we be sure? First, because the very same trial record later notes that on "wednesday the 29th day of March 1721...the said Charles Vane [was] executed at Gallow's Point in Port Royal..." (It then being after the 25th, it was officially the "new" year.) This was big news throughout the Americas, and ships departing Jamaica in late March and early April carried the news far and wide.

Both the (Philadeplhia) American Weekly Mercury and the Boston Gazette reported the news in their first issues of May 1721, as told  to them by sea captains just arrived from Jamaica (a trip that takes about a month). As the Boston Gazette put it: "On the 27th [of April in New York], arrived Capt. Johnson [of] the Albany Brigatine, 28 days from Jamaica, who says Vane, the famous Pirate and another man were hanged there for Piracy." With this double-corroboration there is no doubt which year Vane's trial and execution took place.

-- Colin Woodard

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