5-minute history: Hilton Head’s English Sea Dogs

Story by Richard Thomas

PIRATE OR HERO? Sir Francis Drake’s exploits made him a hero to the English, but his privateering led the Spanish to brand him a pirate, known to them as El Draque. Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581.

Hilton Head’s earliest history was dominated by visits of English, French and Spanish rovers of many kinds. Some searched for fresh water and game to reprovision their ships; others looked for safe havens where they could rest and repair or clean their ships. Spots on Hilton Head and nearby islands were known among pilots of ships of many nations as prime careening points; steeper beaches where ships could be rested on their sides at low tide and have their hulls scraped free of algae and barnacles.

Many creeks and inlets were known as hiding places for the scores of pirates who frequented the Southeast coast, preying on trading fleets from European countries and early Colonial merchants who shipped their goods from ports in the province of Carolina. Some of the most notorious Bretheren of the Sea, as the pirates liked to call themselves, roamed our waters and visited our shores from 1680-1730, commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Piracy. Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Captain Kidd, Calico Jack Rackham, Edward Low, Charles Vane, Black Sam Bellamy, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were regular denizens of the lawless ports of Beaufort and Charlestown in those years.

But even fiercer sea rovers had plagued early settlement attempts before any Europeans inhabited Hilton Head’s shores. Jean Ango and Jacques Sores were French privateers known for their ruthlessness against Spanish fleets and early outposts. Spaniard Pedro Menendez, the founder of Santa Elena, was seen (by the French) as a vicious pirate who destroyed all early French settlement attempts in Florida. However, none were as devastating or had such an impact as the English Sea Dogs, who dominated the Southeast coast from 1580-1620 and enabled England to establish control over the Atlantic coast of North America.

The Sea Dogs were originally commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I as a way of bridging the gap between the might of the Spanish Navy and that of England, operating under letters of marque from the throne of England. As freelancers they were authorized to plunder the ships and settlements of enemy countries, or countries with which England was not technically at war but at odds. Sir John Hawkins was initially a scourge for the Spanish settlements of the Caribbean but was known as a savior for struggling French outposts in the New World. He then became England’s first slave trader by taking a cargo of Africans to Cuba in 1562.

Sir Francis Drake, former Admiral in the British Navy, became the most feared enemy of the Spanish in the New World, destroying St. Augustine in 1586 and causing the abandonment of Santa Elena the following year. Sir Walter Raleigh, founder of the failed colony of Roanoke, raided numerous Spanish vessels and

robbed early Spanish settlements, but looting a Spanish outpost in South America in violation of existing peace treaties caused the personal displeasure of King Philip. Though a favorite of the queen, Raleigh was executed by the next king after years of imprisonment in England.

Drake and Raleigh frequented the waters off Port Royal Sound and are known to have threatened Santa Elena on multiple occasions from 1567-1587. Hawkins traded with the Spanish Caribbean settlements and is believed to have been a frequent visitor to the local area on his way to and from the Bahamas Channel.

Had it not been for the Sea Dogs in Hilton Head’s history, it is doubtful that William Hilton would ever have made his “discovery” in 1663.

TOP DOGS The Sea Dogs were a group of sea raiders and privateers who were authorized by Elizabeth I of England and active from 1560-1605. They carried “Letters of Marque,” which made their plundering of Spanish ships legal under English law. Notable Sea Dogs included Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596), Sir John Hawkins (1532–1595) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618).

Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.

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