This Was Then: Ben Pease, monster

‘Stealer of Men and of Women.’

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The Pease family is among the oldest and most respected in Edgartown, and the family of Henry Pease (1789-1878) was little exception. Henry was a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and lifelong Edgartown resident who raised a large family in his home on the corner of Main and North Summer streets. Although his wife died when their kids were still very young, the children, for the most part, grew up to become the kind of model citizens to make a widower dad and his hometown proud. His eldest son, Henry Jr., became a sea captain and diplomat. Daughter Sarah married a Connecticut storekeeper, and Lois a Nantucket shipmaster. Charles was a respected Chappaquiddick farmer and family man. John owned a popular livery business, driving tourist barges between Edgartown and Cottage City. 

But then there was his youngest child, Ben Pease (1834-1874). Ben grew up to become one of the most notorious pirates in the Pacific Ocean.

Colorful stories about Ben Pease abound, and it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. He was the ruthless villain in the 1983 Tommy Lee Jones swashbuckler film “Nate and Hayes” (a.k.a. “Savage Islands”), written by John Hughes. He appears in reams of early 20th century pulp magazine adventure serials, like H.D. Couzens’ 1914 “The Chang-Hwa Pearl,” as well as novels such as Robert Frisbie’s 1945 “Amaru: A Romance of the South Seas.” He’s even referenced in Joseph Conrad’s 1900 “Lord Jim.”

But what we know about the real Ben Pease is hair-raising. Historians have described him as a “notorious scoundrel,” a “marauder,” a “first-class double-crosser,” and a “seafaring gangster,” whose methods were both “sinister” and “brutal.” One described Pease as “the greatest rogue in Micronesia,” and another “the cruelest ruffian, cut-throat, and pirate in the Pacific.” Author James Michener described him as “a monster.”

Pease is sometimes said to have served in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant during the Civil War, but there’s no evidence to back up this claim. We do know that as a teenager, he was “sent home” from the Dukes County Academy in West Tisbury in 1850 “for continued disobedience.” (“In this I am sustained by the School Committee & I think by public opinion,” wrote the principal at the time.) After a brief attempt to try his hand as an Edgartown farmer, Pease left the Vineyard and wound up on the coast of China, some say after deserting his whaleship in the Caroline Islands. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has an undated letter he wrote to his father relating that he had been named captain after five years at sea. 

It’s more likely that he served in the Chinese Imperial Navy, not the U.S. Navy. In Hong Kong, it’s said, Pease met another American expat, a soon-to-be-legendary crook named “Bully” Hayes. The two were reportedly given Chinese naval gunboats to captain to protect the coast from pirates, which they actually used in a criminal protection racket targeting coastal merchants.

By the 1860s, Pease had become a semi-legitimate, if ruthlessly competitive, trader on Pohnpei Island in the Carolines, selling timber, coconut oil, sea cucumber, cotton, and other goods. He even had the financial backing of a Shanghai firm, Glover, Dow & Co. But Pease’s business model soon devolved into robbing rival trading stations, stealing whale and coconut oil, absconding with a French schooner, cheating, murdering, and terrorizing the natives and the colonist traders alike. For many years, his partner in crime continued to be Bully Hayes, the buccaneer who would later inherit some of the wild tales first attributed to Pease. (Hayes and Pease also periodically fought with and double-crossed each other, once landing Pease in a four-month stint in a Shanghai jail for the murder of his cooper.)

Pease cruelly mistreated his own crew — flogging them, marooning them, and defrauding them. Pease “has swindled almost every man in his employment,” charged a rival trader in 1869. After numerous complaints, the U.S. government sent a naval cruiser to investigate, but the savvy scoundrel always managed to stay one step ahead of them.

Pease’s physical appearance doesn’t exactly match the modern image of a pirate. He was described as “a slightly built and wiry man, not at all prepossessing in appearance.” Short, red-faced, bald, with a black spade beard, James Michener described him as “Satanic-looking,” while another author noted that “his appearance suggested a successful grocer rather than a pirate.” He was known for his gentle, “mellifluous” voice. One historian described him as a “slender dandy … fond of perfumes”; and another called him “a physical coward, trembling and going pale one time when an employee leveled a pistol at him.”

In 1868, Pease learned that two of his agents, whom he landed uninvited on Aur atoll in the Marshall Islands, had been fed poisoned fish by the native inhabitants for their atrocious behavior. Although the regional chief tried to make amends by punishing the local chief and extending his personal protection to Pease’s two sick traders, Captain Pease returned to wreak vengeance. Arriving in his heavily armed, 250-ton, black-painted brig Water Lily, Pease was met with a welcoming party and a warm “Good morning!” Pease reportedly retorted, “I’ll ‘good morning’ you!” and shot his greeter through the head with his revolver. His men then proceeded to fatally shoot, hack to pieces, and decapitate five more, burned down every house on the island, and destroyed every boat.

Most accounts of Pease make special mention of his interest in wives. In addition to his reported “island harem,” several wives typically accompanied him on his voyages, often with children. He once introduced two of them to a guest as “Mrs. Pease No. 1 and Mrs. Pease No. 2,” adding his advice, “Never take more than two wives with you on a voyage, and choose ’em with care.”

Pease may have started the “blackbird” trade in Fiji — the entrapping (through coercion or violence), kidnapping, imprisoning, selling, and enslaving of natives from the New Hebrides and elsewhere into slave labor at colonist cotton plantations on Fiji. His vessel Water Lily, originally built for the Chinese opium trade, was specially refitted for slaving. Historian Thomas Dunbabin called Pease “a stealer of men and of women.” It’s been estimated that roughly 45,000 men and women were enslaved to work in Fiji alone over the next half-century, in this lucrative slave trade begun by Capt. Ben Pease of Edgartown.

In 1871, Pease retreated to the island of Chichijima, off Japan, which had once been a short-lived U.S. possession but had since been reclaimed by the Japanese government. Nevertheless, he soon began calling himself “Governor” Pease, demanded a U.S. consulship, and offered to sell the island to the U.S. The U.S. government considered, but ultimately declined his offer.

Pease disappeared mysteriously in October 1874 from a small boat at Chichijima, and was presumed murdered. Suspicion quickly fell upon Pease’s employee John Spencer, who was having an affair with Pease’s wife Susan. But as “no one missed Pease’s death,” the investigation was quickly dropped. (Susan had a child with Spencer, who was in turn murdered by Big Thomas Two-Crabs, whom Susan subsequently married and raised a third family with.)

Whether his aged father in Edgartown ever learned of his pirate son’s death off Japan is not known. Vineyard Pease descendants may want to check their DNA test results for Pacific island cousins.

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